Iraq and the New Rules

MOSCOW -- Sometimes you can tell a lot about a country by what's on the front pages of its newspapers. Sometimes you can tell even more by what's on the back.

Here's what's back-page news in Russia: The pilots of a helicopter based in Yessentuki, in southern Russia, had not been paid for so many months that on Nov. 22 they flew their chopper to a secluded spot and hid it. They said they would only return it when they received their back pay. Or, how about this for back-page news? The employees of the Nuclear Power Ministry -- the folks responsible for maintaining Russia's nuclear warheads -- haven't been paid in 10 weeks.

Ho hum. Dog bites man.

Discovering what is back-page news in Russia helps one better understand (although not accept) why Russia responds differently than America to the prospects of Iran or Iraq acquiring weapons of mass destruction. To put it simply: Russia is otherwise engaged.

It's hard to worry about Iraq's weapons when your own nuclear employees are going unpaid and crews are hiding their helicopters. As The Washington Post Moscow correspondent David Hoffman remarked to me, "Russia today is like a blender with the top off and the motor running." We want them to just flip a switch and stop everything from spewing out. But it's not so easy.

America and Russia today are in different worlds, and that's new. During the Cold War America and Russia were playing on the same global chessboard, with the same pieces -- nuclear weapons -- and with the same stakes: global control. They took every regional crisis equally seriously. With the end of the Cold War, two changes have occurred: First, the balance of power between the United States and Russia is no longer measured by nukes alone, but by economic and technological strengths, in which the United States is far, far superior. Russia is still in its Wild Bill phase and America is in its Bill Gates phase. Iraq and Iran for America are twin evils. Iraq and Iran for Russia are sources of back pay. Iraq owes Russia $7 billion.

Second, the United States and Russia today are no longer playing on the same global chessboard. They are each playing on many different chessboards. Some overlap, some don't. For instance, says the Russian foreign policy expert Vyacheslav Mikonov, "Russia simply does not consider Iranian Moslem fundamentalists the worst thing in the world."

For Russia, the Saudi fundamentalists are worse because the Saudis supported the Chechen separatists. For Russia, the second worst are the Taliban fundamentalists in Afghanistan. Since the Iranians oppose both the Saudis and the Talibans, they're good for Russia. Also, in the dispute over how Caspian Sea oil will be divided, Iran is allied with Russia and Turkmenistan, against Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

The fact that the Russians are not with America 100 percent doesn't mean they're against America 100 percent. This is not the return of the Cold War. It's the essence of the post-Cold War. That is why we get these ambiguous outcomes: Russia persuades Saddam to let the UN weapons inspectors back in, but only to hasten the day when the sanctions can be lifted and Russia gets paid.

To understand this is not to excuse it. Indeed, the United States must hold Russia's feet to the fire, without mercy, when it comes to preventing Iraq or Iran from acquiring nukes. I don't care what Russia's unique interests are. This is a global interest. To understand this, though, is to appreciate that in managing relations with Russia there will be areas of overlap and areas of discord. And those overlaps and discords will be driven not by ideological competition, as in the Cold War, but by differences in geography, history and income.

The cold warriors who want to treat Russia as though it's still and will always be an irredeemable foe will be blind to the potential benefits of working with Russia in some areas. Russophiles who want to treat Russia as a fellow Western democracy will be blind to the dangers inherent in Russia's very different circumstances.

Thomas L. Friedman contributed this article to The New York Times.