Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 179

In a week of frenetic, global diplomatic maneuvering driven by the Bush administration’s urgent efforts to build an international coalition against terrorism, the potential for greatly increased cooperation between Russia and the United States–and, indeed, between Russia and the West more generally–was nowhere better illustrated than during an informal meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels. Devoted to the looming war against terrorism, the meeting served as the venue for U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz to update Washington’s allies on the Bush administration’s current plans for building the antiterror coalition and, ultimately, for launching military and related operations against those responsible for the devastating September 11 attacks in the United States. That Russia has become a player of at least some significance in Washington’s current thinking in this area was evidenced by the participation of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov in the deliberations of the Western defense chiefs, and by the separate, bilateral consultations he held with Wolfowitz. Ivanov, it is worth noting again, is seen by many in Russia as President Vladimir Putin’s right-hand man. He was named to the defense ministry post this past spring in order to implement a controversial military reform program and to strengthen the Kremlin’s control over the armed forces. More recently, Putin appointed him to head an agency tasked with overseeing Russia’s cooperation with the United States and other countries involved in the antiterror campaign.

If the public statements of key participants are to be believed, the September 26 meeting provided a significant boost to cooperation between Russia and the West in the antiterrorism drive. NATO Secretary General George Robertson praised Russia’s response to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington as “not only befitting a major partner of this alliance,” but also as “the reaction of a real and genuine friend.” He also spoke of the “determination” of Russia and NATO “to work together to fight this scourge of international terrorism.” Wolfowitz, at the close of the NATO session and after his separate talks with Ivanov, appeared to concur with this evaluation. Only a few days after Russia’s president had announced on television a package of limited measures by which Moscow would support the antiterror coalition, Wolfowitz described U.S. cooperation with Russia as “more important than ever.” He also spoke positively of what he suggested was a clear Russian willingness “to offer all kinds of help, advice, cooperation.”

What was unclear from published reports, however, was precisely what had been accomplished during the September 26 meeting in concrete terms. Just as some alliance officials were quoted publicly as having expressed frustration with the vagueness of Wolfowitz’s presentation (there were also some suggestions that these expressions of frustration were part of a deliberate effort to mask what had really been accomplished at the meeting), so there was little to suggest that Ivanov’s appearance in Brussels had provided any immediate real and significant boost to NATO’s cooperation with Moscow in the antiterror campaign. That assessment may, of course, have to be altered in the days to come, when the deliberations that took place on September 26 will presumably be resumed both during a scheduled meeting between Putin and Robertson in Brussels on October 3 and in the course of high-level Russian-U.S. military talks that began this past weekend.

With respect to Moscow’s role in the antiterror drive, the September 26 meeting was nevertheless not without some highlights. Ivanov, for example, gave what one participant described as a fact-packed twenty-minute briefing on Moscow’s view of the “terrorist threat” from Afghanistan. His remarks reportedly included a restatement of the Russian argument–one which is now being given increased credence in the West–that Osama bin Laden and other Muslim extremists based in Afghanistan are providing military and financial aid to rebels battling Russian troops in Chechnya, and that Russia’s Caucasus war should therefore be reevaluated as a constituent and important part of the looming more general war against international terrorism. Indeed, in stating yet again that the Kremlin will not involve Russian troops directly in those coalition military operations expected to take place in Afghanistan–“I absolutely rule out the use of Russian troops in any military actions on the territory of Afghanistan”–Ivanov restated what is now Moscow’s standard argument for keeping its troops out of that country. “Russia today is in fact waging antiterrorist actions on two fronts: in Chechnya directly and in Afghanistan by means of its support of the Northern Alliance.”

As Wolfowitz suggested, however, Ivanov did intimate that Moscow might be willing to increase its cooperation beyond the limited measures that Putin had laid out in his television address on September 24. Those measures included the opening of Russian airspace to humanitarian flights, an increased supply of arms by Russia to the anti-Taliban forces that make up the Northern Alliance and Moscow’s possible participation in joint search-and-rescue missions. The promised new Russian-U.S. cooperation appeared to involve first and foremost a boost in interaction between Russia’s intelligence agencies and those of the United States and the West. Ivanov also spoke of Russia’s readiness to proceed down the path of more intensive interaction with the West “if the international community, the [United States] and the member countries of NATO propose to us a mechanism of cooperation in the battle with terrorism.” Cooperation between Russia and the West could include “still more serious exchanges of information, joint action in the developing plans for battling terrorism, and in the planning of joint military operations,” Ivanov said. Publicly, however, he provided no real elaboration on any of these ideas (Interfax, September 26-27; AP, Reuters, September 26; New York Times, AFP, September 27;