A CURIOUS CAST OF CHARACTERS has made its way to Moscow in recent months. Since November of last year, leaders from Iran, Syria, and Venezuela have all paid visits. Each has sought military and economic assistance from the Russian Bear; none of them has been turned down. Russia's conspicuous choice of allies has become so noticeable that in a recent article the Moscow newspaper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, has even called them an "axis of outcasts."

In many ways, Russia's relationships with these otherwise undesirables shaped the agenda for President Bush's meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 24. Russia's support for this "axis of outcasts" has already emboldened America's enemies and contributed to the instability of the Middle East and Latin America. It also raises serious questions about the direction of Russo-American relations and the efficacy of U.S. foreign policies.

One key issue in last week's mini-summit was Iran's (as well as North Korea's) attempt to acquire nuclear weapons. In this regard, presidents Bush and Putin appeared to be in agreement. At the post-meeting press conference President Bush assured the world, "We agreed that Iran should not have a nuclear weapon. I appreciate Vladimir's understanding on that."

But, recent events demonstrate that Putin and Bush do not agree on how to contain the Iranian nuclear threat. More importantly, without a concrete plan for deterrence, it is not clear what Putin's disapproval of Iran's nuclear weapons aspirations means, if anything.

In fact, less than one week prior to the Bush-Putin meeting, the "outcast" Iran sent its emissary to Russia to work out the details of further collaboration on Tehran's nuclear efforts. On February 18, Hasan Rowhani, chairman of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, met with the elite of the Russian government to discuss the long-stalled Iranian-Russian deal for nuclear fuel. The fuel is necessary for the first Russian-built nuclear facility in Iran, the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, to become operational and it is supposed to be repatriated after its use. The return of the spent fuel, Moscow argues, will prevent Tehran from extracting the fissile material necessary to make a nuclear warhead. Moscow and Tehran had disagreed over the terms of the deal for quite some time, but Rowhani's trip was a success and Russia agreed to finalize the deal just days after Bush's meeting with Putin.

THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION had hoped to convince the Russians not to go through with the deal. The United States and its allies are concerned that Iran will circumvent the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) watchdog--in a manner similar to North Korea--and find a way to create warheads (possibly dozens of them). Both Russia and Iran have publicly stated that the fuel deal is for civilian uses only. But oil-rich Iran's need for nuclear energy has been widely questioned and it is clear that, in the words of the CIA's declassified analysis, these projects enhance "Tehran's ability to support a nuclear weapons development effort." Alarmingly, the Bushehr plant is possibly the first of several the Russians plan on building.

Russia's dealings with Iran have not only brought the rogue state one large step closer to building nuclear warheads, but have also enhanced Tehran's ability to deliver them. Forgotten in much of the coverage of Iran's nuclear intentions is the fact that Russia has provided Iran with key assistance in developing the Shahab-3 missile, a fairly imprecise missile that is specifically designed to carry non-conventional warheads. As the CIA's declassified analysis also notes, Russian entities have "helped to accelerate Iranian development of the Shahab-3 MRBM, and continuing Russian entity assistance most likely supports Iranian efforts to develop new missiles and increase Tehran's self-sufficiency in missile production."

At the post-meeting press conference Putin gave this account of his discussions with President Bush over Iran's goals: "We talked a lot about the situation in Iran, about the situation in Iran--North Korea, and we share a common opinion in this regard, and we are taking a similar approach. We should put an end to the proliferation of missiles and missile technology. The proliferation of such weapons is not in the interest of specific countries, or the international community, in general."

But what do Putin's assurances mean if Russia is still supplying the fuel necessary to make the nuclear warheads and the capability of delivering them?

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.

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