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Moscow Times
October 15, 2001
A Turning Point in U.S.-Russian Relations?
By Peter Rutland
Peter Rutland is a professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and an associate of the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

Russians were horrified by the events of Sept. 11, a reaction that was reflected in President Vladimir Putin's initial emotional response on the day of the attack -- "Americans, we are with you."

As a people all too familiar with the trauma of foreign invasion, Russians immediately grasped the symbolic and substantive impact of the attack on "unbombed America." The United States had sat safely behind its ocean defenses for two centuries, and had not seen foreign military action on its homeland since 1812. That sense of invulnerability was rudely punctured on Sept. 11.

Putin's unprecedented cooperation in U.S. efforts to crack down on Islamic terrorism may well be predicated on the assumption that the United States is fundamentally weakened by the events of Sept. 11, and thus willing to forge a new partnership with Russia on equal terms. Many Russians now see the ruins of the World Trade Center as symbolizing the ruins of the United States' self-image as the world's sole superpower. This is an erroneous assumption, and could mean that Moscow is headed for profound disillusionment in the not-too-distant future.

Putin's initiatives drew criticism, some of it public, from conservatives in the Russian military establishment. In particular, his willingness to accept a U.S. military presence in Central Asia was a startling turnaround from Russian policies of the previous decade (if not previous century), which had been devoted to keeping foreign powers out of the region. Putin's actions were greeted with enthusiasm among liberals and centrists in the foreign policy elite, who see Sept. 11 as an opening to put Russia's relations with the West back on a sound footing, a second chance to seize the missed opportunities of 1988-92.

The Russian establishment (both liberals and conservatives) still resents the fact that Mikhail Gorbachev's willingness to dismantle the Soviet empire was not rewarded by the United States. Russia was denied debt relief and was shut out from a leading role in international security institutions, a rejection symbolized by the enlargement of NATO. Hence, the 1990s were what former Security Council secretary Andrei Kokoshin has called a "wasted decade" in U.S.-Russian relations, which reached their nadir with the bombing of Belgrade in 1999.

These views were expressed in a conference on relations between Russia and the West that took place in Moscow last weekend, sponsored by the Ebert Foundation and the German Marshall Center, and which was addressed by State Duma Deputy Speaker Vladimir Lukin and Duma defense committee chairman Alexei Arbatov. The Russian participants in the conference concurred in the belief that Sept. 11 was a turning point in world history, one that will oblige the United States to abandon its unilateralist ways. Alexander Konovalov, of the Institute for Strategic Analysis, argued that the terrorists' ability to turn civilian airliners into weapons of mass destruction showed the United States the futility of spending $300 billion a year on conventional and nuclear weapons, and the irrelevance of the petty maneuverings that have characterized U.S.-Russian relations over the past decade.

Having accepted Sept. 11 as a watershed, there is discussion in Moscow about the concessions that Russia can expect from the United States as the price for the new partnership. The shopping list includes: an end to criticism of the war in Chechnya; cancellation of Soviet-era debts; abandonment of national missile defense; an end to NATO expansion; lifting sanctions on Iraq; U.S. help in the event of future terrorist attacks on Russia; and more. (Fortunately, last weekend the Russian soccer team qualified for the World Cup finals, or one suspects that also might have been on the list.)

If Russia really believes that the September bombings will lead the United States to abandon unilateralism, it is headed for a rude awakening. The attack has served to steel U.S. resolve, unifying the country behind the president and legitimizing whatever action is deemed necessary to punish the terrorists. Previously, U.S. military action overseas was based on ambiguous and contested norms of humanitarian intervention. Now, it is rooted in the more substantial grounds of self-defense and revenge. Domestic political constraints were always the main factor limiting U.S. foreign policy unilateralism, and they have now been eased. Rather than signaling the end of a Cold War mentality of confrontation, the September bombings are likely to forge a new posture of suspicion towards the outside world. One indicator of this is the fact that the U.S. defense budget is to be boosted by $60 billion per year. Many Americans believe that the reason the United States was targeted on Sept. 11 is precisely because it is the world's sole superpower, a position it is not yet ready to yield.

Russian optimism also rests on a misunderstanding of the nature of the anti-terrorist coalition. The United States has put together a temporary, tactical alliance in order to facilitate military strikes against Afghanistan. Its life span is likely to be measured in weeks rather than years. Concessions made in the creation of this alliance are granted only in order to pursue the task at hand. And some of the concessions made to other participants (such as Pakistan) work directly against Russian interests.

Searching for historical analogies provides a useful perspective on the present situation. The past century has included a number of events after which people felt that the world would never be the same again. The initial reaction in the United States was to talk about Sept. 11 as a second Pearl Harbor. Some see an affinity with the Chernobyl accident in 1986 -- an event which indelibly shifted the public's sense of security, in that case in the context of nuclear power. Others draw still more disturbing parallels with terrorist actions of the past that triggered major international upheavals -- such as the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, or the burning of the Reichstag in 1934.

Perhaps a more relevant historical analogy is the anti-Hitler coalition of 1941-45. Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin went into the alliance with their eyes wide open. They had no illusions that they had common goals for the post-war order, but they needed each others' help to defeat Hitler. They constantly bickered over the terms of the relationship, and the alliance broke up very quickly after the defeat of the Axis powers.

With only one month elapsed since the September bombings, it is simply too soon to say whether it will really represent a watershed in international relations, or merely the brutal illumination of the existing structure of international power.

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