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Russia-U.S. relations: Missed chances and future opportunities

The fight against international terrorism has been and will remain one of the areas where Russia-U.S. cooperation is most promising and feasible.

Dmitry Suslov is Deputy Director for Research at the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy; Member of the Valdai Discussion Club.

The fight against international terrorism has been and will remain one of the areas where Russia-U.S. cooperation is most promising and feasible. Despite the recent killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, its importance will continue to increase over time due to the inevitable destabilization in the near future of Afghanistan, Central Asia and Pakistan, which will ramp up the regional terrorist threat. However, international terrorism alone cannot be a sufficient – not to mention a principal – foundation of the Russia-U.S. partnership. Being an extremely heterogeneous and mythologized phenomenon, international terrorism and the fight against it can only be one item on the Russia-U.S. agenda, and not the main one. Moreover, Russia-U.S. counter-terrorism cooperation will branch out to other, deeper problems.

The 9/11 attacks gave Russia and the United States a unique opportunity to build a partnership and even a quasi-alliance, but, regrettably, it was not used. The attacks created an emotional link between the two countries, first and foremost, showing that they were in the same boat and facing the same threats. They suddenly understood each other better than ever. In 1999-2001, Russia was hit by a series of terrorist acts, for example the bombing of apartment buildings in Moscow, Buinaksk and Volgodonsk, suicide attacks in the Moscow metro, and plane hijackings. Russia felt genuine, deep sympathy for America after the 9/11 attacks. There was a sense of “We aren’t so different, you and I.” This was a refreshing change after the rift in the latter half of the 1990s.

Second, the attacks created a practical foundation for rapprochement and cooperation between Russia and the United States. President Bill Clinton’s “strategic alliance with Russian reform” in the 1990s, and the reforms themselves, failed, and Moscow began to increasingly object to global U.S. policy and its regional segments.

Third, the attacks helped legitimize Russia’s second Chechen war, thereby removing a serious irritant in its relations both with the United States and the European Union.

All these factors were reflected in Russia’s policy towards the United States during this period. In the post-9/11 shock, confusion and anger, Moscow very aptly took the opportunity to step up its efforts to improve Russia-U.S. relations, a process that had already begun by that time. Indeed, in the spring and summer of 2001, the general trend of these relations was positive, which is born out by the successful bilateral summit in Ljubljana, where George W. Bush famously looked into Putin’s eyes and “saw his soul.”

The Russian president was the first foreign leader to express support and solidarity to his American counterpart. Russia played an active role in establishing a broad “anti-terrorist coalition.” It also provided considerable support to the United States in Afghanistan, which became the main front of America’s war on terror in 2001-2002.

First, Moscow supported the war, which was initially viewed as a war of retaliation that was not entirely in keeping with the norms of international law.

Second, Russia considerably boosted its military support to Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, which was fighting the Taliban in the north of the country – this essentially made Russia an ally in the fight against the Taliban.

Third, Russia met the United States halfway on the issue of establishing U.S. military bases in Central Asia to support the war effort in Afghanistan. President Vladimir Putin openly disagreed with his own defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, who strongly objected to the deployment of U.S. and NATO military bases in the CIS. Considering the importance of the CIS for Russia and the history of the Russia-U.S. rivalry in the region, this move underscored Russia’s benevolence and its serious intention to build a new partnership with the United States.

It appeared that Russia-U.S. relations had finally turned a corner. The countries had found a common agenda in the war on terror, the front line of which was in Afghanistan at that time. It even seemed in the fall of 2011 that Russia could become a more important partner for America than even Europe or NATO. Moscow was impressed by the Bush administration’s disregard of its European allies, particularly their decision to invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter, and Washington’s rhetoric to the effect that it would value flexible coalitions of important countries over traditional alliances in its foreign policy decisions and actions. Russia thought it could be one of those important countries at that time. It was only in 2002 that it realized how wrong it had been.

But, for the time being, Russia was trying to improve its relations with the United States and NATO in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. It helped launch the Russia-NATO Council, although this project did not live up to Russia’s expectations. It was designed to turn Russia into a de facto NATO member on the majority of security issues with the exception of collective defense. Russia reasoned that 9/11 changed the issue of security – the majority of threats and challenges to the Euro-Atlantic regions were emanating from outside the region and for this reason Russia’s participation in their collective response was not only desirable but also necessary.

The 9/11 attacks altered the paradigm of Europe’s perception of threats. Whereas previously, especially in 1999, Russia itself, its weakness, unpredictability and potential revanchist attitudes were seen as a major threat, after 9/11 the majority of European nations (with the exception of those in Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic) began to see international terrorism, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and their intersection – nuclear terrorism – as the primary danger.

In effect, after 9/11 Russia was trying to use the improvement in its relations with America as a way to break out of its semi-isolation from the Euro-Atlantic community that occurred in 1999. It was trying to gain access to the elite Western clubs and global administration procedures (which were still Western at that time) without necessarily adopting Western political and civilizational traditions. Moscow hoped that the joint fight against international terrorism, first and foremost in Afghanistan, and the confidential and even friendly relationship that Putin and Bush formed after the Ljubljana summit would allow Russia to join these Western clubs while retaining its unique identity.

