Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 8 Issue: 1

After a roughly two-month period in which Russia and the United States appeared to be on track for a rapprochement of historical proportions, the year 2001 ended with the reappearance of just enough tension to suggest that a new era of diplomatic harmony between Moscow and Washington–not to mention between Russia and the West more generally–may not be quite yet at hand. These new hints of discord in no way negated the enormous strides that had been made by Russia and the United States in the fall of 2001. But they did suggest that the U.S.-led war against international terrorism, which Moscow had been so quick to sign onto following the events of September 11, may be insufficient in itself to forge a sustainable alliance stretching from North America to Europe and across Russia. Indeed, in the year to come the antiterror war may in fact prove to be as much a divisive as a unifying factor. While political leaderships in Europe and Russia, and in much of the world in general, were prepared to support U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, it is unclear whether they will offer similar backing to a widening of the campaign by the Bush administration to other countries and other parts of the globe.

Those hints of tension that crept back into Russian-U.S. relations at the close of 2001 were in part related to the future of the antiterror war. Although senior Russian officials suggested on several occasions that they might be willing to support a continuance of the campaign beyond Afghanistan, they also signaled the Kremlin’s opposition to any move by Washington that might make Iraq the next target of U.S. military action. Simultaneously, there were increasing signs that Moscow’s and Washington’s interests might be diverging in Afghanistan itself, where Moscow has offered nearly unconditional support to the Northern Alliance and where the Kremlin appears to be hoping to use this relationship–and the U.S. military victory itself–as stepping stones to a reassertion of Russian influence in the region.

But the primary points of contention between Moscow and Washington at the close of 2001 were related to a pair of issues that had divided the two countries prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks: missile defense and Russia-NATO cooperation. The new tensions over missile defense followed the Bush administration’s mid-December announcement of its intention to withdraw in six months time from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. As had been expected, the Kremlin’s initial response to that announcement, which came in a brief television speech by Putin on December 13, was a muted one. The Russian president expounded what has since become the Kremlin’s main line on the matter, namely, that the strength of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces ensures that the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM accord will in no way compromise Russia’s own security. Putin’s broader message, which he conveyed once again during a two-day visit to Britain on December 21-22, was that he wanted to maintain friendly relations with the United States more generally despite the U.S. withdrawal. He also emphasized Moscow’s hopes that the two countries can now proceed to hammer out an agreement reducing their respective strategic nuclear stockpiles.

A hint of tension has also surfaced in Russian-U.S. relations over Washington’s apparent backtracking on a British proposal aimed at boosting cooperation between Russia and NATO. The British plan, which earlier had appeared to enjoy U.S. backing, called for the creation of a Russia-North Atlantic Council in which Moscow would be given equal voting rights with NATO member countries on a set of specific security issues. But if published reports are to be believed, hawks within the U.S. Defense Department managed to water down that proposal and to put NATO-Russian cooperation on a slower track. Negotiations on the issue are scheduled to conclude in May of this year, and Russian officials have in general offered positive assessments of their prospects. But there have been hints in the Russia press of some dissatisfaction in Moscow, and insinuations that the United States has failed to offer Russia proper recompense for its cooperation in the U.S. war in Afghanistan. During Putin’s visit to Britain there were also suggestions that the Kremlin expected to be given a greater role in NATO deliberations as a reward for its low-key response to the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty.

Where all of this will lead is unclear. Senior officials in Moscow and Washington have continued to insist that the Russian-U.S. rapprochement remains intact and that cooperation will expand in a number of areas. At home, however, Putin has faced some press allegations that the U.S. backtracking on Russia-NATO cooperation, particularly because it came in the wake of the U.S. ABM withdrawal announcement, represented a diplomatic failure for the Kremlin and a humiliation for Russia. Senior Russian officials have quietly hinted, moreover, that a failure to give Moscow a meaningful role in NATO deliberations could undermine the budding cooperation between Russia and the West. It could also lead, they have suggested, to decisions by Moscow both to renew its opposition to NATO enlargement and to undertake military measures aimed at countering U.S. missile defense plans. Such suggestions may be mostly bluster on Moscow’s part, but they could yet cause the Bush administration some headaches if U.S. missile defense moves and Washington’s future conduct of the antiterror war serve also to alienate some of America’s European allies.