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

November 1, 2001
Putin Is Reaching Out to the U.S., Bush Should Seize the Moment
By James Klurfeld

THROUGHOUT history, wars have had a way of rearranging relations among nations.

The United States' war against terrorism will be no different. In fact, if anything good could come out of the tragic events of Sept. 11, it's the stunning reversal of relations between Washington and Moscow.

Since at least the mid-1990s the relationship between the United States and Russia has grown steadily more difficult. Earlier this year Russian President Vladimir Putin even began to play his China card against what he saw as the arrogant, unilateral and sometimes hostile attitude of Washington toward his country.

And Washington, whether it was Clinton or Bush in charge, felt there were more important issues than assuaging the hurt feelings of a weak, former adversary. For instance, the expansion of NATO closer to Russia's borders or the development of a missile defense system. Many foreign policy experts felt it was an unfortunate, even tragic direction but could only watch in dismay as the relationship deteriorated.

But since the terrorist attack on the United States, Russian experts across the board agree that there is the potential for a fundamentally improved relationship that could ultimately change world politics. It's not inevitable and there are going to be some rough spots along the way that both sides must navigate. But when Putin and Bush meet in Texas later this month it could be one of the most consequential summits in decades.

Clearly, Putin has made a strategic decision that his country's long-term interests lie in a much better relationship with the West, especially the United States. He might well have made this decision before Sept. 11, but the terrorist attack has provided both him and Bush with an opportunity to overcome the tensions of the past decade and restructure their relationship in a manner that could have long-term consequences. The Russians are now soft-peddling their opposition to Washington developing a missile defense system and might even be resigned to NATO expansion. The possibility that Russia might even someday become a member of NATO, which seemed wholly implausible just a few months ago, now is at least a credible possibility.

But most of the Russian experts I've talked with recently do not for a moment believe that Putin has taken these steps without an expectation that there will be something in it for Russia. Putin has taken a gamble that Bush will respond. In that sense, Putin is ahead of Russian public opinion and even the opinion of the political elites. That is why it's essential that the Bush administration respond to Putin's overtures. Specific actions, such as debt forgiveness to help Russia's still struggling economy, will be important. But so will the manner in which Washington treats Moscow.

How specific issues are handled is important. For instance, Putin indicated Russia is ready to accept a modification to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to allow the testing of a missile defense system. But that is different from a unilateral U.S. abrogation of the treaty. He also wants agreement on deep cuts in offensive nuclear weapons. This will be one of the chief topics in his Texas summit with Bush. Bush must sit on the ideologues in his administration who seem more interested in killing the treaty than developing a missile defense.

How Washington handles NATO expansion, especially adding the Baltic states that border Russia, is another very sensitive issue. Ideally, the administration would delay a decision, now scheduled for next year. But ideologues may be too strong and too bent on that goal. That is why finding some type of formula to make Russia eventually part of NATO may be the alternative.

How Russia is treated by Washington - the style of the relationship - will be as important as any one specific policy measure. Putin bitterly resented what he saw as Washington's total lack of understanding of the problems the Russians face in Chechnya. Now that the United States must deal with terrorism, the Russians expect a more understanding attitude from Washington. Bush must do that without giving Russia's hard-liners a green light to do anything they want there.

The larger point is that Russia wants to be respected as a partner of the West, not treated as a defeated pariah. There is a tremendous opportunity in all this for the long-term interests of the United States not only with Russia but also with the other major powers of the world including China. It's as much part of the challenge facing the Bush administration as winning the war on terrorism.

Back to the Top    Next Article