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Russia/U.S.: 11 September Paves The Way For Warmer Relations

  • Jeremy Bransten

Russian President Vladimir Putin used the recent APEC summit in Shanghai to once again emphasize Moscow's support for America's war on terrorism. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell also hinted that some progress may soon be achieved on the issue of missile defense -- the biggest bone of contention between the two countries. Where is the bilateral relationship headed and what can be expected from next month's U.S.-Russian presidential summit? RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten speaks to two experts.

Prague, 23 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Ever since the 11 September terrorist attacks on America, U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin have tried to outdo each other in their public expressions of unity.

This newfound friendship got a further boost in Shanghai at the recent 21-member Asia Pacific Cooperation forum. Bush emerged from the meeting filled with praise for Putin, who he said had been the first foreign leader to telephone after the attacks. Putin, for his part, once again publicly supported the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, calling it just and targeted.

Such sentiments would have been unthinkable just six weeks ago. As Bush and Putin prepare to meet for a summit in the United States in November, the question on everyone's mind is: Has the U.S.-Russian relationship fundamentally changed for the long term and, if so, how will this affect a range of issues that up to now have hampered ties between the two nations?

Edward Luttwak of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies believes the U.S. and Russia are headed for some type of new strategic alliance. He says the fit is a natural one.

"This was an alliance that didn't have to be negotiated or fabricated, made, created, built. It sort of emerged, ready-made, from the turmoil of 11 September."

Luttwak notes that Russia had long been affected by and warned the U.S. of the threat of Islamic terrorism. That warning fell mostly on deaf ears, until 11 September. Afterward, he says, the understanding that Washington and Moscow share an overriding common interest was instantaneous.

"What's happened is that, after 11 September, an alliance that was waiting to happen emerges. Both the United States and the Russians had been hit by Islamist terrorism for years -- it was far more painful for Russia until then. Once the American pain level approached the Russian pain level, then it was a done deal."

Sergei Mikhailov, deputy director of the Moscow-based Russian Public Policy Center, makes a similar point: "Now, for the first time in many decades, Russia and the United States are acting as de facto allies. America is, of course, leading the war in Afghanistan, but we have long regarded the Taliban as a very dangerous potential adversary which could give impetus to forces of disintegration in the former Soviet Central Asian region."

In Luttwak's view, as long as this threat continues, the new Russian-American common cause will strengthen and likely carry over into other areas: "So long as Islamist terrorism remains an issue -- possibly so long as Islam remains militant, which is likely to last more than a day or two -- this is reason enough to have an alliance that will carry over into a good many other areas, if not all."

Some of those other areas include Washington's plans for a space-based missile defense shield, the second wave of NATO expansion and Russia's desired entry into the World Trade Organization. Russia can expect Washington's support with this last aim, but the first two issues had been the subject of sharp disagreement between the two sides prior to 11 September.

Russia continues to insist that U.S. plans to develop a missile shield would contravene the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, which Moscow considers to be one of the cornerstones of bilateral arms control. It has repeatedly warned that it will not accept any move to abrogate the treaty by Washington.

But U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, returning from Shanghai yesterday, hinted at compromise. He told journalists that Moscow might be willing to let the U.S. conduct more tests of missile-defense technology. In return, Washington would leave the ABM treaty in place and delay its campaign to scrap it.

Luttwak says the softening of the U.S. position is a direct result of Moscow's support for the war on terrorism: "The original impulse of key members of the Bush administration, to come in and do missile defense unilaterally -- and really wanting to do it unilaterally, not wanting to do it by agreement with consent -- that impulse is totally dead. Now, the war against Islamist terrorism has supervened and completely changed attitudes because of the Russian response, which was of genuine collaboration and critical collaboration."

On the NATO front, Russia's position has been well known for years. Moscow resisted the first wave of expansion -- which took in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in 1999 -- and it continues to oppose any further enlargement. Until now, Washington has refused to compromise.

But Mikhailov says Putin's recent decision to let the lease run out on a Russian military base in Vietnam and shut down a key listening post in Cuba may change the equation. The Russian base had been a thorn in the side of the U.S. for many years. The forest of antennas in Cuba allowed Moscow to eavesdrop on the entire American communications network. Only two years ago U.S. media reported construction work at the site, and during his visit to Cuba last December, Putin had pledged that the facility would remain open.

Mikhailov says Putin's change of heart may lead to some quid pro quo from Washington. That, at least, is what Moscow hopes and expects.

"Immediately after [its decision] to withdraw from the radar station in Cuba and the naval base in Vietnam, Russia counted on and indicated that it expected some reciprocal measures by the West. The first potential and important step which was hinted at was this problem: the slowing down of NATO's eastward expansion."

Putin recently suggested that Russia itself could consider joining a changed NATO. Edward Luttwak says the idea may not be as far-fetched as it seems. He argues that the alliance's role will have to change, following the attacks of 11 September and the logic of expanding NATO eastward, without including Russia and without any clear mission, has evaporated -- if it ever existed.

"NATO is a military alliance and its drift and its sort of slow transformation into a club -- something like an investment club, you know, countries saying: 'Well, we don't really need to be protected, but we want to join NATO because this way investors will gain confidence' -- that has evidently changed, stopped abruptly. NATO will survive as an alliance, and any alliance has to be against somebody. A military alliance only makes sense against somebody, against a threat. The idea that you can have an alliance against nobody was a bureaucratic fantasy by people in Brussels who were afraid of losing their jobs."

Sergei Mikhailov says he does not expect these sensitive issues to be fully resolved at the November Bush-Putin summit, but he says the new tone in U.S.-Russian relations is palpable and the meeting could go some way toward resolving mutual grievances: "I'm not convinced that final agreement on all issues will be reached in two weeks, but this [new] atmosphere will allow talks to be conducted on another level, in a different format."

The symbolism will also be clear. Nearly half a century ago, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visited the American Midwest and pledged that his country would overtake and surpass America. "We will bury you!" he thundered.

In two weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin will similarly arrive in an American heartland -- this time to George W. Bush's ranch in Texas -- and one thing is certain: Talk of rivalry will definitely be off the agenda.

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