Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 180

As any number of commentators have observed over the past two weeks, the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States and the Bush administration’s resulting drive to forge a broad, international antiterrorist coalition has presented Russia with a wide array of potential diplomatic benefits–and confronted it with an equally broad array of dangers. After an initial period of hesitation, newly formulated efforts by the Kremlin to position Russia optimally for the difficult period that lies ahead have been encapsulated in three key events. First, President Vladimir Putin’s September 24 speech setting out a limited series of measures by which Russia will aid the U.S.-led antiterror campaign (see the Monitor, September 25). Second, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov’s September 26 participation in an informal meeting of NATO defense chiefs in Brussels (see the Monitor, October 1). And, third, Putin’s own high profile September 24-26 visit to Germany.

If the purpose of Putin’s September 24 speech was to place Russia in the Western camp in the looming war against terrorism, but in a cautious fashion that would both leave Moscow with considerable room for maneuver and not tie it too closely to American policies, then the Russian president’s visit to Germany last week appeared to provide important indications of how this strategy will be executed.

First, Putin voiced additional rhetorical support for the U.S. antiterrorism drive, but without offering any fresh proposals regarding concrete measures that Moscow might be prepared to take toward this end. The rhetorical support for the United States was necessary because it continued a policy–one in place since well before September 11–by which Moscow is trying to convince European governments that it is a reasonable and constructive international partner.

Second, and in much the same vein, Putin also touched on themes related to what Moscow has argued is its own unique relationship to Europe. Of perhaps greater importance, Putin continued also to depict Europe/Russia as a distinct geopolitical entity, and one that should operate with some independence on the international stage. “No one doubts the high value of the relationship between Europe and the United States,” he was quoted as saying. “I just believe that Europe will be able to secure its reputation of a mighty and really independent center of global politics if it manages to unite its own possibilities with those of Russia” (Vremya Novostei, September 26). Similarly, Putin used an interview with the Bild newspaper to urge Germany to put aside its past and to begin seeking a more influential role in world politics. “I know the reservations of many intellectuals in Germany who remind us of Hitler’s tyranny and the war against German self-assertion and megalomania,” Putin was quoted as saying. “But I view this position as wrong” (DPA, September 26). Putin has used similar arguments in other countries and other contexts to urge nations closely allied with the United States to operate more independently on the international stage.

Third, Putin stated once again, this time for a European audience, the now standard Russian argument that Moscow’s war in Chechnya should be legitimized as part of the broader battle against international terrorism. Putin appeared to expand his rhetoric in this instance, however, charging that “international terrorists have openly–very openly–expressed their desire to create a fundamentalist state between the Black and Caspian seas, the so-called Caliphate, or United States of Islam” (New York Times, September 26). With respect to Russia’s war in Chechnya, Putin appeared to win a considerable diplomatic victory during his visit to Germany. Both German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and visiting Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi made clear their belief that the West should now softpeddle its criticism of Russia’s Caucasus war. Schroeder was quoted as saying that Chechnya was a region with “an elevated threat–which we have not experienced. The different aspects of Russian policy should be judged accordingly.” Berlusconi, in ill-considered remarks that were to get him into hot water with international media, said after a meeting with Putin that “Europe must open itself up to Russia…. It must reconstitute itself on the basis of its Christian roots” (Reuters, September 26).

Putin’s most interesting rhetorical gambit during his visit to Germany, however, involved an ambitious effort to recast the post-Cold War world as one in which old divisions between East and West needed to be healed so as to create a united front capable of crushing international terrorism. The speech neatly combined long-standing Russian complaints that it has been unfairly kept out of the West by the NATO countries since the end of the Cold War with more recently advanced assertions to the effect that, in Chechnya, Russia has in fact been waging the very war against international terrorism which is to be the defining conflict of the Post-Cold War security environment. Putin spoke of a collective failure to take action against terrorism, and argued that this had occurred because politicians remained mired in Cold War thinking.

Not coincidentally, Putin’s talk of outdated, Cold War thinking and collective failures to fight terrorism opened the way also for him to restate Russian arguments against NATO enlargement. “The Cold War is over,” Putin declared. And, in a reference to the alliance’s enlargement plans, he complained: “If we talk about security we have to know whom we need to be secure against and how” (DPA, September 26). He also used the imperative of creating a broad-based antiterrorism coalition to revisit Moscow’s long-standing bitterness over its inability to get a voice in NATO decisionmaking. “What do we need for effective collaboration?” Putin asked. “Structures coordinating security do not allow Russia to participate in the decisionmaking process. Now a lot of things are discussed without us. Can this be called partnership?” (Vremya Novostei, September 26). His remarks suggest that the Kremlin is preparing to rev up anew its earlier campaigns for a restructuring of Europe’s security architecture–by weakening NATO or strengthening the OSCE–a move it will justify by the need for partnership and solidarity in the war against terrorism.

Whether any of the arguments Putin has advanced will fly is a question that will be answered only in the weeks and months ahead. But on the level of personal diplomacy Putin’s visit to Germany appears to have been a significant success. He received the rare honor of being invited to deliver an address to German lawmakers in the Reichstag, and his remarks, delivered in the German that he honed during a five-year stint for the KGB in East Germany, reportedly delighted his audience. Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, meanwhile, appeared to cement further a personal relationship that has grown stronger through the course of numerous meetings over the past two years. Finally, the war on terrorism particularly, but also the Russian government’s recently improved financial circumstances, pushed to the back burner during Putin’s latest trip the issue that has thus far been one of the most divisive in Russian-German relations: repayment by Russia of its debt to Germany (New York Times, The Guardian, Seuddeutsche Zeitung, Reuters, DPA, AP, Interfax, September 26; Kommersant, September 29).