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Russia/U.S.: Improving Relations More Complicated Under The Surface

It's a commonly held assumption that the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States ushered in a new era in relations between Moscow and Washington. For the first time since the end of World War II, Russia and America have a common enemy: international terrorism. But some Russian analysts believe that, under the surface, the relationship between the two nations is more complicated than this simple assessment.

Moscow, 6 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- After the events of September, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared his decisive support for the U.S.-led fight against terrorism and changed the course of Russia's foreign policy, shifting its priorities toward the United States.

Vyacheslav Nikonov is the president of the Politika (Policy) Foundation, a Kremlin-connected think tank. He says that at the beginning of his presidency, Putin's foreign policy focus was quite different from what it is today.

"From the very beginning of Putin's presidency, Russian foreign policy priorities were quite different. The first [priority] was the former Soviet republics: Belarus, Ukraine, the Central Asia republics. Western Europe was priority number two," Nikonov says. "As for the third priority, there was some competition between the Eastern orientation and the relationship with big Asian countries like Japan, China, India, and the United States."

Sergei Markov is the director of the Moscow-based Institute of Political Studies. He says that, in addition to the fight against terrorism, Russia and the United States also share a desire for seeing stable governments in Central Asia and in the former Soviet republics.

But Markov and other Russian analysts believe relations between the two nations are more complicated than what the surface might suggest. Markov believes relations have improved only at the presidential level but not at the diplomatic level, where he says the presence of people with what he calls a "Cold War heritage" is still very strong.

"In this moment, Russian-American relations are pretty good, but they are good on the presidential level. They have the same goals in international policy," Markov says. "But at the same time, [Russia and the U.S.] don't have good relations on the level of diplomatic agencies, where a lot of people still have the heritage of fighting against each other, of struggle."

Dmitry Trenin is the deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. Trenin says many diplomats and bureaucrats inside the Kremlin still think it is self-defeating for Russia to build good relations with the U.S.

"There are a lot of disagreements [inside the Kremlin]. There's a lack of enthusiasm. I would say that the bulk of the Russian policy community is still very much thinking geopolitically. For these people, the loss of Russian power, the loss of Russian prestige, and the growth of American power, American prestige, and hegemony are just too difficult to take," Trenin says. "These people will point to Central Asia, to NATO enlargement, to the [U.S.] withdrawal from the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty, to the new military budget of the United States, as proof that you cannot have a friendly relationship with the United States, because [they think] the United States is only interested in grabbing what used to be [theirs]."

But Trenin notes that disagreement does not mean opposition. Today, he says, no one inside the Kremlin wants to oppose Putin since -- as he put it -- "if you find yourself in opposition to Mr. Putin today, you'll find yourself very far from your place tomorrow."

As far as the U.S. decision to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Markov says the move is unlikely to influence Russian-American relations since, at the moment, Russia doesn't believe the U.S. will actually succeed in building a missile-defense shield to protect it from attacks by terrorists or so-called rogue states, such as Iraq or North Korea.

According to Markov, the main reason Putin decided to reorient Russia's foreign policy was not in solidarity with the U.S. but because he wants Moscow to play an important global role on major security issues.

"Russia wants to take part in the decision-making process on the major security issues. Russia was really dissatisfied [with] the [NATO] military operation [that] began in the former Yugoslavia [in 1999], without any real [Russian] cooperation in the decision-making process. A second task of Russia's foreign policy is [to get] better conditions [in] economic relations [among Russia and the Western countries]. The next Russian goal is Russia's interest in the so-called 'near abroad' [former Soviet republics]," Markov says. "And Russia is, of course, interested on having much better relations with these newly independent countries. The fourth topic is a security issue. [Russia wants] foreign support of the terrorists groups in Chechnya [to stop]."

Markov says Russia considers NATO a danger not because of any real military threat but because the alliance constitutes an influential political mechanism that can take decisions on important issues without consulting Russia.

Trenin also says Russia changed its foreign policy course not because of solidarity with the U.S. in the fight against terrorism but because Putin took into account more practical domestic considerations. In order to modernize Russia, Trenin says, Putin can't afford for the U.S. to become its old enemy again.

"I hope Russia's foreign policy priority number one is Russia. I guess Mr. Putin has changed the course of Russian foreign policy based on his reading -- I would say correct reading -- of Russia's domestic needs. Mr. Putin is modernizing his country along liberal economic reform lines," Trenin says. "Now you cannot modernize Russia and eventually turn it into a modern European country if you still have this old conflict that you inherited from the Soviet Union on your hands. So this conflict must stop. And this is the item, as I understand, of Putin's change of the foreign policy course. He doesn't need America as an enemy. The price for that is, of course, Russia's withdrawal from geopolitical and geostrategic competition with the United States."