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'Revolution' in US-Russian Relationship After Sept. 11 - 2002-09-05

Since last September's terrorist attacks on the United States, Russia has been an unwavering supporter of the U.S.-led war against terrorism. With that support has come a greater role for Russia on the world stage and greater acceptance from Western countries that once viewed the former Soviet Union with suspicion. But in the last few weeks, Russia has made several moves that raise questions about whether its transformation will be permanent.

Revolution is the word many people use to describe the change in Russian-U.S. relations after September 11.

The two countries went from trading spying allegations to being staunch allies. After September 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered his full support to the United States, not even objecting to American troops in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Later, when the United States pulled out of the landmark 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, President Putin only slightly protested.

In return, American and European officials have been effusive in their praise of Russia's new policies. In May, Presidents Putin and George Bush signed a new arms reduction treaty amid great fanfare. Then Russia and NATO agreed to a new arrangement that gives Russia a greater involvement in the alliance's affairs.

Vyacheslav Nikonov, who is an analyst with the Moscow-based Politika Foundation, describes the changes in U.S.-Russian relations as revolutionary.

"In my view, if we compare these relations with anything we've had in the past, I would dare say that we probably have the best Russian-American relationship ever, since the Declaration of Independence," he said.

But as the September 11 anniversary approaches, it is becoming evident that while U.S.-Russian relations have vastly improved, they're certainly not perfect.

At issue is the fact that recently Moscow has been stepping up ties with countries the Bush administration considers rogue states. To be sure, these countries including Iraq, Iran and North Korea, all have ties with Russia dating back to Soviet days. But lately, Moscow seems to be drawing even closer to these countries.

First, the Russian government, over strong U.S. objections, agreed to build more nuclear reactors in Iran. Then President Putin welcomed, very warmly, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il to Russia. Another problem arose when Iraqi officials announced a $40 billion economic deal with Russia. Moscow has also criticized a possible military attack against Iraq, saying it would destabilize the Middle East.

Dmitry Evstafiev, who is with the Moscow-based PIR Center, a research institute, says these developments show President Putin is re-evaluating his pro-Western foreign policy. The reason for the re-evaluation, he says, is that many in Russia feel they haven't received enough in return for helping the United States in the war against terrorism.

"For Putin, that's a problem," he said. "He should deliver some sort of understandable and clear-cut results on his course. That's his objective number one.

However, Mr. Nikonov from the Politika Foundation says Russia's renewed contacts with so-called rogue states have been blown out of proportion because many in the West have a hard time accepting Russia as anything but the Cold War enemy it used to be.

Mr. Nikonov says in the case of North Korea, President Putin is not simply carrying on ties from Soviet days. He says the Russian leader is pushing the Communist country into greater dialogue with the West. And in the case of the $40 billion deal with Iraq, Mr. Nikonov emphasizes that it does not violate the U.N. sanctions against Baghdad and that while Russia is worried about its economic interests in Iraq, it has no desire to protect Saddam Hussein. Concerning Iran, he says Russia is just as worried as the United States when it comes to making sure Tehran doesn't produce weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Nikonov says while Russia may have considered Iraq, Iran and North Korea important allies before September 11, that has now changed.

"There is a clear understanding in Russia, in Kremlin outside the Kremlin, that the Russian-American relationship for Russia is extremely more important than a relationship with any rogue states or Axis of evil States," he said.

The reason, says Mr. Nikonov, is that Russia needs the United States in order to grow economically. Russia needs investment and access to Western markets, something that in the long term the rogue states can't provide. So, Mr. Nikonov says, he expects President Putin to abide by his pro-Western policy.

Mr. Evstafiev echoes that sentiment to a degree. He says this crisis doesn't mean that Mr. Putin will abandon his pro-Western policy altogether. In fact, he believes Mr. Putin will try to preserve as much of it as possible.

"Mr. Putin is directly and unequivocally linked to that policy and the defeat of that policy will be a defeat not of foreign minister Igor Ivanov, not of the head of the security council, that will be [a personal defeat] of Mr. Putin because he has made his participation in that foreign policy too public and too open," he said. "So for him it would be both psychologically and practically extremely difficult to disassociate himself from that sort of a policy."

However, within that policy there is room to maneuver. And maintaining ties to countries Washington considers rogue states helps Mr. Putin deflect criticism at home that he has given away too much. Criticism that he allowed U.S. troops into Central Asia or that he didn't get enough financially in return for helping the United States. The question is whether those ties will become stronger in the future.