- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2002

Wars are notorious for producing unintended consequences, but surely few have been more unintended than one produced by Osama bin Laden's attacks on New York and Washington on September 11. The bearded leader of al Qaeda earned his stripes helping defend Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion (1979-1988), with the important support of the United States. Then, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he turned against the United States, engineering a whole series of attacks on American embassies and military installations abroad and culminating in the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
Now, in the recesses of whatever cave he is currently hiding in, he can contemplate the astonishing fact that he has inadvertently brokered a whole new relationship between his two great enemies.
The decision of Russia or more specifically of its president, Vladimir Putin to cast that country's lot with the United States is by long odds one of the most important developments to emerge from the entire affair of September 11. Before that date, Mr. Putin had steered a rather ambiguous course, opposing the expansion of NATO, encouraging development of the Russian economy along free-market lines, insisting on continuation of the SALT II treaty's outmoded limitations on missile defense, allowing the growth of democratic institutions in Russia, acting as Saddam Hussein's protector in the United Nations, etc.
But after the events of September 11, Mr. Putin left his basic direction in no doubt. He promptly denounced the whole structure of international terrorism, allowed American forces to occupy and use air bases in the Russian satellite republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (bordering Afghanistan), quietly acquiesced in (while still formally protesting) America's withdrawal from the SALT II treaty, and in general made it plain that Russia identifies itself with the cause of the West.
Recently, in an interview with reporters for the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Putin indicated he has a thoroughly realistic view of what Russia must accept. As noted above, he has not allowed American withdrawal from the SALT II treaty to prevent him from bargaining over the number of nuclear missiles the two powers will continue to maintain. He also signaled, in the Journal interview, that while Russia opposes the admission of the three Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) to NATO, he is aware that this is inevitable. Perhaps most interestingly, he opposes an American military attack on Iraq, arguing that a major effort should be made, through the United Nations, to impose an effective regime of weapon inspections instead. However, he did not rule out military action if Saddam Hussein rejects inspections or succeeds in crippling them.
As important as these moves are on the chessboard of the Middle East and in the war against terrorism globally, they must have come as a particularly sickening surprise to the geriatric cabal in Beijing. China had just signed a new treaty of friendship with Russia, and had every reason to hope it might count on Russia's help, or at least its sympathy, in any future confrontation with the United States. Instead, it finds itself staring at American bombers on the runways of Central Asia.
In addition, President Putin has shown a deft hand in managing Russia's domestic affairs. Russia's government is not likely to resemble a New England town meeting any time soon. Its long tradition of authoritarian, not to say dictatorial, rule; the corruption that inevitably accompanied the country's transfer of its economic assets from public to private hands; the robber barons who even today defy the state with their own police forces; the grim threat of the military, which is both pathetically weak and (for that very reason) potentially dangerous all of these problems are slowly yielding to the firm but patient ministrations of this cool and unemotional man.
Vladimir Putin is not, and will never be, "our man in Moscow." He is a Russian nationalist first and foremost. But we could do indeed, have done far worse. If he can bring Russia squarely into the orbit of the Western world, he will have changed the course of history for the better.

William Rusher is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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