However, it soon became clear that these hopes would not materialize, despite the generally constructive character of bilateral relations post-9/11 and the countries’ ability to overcome difficulties and disagreements with relative ease. Therefore, Moscow reacted calmly to the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and the ensuing collapse of the START-2 Treaty, which was quickly replaced with SORT. Russia’s response to the second stage of NATO’s expansion was even milder than in the 1990s. However, the post-9/11 period of improvement was beginning to sag under the weight of growing disagreements.

In late 2002, Moscow became seriously worried and disappointed by the evolution of U.S. foreign policy after 9/11. Hopes that the Bush administration would pursue realist foreign policy went up in smoke. It became clear that the neoconservatives held sway in Washington. The United States embarked on its ambitious project to remake the world in accordance with its interests and values, starting with the Middle East. The United States hoped to prolong its post-Soviet hegemony through the unilateral use of force.

These apprehensions grew stronger in 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq under a false pretext and in violation of international law. The Bush administration made it very clear to Moscow (as well as to its other potential and real partners and even allies) that America did not need Russia, that it was grateful for its help in Afghanistan but their paths had since diverged. The United States gave Russia and other countries a choice – either accept its unilateral agenda as a junior partner or get out of the way.

Having opposed Washington on its central foreign policy objective at that time (Russia, France and Germany led the coalition against the U.S. war in Iraq), Moscow went from partner to problem. In turn, Moscow viewed this evolution of U.S. foreign and defense policy as a serious risk to its national security and, indeed, to global security.

Disputes escalated in 2004. By the fall of 2008 relations were on the brink of a new period of systemic confrontation, which found expression in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, a steep escalation in bilateral competition in the post-Soviet space, the prospect of Ukraine and Georgia’s entry into NATO, Bush administration plans to deploy a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, and certain developments in the internal politics of Russia.

Against this backdrop, counter-terrorism cooperation could no longer stave off a rapid deterioration in Russia-U.S. relations. Moreover, this cooperation, as well as the de facto alliance in Afghanistan, had become devoid of actual substance. The countries could no longer ignore the gap in their understanding of what international terrorism is. For Russia it was represented primarily by Chechen separatists and other radicals and fundamentalists in the North Caucasus (who have links with al-Qaeda and other radical groups in the Middle East). The United States did not share this view and irritated Moscow by criticizing its policy in the North Caucasus.

For its part, Washington associated the threat of international terrorism not only with al-Qaeda but also with hostile states that sponsored them, either allegedly or in actual fact, including Iraq (until the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime), Iran, Syria, and Libya (before 2006). Out of these countries only Iran supported and still supports Islamic terrorism through its affiliates Hamas and Hezbollah. But even their activities cannot be described as international terrorism in the common understanding of this word – they only target Israel and their actions do not extend beyond the Middle East.

The majority of Americans considered the war on terror legitimate, and therefore approved of their government’s efforts to change the regimes in said countries by other means, including military force. Washington sold its invasion of Iraq to the American people as a front in the war on terror and an effort to prevent nuclear terrorism. This invasion marked the collapse of the broad international anti-terrorist coalition formed after the 9/11 attacks.

By the mid-2000s, the fight against international terrorism ceased to be common ground for Russia-U.S. relations. The United States rebuked Russia for its counter-terrorism operations in the North Caucasus, while Russia criticized the United States over the war in Iraq, which was, at best, indirectly related to international terrorism. The sides could not even agree on the definition of them, and this is largely why the UN Comprehensive Anti-Terrorism Convention never got off the ground.

Russia-U.S. relations did not evolve into a partnership after 9/11 for three major reasons. First, international terrorism cannot be the foundation for a lasting, shared agenda. Awful as it is, terrorism is no more than a means to achieve political ends. However, both the means and the ends conceal deeper issues of a political, socio-economic, demographic and cultural character. Joint efforts to resolve these issues could form the foundation for cooperation. But if the sides view these issues differently, which was the case with Russia and the United States in the 2000s, they will not be able to cooperate in the fight against international terrorism.

Second, the United States alienated Russia with its chosen strategy of unilateral action. There was no equitable partnership or cooperation based on the coordination of interests and approaches. It was this strategy that instantly turned Russia from a partner into a problem for the United States. The 9/11 attacks played a substantial role in America’s choice of strategy. The attacks unleashed the righteous indignation of the “sole superpower,” and convinced Washington preventive action was needed. The Bush administration believed that there is no deterrent to terrorism, and if terrorists were to gain access to weapons of mass destruction, the threat could assume apocalyptic dimensions.

The 9/11 attacks intensified the ideology at the heart of U.S. foreign policy. Washington began to place more emphasis on the role of values in defining threats and interests. The Bush administration supported the view that only the democratic transformation of the Greater Middle East could eliminate terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism. Having invaded Iraq, the United States began to pursue this goal.

