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The Times (UK)
November 13, 2001
After the flood
Bush and Putin survey a landscape wholly transformed

The advances in Afghanistan will have put a spring in both men’s steps as George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin meet for a summit, the importance of which is hard to overstate. Never have Russia and the United States had such a sense of shared purpose that, since September 11, has transformed and now governs their relationship. It goes well beyond the contingencies of the immediate military operation.

Back in May, President Bush appealed to Moscow to address “common threats together” in “a clean break with the past”. For the past two months Mr Putin, one of whose close advisers, Aleksandr Oslon, compared the September attacks to “the Great Flood”, has needed no invitation. The two leaders must this week begin to map the post-diluvian strategic landscape, exploring what it might mean to work in concert and what are the prospects for a shared concept of security stretching across the northern arc of the world.

Mr Putin has, up to now, been making the more dramatic moves, whether on intelligence-sharing, on missile defence or on Russian attitudes to Nato. The reasons are not hard to discern. The first is Mr Putin’s conviction that Russia and America truly are in this together. He has long believed that the greatest single threat to Russia’s security sprang from the networks of Islamist terror spreading northwards from Afghanistan through Central Asia. In private talks last summer with senior Washington figures, he placed far more emphasis on this threat than he did on US plans for missile defence. When he told Americans, even as news of the attacks was breaking, “We are with you”, the unspoken subtext was: “You are with us now; you know what it is we fear”.

The second reason why Mr Putin has been so swift to erase most of the red lines of distrust is that, after September 11, he knew that the US would pour all its energy and power into the struggle to come. He saw that it was vital for Russia to say categorically where it stood, in this new world of “us” and “them”. Mr Putin sees opportunities, too, in an almost romantic projection of Russia as America’s comrade in arms. He has shrugged off those who advise him to demand pounds of flesh in return, whether on debt, trade or defence. He is much more interested in probing what Mr Bush might mean by a “new strategic framework”. He believes that the old Yeltsin world view, whereby Russia played Europe off against the US in a multi-polar world, was never realistic and is now history.

In today’s clearer light, relations with the US are what matter. Russia has, in practice, more in common with the US than it has with the European Union. Since EU officials rule out Russian membership, it is destined permanently to be held at arm’s length. Russia can, by contrast, work with Nato as an ally in the war against terror. Nato needs Russia’s help and will learn to work with it properly, making real rather than formal use of the Nato-Russia treaty. To that door, America has the key.

Russia’s way in from the cold thus runs via Washington. Mr Putin has shed any Cold War baggage that made this moment difficult to exploit. There is no question on which he is not prepared to be flexible. He is realistic enough to understand where the US will act unilaterally, and unilateralism is what he wants to avoid. Mr Bush will want detailed co-operation on terrorism and he will get it, but he must be generous with symbolic American gestures.

A good start would be a pledge to get Congress to repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanick amendment, a monument to Cold War thinking, that restricted trade and technology transfers. Even if the broader reshaping of the relationship is what matters, Mr Putin needs an achievment to brandish at his opponents. He aspires to redefine Russian strategy. He seeks to assert her influence, as did Peter the Great, but at America’s side. It is a shift of the first magnitude. America must not fail in its response.

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