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Dateline: Russia--Partner, Opponent or Bystander? - 2001-10-18

Since last month's terrorist attacks in the United States, Russia has moved swiftly to lend its support to the West. Most strikingly it dropped objections to the deployment of American and NATO counterterrorism forces in Central Asia, a Russian sphere of influence. But is Russia seeking something in return?

In the initial chaotic hours after the September 11 strikes, Russia's President Vladimir Putin was the first foreign leader to speak to President Bush, reaching him on Air Force One. Joining the international coalition against terrorism, President Putin promised to help arm anti-Taleban forces inside Afghanistan. He also assured President Bush that Russia would share intelligence and provide an air corridor for humanitarian missions in Afghanistan. But most notably, it offered to rally Central Asian countries to the American side.

"Russia put itself staunchly in the camp of those powers which are fighting radical Islamic terrorism," said Dr. Ariel Cohen, research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "The geopolitical position of Russia is extremely important in this war because it controls access to landlocked Central Asian countries that border Afghanistan. Without the green light from Moscow, the Central Asian countries would not have cooperated with the United States to the extend they're doing now," said Mr. Cohen, an expert on Russia and the former Soviet Union.

But by joining the coalition, many experts agree that Vladimir Putin is hoping to reap substantial diplomatic dividends. First of all, military strikes against the Taleban, providing they destroy the threat posed to Russia's vulnerable southern flank, can bring Moscow tangible security benefits. And as Celeste Wallender, Director of the Russian and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, points out, Russia's offer was carefully calculated.

"While President Putin has made it clear that Russia will join in and support the fighting of terrorism throughout the world, the actual steps that Russian government has taken to support that are supportive but limited and carefully designed to not one hundred percent join in everything that the United States might be doing," she said. "For example, offering or granting the United States overflight rights for humanitarian missions, but not combat missions. I don't think it hurts the U.S. military effort because it's not clear to me that the United States needs combat overflight rights right now, but I think it is something to keep in mind that this is not a complete turning over Russian policy to cooperation with the United States."

At the same time, in his speech to the Russian nation on September 24, President Putin explicitly linked help for President Bush's anti-terrorism campaign to the issue of the former Soviet republic of Chechnya, where for the past ten years, Russia has been fighting rebels seeking total independence. Moscow says it is fighting international terrorism in Chechnya, but Western nations have called the campaign excessive.

Dr. Cohen says that many Westerners sympathize with the Chechens. "Again it's a difficult situation. Hopefully we'll have a solution in Chechnya and we'll have a strong, sovereign, transparent governance in Georgia," he said. "These are very problematic areas. There are different components to the Russian-Chechen conflict. There is indeed a national liberation or national independence component and a lot of people in the West sympathize with that. But there is also an Islamic fundamentalist component that a lot of people who criticize Russia chose not to recognize, not to talk about."

While Moscow claims to have re-established control over Chechnya, its troops continue to suffer casualties to rebel assaults and landmines. Chechnya's rebel leader, Aslan Maskhadov, claims that the rebels are not a link to terrorism and that the conflict had been born out of Chechnya's long quest for independence.

Another component of Russian concern in the region is Georgia.

"Moscow is clearly trying to create casus belli, or reason for war, in Georgia by alleging falsely that Georgia is consciously colluding with Chechens and other international terrorists against Russia," said Vladimir Socor, Munich Analyst of the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation. "This is a complete fabrication of Russian propaganda designed to bring Georgia to heel."

Longtime Russian observers say that Moscow believes it has been facing an Islamic fundamentalist threat in Central Asia for years, while the United States has only recently become the target of such attackers. Ms. Wallender says that for the United States, the terrorist attacks of September 11 served as a wake up call.

"From the Russian perspective, of course, it's not that Russia is joining the U.S.-led war against terrorism, it is that the United States has finally woken up to the fact that there needs to be an international war against terrorism and there are the terms that Russian government and Russian analysts are explaining this," she said. "So it makes it easier for them because there are saying: Look we've been fighting, and finally the United States has woken up to realize that this is a security priority and it creates a real problem for U.S. policy, because the U.S. clearly has decided that the major threat to our security is international terrorism. But we don't necessarily agree with Russia on a definition of what terrorism is, and how it should be fought."

President Bush appreciated the Russian offer to help in combating the al-Qeida network, led by the reputed terrorist Osama bin Laden, and the ruling Taleban in Afghanistan. But Russian and American objectives in fighting terrorism may differ.

Martha Brill Olcott, a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an expert on Central Asia, says both countries may be seeking different outcomes in Central Asia. "I think that Russia's aims in Afghanistan may well to turn out to be slightly different from ours. The Russians are eager to see the Taleban defeated, they also, I think would like to see power go to the Northern Alliance whereas America has become much more cautious about endorsing Northern Alliance and much more cautious about using U.S. military to improve Northern Alliance's position in the country. A week ago it looked like as there was a very strong overlap of interests between the U.S. and Russia and now it doesn't look quite as strong."

But what Russia may want most of all, is to be included in Western structures and organizations. Many Russian politicians also see a new opportunity to win long-term concessions that would not have been possible before the September 11 attacks. Such concessions include, for example, restructuring the country's huge Soviet-era debt. But at least one wish from a long Russian shopping list may materialize. That is Russia's entrance to the World Trade Organization as signaled by American trade representative Robert Zoellick during his recent visit to Moscow. So for now, a spirit of cooperation has emerged between Russia and the United States.

Still Martha Brill Olcott does not see any major changes in the U.S.-Russia relationship, at least not yet. "I think relations will improve, I think economic relations will really improve, I think Russia's European relations will improve but I don't see it as leading to, at least at not in this point in time, as leading to a fundamental redefinition in the U.S. and Russian relations."

And although an immediate change in relations does not appear imminent, Washington and Moscow are undergoing a kind of transformation. What kind of transformation may be hinted in President Putin's statement in speech to the German parliament earlier this month when he said, "We got so used to living in two opposed systems. The world has become much, much more complicated."