Russia And The War On Terror: Not A Trusted U.s. Ally

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 1

It is widely believed that cooperation in fighting international terrorism and the development of global energy resources are the two main pillars of U.S.-Russian relations post September 11. The firmness of this foundation, however, has been eroded by the continuing disagreements between Moscow and Washington over concrete anti-terror policies. The arrest at gun point of the top executive of Russia’s biggest oil company, on what appear to be politically motivated charges, together with Russia’s seeming drift toward authoritarianism, evident in the outcome of the State Duma elections, have also made the Bush administration wary of the Kremlin’s credibility as a partner.

Divergent Views

As the global war to contain terrorism moves forward, Russia is maintaining the rhetoric of partnership and cooperation with the United States–at least at the official level. Yet Russia’s political class remains split over the geopolitical implications of the anti-terrorism campaign and the prospects for U.S.-Russian relations.

Many Moscow-based political analysts argue that the struggle against terrorism cannot serve as a solid basis for a U.S.-Russian “strategic alliance;” they assert that the notion of terrorism is too vague to act as a unifying force. Past experience has shown that Russia, the United States and other countries–including China and the Central Asian nations–have all sought to utilize the broader threat of terrorism to address specific, and in some cases, long-standing strategic issues. As one Russian pundit put it, every country has its own list of “favorite terrorists,” and these lists don’t necessarily coincide.

The most glaring example of definition discrepancy is, of course, Moscow’s outspoken criticism of the American effort to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Russia was against the war from the very beginning and has criticized its prosecution all along. During his December 18 national phone-in discussion, President Vladimir Putin took aim at U.S. foreign policy in general and at Washington’s Iraq policies in particular. Putin stated that “in all times in human history,” countries that “sought to be called empires” invariably suffered from a sense of “invulnerability,” “greatness,” and “flawlessness,” Itar-Tass reported. Putin specifically mentioned the Iraq war, saying that there were “no international terrorists under [deposed Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein.” He added that anything done “without the UN Security Council’s approval cannot be recognized as fair or justified.”

“Iraq has demonstrated how differently [the Russian and American] sides understand the tasks and objectives of the struggle against what is currently called ‘international terrorism,'” said political analyst Evgeny Verlin in a commentary published in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily.

Russia’s political elite has been divided ever since President Putin expressed Russia’s allegiance to the anti-terrorism alliance. The ties binding Russia to the U.S.-led coalition have eroded over the past two years, but Moscow remains nominally committed to the anti-terrorism campaign. One reason for this is the difficulty that the policy making establishment is having developing an alternative strategic approach.

Westernizers Versus Putinists

Two main groups with distinct philosophical views are competing for influence in the shaping of Russian strategic policy. The first group, arguably the smaller and weaker one, is made up of staunch Westernizers who advocate “strategic partnership with the United States.” The Westernizers–comprised mainly of Moscow-based analysts and political thinkers–insist that the deployment of U.S. troops in Central Asia and the Caucasus does not pose a threat to Russian interests. They cite one of Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov’s dictums: “A threat to Russia is not a danger of nuclear catastrophe or U.S. and NATO aggression. A threat to Russia lurks in the Caucasus and [Russia’s] Asian frontier.” Westernizers also argue that the Americans, while pursuing their own goals–namely, the destruction of al Qaeda cells and the Taliban regime–have simultaneously removed the gravest threat to Russia’s security, eliminating the base of Islamic radicalism lurking along Russia’s southern border.

“Lacking its own resources,” says Andrei Piontkovsky, the director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow, “Russia, in order to resolve one of its most acute security problems, has successfully used the military, political and economic potential of the only superpower in the world.” What Russian diplomacy needs now is to strengthen this new and positive tendency, maintains Piontkovsky. In addition, the Westernizers hope that multifaceted cooperation with the United States will further democratic reforms at home and make the cultural norms and political values of the two countries more compatible.

Westernizers tend to acknowledge quietly that Russia is playing junior partner to the United States. They want Moscow to abandon attempts to rebuild a “soft empire” in the post-Soviet space and to concentrate instead on the economic and social development of Russia’s Siberian and Far Eastern regions. A major security threat, the Westernizers say, is the depopulation of Russia’s northeastern regions, along with massive Chinese immigration. They argue that Washington is as interested as Moscow is in the containment of China. They believe additionally that the key to the region’s prosperity is the development of its natural resources.

