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A vital relationship
March 20, 2003 Posted: 12:52 Moscow time (08:52 GMT)

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As war looms in the Middle East, and as the United States and its allies ready their assembled firepower, the "strategic partnership" between Russia and the United States has somewhat soured.

The United States' insistence on using military force and Russia's refusal to rule out using its Security Council veto have caused harsh things to be said on both sides. But does this really mean a pullback from the increasingly warm bilateral relations we have seen since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks? We think not.

The United States seems to have expected Russia to back down at the last minute. In assuming this, it overestimated its own importance and the leverage it had on its "partner" in the "war on terrorism" and miscalculated.

Now, with the United States threatening Russia with economic reprisals, the Kremlin is saying that the war may damage the international coalition against terrorism - in which Russia plays a pivotal role. Russia's proximity to the Central Asian former Soviet Republics, as well as its extensive intelligence data on Islamist radical groups from Chechnya to Pakistan, make it an invaluable partner for the United States and other nations that are actively seeking to combat terrorism.

The United States and Russia certainly may not see eye to eye on the Iraq issue, but there remain large areas of agreement and common strategic and tactical interests, and co-operation must continue unhindered.

The fallout over the current disagreement, despite the heated words being tossed about at present, is likely to be similar. Russia and the United States simply need each other too much to let it seriously jeopardize bilateral ties.

Most important, of course, is coping with Islamist radicalism, something that is probably more dangerous to Russia than to the United States, given the former's geographical position and large Muslim minority. Contemporary terrorism is international in nature, and, as such, coping with it requires an international, coordinated response.

Also, the United States wants to reduce its dependence on Middle Eastern oil even after Iraq falls into line and Saddam is ousted. Washington does not want to be at the mercy of OPEC. Russia's oil majors want to penetrate into the oil-hungry U.S. economy and hope as well that American firms will be willing to invest in their ventures. These interests are vital, and the Russian government cannot afford to jeopardize this aspect of the partnership.

Then, there is economic cooperation in other ways. Foreign direct investment in Russia is still paltry, and closer integration could help to change that - and in more sectors than just the natural-resource-export industry. U.S. help could also facilitate Russian accession to the World Trade Organization and help it apply leverage against stringent EU demands the Russian economy may not be able to meet.

Finally, there is the issue of China. As this newspaper has pointed out in the past, a rising China bodes ill for both Russia and the United States. Moreover, the North Korean threat is immediate not only for South Korea and Japan but also for Russia simply because of geographical proximity - and is of course a concern for the United States as well.

In short, the leaders of both countries must look ahead and not lose the wider perspective of the world we live in. The current spat should remain just that - a disagreement - and not hurt the longer term objectives that are common to both countries. Both sides have too much to lose to let their bilateral relationship become seriously threatened.
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