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Russia: Putin Bets On Strategic Realignment

  • Jeremy Bransten

Since the September attacks against the United States, Russia has been one of Washington's staunchest supporters in the "war against terrorism." Russian President Vladimir Putin, on numerous occasions, has spoken of the need for a fundamentally new bilateral relationship. How long-lasting will Russia's commitment be, and what is it seeking in its ties with the United States and other Western states?

Moscow, 6 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- One of the diplomatic surprises of the post-11 September period is that Russia -- more than any other country except Britain -- has rallied to America's side in its antiterrorist campaign.

There is little talk emanating from Moscow about the need to avoid civilian casualties in Afghanistan, no calls from President Vladimir Putin to ensure the operation is short-lived, no firm limits on the support Russia is prepared to offer.

Sergei Rogov, head of the Moscow-based U.S.A. and Canada Institute, says U.S.-Russian relations could be poised for a sea-change, not seen in over two generations.

"For the first time since 1941, Russia and the U.S. have a common enemy. If this is really the case, then the entire system of bilateral relations between Russia and the United States could undergo a re-organization."

Many analysts have noted the pragmatic side of Russia's new pro-U.S. position. There are many things Moscow could gain from a new relationship with the United States -- among them additional debt relief, a chance to influence NATO's second wave of expansion, and support for its entry into the World Trade Organization. But the feeling in Moscow is that Putin is aiming for something greater. Otto Latsis, deputy editor of the daily "Noviye Izvestia," tells RFE/RL that Russia's president is gambling on a new overall framework for relations. If Putin's vision is accepted, Latsis says, agreements on specific issues can be resolved later.

"I think that this wager on an overall change in Russia's whole system of relations with the West is a wager that Russia will become the same part of the Western world as Germany, France, Britain -- that it will become like any other large Western country."

Sergei Karaganov, deputy head of the Russian Academy of Science's Europe Institute, explains Putin's vision this way: "He wants to take Russia -- to transfer Russia from the no-man's land where it was left after the unfinished business of the Cold War, where it was left as a semi-adversary, semi-partner -- into the position of a full partner."

Karaganov portrays Putin's struggle in terms akin to Peter the Great's efforts to modernize Russia almost three centuries ago. Putin, appropriately, cut his political teeth in St. Petersburg -- the city founded by Peter to be Russia's European-style capital. Like Peter, Karaganov says, Putin faces opposition from a suspicious populace and a political elite pursuing its own petty interests.

"There is a lot of opposition in this society -- first among the general anti-Americanists and anti-Westernizers, second among the general elite, which is extremely afraid that [Putin] will repeat the mistakes of [Mikhail] Gorbachev and [Boris] Yeltsin: giving away something and getting nothing. He is risking."

For this reason, says Karaganov, it is imperative that the United States and Europe offer Russia an anchor in their common structures.

"We need a long-term, 'treatified' -- from the word treaty -- a 'treatified' alliance with the United States and other major nations on other security issues, so we would firmly understand that we would be -- whatever happens -- an ally in issues such as [non-proliferation] of weapons of mass destruction, conflicts in Asia, narcotics, etcetera. [We] want to be an ally, but a formal ally, rather than ad hoc. And this is not a question of Russia. It's a question of the United States and other Western countries."

Sergei Rogov of the U.S.A. and Canada Institute warns that Washington's failure to understand the magnitude of Putin's gamble -- and a failure to reciprocate in kind -- could seriously undermine U.S. efforts to maintain a meaningful antiterror coalition.

"If the United States sees these very serious changes in the Russian position which have occurred since 11 September as one-sided Russian concessions, as some sort of free lunch and -- having accepted these 'concessions' -- they demand from Russia, as before, even greater concessions, then of course the possibility of creating a new Russian-American alliance in the fight against terrorism is hardly likely to occur."

If America grasps Putin's extended hand, says Karaganov, the alliance will be long-term. But he adds a caveat: "In this case, we are long-term. The only reason that there could be a problem is if the United States, failing to achieve its immediate goals in Afghanistan, decides to shift the focus and start to bomb Iraq, for example. Iraq is no friend to Russia. But we have an economic relationship, etcetera. [The same is true for] Syria. But that would open up huge problems for all allies of the United States."

Russia, he notes, must take care of its economic interests and in this respect Moscow's position hardly differs from that of many Western European states: "We are very practical. We want to sell, we want to get money and, as we are sitting in that area, we don't want the destabilization of Iraq."

Otto Latsis of "Noviye Izvestia" also stresses the economic dimension. Russia, although it has shown impressive economic growth over the past two years, has yet to undertake the fundamental reforms necessary to transform itself into a stable market economy. For most of its inhabitants, this is the area in which they will judge Putin's success or failure.

"For simple people, the price of electricity, of their housing, will always be much more important than what [Putin's] policy is in Afghanistan and what Putin talks about with [U.S. President George W.] Bush in Shanghai."

Even at current rates of 6 percent annual GDP growth, it will take Russia 40 years to reach Portugal's economic level, which itself remains at the bottom of the European Union charts. And analysts agree that if oil prices continue to plummet, Russia is unlikely to maintain its rosy economic outlook.

Concerns about Russia's economic future -- as well as worries about Putin's authoritarian style of government -- may make it difficult for Washington and Europe to sign up wholeheartedly to the alliance Moscow is seeking.

At times, Russia appears poised between transforming itself into a liberal Western-style society with an open economy, and regressing into an old-style repressive regime. Assuming Putin's reformist intentions are genuine, his ability to institute them through non-democratic means is also questionable -- although it has to be said that reforms, throughout Russia's history, have never been instituted in any other way.

As Otto Latsis explains: "Russia finds itself in an extremely difficult economic and political situation. It is going through a complex period in which its empire has collapsed and its adaptation to new circumstances will take decades. Major strategic mistakes could lead to new losses and the country that exists today could still fall apart."

Will Putin succeed in navigating Russia through these treacherous waters, and will the United States respond to his call for a long-term, strategic alliance? An answer from Washington has not been forthcoming, but Russian analysts say the time for decision is drawing near.