Putin's rogue friends

August 21, 2002

FIGHTING TERRORISM is one thing, but protecting Russia's long-term political and economic interests is quite another. That is the unmistakable message from Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who has been improving Russia's relations with Iraq, Iran and North Korea even as he has supported President Bush's declared war against the "axis of evil."

Is Mr. Putin, a former KGB cloak-and-dagger careerist, being duplicitous? Not really. He is just behaving the way Russian leaders have done through the ages: moving on several fronts at the same time, pursuing the motherland's glory and self-interest.

Where Washington sees three far-away enemy states, Russia sees strategically important neighbors. That's why North Korea's reclusive leader Kim Jong-Il is touring Russian industrial borderlands this week, trying to find answers to questions about economic reforms he contemplates. That's why Russia has signed a 10-year blueprint on expanding economic, political and military cooperation with Iran, which wants to buy five additional nuclear reactors. And that's why Russia and Iraq are finalizing a $40 billion economic and trade agreement.

Many in Washington see an alarming pattern here. They view Russia's coziness with U.S. enemies as traitorous and immoral.

But they ought to cool off. Different countries have different interests. Through his maneuvers, Mr. Putin is signaling that fact to Washington.

He may be sending other signals as well, including one that betrays his view that all the talk in Washington about an inevitable war with Iraq is foolish. Mr. Putin does have some expertise in miscalculations: He, after all, thought that changing governments in Chechnya would be quick and easy. Three years later, Russia is bogged down in a costly war without an end in sight.

If President Bush insists on embarking on an adventure in Iraq, the tentative U.S.-Russian alliance would surely suffer strain. That's another factor to think about. Because a friendly and cooperative Kremlin can be an important mediator (and a useful back channel), should Washington decide to avoid war and seek an accommodation with Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

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