U.S. Russian Relations Are Headed For Siberia

Russia is already seeing red over the U.S. Senate vote to expand NATO, and a move afoot could get it even more steamed. Lawmakers are poised to approve a seemingly veto-proof bill this month that would slap economic sanctions on renegade Russian companies that sell advanced missile technology to Iran.

The double hit against Russia underscores the sour state of affairs developing between Washington and Moscow. Capitol Hill hard-liners are demanding Russian behavior modification after years of U.S. aid. And President Clinton is focused on bettering ties with China, which offers greater potential as a business partner. That has left Moscow feeling bruised and neglected. Passage of the Iran Missile Proliferation Sanctions Act "can seriously damage Russian-American relations," warns Yevgeny Kozhokin, an adviser to Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.

More rebuffs are coming. Washington sources say the White House may soon announce that Russian energy company Gazprom and France's Total have violated the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act by joining a $2 billion energy venture in Iran. Although the Administration is expected to waive sanctions on national security grounds, the slap will still rankle Russians. Moscow is also a prime target of proposed legislation sanctioning nations that tolerate religious persecution.

What really makes Russia mad is that the U.S. is cozying up to China, though it, too, has a religious-rights problem and is suspected of supplying Iran with missile and nuclear technology. Clinton will pay a state visit to Beijing in late June, and the Administration is in intense talks over terms for China's entry to the World Trade Organization.

Moscow hasn't done much to help mend fences, either. Russia plans to deliver S-300 surface-to-air missiles to the Greek Cypriot government in late summer. That won't make it any easier for the U.S. to mediate a 24-year-old dispute between ethnic Greeks and Turks on the powder-keg island. And Russia's parliament has yet to approve the START II nuclear-missile-control treaty because of lingering concerns that the U.S. may go ahead with development of a limited Star Wars defense. That, in turn, has halted U.S. Senate plans to ratify other nuclear accords with Russia.

Senate passage of the sanctions bill, which sailed through the House last fall, could do the most immediate harm. Joint space-agency projects--like the U.S.-Russian space station--might be hurt if a Russian subcontractor is named as a source of Iranian missile technology: The Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute, which has been accused of supplying Iran, has worked on past NASA projects.

The chill in relations could hit U.S. aerospace companies, too. Boeing Co., a joint-venture partner with Russia's RSC Energia, is building Sea Launch, an effort to lob satellites from a floating ocean platform. Lockheed Martin Corp. also has a satellite-launch venture with Energia, and another Russian company is building engines for Lockheed's Atlas rockets. Lockheed says its partners are clean. But if Washington isn't satisfied that the Kremlin is cracking down on sales to Iran, it may scotch plans to lift restrictions on the number of American satellites--now limited to 18 a year--that can be launched on Russian rockets.

On May 5, Yeltsin ordered tighter government controls on military-technology exports. And he and Clinton will try to break the ice in Birmingham, England, on the eve of the May 15-17 Group of Eight economic summit. But an unconvinced Congress is likely to keep poking Moscow. Relations with Russia will stay rocky this election year--and maybe a lot longer.

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