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Will US-Russia Relations Improve? - 2001-10-16


Since last month's attacks in the United States, Russian President Vladimir Putin has become one of the strongest supporters of the U.S. campaign against terrorism. Washington has so warmly welcomed Moscow's help that many observers are saying the attacks may have created an opportunity for the two former enemies to forge a new partnership.

Shortly before the United States began its military campaign in Afghanistan, President George Bush called President Putin to let him know what was about to happen.

It was one of many phone calls between the two presidents since the attacks on September 11, and Russia watchers say it was yet another sign Presidents Bush and Putin are working together in the war against terrorism.

Mr. Putin was one of the first leaders to offer condolences to Mr. Bush after the news broke that hijacked planes had smashed into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Later, in a nationally televised speech, President Putin offered his help in the fight against terrorism, making it clear he would not object to the United States using bases in Central Asia to launch strikes against the Taleban.

But could the conversations of the past weeks lead to a stronger relationship between the two countries? For this to happen, observers say, Russia must also get something from the United States.

John Mroz is president of the East-West Institute, a research organization that has offices in the former Soviet Union. He says in return for its continued cooperation, Russia would expect a similar cooperation from the United States. "In other words, if Russia shares information with the United States about, let us say, from what we know from intelligence about the Bin laden network or about others, they would expect that the United States would then in turn share information with them, regarding the same subject area. In other words, what they are looking for is a fair and equal partnership," he said.

While President Bush has welcomed President Putin's help, it is still unclear how far the United States is willing to go to work with Russia. Mr. Mroz points out the United States is generally reluctant to share information, even with its closest allies such as Great Britain, let alone with Russia, with whom it has such a rocky history.

Moscow may also, in return for its cooperation, be looking for a change in the West regarding the breakaway Republic of Chechnya in southern Russia.

Taras Kuzio is a research associate at the Center for International and Security Studies at York University in Canada. He says Mr. Putin would like Western nations to consider Russia's war in Chechnya as a campaign against terrorism. "This is a great opportunity for Russia to be able to mold Western opinion into arguing that these are not really freedom fighters or guerrillas, or people defending the Chechens, that these are just in fact basic terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden," said Taras Kuzio.

Mr. Putin has re-emphasized in recent days his belief the Chechen rebels his soldiers are fighting are no different from the suspected terrorists the United States is striking at in Afghanistan.

But Mr. Kuzio worries that if Russia does succeed in persuading the West to view the Chechen rebels the way he does, Russia may then decide it can behave just about any way it wants in Chechnya. "They then will be able to excuse away any human-rights problems they have there as casualties in the course of an anti-terrorist operation and would be able to deflect in questioning, such as from the Council of Europe, which did after all suspend Russian membership for a number of years because of Chechnya, and it would improve its image on the international stage," he said.

Despite Mr. Kuzio's concerns, on the issue of Chechnya Russia may be a little closer to getting what it wants. Shortly after Mr. Putin's television address in support of the U.S. campaign against terrorism, President Bush declared that the Chechens rebels must sever their ties with Osama bin Laden, the first time he had publicly linked the Chechen rebels with the accused terrorist.

Chechnya is not the only area where Russia is seeking greater Western understanding. It would also like the West to show greater concern about the southern Caucasus country of Georgia, which Russia has long accused of aiding Chechen rebels, a charge the Georgian government denies.

Georgia's president, Eduard Shevardnadze, has had a strong relationship with the West. But some say that could change since the West may be more likely to take Russia's side in this issue in order to keep Russian support in other areas, such as Central Asia.

Stanford University Political Science Professor Michael McFaul says Russia would also like to develop a closer relationship with NATO - on Russian terms. Mr. McFaul says he sees some room for maneuvering. "If the alliance were serious about a more formal relationship with Russia, one could think about an alliance with the alliance," he said. "That is Russia could have a treaty alliance with NATO as an entity without actually joining NATO."

Russia might also expect changes in U.S. plans to build a national missile defense system. Washington says says it needs the system to protect itself against so-called rogue nations such as Iran. But Mr. McFaul sees, as a result of September 11, a new willingness on the part of the Bush administration to try to accommodate Russia on this issue. "The Russians want a legally binding document that would replace the ABM treaty of 1972," said Michael McFaul. "Before September 11 that was a non-negotiable issue from the Bush administration. They did not want any new treaties to replace the old one. Now there is a window of opportunity to make this deal happen."

According to Mr. McFaul, a change in U.S. policy on these issues would help the Russian president gain support within Russia for the stance he has taken in support of the United States. Mr. McFaul says many in Russia do not think their country should be taking part in this war against terrorism. "There are a lot of enemies and lots of forces that do not want to see this, the first and foremost is the Russian military industrial complex," he said. "So if he does not have something to deliver to that constituency in particular, I think it is going to be increasingly difficult for him to be pro-American.

Already, critics in Russia say they are worried the United States wants to replace Russia as an influence in the region. These fears remain despite assurances from U.S. officials such as National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice. In a recent interview with a Russian newspaper, she explicitly said that the United States did not want to limit Russian influence in the region.

Later this week, at the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in China, President Putin and Bush will meet. Russian watchers agree there is no doubt they have a lot to talk about.

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