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U.S.: Some See Dark Side To Closer Ties With Moscow

  • Andrew Tully

Geographically, Washington and Moscow are 5,000 miles apart. But politically, the distance between the two capitals has been shrinking since the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States. Russian President Vladimir Putin has pledged unprecedented cooperation with America's campaign against terrorism. And U.S. President George W. Bush has made important concessions to Russia as well. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew Tully spoke with experts in international affairs about the new relationship between the two countries.

Washington, 30 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A new spirit of cooperation is being promoted between Russia and the United States in the war against terrorism, but the closer ties are worrying some international analysts. They question whether Moscow's help can truly be valuable, while others are concerned about how much Russian President Vladimir Putin will demand from the West in return for his support.

Shortly after the 11 September terrorist attacks in the U.S., Putin vowed unspecified support for the American response. This came even as his defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, was warning that the former Soviet Central Asian republics bordering Afghanistan should not offer their territory to aid forces in the international coalition then being formed against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

But since then, Putin has made good on his promise. He has made Russian air space available for humanitarian and cargo flights for the Afghan war. He has accepted a limited U.S. military presence in Central Asia, a region Moscow views as its exclusive sphere of influence. And he has also offered to share intelligence on the Taliban.

Meanwhile, analysts say the U.S. has made two valuable concessions to Russia. First, it has softened its criticism of Moscow's military campaign in Chechnya. And secondly, it has postponed tests of a proposed anti-missile defense system opposed by Moscow. Russia and even some U.S. allies say the system would lead to a new kind of arms race, one reminiscent of the Cold War.

Deploying an anti-missile defense system would violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. Bush has said he will abandon the treaty if Russia refuses to accept changes that would permit the anti-missile defense system.

Now, however, his administration is publicly deferring to Moscow in maintaining the ABM treaty's integrity. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on 25 October that the U.S. will postpone a test of the system so as not to violate the treaty: "We have said we will not violate the [ABM] treaty while it remains in force. In recent days, to keep from having it suggested that we might not be keeping that commitment, we have voluntarily restrained our ballistic missile defense test program."

Two international affairs analysts interviewed by RFE/RL question the value of Russia's help in the war on terrorism. Reports say Moscow's most valuable offering will be intelligence from a region that it has dominated for so long. But Muriel Atkin, an associate professor of history at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., says the value of Russian intelligence may be overrated.

Atkin -- who specializes in Russia and Central Asia -- says Russia's military and intelligence communities have distinct biases when it comes to the Muslim world and that this skews how they gather intelligence, as well as the interpretation of the material once it is gathered: "Their attitude about Islamic politics -- Islam in general and Islamic politics -- is very close to racist. So these people are looking at things through the filter of their own enormous prejudices."

Then, according to Atkin, there is the question of how candid Russia would be with the information it chose to share with an old enemy like the U.S.: "The idea that Russian intelligence is going to provide the U.S. with a lot of useful information assumes that Russian intelligence, A, understands what's going on in that part of the world and, B, is actually going to pass off to the U.S. an accurate reading on what's going on there. And I think those are entirely unwarranted assumptions."

Atkin dismisses speculation that Putin now realizes that he must throw his lot in with the West in order to improve his country and that he is opposed by Russian politicians, generals, and spies who are throwbacks to the Cold War. She says Putin -- a former KGB man -- is a throwback himself and that it is folly to think he would sincerely join forces with the West, particularly with the United States.

Another analyst, Ted Galen Carpenter, fears that U.S. concessions to Russia could be dangerous. Carpenter is the vice president of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington think-tank. Carpenter says Bush has clearly changed America's policy of opposing Russia's military campaign in Chechnya. Now, Bush says he recognizes there are some terrorist elements to the Chechen resistance.

Carpenter laughed when reminded that White House press secretary Ari Fleischer has repeatedly stated that U.S. policy toward Chechnya remains consistent: "We're going to find the U.S. policy about Chechnya's terrorist connections hardening over time. In other words, I think we've just seen the first stage of the shift. This isn't the extent of the shift."

Carpenter told RFE/RL that further erosion of the U.S. hard-line policy on Chechnya may not be the only concession that Putin is prepared to demand in exchange for his government's cooperation in the war on terrorism: "Clearly, these are major concessions by Moscow, and I don't expect that they gave those concessions away for free."

According to Carpenter, Putin may demand deeper cuts in America's strategic arsenal and slower expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Since they first met in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana in June, Bush and Putin have made a great show of their friendship. And they have made progress in bringing their two countries closer together.

On 13-15 November, the two men will be meeting at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. There are widespread reports that during this visit, they will strike a deal on altering the ABM treaty so that Bush can deploy an anti-missile defense system without the political risk of abrogating a historic treaty.

But both Carpenter and Atkin worry that Bush -- and the American people -- will get little more than this from Putin.