October 19, 2001
An earthquake in U.S.-Russia relations
By James Hackett
James T. Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times based in San Diego.
The air strikes against targets in Afghanistan have obscured what may be an earthquake in U.S.-Russian relations. Vladimir Putin, the ex-KGB official who now rules Russia, has shown unexpected courage in putting Moscow squarely on the side of the U.S. in the war against terrorism. To do so he had to overrule the anti-American hard-liners who represent a significant element within the Russian government and still see the world through Cold War eyes.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said it was not even hypothetical that the U.S. might use bases in the former Soviet republics to strike at terrorists in Afghanistan. According to the Russian press, senior generals and government officials argued against cooperating with the U.S. anti-terrorism effort on grounds that it might destabilize the situation in Central Asia, lead to Muslim attacks on Russia itself, and help the U.S., their "main enemy."
Just more than a week later, President Putin brushed these objections aside and seized the opportunity to move toward a real alliance with the West, giving Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and other former Soviet republics carte blanche to make agreements with Washington to use their airfields and former Russian military bases to launch attacks inside Afghanistan. Then, on a visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels, Mr. Putin said he wanted a new security relationship with Europe and might reconsider his objection to the expansion of NATO to include the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Mr. Putin promised Russian cooperation in the fight against terrorists by helping block their bank accounts, use of false documents, efforts to obtain chemical, biological or nuclear weapons and through exchanging intelligence on terrorist movements and activities. Moscow will not again send troops into Afghanistan or launch strikes there. But Russia's considerable influence with its former Muslim republics, its intelligence resources in the area, and the military experience gained fighting a long war in Afghanistan can be of significant help.
In exchange for his cooperation, Mr. Putin wants Western support for Russia's efforts to suppress the rebels in Chechnya, early Russian admission to the World Trade Organization, a go-slow approach to the admission of the three Baltic states to NATO, and a downplaying of the national missile defense issue. He already has won a U.S. statement of concern about international terrorists in Chechnya, and a message from Secretary of State Colin Powell urging the Baltic republics to cooperate more with Moscow.
The European Union promised to speed Russia's entry into the WTO, and while the national missile defense program continues to go forward, it is proceeding quietly, with the next flight test postponed for technical reasons from October to December. Talk of early deployment and withdrawal from the ABM treaty has been deferred while U.S. and Russian officials coordinate the war on terrorism. But on October 12 President Bush said in his press conference that "the ABM treaty is outdated, antiquated and useless," making it crystal clear that he will withdraw and deploy missile defenses.
President Putin wants not only to cooperate with NATO, but also to gain Russia's admission as a full member. His cautious angling for consideration of Russian membership suggests he believes Russia's future is with Europe, firmly anchored in the Western alliance. But this is contrary to the vision of those Russian generals and bureaucrats who see their country as a great Eurasian power with one foot in Europe and another in Asia, shifting alliances between China and the West to serve Russia's national interest.
There are many problems in the relationship with Moscow, ranging from Russian military assistance to Iran to continued opposition to a U.S. national missile defense. But a new atmosphere began when President Putin called President Bush in Air Force One shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center to assure the American president that Russian forces would not react to the U.S. state of alert. Now, anything seems possible.
The question for both Moscow and Washington is whether Mr. Putin's opening to the West is just a gambit for Russian gain or the beginning of a global realignment that will transform Russia from a former enemy to a true ally.