Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 8 Issue: 3

A shift in the U.S. war against international terrorism emerged ever more strongly as the main driving force in relations between Washington and Moscow over the past fortnight. This new reality was highlighted in U.S. President George W. Bush’s January 29 State of the Union speech, which centered on what will apparently be the Bush administration’s guiding priorities in the second stage of the antiterror war. In what a number of foreign commentaries described as an unexpectedly hawkish speech, Bush expanded the administration’s definition of terrorism to include states which might be viewed as a threat to the United States because of their efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Bush singled out Iran, Iraq and North Korea in this regard, describing them as an “axis of evil” whose actions “pose a grave and growing danger” to world peace. There was little immediate official reaction from Moscow to Bush’s speech, but Russian government leaders could not have helped but notice that two of the three countries targeted by Washington–Iraq and Iran–are close allies of Russia. Bush’s address, therefore, appeared to make clear once again that if the first stage of Washington’s antiterror war, which involved U.S. military operations against Afghanistan, had helped to bring the United States and Russia closer together, then the next stage of the campaign seems likely to put them at loggerheads.

From a Russian perspective, Bush’s January 29 address was notable for the degree to which it diverged from a vision of the post-September 11 world which was outlined by Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in an op-ed piece published by the New York Times only two days earlier. The Ivanov piece appeared to be at one and the same time an effort to stem the slow erosion in relations that has followed the winding down of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, and a plaintive call for Washington to recognize what Moscow claims would be the many benefits that might be realized from a continued partnership between the two countries. Not surprisingly, both Ivanov’s op-ed and Bush’s State of the Union address came at an important time for Russian-U.S. relations. Strategic arms talks between the two countries resumed on the day of Bush’s speech, and the Russian side in particular hopes that they will lead to a binding agreement on nuclear arms reductions by the time that Bush and Putin hold their next summit meeting this spring. Talks are proceeding simultaneously, and with roughly the same time constraints, on plans to significantly boost cooperation between Moscow and the NATO alliance. Agreements in both of these areas are crucial to the Kremlin, which is trying desperately to formalize and institutionalize the improvements in its relations with the West that had been indirectly promised to Russia during the initial stage of the antiterror war.

According to one influential Russian commentator, Ivanov’s January 27 op-ed represented an effort by the Kremlin to formulate a grand strategic framework for future Russian-U.S. cooperation. Ivanov’s proposals centered on a call for the entire global security system to be rebuilt on the basis of the antiterror coalition which was constructed by Washington in the wake of September 11. Ivanov went so far as to compare the international situation post-September 11 to the one which had existed in the aftermath of World War II, and he urged that the present antiterror coalition could be employed to battle international terrorism just as (in Ivanov’s reading of history) the world community led by the United States and the Soviet Union had come together fifty years earlier to ensure that the catastrophe of World War II was not repeated. Despite its apparent praise of Washington’s construction of the antiterror alliance, however, Ivanov’s real purpose was obvious: to highlight and defend the multilateralist elements of Washington’s initial antiterror efforts and thereby to head-off what the Kremlin undoubtedly fears will be a return to a more independent approach by Washington as it proceeds to the second stage of the antiterror war. Against the backdrop of Bush’s January 29 speech, Ivanov’s entreaties and his hopes of maintaining the centrality of the Russia-U.S. partnership seem clearly to have been made in vain.

Specific areas of potential discord between Russia and the United States, meanwhile, were also much in evidence over the past fortnight. The talks which took place in Washington on January 28-29 between Russian and U.S. strategic arms control negotiators, for example, appeared to produce no movement. The American side continued to resist Russian proposals on two key issues: Moscow’s insistence that looming strategic arms cuts be codified in a formal arms treaty and that those missiles which are decommissioned be destroyed rather than stored. Meanwhile, Moscow also played host at the end of January to a par of visits by Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz. The visits highlighted Russia’s ongoing efforts to play a mediating role in the conflict between Iraq and the UN and, not coincidentally, to win a lifting of sanctions on Baghdad and thus open the way to a series of potentially lucrative trade deals between the two countries. The visit by Aziz was important because it came as Russian and U.S. diplomats prepared for a new round of talks on a U.S.-backed plan to reshape the sanctions regime against Baghdad. Just how important those talks will be in light of the Bush administration’s new moves to target Iraq remains unclear, however.