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The Week In Russia: The 9/11 Factor

Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) with U.S. firefighters on November 15, 2001, as he visits the site of the September 11 terrorist attack that destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) with U.S. firefighters on November 15, 2001, as he visits the site of the September 11 terrorist attack that destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there were signs that a bright new era could be dawning in the long-troubled relationship between Moscow and Washington a decade after the Soviet collapse. The clouds gathered quickly.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

First To Phone

The September 11 attacks changed the world in many ways -- but some changes that were forecast following that harrowing, horrific day never quite happened, or started to take shape but then faded and fizzled.

One of the predictions that emerged in the aftermath of the attacks was that the Cold War was finally really over, a decade after the Soviet Union disintegrated, and that a new era of cooperation and cordiality between the United States and Russia was at hand -- or could be.

This notion was based largely on a couple of things that Russian President Vladimir Putin, then less than halfway through his first term, said and did at the time. Literally a couple of things.

One: He was the first foreign leader to call President George W. Bush after Al-Qaeda hijackers brought down the World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon, killed nearly 3,000 people, and stunned the country with the enormity of a seemingly incomprehensible blow.

Two: He aided the U.S.-led military operation in Afghanistan -- where the Taliban had shielded Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was behind the 9/11 attacks -- by opening Russian airspace for U.S. humanitarian flights, sharing intelligence, and acquiescing to U.S. deployments in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, which Russia still considers part of its sphere of influence.

The September 11 attacks occurred at a time when Putin “was interested in improving ties with the West,” Angela Stent, a former U.S. State Department and National Intelligence Council official who is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, wrote in a September 8 article.

“Putin believed that the road to restoring Russia as a prosperous great power lay through enhanced economic cooperation with the U.S. and Europe,” Stent wrote. “The terrorist attacks provided an opportunity to partner with America and elevate Russia’s international standing.”

Three months before 9/11, meeting Putin for the first time at a summit in Slovenia, Bush answered in the affirmative when asked whether Americans could trust the former KGB lieutenant colonel and elaborated: "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy,” adding: “I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

Two months after 9/11, Putin visited Bush at his ranch in Texas for an overnight stay and a barbecue.

The U.S. president signaled a sense of fresh promise for the relationship by suggesting that Putin had brought rain to the arid state, and -- when challenged at a joint appearance by a student who asked about progress bridging divisions on the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty -- said that the United States and Russia had “a difference of opinion” on the matter but added, “Our differences will not divide us.”

That is precisely what they did, however.

After reacting mildly when the United States pulled out of the ABM treaty in 2002, Putin has put the issue high on a list of grievances about U.S. actions over his 20 years in power.

'Seriously Mismatched'

In 2003, Putin lashed out with unexpected ferocity over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. In 2004, the Orange Revolution protests that helped bring a pro-Western president to power in Ukraine further soured ties between Washington and Moscow.

By February 2007, with Bush still in office, Putin had unleashed a diatribe against Washington at the annual Munich Security Conference, hitting out over a series of complaints that would become increasingly familiar in the nearly 15 years that have passed since then.

And by December 2011 -- almost a decade ago now -- he was accusing the United States, and in particular Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, of fomenting large protests driven by evidence of widespread fraud in favor of the ruling party in parliamentary elections and dismay over his plans to return to the presidency after a four-year hiatus as prime minister.

Today, nearly 20 years later, ties between Moscow and Washington are close to their Cold War lows, and in some ways even chillier.

“The period immediately after 9/11 was in retrospect the high point in U.S.-Russian relations in the three decades since the Soviet collapse,” Stent wrote.

What Went Wrong?

According to Stent, “The problem with the post-9/11 honeymoon was that U.S. and Russian expectations from the new partnership were seriously mismatched.”

For one thing, Putin’s pitch to Bush on cooperation seemed predicated largely on the idea that the two countries were in the same boat, both targets of terrorists -- Russia with the two wars in Chechnya and related militant attacks in Moscow and other cities, chiefly the 1999 bombings that served as a catalyst for the Second Chechen War, which helped catapult Putin into the Kremlin -- and now the United States with 9/11.