The majority group, the so-called Putinists–those who actually make the decisions–are classic pragmatists and realists. They also tend to cooperate with the United States on terrorism when they see the cooperation meeting Russia’s strategic interests–as in Afghanistan and, partially, in Central Asia. However, this powerful group, which comprises the bulk of Russia’s bureaucratic class, diplomatic corps, and military and security community, is far more wary of positioning Russia too close to the United States. “The task of building a strategic alliance between Russia and America is unrealistic and impractical,” contends Aleksandr Bessmertnykh, who was ambassador to the United States in 1990-1991. He was speaking at a recent Moscow gathering of former Russian and U.S. ambassadors that was meant to mark the seventieth anniversary of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Washington and Moscow. “Friendly pragmatism” and “relations without intimacy” is what should be the true basis of a U.S.-Russian relationship, Bessmertnykh said. Other Russian participants agreed, stressing that “we are different and will stay different.”

The pragmatists seem to recognize America’s preeminence in world politics. But in acknowledging America’s overall leadership, they also maintain that Russia has the right to assert its will within its own sphere of influence.

Russia’s military, in particular the General Staff, seems to be especially suspicious of U.S. designs in the post-Soviet geopolitical space. Chief of the General Staff Anatoly Kvashnin has taken repeated swipes at the United States, accusing it of using the war on terror as a pretext for spreading its influence abroad. The top Russian commander’s comments would appear to be directed at those U.S. troops stationed in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia as part of Washington’s Afghan campaign. Kvashnin stated to the Interfax-AVN military news agency: “It is one thing when a country is fighting terrorism on its own territory and some other countries assist them. But it is quite another thing when, under the guise of fighting international terror, some countries are in fact trying to get involved in the internal affairs of the nation they are meant to be helping.” Last month, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said that he did not want the U.S. bases in Central Asia to remain after the U.S. troops completed their job.

Some pragmatists seem to suspect that the United States is trying to expand its influence in a broader fight for control of Central Asia’s oil and natural gas reserves, as well the region’s pipeline network. In a remark typical of such attitudes, Defense Minister Ivanov, reportedly one of Putin’s closest confidants, has recently said that America is “definitely not a foe but, to be sure, it is not an ally either.”

Recent Developments

The arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of Russia’s giant Yukos oil company–the leading business structure to champion U.S.-Russian cooperation in the energy sphere–seems also to have prompted Washington to revisit the issue of the “strategic alliance” that George W. Bush had supposedly formed with Vladimir Putin. Until very recently, the Bush administration chose to ignore the troubling signs coming from Russia: Suppression of independent media outlets, “selective justice,” assaults on representatives of big business, and “neo-imperialism” in dealing with Russia’s neighbors in post-Soviet Eurasia. Washington appears now to realize, however, that turning a blind eye to these phenomena might become counter-productive for America itself. True allies and partners (including in the war on terror) are supposed to share the same values, some American politicians point out.

“We expect our relations to be based not only on the commonality of interests but also on the commonality of values,” said U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Alexander Vershbow in a recent interview with the liberal Ezhenedelnyi Zhurnal weekly. The American diplomat has noted that Washington today is not sure if it shares the same values with Moscow. He cited the Yukos case, the disappearance of independent television and the way the presidential election was conducted in Chechnya as negative developments that are eroding mutual trust and that “cause concern.” “The [American] perception of Russia is changing, the reliability of Russian partners is being questioned,” said Vershbow. “All this creates difficulties for the development of the long-term partnership,” he added.

The December 7 parliamentary elections, which the U.S. State Department called “free but not fair,” gave President Putin total control over the State Duma. The new parliament will be dominated by four parties espousing, to various degrees, a combination of statist and nationalist ideas. The representation of the two Western-type liberal parties was virtually wiped out. Political analysts are split over how Putin will use his enhanced authority. One school of thought maintains that parliament’s new composition will give the Putin administration a free hand to pursue pragmatic cooperation with the West, rather than antagonize it. Other analysts disagree. They note that prior to the emergence of the more nationalist new Duma, a similar shift toward nationalist populism occurred within Putin’s own administration. This dual change is seen as potentially hazardous.

Some parliamentary forces like the Rodina (Homeland) bloc have stated they would prefer to see the Russian government adopt a tougher stance toward the United States–to counter what the party believes to be Washington’s encroachment on Russia’s sphere of influence. It would appear that by the beginning of 2004, a common understanding had taken shape both in Washington and Moscow: Putin’s Russia will continue to cooperate with the United States in the war on terror but it will never become a partner that Washington can fully rely on.

Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 1988-1997; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC, 1995, and a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York, 2000. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.