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The Point | Darth Vader at the gas pump

Anyone who drives area roads has by now probably seen the new, cheerful, cherry-red signs of Lukoil, the newest contender in the roadside fill-up market.

Anyone who drives area roads has by now probably seen the new, cheerful, cherry-red signs of Lukoil, the newest contender in the roadside fill-up market.

If you haven't yet seen the signs - the company bought 800 Mobil stations in New Jersey and aims to convert all of them into its own brand by the end of this year - you have probably heard the ads on radio and television, or seen the big billboards at Citizens Bank Park. The company is a major sponsor of the Phillies. "We cars" is its happy slogan.

Maybe it's just me, but I sense overeagerness in the onslaught. Nowhere in the media blitz is there any mention of Mother Russia, where Lukoil is the largest oil company. Russia is a country that still has certain, shall we say, mixed associations for many Americans, at least those of us who practiced climbing under our desks in grade-school bomb drills. For most of my life, Russia had a nuclear arsenal pointed at me. It was the enemy, President Reagan's "Evil Empire."

Well, today Darth Vader is wearing Phillies red, not communist red, and is grinning like a carnival huckster . . . at least here. In Moscow and elsewhere in the world, Lukoil may cars, but, my fellow Americans, it is no friend to you.

The entry of a Russian oil company into the U.S. market ought to be good news. Capitalism and free markets were two things we were fighting for during that long Cold War, and ever since the collapse of the Soviet empire 16 years ago, Russia has been paying lip service to both, and to democracy. I remember the excitement in 1989 when red-nosed Boris Yeltsin, who died Monday, visited Philadelphia and earned a standing ovation in the Hotel Atop the Bellevue, predicting the imminent collapse of perestroika and the Soviet state. Less than two years later, Yeltsin was proved correct, was elected president, and a wild era of optimism, raw capitalism, and wild presidential drinking bouts began.

Yeltsin's administration, like his heart and liver, soured. The pugnacious, flamboyant former apparatchik made many mistakes as president of the new Russian republic, but it is beginning to look like the worst was his choice of a successor, Vladimir Putin. Under Putin's cold, authoritarian leadership, the mysterious Kremlin is back, and the country is sliding back into its old dictatorial, anti-American ways. The brazen murders of those who criticize his regime are too frequent to be coincidental. Journalists, who enjoyed a great flowering of post-Soviet freedom a decade ago, are increasingly being brought back under state control.

And Lukoil, despite its friendly all-American veneer, is not just on the sidelines. It is widely reported to be part owner of the Russian News Service, a supposedly independent radio network, which recently has been ordered to air more "positive" reports about the Putin government. According to New York Times correspondent Andrew E. Kramer, one of the station's new managers, Alexander Y. Skolnik, "articulated the rule that 50 percent of the news must be positive, regardless of what cataclysm might befall Russia on any given day."

Kramer wrote that reporters at the station had been ordered not to mention opposition political figures on the air, and - remember this the next time you hear a breezy Lukoil ad - the United States was to be portrayed as "the enemy." Lukoil is also a big part of Russian efforts to strengthen ties with Venezuela's flamboyantly anti-American president, Hugo Chavez.

I went looking for someone to ask about this apparently two-faced corporation. I called its American headquarters in East Meadow, N.Y., and was told that the company did not take calls from the press in this country. I was referred to an American mouthpiece, Joe Shwirtz, who, I was told, would "answer all your questions for you." Shwirtz works for a company called First International Resources, which on its Web site is described as "an international public and political consulting firm with extensive experience in crisis management, strategic communications counseling" and other impressive spinlike maneuvers.

With all that experience dodging bad publicity, Shwirtz was ready for me.

"I can't comment on it for you," he said, right out of Crisis Management 101, "Things Not to Say." Whatever Lukoil is paying him, it's too much.

Shwirtz did give me a phone number and e-mail address for one Dmitri Dolgov, in Moscow.

I dialed it. Sadly, the plague of corporate automated phone-answering has spread to Moscow. If you think navigating an automated call response here is hard, try wrestling with one in Russian. Fortunately, Shwirtz also gave me an e-mail address. I sent my questions about Lukoil, censorship, and the-U.S.-as-enemy policy, and, lo! within 24 hours I got the following response, which I reprint here in full:

"Please be informed that LUKOIL has nothing to do with Russian News Service. LUKOIL or any of it's top-managers are not shareholders of the RNS radio. Best regards. Dmitri."

There you have it. I found numerous articles from around the world on the Internet linking Lukoil with the Russian News Service, but I'm not ready to call Dmitri a liar yet. I'm going to keep working on it, but for now, if the choice is between him and the New York Times, I'm going with the New York Times. Maybe it was all those bomb drills in grade school.

Sorry, Dmitri. Does this exhaust today's quota for negative news?

It all adds up to one more big reason (if humankind's ongoing experiment in altering the world's atmosphere were not enough) to reduce this country's addiction to low-priced foreign oil. That dependency is financing both sides in the inaptly named "War on Terror." Most of our tax dollars pay for the military, while our gas dollars indirectly fund jihad. A smarter administration in Washington would have seized the moment after Sept. 11, 2001, a time when nearly every American was ready to do something to strike back at our enemies, to slap a significant tax on gasoline and use the windfall to start us down the path toward a fossil-fuel-free future.