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Washington Is Making It Hard For Russia To Help Itself

When Defense Secretary William S. Cohen unveiled a plan on Jan. 20 to pump an extra $6.6 billion into U.S. missile-defense programs, the Russian response was a loud "Nyet!" Such a move would require Russia to agree to make big changes in the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a cornerstone of arms control for nearly three decades.

In fact, Moscow is in no mood to make concessions of any sort. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright downplayed the growing tensions during a Jan. 25-26 visit to Moscow. But ongoing bitter rows over issues from U.S. air strikes against Iraq to weapons proliferation and Russian economic reform have sunk U.S.-Russian relations to the frostiest since the end of cold war. And contradictory American policies are only making matters worse.

Now, analysts fret, domestic instability in nuclear-armed Russia and the growing rancor over foreign policy could provoke Moscow into a much more aggressive stance in hot spots around the globe, from Kosovo to Iraq. Besides, Washington's unsubtle mix of threatening punishments and promising rewards is alienating Russians of all political stripes. U.S. actions "make Russia's liberals and democrats very uncomfortable," says Alexei G. Arbatov, a reformer and deputy chairman of the Duma's Defense Committee. "And they are provoking our right-wingers, hawks, and nationalists."

BACKLASH? It's a dangerous situation. Since ailing President Boris N. Yeltsin appointed him four months ago, Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov has worked to restore political stability, but at the cost of abandoning economic reform. As a result, Russians have even less hope than ever that their economy will improve anytime soon. The risk is that desperation could provoke a serious backlash. "We have to hope that a nuclear weapon doesn't get smuggled out," says Michael McFaul of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Russia badly needs financial aid and debt restructuring. Washington is happy to pay Russia for dismantling nuclear weapons or for programs to help small businesses and banks. But, along with the International Monetary Fund, it balks at another huge government bailout. Both want genuine reforms in return for a rescue.

Unfortunately, Washington is making it harder for Russia to help itself. The Administration may, for example, curb imports of low-priced Russian steel because U.S. producers allege that it is being dumped. And Clintonites oppose Russian sales of conventional arms, which could generate hard currency to service debt, to countries such as Cyprus. To sanction Russia for selling weapons technology to Iran, Washington may shelve plans to increase to 30, from 16, the number of U.S. satellites that Russia can launch through 2000.

But actions to punish Russia for unacceptable behavior in one domain can stymie efforts to moderate unwelcome conduct in another. Hammering Russia's world-class space-launch business, for example, is a blow to moderates who want to stop Russia's defense industry from peddling weapons to terrorist regimes and rely instead on commercial sales. "The U.S. is basically pressing Russia into an alliance with Iran," says Pavel Felgenhauer, a defense expert at Moscow's Segodnya newspaper.

American policy seems to rely on the hope that time and the need for money will bring Moscow into the Western economic orbit. Meanwhile, though, the contradictory signals coming out of Washington are penalizing Russia in the very areas in which it can compete in global markets--and help itself in the process.

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