Quid Pro Quo?

Moscow’s expectation, it increasingly appeared, was that the new era of cooperation was one in which Washington would turn a blind eye to its concerns about the Russian government’s actions, handing it carte blanche to do as it pleased not only in terms of counterterrorism policy but also across the board -- that the United States would not, even could not, take it to task on democracy, human rights, or the rule of law any longer.

Putin may also have wanted some other concessions from the United States, such as a free hand in other former Soviet republics -- meaning that it could count on Washington not to object to efforts to influence Ukraine, for example, or Georgia, or Kyrgyzstan.

Work continues at Ground Zero on October 11, 2001, one month after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.
Work continues at Ground Zero on October 11, 2001, one month after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

“The quid pro quo, unstated and only dawning on Washington much later, was for the U.S. to keep out of what Russia saw -- and still sees -- as its backyard,” James Nixey, director of the Russia-Eurasia program at the British-based think tank Chatham House, wrote in a September 9 comment.

Putin “may also have also assumed that, if Russia joined the international alliance, it would be as a co-leader” with the United States, Nixey wrote.

“The atrocity of 9/11 was really an opportunity for Russia, a genuine potential turning point and a chance to create a new relationship with the outside world -- but its expectations were unrealistic,” he concluded.

The notion that the United States would abandon its concerns about the Kremlin’s conduct at home in the name of solidarity and cooperation against terror became particularly fraught following the horrific wave of attacks that hit Russia in just over a week in the summer of 2004.

Suicide bombers brought down two Russian passenger jets on one night on August 24, another killed 10 people outside a Moscow subway station on August 31, and militants calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya seized a school in the town of Beslan in the neighboring North Ossetia region on September 1, starting a 52-hour hostage siege that left 334 people dead, more than half of them children, after security forces launched a bungled rescue bid.

Beslan became known to some as “Russia’s 9/11” -- and Moscow used that comparison to suggest that U.S.-Russian cooperation against terrorism was now a matter of course, in demand like never before, and should come with no questions asked.

A Step Back To The Future

But Putin’s response only exacerbated Western concerns about Russia’s direction under the former Federal Security Service chief and about the prospects for rights and democracy, adding to fears that he was rolling back the gains made in those areas since the Soviet collapse.

In an address a day after the Beslan tragedy ended, he suggested that Western countries may have abetted terrorists in a bid to weaken Russia and pull it apart --a goal that he and other Russian officials have frequently ascribed to the West, or at least to some in the West, ever since.

Several days later, citing the need to “strengthen the unity of the country” and avoid further attacks, he restructured the political system to hand the Kremlin more authority.

The United States took notice. “In an unusual rebuke of an ally, President Bush said he was concerned that Putin's moves to centralize power could undermine democracy,” The Washington Post reported at the time.

Ties deteriorated after that, and Putin’s Munich speech ensued. After a short-lived thaw that accompanied President Barack Obama’s “reset” of Russia ties that came mainly during Dmitry Medvedev’s 2008-12 presidency, relations resumed a downward spiral as Putin returned to the presidency. They hit new lows in 2014, when Russia seized control of Crimea from Kyiv and fomented separatism in eastern Ukraine, stoking a war that has killed more than 13,000 combatants and civilians and continues to simmer despite cease-fire deals.

Meanwhile, the moves Putin made in 2004 appear, in retrospect, to have been a crucial step toward the situation as it stands today, ahead of State Duma elections on September 17-19.

Protests were dispersed violently by security forces last winter and the authorities are conducting what critics say is a massive campaign of repressions to clear the way for the unpopular ruling party, United Russia, to do as well as possible in the elections for the Duma as well as local and regional balloting.

The Duma is Russia’s lower parliament house and a key lever of power for Putin, who last year pushed through a constitutional amendment allowing him to seek two more six-year stints as president after his current term ends in 2024.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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