Wednesday, November 7, 2001

Next week, Russian President Vladimir Putin will travel to the United States for meetings with President Bush at his ranch in Texas and in Washington. This is a time of apparent watershed changes in the relationship between the two countries. Not since the “bear-hug” between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin have American and Russian observers seen such a romance. Let’s hope this one fares better than our last fling.

Mr. Putin quickly seized the opportunity presented by the terrorist attack on September 11 to place himself firmly on the side of the United States in the war against the terrorists. On the American side, Mr. Putin’s gestures have been eagerly accepted. In quite an ironic twist, Osama bin Laden finds himself in the unlikely role of matchmaker. But will this be more than a marriage of convenience, similar to America’s alliance with the Soviet Union in World War II? Before we are swept away by the romance of it all, a little realism is in order given developments in Russia over the past decade. It is hard to imagine that strains will not develop, which could cause another round of searing disillusionment.

In the war against terrorism, Mr. Putin has been quick to signal that he wants to be on our side. He was the first foreign leader to call Mr. Bush after the September 11 attacks, and has expressed support for the war in Afghanistan. His intentions reorienting Russia towards the West have been reflected in some extraordinary policy decisions. He has closed Russia’s main spy base in Cuba, softened Russia’s opposition to NATO enlargement (expected to happen in 2003) and is negotiating with the U.S. government over the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, which stands in the way of tests needed for U.S. missile defense. All this is very new and highly significant.

However, Mr. Putin is certainly out on a limb as far as the Russian public and his own Cabinet are concerned. The Russia people experienced massive disillusionment with the United States in the course of the 1990s. As noted by the House Speaker’s Advisory Group on Russia, headed by Rep. Chris Cox, in its 2000 report, “The quality of the economic advice that the Clinton administration has offered to Russia has been so bad, and its results so dismal, that 81 percent of Russians believe it was purposely designed to make Russia a second-rate power.”

Today, according to a poll by the All-Russian center for the Study of Public Opinion, only 41 percent of Russians support the U.S. military action in Afghanistan; 57 percent oppose it. Almost half of the people questioned, 47 percent, thought Russia ought to remain neutral. This tallies with the views expressed by several students in the English-language Russia Journal that “Russia should stay away from any military action in Afghanistan. We are fighting terrorism in Chechnya, and no one is helping us, so why should we help the Americans in Afghanistan?”

It is equally true that neither the Russian president nor his advisers have been particularly pro-American up until this point. An important adviser for Mr. Putin is former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who has advocated closer ties with the Arab world as well as China and India. It has also been the case that Russia has so far been keen to draw closer to Europe than the United States. Mr. Putin has developed particularly close ties with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder the Russian president having been stationed in East Germany as a KGB agent as well as British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Asnar. Russian natural gas goes to a number of major European countries, with whom the Russians have highly lucrative contracts.

What’s more, the Russian leader has not signed up for the fight on terrorism out of mere idealism. It is Moscow’s hope that the attacks on September 11 will change U.S. views on the wars in Chechnya and Dagestan, which Mr. Putin labeled wars on terrorism from his first day in office. Yesterday, after a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Mr. Putin warned, “A policy of double standards could result in a slip of the common international position, given the seriousness of the situation, this is inadmissible.” Guess what double standards he had in mind. The Indians, who consider Kashmir to be an internal terrorist problem, no doubt nodded in agreement.

The Russians also have on their agenda relief from Soviet-era debt, entry into the World Trade Organization, and repeal of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, passed in 1974 to pressure the Soviet Union with sanctions to allow emigration of religious minorities. Mr. Bush will have to consider carefully what kind of deal he wants to strike with his new friend. If Mr. Putin walks away empty-handed from the summit, there may be more than a whiff of disenchantment in the air with this new friendship.

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