Russia’s courtship of the world’s rogue states began some years ago, when then Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov set out to reconstruct the Soviet Union’s warm relationships with Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and other countries that reject any notion of world order, old or new. Russia has pitched a little more woo under Vladimir Putin, loading the ball with gobbets of anti-Western rhetoric.

It’s a high-risk policy. The courtship may antagonize the West, in particular the United States, impeding Russia’s integration with the world economy and its access to technology and capital. Balancing that sacrifice is–what? A strategic advantage against an America seen as hell-bent on world domination?–but the rogues are notoriously short on gratitude, and they are not in a position to do much for Russian interests anyway. Export markets for Russian arms and heavy industry?–okay, if you can collect. Cooperation against rebellious Muslims inside Russia and on the border?–maybe so, but betrayal cuts at least two ways.

At a conference in Munich two weeks ago, security advisor Sergei Ivanov defended Russia’s rapprochement with rogue states as a cheap and effective political alternative to an expensive and problematic missile-defense initiative. “Restraining the so-called rogue nations,” he said, “may be carried out more effectively … by a common political effort” than by development and deployment of defenses against an “exaggerated” threat of missile attack.

But Russia takes a casual-Friday attitude to the business of restraint. Last fall, the Kremlin publicly announced its withdrawal from a confidential 1995 agreement with the United States restricting arms sales to Iran; a deputy director of arms exporter Rosoboroneksport says sales to Iran could easily run $300 million a year. A month ago, the Atomic Energy Ministry said it has begun work on a second nuclear reactor at Iran’s Bushehr station, brushing aside strident U.S. objections that the project aids Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. When Iran’s President Mohammad Khatami visits Moscow in March, restraint is not likely to be at the top of the agenda.

The same may be true if North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il makes the rare foreign journey to Moscow scheduled for April. The visit reciprocates Putin’s stopover in Pyongyang last July, on his way to a Group of Seven summit in Okinawa. Putin garnered gushy praise when he told the Western leaders that Kim had offered to abandon a North Korean missile program if the West would only promise to launch his satellites. But there was no follow-through, and Kim later told a South Korean delegation that he was “only joking.”

Of course in the courtship of the rogues Russia is not the only suitor. Then American Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited North Korea last October, and then President Bill Clinton very nearly followed. The past year has seen several high-level contacts between American and Iranian officials.

It is not the fact but the content of Russia’s contacts that disturbs. Especially with Iran, the Kremlin pays for restraint in the coin of proliferation. Not much of a bargain.