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Merchants to murderers?

- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 2008

During the late 1980s, President Ronald Reagan made a strong commitment to neutralize the dangerous policies of the Soviet totalitarian regime.

His first step was forcing Soviet leaders to sign nonproliferation treaties. Reagan's policy was to prevent the Soviets from selling arms to dangerous dictators. At the time, Russia was willing to sell arms to anyone opposing democracy in the Free World.

Reagan's daunting task eventually created a strong international coalition against the Soviet empire. By the early 1990s, Russian arms sales to state-sponsored terrorist groups declined 75 percent.

Fast forward to October 2007, when Russia's President Vladimir Putin announced Russia had surpassed the United States as the leader in weapons deals with the developing world. "While arms sales are a clear economic indicator, they also demonstrate the extent of Russia's influence around the world," said Mr. Putin.

Among Russia's major consumers were Iran, China, India and the Persian Gulf states. Those sales were just part of the very competitive global arms market that, according to the International herald Tribune, rose from $26.4 billion in 2005 to $30.2 billion in 2007.

Perhaps the most troubling for America are sales to improve Iran's air defense system and Russian cooperation in developing nuclear weapons facilities. Russia also supplies Syria with Iskander-E tactical missiles that could forever alter the Middle Eastern balance of power.

In 2007 alone, Russia sold 165 Strelets-S 18 surface-to-air missiles that ended up in the hands of Hezbollah and other terrorist groups.

Two years earlier, Russia signed an agreement with Iran to sell 30 TOR M-1 air defense missile systems to Tehran.

Despite strong criticism from the Bush administration, as well as Jerusalem, Russia continues to sell small arms and helicopters to the Hamas administration in Gaza.

If there's any doubt, check out the Web site www.roe.ru. The site proudly declares that Russia should sell $4 billion in weapons to Iran, and $2 billion to Syria and the Sudan.

Mr. Putin's administration is unapologetic. Former Russian Prime Minister Mikhael Fradkov, at the same time deputy chairman of the VTS (Russian military complex), secretly helped North Korea obtain 35 ballistic missiles from Russia despite a signed United Nations agreement banning missile sales to that country.

Russia not only is selling arms illegally, but cooperates with private terrorist groups, such as FARC in Columbia and other leftist movements in South America and Africa. Without Russia, terrorist groups would find it hard to find the kind of weapons (including nuclear materials on the black market) Mr. Putin is hawking.

As it happened, during the Cheyna uprising, the terrorists who fought Russian soldiers did so with Russian weapons sold by corrupt generals to the neighboring revolutionaries.

When will Russia learn that its blind policy of selling to the highest bidder may again come back to bite them, as it did in the massacre of innocent children in Beslan with Russian-made weapons? While Russians recently cheered during a military parade in Moscow's Red Square, the reality is chilling.

The problem is that no one — not even Mr. Putin — knows in whose hands the Russian weapons will eventually land and if Russia will blame themselves for the outcome.

Tsotne Bakuria, a former member of Parliament in the Republic of Georgia, is a senior fellow at the Global International Study Group.