In the aftermath of the terror attacks against the United States, Russia has been keen to promote its ties with Washington, emphasizing that the two countries must work together to combat the threat of fanaticism. So far, America has responded positively. Is a long-term geopolitical realignment about to take place? What would both sides gain or lose from such a new alliance?
Prague, 28 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has used every opportunity at his disposal this week to offer his country's help to America as it prepares its war against terrorism.
In a televised speech on 24 September, Putin said Moscow would send weapons to opposition forces battling the Taliban inside Afghanistan. He said Russia would open its airspace to humanitarian flights by the U.S.-led anti-terrorist coalition. And he hinted that Moscow would not object to the United States using air bases in Central Asia.
During a visit to Germany, Putin added that Russia would even consider joining NATO, telling German newspaper editors that there are "no grounds any more for the West" not to hold such talks.
The flood of Russian initiatives raises the question of what both sides stand to gain or lose from closer ties. Are Russia and the United States headed for a new strategic relationship?
Stephan De Spiegeleire, a Russia analyst at the RAND Europe think-tank, does not think so. He says different countries, including Russia, are simply jockeying for position ahead of the anticipated American actions:
"It's very early in the game here after 11 September, and a lot of the tactical alignments we might be seeing right now are probably what could be called a 'phony peace,' in analogy to the 'phony war' that we had at the beginning of World War II where everybody knew that war had really started but the activities between the Western front and Germany hadn't really picked up yet. So I think we have a similar situation right now, whereby it's obvious that something is going to happen and where everybody is still waiting to find out what actions the United States is really going to take."
In theory, Russia could stand to gain on several fronts by making common cause with the United States against terrorism. Getting rid of extremists in Afghanistan, having Moscow's war in Chechnya tacitly approved by the West, and perhaps influencing the future shape of NATO could all result from such cooperation and are all in Moscow's interest. But De Spiegeleire says Putin will be constrained by both domestic and international considerations.
"I really doubt that this opening -- the new Russian position towards the United States -- will necessarily go very far. Russia here, it seems to me, could pay a relatively high price if it were to pursue this policy, both internationally and domestically. Internationally, obviously, this is going to cost them some credit with some of the countries that they still perceive as being their allies in the Arab world. And domestically, it still seems to me that Putin is really running ahead of public opinion in Russia on this one. There was a public opinion poll by VTSIOM [All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion] that I saw yesterday, which said that the Russian population indeed was shocked by the events, but it was still very insistent on total neutrality. And what Putin proposed in his television speech was anything but neutrality."
Entering into a strategic alliance with Russia would also entail costs for the United States, especially if it involves turning a blind eye to Moscow's actions in Chechnya.
Mark Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University in the U.S. state of Virginia. He recently visited Saudi Arabia, where he says the Chechen cause has been wholeheartedly espoused by the government and the general public:
"What the Saudis have done in the past couple of years is to allow for the Chechen cause to become very popular. You had billboards, advertising about the Chechen plight and where to call to give money. From the Saudi perspective it was fairly convenient, because here were a group of oppressed Muslims whose oppression was not to be laid at the doorstep of the United States and therefore didn't raise the question of Saudi Arabia's relationship with the United States."
If Washington is now perceived by the Saudis as acquiescing or even supporting Moscow's campaign in the Caucasus, it will almost certainly engender a wave of anti-Americanism. That wave could easily spread to other Muslim states with which Washington is trying to build its anti-terrorist coalition. Katz:
"We're trying to portray to the Muslim world that we're not against all Muslims, but it's going to be harder to do that if we start to get behind the Russians in the Chechen crisis."
In a broader sense, Katz urges caution in building too close a coalition with Russia, China, and India -- all of which, he says, are pursuing their own agendas against Muslim groups.
"I just think that we have a conflict of interest. We want to build a wide coalition with several countries. But if you look at Russia, China, India -- to the extent that they want to get involved -- it's because they are in conflicts with Muslims in their own countries, and they want us to support them on that. To the extent that we do this, we will further the belief in the Muslim world that really, we're against all Muslims, that this is a West versus -- or not just West -- but everyone versus the Muslims campaign."
The other payback Moscow has suggested for its alliance with the United States -- talks about eventual NATO membership -- also appears too high a price to pay for having Russia as a strategic partner, if it was meant in earnest. De Spiegeleire:
"I think Russia is probably sincere in its intentions, because it probably also thinks that it will radically change the nature of NATO. And I think therein lies the major problem with this proposal. We should not forget that NATO is really a military alliance that's based on Article Five of the Washington Treaty. And Article Five has a relatively constraining mutual assistance clause. Now that means that if Russia becomes a member of NATO, all NATO allies would commit themselves to the protection of all Russian borders, which includes some difficulties with China. Given the sensitivities in the United States about China, that seems quite difficult. It includes Central Asia. So I very much doubt that the current members, and also especially the new members, would be willing to engage in that type of a commitment."
Despite the possible pitfalls of an alliance with Russia, De Spiegeleire says Moscow's contribution should not be completely discounted.
"Do the Russians bring assets to the table? It seems to me that the answer there is unequivocally yes. They obviously have enormous combat experience in Afghanistan. They have enormous experience of the terrain, of the culture. They may not have fought a very good war in Afghanistan, but they've certainly learned a lot. So in terms of real military intelligence about the realities of combat operations in Afghanistan, I think their experience is second to none."
Clearly, Washington will have to tread carefully. The answer, says De Spiegeleire, will have to lie in America forging a looser coalition than the one put together by Washington during the Gulf War a decade ago. This would allow countries like Russia and the United States to pursue some common aims without forcing major geopolitical realignments.