Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

The Russia Journal
October 26-November 1, 2001
What allies does today’s Russia need?
In a fast-changing world, the country must make the right decisions


The practical task of putting together the anti-terrorist coalition after the events of Sept. 11 forced U.S. diplomats to abandon many of the policy statements formulated during George W. Bush’s first months in office.

Even as powerful a nation as the United States has proved unable to ensure its security on its own. Instead, it has to cooperate with its various partners and come to agreements and compromises with each one.

Russia has turned out to be a far more important foreign-policy partner for the United States than was thought several months ago. This is especially true now that military operations are under way in Central Asia, where Russia still has considerable influence, connections and opportunities.

Foreign-policy myths

On a tactical level, at least, the United States has become highly interested in constructive military and political cooperation with Russia.

President Vladimir Putin has given the United States maximum practical assistance in its operations in Afghanistan. It would have been strange had he not done so. After all, for perhaps the first time in Russian history, someone else has gone in to do the dirty work for us. Usually, it’s the other way around.

Didn’t we want to liquidate the Islamic radicals’ terrorist breeding grounds on our southern flank? Didn’t we talk over a year ago about bombing the terrorists’ training camps ourselves? And didn’t we back out of the idea, realizing that we couldn’t carry it out effectively? So, we’ve got no reason to get in the way of the people who have taken this mission upon themselves.

But despite the obvious pragmatism of Putin’s choice, it was met with grumbling by a considerable part of the political elite. The trauma of defeat in the Cold War and the loss of superpower status induced a deep-seated and still-unresolved psychological complex in the political class’s collective unconscious.

For this group, the United States remains the phantom adversary at the heart of its worldview and the enemy it opposes in heroic battles that serve as the foundation for all Russia’s foreign-policy myths. Numerous statements about the multipolar world, the fight against NATO expansion, the strategic partnership with China, the sharply focused articles by political analysts, the reports from analytical centers and official doctrines all carry the stamp of this pathos.

Putin, of course, paid his tribute to these moods. During the first year of his presidency, Putin gave the impression that the main aim of his foreign policy was to oppose the United States on all fronts.

Strategic interests

Just recall the insulting end of the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement, Putin’s demonstrative visit to Cuba, the attempts (obviously fruitless) to create an anti-American coalition with China and India, and the publicity given to the deliberately false idea that the Kursk had sunk after colliding with an American submarine, not to mention the insolent tone of our foreign-policy publications.

But it seems the vast responsibility traditionally borne by the head of the nation in Russia didn’t let Putin stay too long in the phantom world of the complexes and fantasies so dear to the heart of the Russian political establishment.

Back in the real world, there is a serious military threat today to the south of Russia, and tomorrow could bring an even more serious threat in the East. Added to this is the backward army inherited from last century’s superpower, poorly armed recruits, combat-ready units all tied up a single rebellious province and doctrines all based on a phantom confrontation with the West.

The top authorities seem to be coming to grips with this geopolitical reality far quicker than the bulk of the Russian establishment. Over the last month and a half, prominent politicians and generals have done much to correct, dilute and attempt to reverse Putin’s words of Sept. 11: "Americans, we are with you."

The same people tell us that the devious United States will pull out of Central Asia the moment the going gets tough and leave us to face the Taliban alone, and that the Americans will stay in the region for good, depriving Russia of its traditional sphere of influence.

Moreover, they say that the attacks of Sept. 11 were acts of just revenge by the downtrodden and insulted of this world, and that the Americans blew themselves up in order to strengthen their world supremacy and push Russia into a collision with the Islamic world.

The more "enlightened" members of the elite accept Moscow’s choice in favor of the anti-terrorist coalition, but insist on the "price" the West, and above all the United States, should pay Russia in return for its choice. Various "pricelists" are proposed, mostly repeating each other (missile defense, NATO expansion, debt rescheduling, etc.), and there are seminars and symposiums on "to what extent we should support America."

But formulating the question this way plots a false set of coordinates from the very beginning and deliberately distorts the perspective of our strategic discourse. Russia and its long-term strategic interests should be at the center of our thinking.

The novelty of the post-Sept. 11 situation is that the West, and above all the United States, is far more interested in cooperation with Russia, including military cooperation. A better way to formulate the question would then be, "To what extent can we get the United States to work with us on resolving our strategic-security issues?"

But will the Russian diplomats make use of this window of opportunity to turn the United States’ tactical interest in Russia into a long-term military-strategic partnership? In this respect, Putin’s concluding remarks to his statement of Sept. 24 are significant: "We are prepared to move toward closer forms of military cooperation with the United States if this comes with a fundamental change in the nature of relations between our two countries."

Mutual commitments

Such a fundamental change in our relations could be expressed through only one thing – mutual commitments to defend each other’s citizens, territorial integrity and inviolability of national borders. Russian diplomacy’s main task now is to establish these kinds of relations between allies and, set against this, the pettiness and empty nature of the traditional "price-lists" will become eminently clear.

The American armed forces are taking active part today in resolving one of Russia’s main security issues. Any rational diplomacy would only want to reinforce this trend – an absolutely new one for Russia.

The 21st century won’t be easy for Russia, and it will need completely different allies from the military-political establishment’s "traditional" friends. Russia has no need for a museum of dictators that have outlived their day and whose only strategic service is to help fill the pockets of the arms-dealing intermediaries that graft themselves onto the military-industrial complex.

We need as allies strong democratic states ready to share with us the responsibility for our collective security. We need them today, just as 60 years ago the allies we needed were Great Britain and the United States.

Back to the Top    Next Article