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Russia Front and Center

If anyone needs a reminder why relations with Russia remain a priority for Washington and other world capitals, just consider some recent headlines: Russian missile-quality steel seized on its way to Iran, Russia helping India develop sea- launched missiles, Russia selling missiles to the Greek Cypriots.

There are various economic, political, and cultural reasons to stay in close touch with the new, democratizing Russia. But few are more immediate than concerns about the spread of that country's still-potent military technology. Russia simply has to be a full, active partner in efforts to forge a more peaceful world.

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To accomplish that, every effort must be made to assure Moscow that moves to draw its former Eastern European bloc into NATO are not intended to isolate and confront Russia. A Russia that senses itself in military encirclement might see little reason not to build new alliances and influence through military sales.

Such sales are, after all, a major part of US global commerce too. But the crucial distinction is who's buying and what's being sold. In the case of India and Cyprus, the introduction of missiles or know-how is incendiary.

The presence of a Hindu nationalist government in India adds volatility to its long-simmering conflict with Muslim Pakistan. Both countries possess nuclear capability. A new means of delivering warheads could easily accelerate their arms race.

Cyprus's long feud is once more getting the determined international attention it deserves. American diplomat Richard Holbrooke is trying to restart peace talks. But Turkey, patron of the Turkish minority, is irriatated that the prosperous Greek Cypriot-ruled half of the island is under consideration for EU membership. The purchase of Russian antiaircraft missiles threatens to spark Turkish retaliation.

Iran, of course, poses a somewhat different problem. The Russians say the steel shipment (finally intercepted at Azerbaijan's border with Iran) eluded them despite their efforts to follow up on US intelligence tips. The Clinton administration believes Russia made an effort, but Capitol Hill skeptics have doubts. Regional antipathies could spin out of control here, too, if Iran builds missiles that put nuclear-armed Israel within range. And the whole affair does little to advance what should be a leading item on the US's diplomatic agenda: better relations with a new, more progressive Iranian government.

One line of analysis holds that all these Russian arms dealings are designed to challenge US supremacy and thwart US aims. We view them, instead, as energizing the international effort to halt the spread of nuclear, biological, chemical, and missile technologies. Russia, a major source of such technology, should be reassured that it is a partner with the US in this endeavor. Forward movement on arms limitation treaties like the START series is critical. Delay could mean further erosion in Russia's ability to manage its own far-flung nuclear arsenal. That arsenal, like the US's, remains on alert, ready to launch.

All nations need to see the two nuclear superpowers lead the way toward a safer world.

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