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2001 In Review: Russian Foreign Policy Brings Moscow Closer To West

Thanks to a combination of unforeseen circumstances and skilled statesmanship, Russian President Vladimir Putin has guided his country's foreign policy through a string of successes in the past 12 months. Still regarded with suspicion by both the United States and Europe at the start of the year, Russia ends 2001 as a potential strategic partner to both. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten traces this stunning transformation.

Prague, 13 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The year opened frostily for U.S.-Russian relations, with U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice declaring in January that Russia "constitutes a threat to the West in general" and to America's "European allies in particular."

The director of the Central Intelligence Agency, George Tenet, in hearings before the U.S. Senate's Select Intelligence Committee, echoed those comments: "Let me be perfectly candid. There can be little doubt that President Putin wants to restore some aspects of the Soviet past status as a great power, strong central authority, and a stable and predictable society -- sometimes at the expense of neighboring states or the civil rights of individual Russians."

But by year's end, U.S. President George W. Bush was hosting Putin at his Texas ranch, declaring the Russian leader to be a close friend: "We had a great dinner last night. We had a little Texas barbecue, pecan pie, a little Texas music, and I think the president really enjoyed himself."

The two leaders were still unable to overcome some points of contention -- among them, Washington's impending departure from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty -- but a sea-change in attitude has taken place on both sides.

Bush announced that the United States would cut its nuclear arsenal over the next decade by two-thirds, from just under 6,000 warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200. Putin pledged to reciprocate. Earlier, Putin had announced Russia would close its intelligence listening post in Cuba and let the lease expire on its naval base in Vietnam. As for the old bugbear of NATO expansion, which Russia had hitherto opposed, Putin said he could see Moscow joining the alliance at a later date.

What caused this dramatic turnaround? The initial breakthrough appeared to come during the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders in Slovenia, in June. Bush, at that time, spoke of the need to end the suspicion of the Cold War era and said Putin was a man he could trust.

But without a doubt, the defining moment in Russian-American relations came in the wake of the 11 September attacks on the United States. As Bush has often repeated, Putin was the first foreign leader to telephone him on that fateful day, to offer his country's assistance.

Putin's immediate decision to publicly and wholeheartedly support the U.S. war on terrorism has won him much mileage in Washington and could do more to advance the cause of U.S.-Russian relations than years of talks and treaties.

But Putin's stance has also advanced Moscow's ties with its European partners. During a visit to Berlin just two weeks after the U.S. attacks, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder seemed to accept Moscow's call for a new partnership, as well as Putin's interpretation of Russia's ongoing military campaign in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Schroeder implied it was time for the West to soften its criticism of the action in Chechnya as it, too, was directed against terrorism: "Regarding Chechnya, there will be and must be a more differentiated evaluation in world opinion."

Otto Latsis, deputy editor of the Russian daily "Noviye Izvestia," recently told RFE/RL he believes Putin is gambling on a new overall framework for relations with the West. 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," Latsis said.

But Stephan De Spiegeleire, a Russia analyst at the RAND Europe think tank, told RFE/RL that both sides may be getting ahead of themselves in their enthusiasm to forge new ties.

"I'm one of these people who thinks that foreign policy shouldn't run ahead too much of economic realities and of political realities. And it seems to me that this is exactly what is happening now," said De Spiegeleire. "Russia is engaging more and more with the West, but it's not nearly as close to the West that it would warrant the type of institutional rapprochement that we're heading towards now, both with respect to relations with NATO but also with the EU -- the fact, for instance, that Russia now has an arrangement whereby every month they get briefed by this new political and security committee of the European Union. That's something that we don't even do with the United States."

The other concern, according to De Spiegeleire, is that Putin may be getting ahead of his own supporters in Russia. After an initial honeymoon period when no voices of opposition to his policies could be heard, the Russian president now finds himself the target of criticism from some powerful domestic interests. If Putin's new policy of rapprochement with the West fails to yield tangible results, De Spiegeleire says it could become a convenient stick in the hands of Putin's opponents.

"The thing that really sort of worries me is that if I read the Russian press and even some of the commentaries of some of the more liberal parts of the foreign policy establishment, they're quite critical of what's happening. So that to me suggests that Putin really has to be very careful," De Spiegeleire said. "Now, to look at Russia, put that against the background of what's happening domestically, where for the first time it seems to me Putin is really encountering real resistance on a number of issues and from a number of different angles: certain business leaders being unhappy with him; the regional leaders coming back and saying, 'Wait a second, you've gone too far'; the military being unhappy about a variety of different things, going from the sacking of the Northern Fleet command to military reform to some financial issues. Even the power structures, which were traditionally one of the main pillars of the new Putin political structure, like the ministry of the interior, the judicial system -- even these people are starting to think, 'Wait a second. What's happening here?' "

Both sides in this new East-West relationship are testing the waters -- seeing how far they can extend cooperation. In December, NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels agreed to set up a new forum for closer cooperation with Russia, but planned to limit the decision-making power offered to Russia.

The ministers agreed to create a council for consultation and joint decisions between the 19 NATO members and Russia. But NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson underlined NATO's right to bypass Russia if necessary. De Spiegeleire says that in the upcoming year, the limits of this new entente may become better-defined. Both sides will have to keep cool heads in order to avoid the ups and downs of the 1990s, which began with enthusiasm on both sides and ended with a degree of estrangement.

"There is quite a bit of political capital that is being invested in this new relationship, both on the Russian side and on the Western side. All I am trying to say, though, is that there are still a lot of forces of opposition on both sides that may make it very hard to fulfill the promises of this new relationship," he said. "And if these promises do not get fulfilled, we may actually be in a worse position than we were at the beginning, because there will be mutual recriminations, as indeed we've probably seen during the '90s. It might be similar to that."

As the saying goes, a year is a long time in politics. And 2002 could be pivotal in determining whether this honeymoon between Russia and the West will dissolve or grow into a solid strategic relationship.