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Axis of Outcasts

Vladimir Putin's new friends suggest that Russia has a familiar new set of national aspirations.

11:00 PM, Mar 2, 2005 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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PUTIN'S STRATEGY for the Middle East comes more into focus when recent Russian support for Iran's "joint defense" ally, Syria, is considered. In late January, another "outcast" from the Middle East, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, made his way to Moscow. At a time when joint U.S.-French rapprochement is ratcheting up pressure on the dictator and his government is relinquishing power in occupied Lebanon, the Russians have chosen to provide Syria with military and economic assistance.

Moscow has agreed to forgive nearly three-fourths of Syria's $13.4 billion debt. The cash-strapped Syrian government has not been a major consumer of Russian arms for more than a decade and U.S. policymakers have long assumed that Syria's debt would prevent significant arms transfers. That is about to change.

The first new arms agreement may already be in place. Over the course of the last two months, the Israelis have protested a deal that they say will send Russia's Igla SA-18 anti-aircraft missiles and/or other systems to Syria. The Israelis believe that the missiles could end up in terrorists' hands in southern Lebanon. The Bush administration has also expressed concern over the possible deal, since the weapons could very easily end up being used to target American forces in Iraq. The Russian response to these charges was to first claim that no such deal was in place; now they claim that the missiles are not of the shoulder-fired variety.

The Russians have also agreed to a number of economic agreements with Syria. Syria's economy has long been dependent upon commerce in Lebanon. With the coming Syrian retreat, Assad is desperate for economic relief. In an interview with the Russian government daily, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Assad explained a number of areas in which Syria and Russia will cooperate, including: "surveying oil fields and refining oil," constructing "an oil and gas pipeline from Iraq to the Mediterranean," and possibly creating "industrial zones with a view to delivering commodities to Iraq" through which "Syria could provide preferential terms for Russian companies to work in these zones."

Russia's support for both Iran and Syria demonstrates a willingness to advance interests that are directly contrary to American interests.

PUTIN'S BALANCING of U.S. interests is not confined to the Middle East. Last November, an outcast from the western hemisphere, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, paid a visit to Russia.

The most widely reported deal between the two countries was Russia's agreement to ship 100,000 AK-47's earlier this year. American policymakers are worried that the guns will end up in the hands of Marxist narco-terrorist groups such as the Colombian National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which regularly use Venezuelan territory as a staging ground for attacks inside of Columbia.

The United States formally protested the deal, but President Bush apparently did not bring it up last week. According to the Russians, the arms sale is all but accomplished: Russian Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov was quoted in the Moscow press (ITAR-TASS) as saying that "during my recent trip to Washington and talks with [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld I gave the necessary explanation. The issue is closed." While visiting Russia last November, Chavez also placed multi-billion dollar orders for 50 Russian MIG-29 fighters as well as 40 Mi-35 military helicopters.

These deals raise the specter of a new arms race in Latin America and enhance Chavez's ability to squash further internal dissent, both of which jeopardize regional stability and U.S. interests.

Cooperation is not limited to arms transfers. Russia's largest oil and natural gas companies have embarked on several large-scale projects in Venezuela. Last fall Chavez negotiated a memorandum of understanding between Russia's largest oil company, LUKoil, and his state-owned oil powerhouse, Petroleos de Venezuela. In December of last year, Petroleos de Venezuela entered into another agreement with Russia's (and the world's) largest gas company, Gazprom.

These projects decrease Venezuelan dependence on both U.S. refineries and customers in the western hemisphere. And by expanding Venezuela's customer base, Chavez could threaten to cut off oil supplies to the United States and its allies without fearing a significant loss of revenue. Chavez's "main adversary" is what he calls "U.S. imperialism."

To date, most of the attention given to Putin's leadership has been focused on his authoritarian behavior behind the former iron curtain. But, it is clear that his "authoritarian soul" has aspirations around the globe as well.

Thomas Joscelyn is an economist who works on antitrust and security issues.