Russia's Dilemma: Power and Strategy after September 11
Margot Light

Introduction The war against terrorism presented the Russian government with a quandary. On the one hand, cooperating in the coalition against terror orchestrated by President Bush offered the potential benefit of concessions on issues that caused difficulties in Russia's relations with the West, and particularly with the United States. On the other hand and in the longer term, the war against terrorism might threaten Russia's domestic stability, affect its standing in the "post-Soviet space" and undermine the relationships it has re-established with traditional Soviet allies. In this feature, Margot Light, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, examines Russia's dilemma. Russian sympathy for Americans after the attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, was immediate and very genuine. Ordinary people left bunches of flowers outside the American Embassy, and the four national television channels took the unprecedented step of replacing their normal programmes and advertisements with non-stop coverage of the situation in the USA. President Putin sent a telegram immediately to express his sympathy. Like many Russians, he believed that Americans now understood what Russia had suffered at the hands of Chechen terrorists.

When the response to September 11 began to be discussed, senior Russian military leaders, including Anatoly Kvashnin, the chief of General Staff, and the minister of Defence, Sergei Ivanov, strongly opposed Russia's direct cooperation with the United States in the war against terrorism. Nevertheless, Putin, who had established a good personal relationship with President Bush, offered to share intelligence with the USA and to open Russian airspace for humanitarian flights. More significantly, he also promised to increase the supply of weapons to the Northern Alliance, the Taliban's Afghan opponents (this was the first public admission that Russia had been supplying them with arms). He claimed that the Central Asian presidents had sought Russian support before offering the use of their air fields to launch the attack on Afghanistan (in fact, the evidence suggests that he merely acquiesced to a decision he could not prevent).

Russia in the coalition

What were the gains that President Putin thought Russia might achieve by cooperating in the anti-terrorist coalition? First, Western political leaders had been very critical of Russia's second war against Chechnya, although Russia has always claimed that this was a war against international terrorists funded and trained by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. If the anti-terrorist coalition launched a military attack against Afghanistan, Western leaders would no longer be able to criticise Russia for doing the same thing in Chechnya. Second, there were potential financial gains. Some Russian commentators demanded, for example, that, in return for their cooperation, the US and other Western creditors should offer forgiveness or at least a rescheduling of the huge foreign debt which Russia has been struggling to repay. They also wanted more active assistance in attaining early membership of the World Trade Organisation. Third, in the security field, President Putin expected that President Bush would soften his uncompromising stance on abandoning the ABM treaty and developing and deploying missile defence, two issues that Russia had long opposed. He also hoped that the Bush administration would agree that the reduction in strategic missiles that had recently been reached should be enshrined in a formal treaty negotiated in the normal way, rather than with the handshake that President Bush seemed to think would be sufficient. He also hoped that further NATO enlargement would be postponed or even abandoned. Overall, he expected that as a result of Russia's cooperation, there would be general recognition of Russia's great power status and of its influence over the territory of the former Soviet Union, an area which Russia has always maintained as a sphere of its vital interest.

At first, it seemed as if Putin's expectations had been justified. Western criticism of Russia's policy in Chechnya fell silent. And although there was no shift in relation to Russia's debt, there was some movement on WTO membership. On the security issues, however, President Putin's hopes for compromise were disappointed. On December 13 President Bush gave six-month formal notice that the United States will abrogate the ABM treaty and there is no sign that the US administration will agree to the kind of strategic arms limitation agreement that the Russians want. The next round of NATO expansion will be announced in November 2002 and the Baltic states will almost certainly be included.

America in Russia's backyard

Disappointing though this may be, cooperating in the war against terrorism presents Russia with longer term dangers that are far closer to home. For the first time in history, the US has a military presence in Central Asia. Moreover, it is likely to be a long-term presence, because the war against terrorism is only one reason for US interest in the area; Caspian Sea resources and safeguarding the pipelines that take the resources to Western markets are interests that predate the war against terrorism and they are likely to abide. Far from Central Asia being recognized as its legitimate sphere of influence, therefore, Russia now has to compete with the US in its own backyard.

The presence of US forces in Central Asia is likely to cause local resentment in the long term (as seems to have happened in Saudi Arabia). The consequence may well be that there will be new recruits to the small opposition groups (including fundamentalist Islamic movements) that have been attempting to destabilise the Central Asian governments in the last few years. Russians have always believed that their southern border is vulnerable and that there is nothing to prevent unrest in Central Asia from spreading into Russia.

Difficult choices

Finally, if the war against terrorism extends beyond Afghanistan, Putin will be faced with difficult choices. Russia has good relations with the three countries President Bush labelled as "the axis of evil" in his State of the Union address in February 2002. It has a thriving trade relationship with Iran, a number of valuable deals have been negotiated with Iraq, pending the lifting of international sanctions, and Putin has positioned himself to mediate North Korea's return to the international political system. If the United States launches an attack against "the axis of evil", Russia's international stature will suffer a severe blow unless Putin disassociates himself from the coalition against terrorism. But if he does withdraw from the coalition, he will lose what has always been Russia's primary foreign policy goal--a strong, cooperative relationship with the United States.

Copyright The London School of Economics and Political Science.