The Washington Post Column

Playing Russian Roulette

A few days before the United States invaded Iraq, two retired Russian generals received medals from Saddam Hussein’s defense minister. Both men had worked, in the past, at the highest levels of the Soviet military establishment. Both were involved in the 1991 coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev and the 1993 revolt against Boris Yeltsin. One of them, Igor Maltsev, was a specialist in air defense. The other, Vladislav Achalov, was a specialist in the use of special forces. When asked by a Russian reporter what he had been doing in Baghdad — photographs of the ceremony appeared on a Russian Web site — Achalov refused to say. Instead, he replied cryptically that “if they’re awarding you a decoration, it must be for something.”

And what was that something? According to the most straightforward account, they were helping to plan the defense of Iraq. According to the conspiratorial version, their appearance in Baghdad signifies the revival of the ancient rivalry between the KGB, Putin’s old stomping ground, and the GRU, Russian military intelligence. Never mind: What matters is that the incident fits a pattern. For the past year, rumors of Russian military sales to the Iraqis have swirled around Washington. More recently, the Pentagon has confirmed them, angrily accusing Russian companies of supplying the Iraqis with everything from night-vision goggles to missiles to jamming devices. An apparent American attack on a convoy of Russian diplomats looks, according to the Moscow media, like an act of revenge. Condi Rice flew to Moscow on Monday to make up — but on Tuesday, the Russians invited the French president, Jacques Chirac, and the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, to St. Petersburg for a meeting of the axis of obstruction.

We have, in other words, moved into a new phase of an old cycle. Since that moment in the summer of 2001 when George W. Bush looked into the eyes of Vladimir Putin and got a “sense of his soul,” the Russian-American relationship has already come full circle. Once, we all loved Gorbachev. Then, after his troops fired on Lithuanian protesters, we all hated Gorbachev. Later, we all loved Yeltsin. Then, when he unleashed a tidal wave of economic corruption, we all hated Yeltsin. I had thought, after the manic-depressive Yeltsin years, that the American hate-love-hate relationship with Russian leaders would end, but I was wrong: President Bush fell in love with President Putin and is now falling out of love with him with stunning predictability.

It would be funny, in fact, if it weren’t so serious. American leaders in general, and this administration in particular, talk a great deal about “American values,” yet they persist in believing that it is possible to develop deep, meaningful, strategic partnerships with countries that do not share them. Russia does, it is true, share some of our interests. Putin took a bold and unexpected decision after Sept. 11, 2001, to ally himself with the United States in the war on terrorism. He does seem genuinely interested in injecting more entrepreneurial capitalism into Russia’s oligarchic economy. But he still rules over a country whose rogue retired generals sell military advice to Saddam Hussein, whose scientists sell nuclear technology to Iran, and whose army is running one of the world’s dirtiest wars in Chechnya. He hasn’t shown much interest in free media or open debate, either. Both are slowly vanishing as a result.

None of which is to say that we shouldn’t cooperate with Russia, or that we shouldn’t talk and trade and even fight al Qaeda with Russia. But (although bombing their diplomats would seem a touch extreme) it is to say that we need to maintain some distance from Russia. Just a few months ago, there was talk, around Washington, of replacing our traditional European NATO alliances with a new, Eurasian, anti-terrorist alliance featuring Turkey, Russia and India. Then Turkey dropped out of the war with Iraq, India turned skeptical and Russia — or some Russians, at least — appear to have actually backed the other side.

Although it is unfashionable to say so at the moment, our relationships with Russia and Turkey are clearly not going to replace our relationships with Europe anytime soon. The web of relationships America maintains with Britain — and ultimately even with Germany and France — is far more complex, and runs far deeper into our societies, than does Bush’s personal relationship with Putin. At the end of the day, Washington has more in common with London, Paris, Rome and Warsaw than it does with Moscow, and sooner or later that commonality will always be reflected in foreign policy.

I hope it won’t be that way forever. I hope the changes in Russia continue to pull the Russians closer to the West and continue to open up Russian society, for the sake of the Russians more than anything else. But we aren’t there yet, and until we are it’s better not to drop allies who share our values and swear eternal friendship with Russian leaders who don’t, and won’t, really see the world the way we do.