#3 - JRL 7130
April 4, 2003
Why fool ourselves?
By Stanislav Menshikov
There is a view that Russia's opposition to war in Iraq could destroy its strategic partnership with the US. The real question, however, is whether such a partnership does in fact exist, and if so, is it worth maintaining?
Talk about the partnership started when Vladimir Putin called George W. Bush on September 11, 2001 and soon after offered assistance for the US military operation in Afghanistan. Russia provided free overflight for US bombers heading towards Taliban and al-Qaeda targets. It supported the Afghani "North Alliance" forces with armaments enabling them to quickly win the war on the ground thus reducing US casualties to a minimum. It agreed to US air bases in Uzbekistan and Kirgizstan. It shared vital security information. Russia did for America more than did its formal allies in NATO.
For a few months, the partnership was real and it worked. Both sides benefited. The US destroyed the principal base of al-Qaeda. Russia, without firing a shot, got rid of a fanatically aggressive neighbour that threatened friendly regimes in Central Asia.
Then, very soon, things started to go wrong. Washington hardly waited for its Afghan victory when it scrapped the ABM Treaty against Russia's objections. As later developments showed, there was no military reason for this haste. Building BMD is proceeding at extremely low speed. The technology it needs is not yet available. By scrapping the Treaty Bush could have ruined the partnership there and then had his Russian counterpart chosen not to swallow that bitter pill.
Instead, Putin agreed to the face saving device of signing the Offensive Potential Reduction Treaty (OPR), which was heralded as a new sign of continuing partnership. In fact, it was nothing of the sort because it permitted both sides to develop their nuclear arsenals without any real constraints and thus continue the MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) game. Even SALT and START treaties signed during the Cold War had more substance. But nobody ever dreamt of citing them as evidence of strategic partnership.
Presumably, both countries were now united in fighting a common enemy - terrorism. But Washington never accepted Russia's view of Chechen terrorists as a common danger. Instead, in September 2002, George W. Bush started his anti-Iraqi war marathon despite strong objections from his supposed Russian partner. Russia did not recognise Iraq as an enemy or a terrorist threat.
US persistence and Moscow's opposition in the UN and elsewhere was the best evidence that their strategic partnership was all but forfeited. When the shooting started, it became more than clear that the "friends" of yesterday were on the opposite sides of the diplomatic front. Not exactly enemies, but certainly not partners.
The pretence, though, is still there. Last week, Vladimir Putin told visiting Duma leaders that not only was he on speaking terms with George W. Bush but that they could also talk "frankly" to one another. However, it was not clear whether his partner in the White House was listening. This is what some observers call a "well balanced" position. In fact, the partnership, if there still is one, is in deep crisis. Another pre-emptive US-led war would shatter it to smithereens.
Some writers have been blaming the new "coldness" on the predominance of old cold warriors in the political and military establishments of both countries. But there is more to it than the personality issue. The prevailing national interests are too different. The US under Bush is pursuing the ideological goal of "remaking the world" which is the same thing as building a global empire. Russia (after the Soviet Union broke up) has no imperial ambitions and is simply interested in a safe world for itself and others. In its view, pre-emptive wars are out of the question, except by joint decision against a commonly accepted threat. It is a difference of principle.
Also different is the understanding of what partnership between nations is about. To Moscow, it means, among other things, seeking common ground in critical situations. To Washington, it rather means demanding complete loyalty from its partners even at the cost of suppressing their own national interest. This is unrealistic between sovereign nations.
But couldn't Russia just swallow its own pride for fear of loosing the potential economic benefits of partnership with the richest country in the world, particularly help in modernising Russia's economy? The fact is, however, that friendship between the two presidents has not materialised in increased flows of US capital or technology to this country. Russia's trade with America is still minuscule. US investment in Russia is largely in oil and speculative securities. Formally recognising Russia as a market economy has not changed matters. With its economy on the rise and two surpluses - budgetary and balance of payments, - Russia does not need new foreign loans. Nor is the US eager to provide finance or permit transfers of modern technology to a potential rival. In short, there is nothing much too loose economically.
In practical terms, why then keep fooling ourselves about a partnership that exists in words only and bears no material benefits?