Third, the direction of Russia’s internal politics at the time had become a much stronger irritant to the United States given the greater emphasis on ideology in U.S. foreign policy after 9/11. Indicatively, the revisionism of Russian foreign policy and rhetoric became much more pronounced in the latter half of the 2000s. This was primarily caused by the general shift in the balance of power in the world, but Washington instantly adopted the dogma of the American school of Russian studies, which held that the consolidation of an authoritarian regime in Russia is directly proportional to the aggressiveness of its foreign policy. This compelled the United States not only to strongly criticize Russia over domestic matters but also to thwart its policy in the post-Soviet space, thereby undermining its vital interests.

So, contrary to the widespread belief that the 9/11 attacks improved Russia-U.S. relations, the effect was in fact much more ambiguous. The attacks created an illusion of cooperation in the short term, intensified progress in bilateral ties and allowed the sides to strike a de facto alliance on Afghanistan for a while. However, in the long term, the attacks led the U.S. global strategy that completely ruled out partnership with Russia.

This raises the following question: can the fight against international terrorism become part of the positive agenda of the ongoing “reset” of Russia-U.S. relations, or is it bound to suffer the same fate as in the 2000s? The answer is unequivocal – it can and it must be on the agenda. Today, the main reasons for the failure of bilateral counter-terrorism cooperation after 9/11 – contrasting views on its origins and nature and the general evolution of U.S. foreign policy and Russian foreign and domestic policy – are gradually losing significance. And the terrorist threat, far from fading, will grow in the coming years.

First, the Obama administration has renounced Bush’s “war on terror” and displayed more understanding for Russia’s policy in Chechnya and the rest of the North Caucasus. As a result, the countries’ views on the causes and definition of international terrorism have become closer.

Second, President Obama has also radically changed U.S. global strategy – opting to cultivate partnerships with other power centers, Russia included, over unilateralism. Now Washington is seeking to exercise leadership through multilateral action, especially as regards its vital national interests, such as the issues of Afghanistan, Iran and nuclear non-proliferation on which Russia’s support is critical. Unlike Bush, Obama is interested in cooperation with Russia on several issues, including the fight against international terrorism. Moreover, for the first time since the Cold War the United States wants to cooperate with Russia in pursuit of its vital interests.

Third, Russia’s internal politics are a low priority in bilateral relations, at least for the time being. Formally, they still feature prominently but the Obama administration has chosen not to make its cooperation with Moscow dependent on issues of democracy and human rights.

Fourth, far from receding, the threat of international terrorism continues to grow, primarily in Central Asian countries south of Kazakhstan, as well as in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Central Asian countries, especially Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, are on the verge of domestic upheaval. They will be subject to an increasingly negative influence from Afghanistan, and not only because of drug trafficking and organized crime but also because of the influence of Islamic radicalism and extremism, up to and including the expansion of the Taliban. After 2014, Afghanistan will be again plunged into the quagmire of civil war and plagued by the Taliban. Pakistan is also unstable and the survival of its current semi-secular political regime is uncertain. Moreover, its security services maintain direct contacts with Islamic extremists and the Taliban, while Islamabad is almost openly advocating the restoration of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Finally, a fresh upsurge in terrorism may occur in the Middle East and North Africa, particularly in the countries that have undergone revolution in the Arab Spring. There is very little chance of stable regimes capable of controlling the territory and its people taking root in Libya and Syria (if its rebels eventually prevail). Egypt has somewhat better chances. Even now there are radicals and terrorists among the rebels. In the future, when the new “democratic” governments fail to cope with the existing and even aggravated economic, social and demographic problems in these countries, Islamists may gain more ground in their political systems. This will be accompanied by more terrorist activity. The environment will be conducive to organizations like al-Qaeda.

The Palestinian Arabs have stepped up their efforts to gain statehood, and this is bound to lead to more terrorist activity, including against supporters of Israel like the United States. Moreover, Arab countries, having awakened in the Arab Spring, will become even more sensitive to the issue of the Palestinian state and Washington’s position on it. Iran is bound to exploit the next flare-up in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and step up the activities of its affiliate Hamas. All these developments will create grounds for Russian-U.S. cooperation.

While developing their counter-terrorist cooperation, Russia and the United States should remember that, like in the 2000s, it will not be sufficient to ensure a stable strategic partnership. Failure to overcome the philosophy of mutual deterrence will mean that Russia and the United States are unable to reach a level of cooperation where backsliding is no longer possible.

It is also important to realize that the window of opportunity for this kind of Russia-U.S. agenda is not very big. Despite the objective nature of these issues, Washington’s desire to work with Moscow to find a solution may wane considerably with the departure of the Obama administration. Republicans place a greater emphasis in foreign policy on ideology than partnerships with foreign countries. In other words, the United States will not be as motivated to resolve these issues by collective action, or will try to deal with them primarily with the traditional Western democracies rather than with Russia. Moreover, the Republicans are more prone to perceive Russia as a challenge to American power rather than as a potential partner for resolving vital issues.

The next five years will decide whether a stable Russia-U.S. counter-terrorism cooperation will emerge. There will be more than enough factors to facilitate this cooperation, if only there is the political will.

Valdai Club - September 23, 2011