Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 186

All of this is relevant, of course, to the question of whether Russia and the United States (and Russia and the West) are now at the dawn of a new era, one in which the demands of the international battle against terrorism will prove compelling enough to enable them to bridge past differences. Already the Bush administration has come full circle, moving from a policy of confronting, isolating and seeking to relegate Russia to the rank of second-rate powers to one of embracing it and elevating its international status. That process began earlier this year, in the wake of two Russian-U.S. summits, with the launching of Russian-U.S. consultations on missile defense and other strategic arms reduction issues, and it has the potential to intensify with the onset of the U.S.-led war against international terrorism. The Kremlin, too, has made some potentially momentous decisions, opting to back the United States in the antiterror war despite the Russian high command’s obvious reluctance and the objections of Russia’s still broadly anti-American political elite.

Against this background, the question of whether Russia and the United States are set to anchor a new international partnership against terrorism will probably be answered on the basis of two broad sets of interrelated issues. One involves the price that Washington and the West are willing to pay for Russia’s continuing support in the antiterror war. As a number of Western and Russian commentaries have suggested in recent days, Moscow has to this point received rhetorical support–on Chechnya, on Russian entry into the World Trade Organization, on possible membership in NATO–but little in terms of concrete rewards for its antiterrorist stance. Ultimately, it seems likely that Putin will require more tangible results from his alliance with the West to justify his position in the face of objections from more hardline Russian forces.

Russia’s stance toward the antiterror war will almost certainly also be shaped by the scope of the war itself. Despite the current misgivings of more hardline Russian elites, the Kremlin can probably sustain support for an American-led antiterror war that is directed primarily against Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan’s Taliban leadership–each of which is also seen as a serious threat to security along Russia’s southern border–and that simultaneously contributes to Moscow’s ability to wage war in the Caucasus. Even Russia’s most obdurate hardliners may be willing, when push comes to shove, to get into bed with the Americans in order to accomplish goals seen as so central to Russia’s own security needs.

Expansion of the antiterror war by the Bush administration to targets or areas outside of Afghanistan, however, will dramatically multiply existing pressures on the Russian-U.S. partnership. It will likely require Washington to pay an ever greater price for Russian cooperation, and could easily upend altogether what is in fact currently a very fragile partnership. Indeed, for all the talk of Russian-U.S. cooperation and the benefits it could ultimately bring to Moscow, the Kremlin’s most astute diplomatic maneuvering in recent weeks may in fact have been directed at securing friendly relations with Europe (see the Monitor, October 2, 5). That is, Russia’s embrace of U.S. objectives in Afghanistan could not only further Moscow’s own interests in the region, but is also presenting Russia once again to European governments (as was the case earlier with regard to Russian-U.S. arms control talks) as a reasonable and constructive international partner.

And just as Moscow attempted prior to September 11 to contrast its own behavior with what it alleged to be Washington’s posture of unilateralism on the issue of missile defense, so Moscow may be positioning itself now to exploit differences between the United States and Europe that might arise if an expansion by Washington of the antiterror war should alienate its Western allies. In other words, the Kremlin appears to be employing a nuanced strategy that, by allying now with the United States, provides it with the opportunity to benefit geopolitically and diplomatically while the U.S.-led antiterror war goes well and the Western alliance holds together, and that also provides it with a backup option of seeking common ground with Europe in the event that an expansion of Washington’s war aims threatens Moscow’s perceived national interests and starts to fracture the alliance.

That is a risky strategy, of course, not only because it exposes President Vladimir Putin to criticism from hardline forces at home, but because it gambles that Russia’s perceptions of what constitutes acceptable force in the U.S.-led antiterror war approximates those of European governments. The nightmare for the Kremlin, presumably, is a war in which the United States moves beyond Afghanistan to take action against states friendly to Moscow–thus energizing hardline, anti-Western forces in Russia–while at the same time retaining, overall, the support of Europe and the world community.