Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 175

After nearly two weeks of apparent agonizing over the role Russia should seek in the rapidly evolving U.S.-led coalition against terrorism, Russian President Vladimir Putin took a measured step into the Western camp last night with a television address in which he set out a package of concrete measures by which Russia would cooperate with the United States. Putin’s message, which was undoubtedly welcomed in Washington and comes on the eve of a high profile visit to Germany, appeared in a sense to embody a bowing to the inevitable. Russia’s policymaking elite had been torn over the question of whether–or to what degree–Moscow should invite U.S. forces into Central Asia, a region it considers part of its sphere of influence. But with some Central Asian leaders clearly inclined to cooperate with Washington regardless of Moscow’s views, Putin appeared last night to have decided–after intense consultations with top military and political leaders–to seek a partial accommodation with Washington, one that would enlist Moscow in the new coalition but, initially at least, without offering much in the way of direct assistance to the United States.

What Putin did offer was access to Russian airspace for humanitarian missions carried out by the coalition, the delivery of weapons to the forces of the Northern Alliance that is battling Afghanistan’s Taliban government and Russia’s participation in search and rescue operations that the coalition might undertake in its efforts to defeat the Afghan-based terrorists. In addition, Putin repeated an earlier Russian offer to share intelligence on the bases and operations of the terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan. The Russian daily Izvestia hailed Putin’s speech as one that had at last set out in clear terms Russian policy toward the antiterrorism campaign. “Russia has defined,” the newspaper said, “who it is with and who it is against, [and] to what degree it is prepared to be included in the battle of civilization against chaos.” From here on in, the newspaper suggested, the questions to be confronted will be of a “technical” nature.

In fact, however, Putin’s speech failed to clear all the ambiguities that have characterized Russian policy toward the antiterrorism campaign. Most obviously, he made no explicit offer of direct military assistance to Washington in the coalition’s looming operations in Afghanistan. Yet he appeared at the same time to leave the door open for a bargain by which Moscow might yet offer broader assistance to the United States when he said that “other, deeper forms of cooperation” were possible if Russia and its partners saw eye-to-eye on terror. “The depth and quality of this cooperation will depend directly on the general level and quality of our relations with these [partner] countries and on mutual understanding in the battle against international terrorism.” Given that Putin also used his televised remarks to demand that Chechen rebels begin disarmament negotiations within seventy-two hours, his words may have been intended to signify the offer of a quid pro quo–one likely to be accepted at best only grudgingly in the West–by which greater Russian assistance would be offered to the coalition if its Western members responded by better accommodating Moscow’s military operations in the Caucasus.

In another remark that suggests the possible shape of future tensions between Russia and the United States, Putin also restated an earlier call for the United Nations and other international organizations to be given a greater role in the battle against terrorism. Indeed, if Kremlin sources are to be believed, Putin and French President Jacques Chirac expressed the hope during a telephone conversation on September 20 that the UN Security Council would play an active role in coordinating the global effort to fight terrorism. Moscow would prefer to see the UN take a leading role in the antiterrorism fight because its own standing as a permanent Security Council member with veto powers would give it some control over American actions in this sphere. For obvious reasons, the Bush administration prefers not to be constrained in this way and, while seeking to build the broadest international coalition possible against terrorism, wants to retain its own freedom of movement to conduct the antiterrorist drive in ways it sees as consistent with U.S. interests.

Despite these potential points of friction, Putin’s statement of Russian policy last night did mark a step forward in Russian-U.S. ties, one that could lead to the sort of close cooperation that many in Russia have called for over the past two weeks. It came, moreover, after an intense weekend of consultations in which Putin spoke for roughly an hour with U.S. President George W. Bush on September 22 and then with the presidents of the five former Soviet Central Asian republics the following day. But a marathon seven-hour meeting, also on September 22, between Putin and top Russian military, foreign policy and intelligence officials in Sochi may have been especially pivotal in Putin’s decision to move toward the United States. To date, Russian military leaders, led by General Staff Chief Anatoly Kvashnin, appear to have been especially indisposed toward direct cooperation with the Americans in Central Asia, and Putin presumably used the marathon session to hammer out a common position on the cooperation issue. And he will need to carry Russia’s security and foreign policy elite with him in the months to come. It is generally accepted in Russia that the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were a watershed event, one with potentially history-shaping effects that could go a long way toward determining both Russia’s long-term relations with the West, and its place in the real post-Cold War world that now appears to be emerging (AFP, September 21, 24; AP, September 22, 24; Reuters, September 23, 24; Washington Post, DPA, Izvestia.ru, September 24; New York Times, Moscow Times, Vremya Novostei, September 25).