Russia, the United States, and the War on Terrorism

A New Partnership or Another Political Bargain?

Vladimir Putin in July, 2000 (Photo courtesy of the Russian government).

Russian politicians at various levels believe that in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, a new strategic partnership will be formed between Russia and the United States, and the West in general. However, since both sides are approaching the issue with a hidden agenda, there appears to be little common ground for such a new relationship to be realized.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the first among world leaders to express solidarity with the United States after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. He also skillfully used a time gap between the tragedy and the American retaliatory action to promote a Russian view on how the international community should reorganize itself in the face of a new security threat--thus promoting Russia's status on the international arena.

During his recent visits to Germany and Belgium, the Russian president appealed to the West to bury the controversial heritage of the Cold War and construct a new international security system. In his speech—delivered in German to the elation of the Bundestag audience—he assured the United States that Russia would support a "common effort" against terrorism, though he then specified that such support would be restricted mainly to humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan and arms supplies to the Northern Alliance anti-Taliban forces. Putin has also asked the West to end the double-dealings of the Cold War, since the terrorist attacks made U.S.-Russian disagreements over the proposed U.S. National Missile Defense (NMD) program and NATO eastward expansion all but irrelevant to international security issues. The president even hinted to Europeans that in the context of the recent security lapse within America's own borders, Russia might be able to offer a better guarantee against terrorism. Putin has followed up on that agenda in Brussels where, during his meeting with EC and NATO officials, he made declarations about "creating a common Russia-EC economic and security space."

Putin's appeals to the West were certainly a successful PR campaign, but whether they will lead to any positive results is doubtful. Both sides are approaching the issue of an anti-terrorist cooperation with different motivations.

An international conference on relations between Russia and the West took place in Moscow during the first weekend in October. The participants--among them the former Russian Ambassador to the United States Vladimir Lukin and the ex-Security Council Chief Andrei Kokoshin--spoke confidently about the prospects for a new partnership between Russia and the United States. It remains unclear whether they noticed that their Western colleagues at the conference were baffled by such confidence and seemed unable to grasp what they were talking about. In the opinion of Peter Rutland, a well-known specialist on Russian politics, the Russian hosts seemed to be mistaking the desirable for the realistic.

U.S. President George Bush meets with leaders of the European Union in June, 2001 (Photo: AFP).

Indeed, there is hardly sound ground for a new strategic partnership between Russia and the United States. In fact, judging by the U.S. actions in the aftermath of the tragedy, Washington seems to have perceived the attacks not as an incentive to construct a new global collective security system, but as an imperative to reaffirm its role as sole superpower. True, the Russian acquiescence to the use of the air corridors and military potential of Russia and its Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) allies is of significance for the United States as they conduct their campaign in Afghanistan. The American leadership might also make some use of a Russian position as a mediator between the United States and the Arab world as anti-American sentiments are bound to rise with the progress of the military operation. Preparing and conducting its actions after Sept. 11, Washington has acted somewhat in concert with its main allies yet largely on its own—establishing bilateral agreements with individual states and not even formally calling NATO into action. The Americans have also applied pressure on various states urging them to join the "common effort," thus in fact dividing the international community into "friends" and "enemies." The administration has also notified the UN Security Council that strikes will continue against any state Washington considers guilty of supporting or harboring terrorists.

The United States has also started establishing its military presence in what has long been a Russian zone of influence—the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. It is quite likely that the United States will conveniently "forget" to vacate this vital strategic region once the immediate need for its military presence there has passed. Taking into account the Caucasian republic of Georgia—renowned for its pro-U.S. and pro-NATO orientation—and the planned entry into NATO of the Baltic republics, Russia might well find itself, not in a new relationship with NATO, but surrounded by it on all sides.

Some analysts have also hinted at another important possible motive behind the U.S. strategy in Central Asia—the region's wealth in oil and gas. According to the conservative U.S. Heritage Foundation, which testified before the U.S. House of Representatives in March 1999, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan together have proven reserves of around 15 billion barrels of oil and 9 trillion cubic meters of gas. Soviet experts once estimated the proven and probable oil reserves of Afghanistan to be 95 million barrels and 5 trillion cubic feet of gas. According to the Pakistani newspaper The Frontier Post, by establishing their political and military presence in Central Asia--as has been done in the Persian Gulf--the United States might significantly change the energy scenario of the 21st century.

We are witnessing not a new partnership in the making, but rather a new round in the political bargaining process. U.S. and Russian interests coincide as far as removing the Taliban regime, but in return for its support of the U.S. war on terrorism Russia will want assistance in its efforts to be incorporated into the global economy. The U.S. has already promised to start the procedure of granting Russia "market economy" status; perhaps some help for Russian entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) can also be expected. Even if Russia gets some of the economic gains it is no doubt hoping for, it might be unable to benefit from them at the moment. For instance, entering the WTO would require opening internal markets, while most domestic industries are still too weak to withstand the international competition. Recognizing Russia as a market economy would require the termination of any state subsidies to domestic industries, which have until now existed in the form of low-level fixed internal prices on natural resources, while the restructuring of the Russian energy and transport monopolies have just begun. Winning from the termination of anti-dumping fines on its exporters, Russia would lose on additional import taxes designed for state-subsidies products on Western markets.

So, for Russia, playing for time—the game in which Putin has so far appeared quite skilled—will continue. And there is much to do in a relatively short time period, as the international harmony behind the U.S. anti-terrorist effort might not last long.

If, after Afghanistan, Washington does indeed turn to retaliatory measures on other countries—an intention declared by top U.S. officials—the underlying discord with Russia will immediately surface. Moscow is sure to oppose any possible attacks on Iraq and Iran. And some Western analysts are already saying that Russia is trying to use the situation to exchange its support for the U.S. anti-terrorist effort for an unfettered hand in Chechnya and the prevention of the Baltic states' NATO entry.

The new millennium produced new global challenges. Russia—with its bitter experience of losing superpower status and moving through a painful transition while at the same time battling on its own soil—might well be prepared to abandon the old security cliches. However, its apparent new hopes for a “true” partnership with the West—and particularly with the United States—hardly seem realistic in the foreseeable future.