Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 170

It was apparent in the immediate aftermath of last week’s shocking terrorist attacks in the United States that the Bush administration’s subsequent moves to respond militarily and diplomatically would offer potential benefits to Moscow and, at the same time, pose a host of potential dangers (see the Monitor, September 13). Developments over the weekend and into this week have served only to further highlight the difficult choices the Kremlin faces. As described by analysts in Russia and abroad, it could, at one extreme, throw in its lot with Washington and, by cooperating fully with the Bush administration, enjoy improved relations with the United States–with all that implies–and an easier entry into the economic and political institutions of the Western world. But that course could cost it many of its current allies, most obviously Iran and possibly China, and might also set it on a collision course with the Muslim world more generally. It could, on the other hand, rebuff key Bush administration requests for practical cooperation (while paying lip service to the war against terrorism), and thereby protect its ties to current foreign partners while possibly even putting itself in a position to exploit resentments in the Arab world and elsewhere likely to be generated by looming American military actions. This course of action would also provide Moscow some safeguards against what many in Russia feel could be one dangerous consequence of the coming war on terrorism: an adverse reaction from the one in seven Russian citizens who are themselves Muslim.

The Kremlin’s actual response to Bush administration requests for cooperation in the war on terrorism are likely, of course, to fall somewhere in between these two extremes, in part because of Russia’s conflicting interests in this area, but also because the battle lines in the current world-wide face-off over terrorism are anything but firmly drawn. Indeed, while the Bush administration has spoken rhetorically in a “with us or against us” tone, and Washington did win a considerable diplomatic victory with NATO’s decision last week to involve the alliance formally in the war against terrorism, it is still too early to say whether there will in fact be a West fully unified behind the United States for Russia to join. Several key European governments have already retreated from their initial expressions of solidarity with Washington, a phenomenon that could intensify as Washington advances toward actual military reprisals for the September 11 attacks. The situation, moreover, remains fluid in other parts of the globe. Pakistan appears to have given the United States some–though not all–of what it wants. At the same time, India, long a close Russian ally, has over the past week moved closer to Washington by offering the United States the use of its military bases as a possible staging area for attacks on targets in Afghanistan. In the Middle East, meanwhile, even those governments most closely aligned with Washington have remained hesitant, mostly for domestic political reasons, about embracing too fully America’s emerging war against terrorism.

Russia’s reactions to U.S. policy in this area have followed much the same uncertain path. The Kremlin’s initial harsh denunciations of the September 11 terrorist attacks and its expressions of solidarity with Washington (see the Monitor, September 12) have given way in recent days to more equivocal expressions of support. Thus, while Russia joined with NATO on September 13 in issuing a rare joint statement condemning the terrorist attacks and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov appeared soon thereafter to endorse possible U.S. retaliatory strikes, Russian officials have since then been more cautious. On September 15, for example, President Vladimir Putin said during a visit to Armenia that Moscow wanted a thorough investigation into the attacks before any military action was launched and that the world community “should not liken ourselves to bandits who strike from behind.” His remarks came as a host of top Russian officials, including Putin’s close aide Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, indicated that Moscow would not participate in any military operations Washington might launch. Probably more disturbing from an American point of view were statements from Moscow indicating that, while Russia was prepared to back air strikes on suspected terrorist bases in Afghanistan, it would neither take part in a possible ground offensive nor let NATO troops dispatched for that purpose be based in the former Soviet Central Asian countries. “I can see no grounds, even hypothetical, for a possible NATO deployment in Central Asian States” that border Afghanistan, the Russian defense minister said in Armenia. General Staff Chief General Anatoly Kvashnin, now Russia’s top uniformed officer, conveyed much the same message on September 14 when he said that Moscow was unlikely to join in any U.S. retaliatory strikes. “The United States has armed forces powerful enough to handle the task by themselves,” he was quoted as saying.

Russian equivocation is based on a number of conflicting interests, some of them related to just how “terrorism” and “terrorists” are to be defined in the upcoming U.S. campaign. Moscow would be happy, for example, to see U.S. forces strike at terrorist targets in Afghanistan, because Russia is itself battling Kabul-backed insurgents in Central Asia and has also claimed to see a connection between the activities of Chechen rebels in the Caucasus and the Afghanistan-based leader whom American forces are believed now to be targeting–Osama bin Laden. Yet Moscow simultaneously fears either that military actions could result in a U.S. or NATO presence in Central Asia (a fear undoubtedly stoked by Uzbekistan’s offer this week to serve as a staging ground for possible U.S. attacks on Afghanistan), or that strikes against bin Laden or the Taliban government could destabilize the region and flood Central Asia with refugees. Moscow undoubtedly also fears, however, that U.S. vows to eradicate terrorism more generally could also end up targeting terrorist groups associated by the United States with such states as Iran, Iraq or Syria, all of which have close ties with Moscow. Whether Russian leaders agree that these groups are actually “terrorist” organizations, for geopolitical and economic reasons (Iran, for example, is likely to emerge as a major purchaser of Russian weaponry) they are unlikely to back U.S. military moves against them. As some Russian sources have pointed out, the elimination of bin Laden’s network (should that operationally difficult task be accomplished) would still hardly resolve long-standing differences between Russia and the United States over Iran’s role in the world and over expanding ties between Moscow and Tehran.

Russia’s elite appears increasingly also to be having some qualms about the manner in which the Bush administration is organizing the international coalition against terrorism. Any policies that increase NATO solidarity (not a given in the current situation) or that enhance the Western alliance’s role as an international policeman, for example, are unlikely to sit well in Moscow. More important, however, Russian leaders clearly want the international effort to root out terrorism to be a multilateral one–that is, a coalition of roughly equal partners, all of whom will have some say in the manner in which the war against terrorism is prosecuted. What it fears and opposes is the creation of a U.S.-led coalition, one in which Washington calls the shots and other countries are employed in a subordinate role. President Vladimir Putin expressed such sentiments on September 15 when he urged a new worldwide outlook on security focusing on the threats of large-scale terrorism and on cooperation among governments to fight it. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov made much the same point, also on September 15, when he told reporters with respect to possible U.S. attacks on Afghanistan that “the right thing to do would be to discuss the issue, possibly even on a multinational level, single out the targets and plan everything carefully.” According to Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Russian efforts to internationalize the antiterrorism effort on a formal basis will be pursued at the UN, in discussions both in the Security Council and the General Assembly. This is a move that Washington is likely to oppose, and one that could introduce additional tensions in relations between Washington and Moscow (Reuters, AP, September 14-15; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Vremya MN, Vremya Novostei, September 14; AFP, September 13-14; New York Times, September 16; Interfax, Washington Post, September 17).