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US-Russia Relations: A Thaw After September 11? - 2001-12-25

For decades the relationship was simple - they were the world's two superpowers and they were enemies. But times have changed and Russia and the United States are establishing a new relationship to fit today's world.

This year witnessed a dramatic turnabout from Cold War rhetoric to post-Cold War cooperation. It was a turnabout facilitated by the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States.

It was an inauspicious beginning. Upon taking office almost 12 months ago, the Bush administration in Washington indicated Russia would not be a major foreign policy priority. For its part, Moscow was courting the likes of Iran, Iraq, China and North Korea.

And then there were the spy scandals.

Moscow accused Washington of overstepping diplomatic bounds in ordering the expulsion of some 50 Russian diplomats last March and ordered retaliatory expulsions.

Major differences also erupted over the Bush Administration's stated determination to press ahead with a new missile defense shield even if it meant pulling out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which the Russians consider a cornerstone of global strategic stability.

Independent Russian defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer says even though the Cold War was long over, the two nations were mired in Cold War thinking.

"We began the year with a lot of tension between Moscow and Washington there were lots of misunderstandings and it seemed we were dipping back into some kind of Cold War," he says.

Then came September 11 - the terrorist attacks against the United and a very quick response by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"I would like to express my sincere and deep condolences to those who suffered and the families of those killed. Today's events go beyond the national borders. This is a challenge to all mankind, at least to all civilized mankind. Russia knows first hand what terrorism is, not from rumors. We know what the American people feel I say we are with you. We share and feel your pain. We support you," Mr. Putin said after the attacks.

President Putin went on to offer Russia's airspace for U.S. missions in Afghanistan and the two nations began to share information and pledged to work together to fight terrorism. A turnabout in relations?

No, according to Pavel Felgenhauer. He says the September 11 attacks gave Mr. Putin a dramatic opportunity to do something he had been planning - to transform the relationship between Russia and the United States.

"This was a direct strategic move by President Putin. Putin himself decided that Russia's future as a world power is with the West and was planning to do that before September 11. September 11 gave him an opportunity to facilitate this move," he says.

Mr. Felgenhauer says President Putin, unlike some of his advisers, realized Russia could not spearhead an alliance to counterbalance the United States. He realized that instead, in order to modernize and catch up with the West, Russia would firmly have to join the West.

So what does Russia want in return? Russian journalist and political analyst Masha Lipman says Moscow is looking for economic benefits from this new relationship in the form of better trade terms, greater investment, debt relief, and support to join the World Trade Organization. But she says there are other aims as well.

"In more general terms, what Putin sought to gain from joining ranks with America was higher respect [for] Russia, treating Russia as one of the important nations even though Russia may be poor economically. And, it seems he's getting this. He is a big player, he's being consulted, his name and the name of Russia is being mentioned all the time if we compare the attitude of President Bush personally and the American attitude in general towards Russia, it's dramatically different," she says.

Ms. Lipman points out that President Putin has not gotten all he wanted.

The United States has announced it will withdraw from the ABM Treaty despite Russia's objections, it seems the expansion of NATO will go ahead despite Moscow's misgivings and Russia has thus far not been granted the more powerful role it seeks to play within the NATO alliance. But, says Ms. Lipman, September 11 may also have shown the Americans that Russia cannot just be ignored.

Victor Kremenyuk is a political analyst and deputy director of the Institute for USA and Canada Studies in Moscow. He says the recent developments in US-Russian relations are positive, but he says September 11th has demonstrated the need for new thinking.

"The challenges to security are sometimes invisible. Maybe to achieve security we need to become much closer and try to understand why our nations still cannot feel secure, why our people suffer from terrorist attacks and threats of biological or nuclear attacks. We know there is a terrorist threat and that terrorists may use even weapons of mass destruction. What are we doing together to prevent that? Have we started close cooperation on very tight controls on the flow of technology? Have we increased controls over the traffic of nuclear substances? I don't think we're on that stage of cooperation," he says.

Mr. Kremenyuk says Russia and the United States need to go beyond the conventional strategic cooperation to include such issues as controls on the flow of money that could be used by terrorists to finance their organizations.

Mr. Kremenyuk also says that statements by American and Russian leaders announcing their intention to bring the two nations closer together are laudable. But he says what's needed now is to move beyond that to deepen and cement the relationship between the two peoples, not just their leaders.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001