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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Caught in Policy Dilemma

To see why Russia has enthusiastically backed U.S. President George W. Bush's call for a global war against terrorism, look at who visited the Kremlin last week. And to see why that enthusiasm shows signs of flagging so soon, look at who did not.

The visitor was Ariel Sharon, the third prime minister of Israel to come to Moscow since 1999. Those visits mark a compelling turnabout since the days when Soviet client states trained anti-Israeli terrorists. Indeed, Sharon took pains during his Moscow trip to say that the two nations were "united in our concern over the spread of Islamic terrorism.''

The man who stayed home was Ali Shamkhani, defense minister of Iran. Protesting Sharon's visit, Shamkhani postponed his own trip, which was meant to seal the purchase of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Russian arms.

This time it was Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov who took pains to show Russia's other side. After meeting with Sharon, Ivanov said that Russia was nurturing its relations with Iran "and shall obviously continue to do so.''

When it comes to terrorism, Israel and Iran are the two faces of Russia's dry-eyed foreign policy.

If there is a true Western-led war on terrorism, "Russia will have to make a strategic decision, and it's going to be a painful one, no matter which way it goes,'' Pavel Felgenhauer, a journalist and military analyst here, said in an interview this week.

"This is war. And in war, it's very hard to hold the middle ground.''

Russia has been increasingly vocal in its own opposition to terror. It surpassed itself Thursday by offering NATO unsolicited support for a global struggle against terrorist groups.

Ivanov even tacitly endorsed U.S. military retaliation, saying the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon justified "all possible means'' in the fight against terrorism.

But within hours, the military pulled back from those positions. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov on Friday ruled out "even hypothetical assumptions'' that Russia and other former Soviet states would lend troops or bases to any NATO military action.

Russian officials also warned the United States that any retaliation that caused civilian suffering would only provoke a greater terrorist response.

That is precisely the argument the West has used -- and Russians have ignored -- in Moscow's own war against Islamic extremists in Chechnya.

Russia's view of terrorism's threat has moved much closer to that of Western nations.

But where the U.S. administration now calls for an us-versus-them coalition, Russia's view of the problem is far more shaded.

Good relations with Israel are one interest. Moscow's old policy of propping up an Arab bloc dedicated to Israel's extinction died with the Soviet Union.

Russia no longer has the money to ship weapons and aid to its old allies. Nor does it have a good reason: Today it is Israel, with Western technology, Western entree and 1 million Russian emigres, that has increasingly become the Kremlin's logical Middle East partner.

Chechnya is another reason. The breakup of the Soviet Union not only helped Islamic extremists gain a foothold in Chechnya and other southwest Russian provinces, but it has also opened the former Soviet republics in central Asia -- Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and others -- to influence from the same extremist movements.

Russia is already the victim of terrorist bombings that claimed more than 300 lives two years ago this month. It sees an extremist central Asia as a looming threat on its southern border.

As Chechnya has shown, it also sees a threat to the mostly Moslem provinces like Tajikistan, poor and militarily weak regimes, on its southwest flank.

That threat comes mostly from Afghanistan and the ruling Taliban, the same group that is suspected of having sheltered Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the terrorist attacks last week.

It is in Afghanistan that the Russian pledge to join the West in stamping out terrorism begins.

Some would say that is where it ends, too.

For whatever their shared antipathy toward the Taliban and bin Laden, Russia and the United States part over the broader definition of a terrorist.

Iran is the prime example. Although it is an enemy of Israel and on the United States' list of sponsors of terrorism, Iran buys a large number of Russian arms.

More worrisome to Tel Aviv and Washington, Russia is helping to build a nuclear reactor on the Persian Gulf, at Busheir, that some Western experts fear could help Iran build nuclear bombs or other radioactive weapons of mass destruction.

Iran's support of Russia's flagging arms and nuclear industries gives it a powerful voice within the Russian government, Felgenhauer and others said.

So does Iran's willingness to work with Russia on dividing up the oil riches of the Caspian seabed.

Nor does it hurt that Iran is an ideological rival of Afghanistan and the Taliban, whose extremist brand of Islam differs markedly from that of Tehran.

"Iran is not a problem, but a solution,'' said Sergei Karaganov, a top official of the Council on Defense and Foreign Policy in Moscow.

"They have been putting great pressure on Afghanistan,'' Karaganov said.

"They did what they could have done to calm the situation around Chechnya. There we have parallel interests. And we are making money, too," he said.

Iran's backing of certain terrorist groups can be overlooked in that context, Russia's first ambassador to Israel, Alexander Bovin, said in an interview.

"We know Tehran supports the Hezbollah in Lebanon,'' he said. "But our national interest doesn't require any special relations with Iran because of this. Everything is relative in this life.''

To enlist Russia fully in the fight against terrorism, the West would have to offer something beyond the warm feeling of joining a cause.

So far, Karaganov argued, the opposite is true. NATO and Washington are each shielded by a mutual-defense clause branding an attack on one of them as an attack on the other.

If Russia were to take the risk of joining such a coalition, it would not have the protection of the defense commitment.

"We need some sort of guarantee if we are left alone with all kinds of political problems in our south,'' Karaganov said.