It was an obvious thing to do in London, Paris or Amsterdam. But for the vast majority of Muscovites, laying flowers along the walls of the US Embassy, fastening the Stars and Stripes to its fence and weeping in grief for Russia's former cold war enemy was something they could hardly have imagined doing before September 11. And yet, the enormity of the tragedy that hit New York and Washington seems to have dwarfed the differences that have strained relations between the two countries for the past couple of years.
In the hours after the attack, Russia emerged as the first country to offer its sympathy and a promise to fight terrorism shoulder to shoulder with the United States. Two weeks later, Russian President Vladimir Putin presented a concrete list of how the Kremlin will help the US-led international coalition if it targets Afghanistan. The list includes sharing intelligence, opening air corridors for aid shipments, supplying the Afghan opposition with weapons and participating in search-and-rescue operations there. But possibly most important was Putin's decision not to prevent the former Soviet republics of Central Asia from giving the United States the right to use their airports--a move that could make the crucial difference in the looming war.
Putin seems to be the very embodiment of Russian public opinion, which--just two years after the US Embassy was pelted with eggs because of the NATO airstrikes in Yugoslavia--is ready to grant the United States the right to conduct some kind of military operation. A poll conducted by the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research (VTsIOM) just days after the attack shows that 32 percent of Muscovites would "understand" if the United States attacked terrorists' training camps, and 29 percent would even "approve." The number of people who would "disapprove" of such action is 26 percent. Still, this is no carte blanche.Sixty-eight percent would condemn attacks on countries that harbor terrorists; only 5 percent would approve them. And 72 percent would like America to make sure it knows who is responsible for the attacks and only then take action.
But Russia's engagement is not a risk-free venture, and there are voices calling for caution. "Russia should participate in the American actions proceeding exclusively from its national interest," said Mikhail Leontyev, an influential TV anchor on the public channel ORT, summing up the prevailing political climate. As long as the Taliban are the target, interests will coincide. The movement was proclaimed one of Russia's biggest security threats last year, and the Kremlin said it was already providing Washington with intelligence on them. Veterans of the Soviet Union's decade-long Afghan war have valuable firsthand knowledge of the terrain and the people; many have already warned the United States that it is heading for a protracted and bloody conflict. The Kremlin has also been gathering intelligence on radical Islamic groups operating in Central Asia, and it maintains links with the anti-Taliban opposition in Afghanistan.
But the focus of Russia's worries is Central Asia, the place where the new US partnership will be most seriously tested. The most fragile of all countries there are Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which emerged from Soviet rule as corrupt secular autocracies with strong ties to Moscow. Both border Afghanistan and both have experienced Islamic insurgencies in recent years. Both countries are ideally placed to serve as bases for clandestine US operations into Afghanistan. Pakistan's former Foreign Secretary Niaz Naik recently told the BBC that plans for such actions existed even before September 11. But there are voices warning that a US military presence in Central Asia could trigger new uprisings and destabilize the region. Igor Rotar, a Central Asia expert writing for the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, warned that these impoverished countries are already "too tempting a prey for the champions of the new jihad." But it's a risk they seem increasingly ready to take, as one Central Asian nation after another offers help to the United States--from Turkmenistan's readiness to open air space to Kazakhstan's offer of the use of its military bases.
Putin's political will and the potential benefits of ridding the region of the Taliban have managed to overcome the Russian military's fears that a US presence could end the days of unquestioned Russian dominance in Central Asia. But the Kremlin's long deliberations fueled speculation that it was seeking possible trade-offs for its willingness to cooperate--suspension or slowing down of NATO's eastward expansion, easing Russia's access to the World Trade Organization and extending large-scale debt relief.
Independently of this, Russia is already enjoying the first benefits of the new political climate: Despite the White House's assurances that the human rights situation in Chechnya will not slip off its radar, there is little chance that Washington will now criticize the Kremlin's brutal ways of fighting the insurgency there. Moscow has branded the rebels "terrorists" and accused them of links to Osama bin Laden. This is now more than enough to muffle the already ignored complaints of Chechnya's battered civilians. Taking this opportunity, Putin offered Chechen rebels seventy-two hours to sever their links with "international terrorists," approach his representatives in the region and start negotiating the technicalities of their surrender. He didn't say what would happen after the deadline had passed. He didn't really need to.
The September 11 attacks may have given the Kremlin more grounds to argue against US plans for a national missile defense system. "The shield would never have protected the United States from this attack," said Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, the very next day. "The whole idea should be reconsidered." At least the Kremlin has been given more time to think about how to continue negotiating once the talks on NMD resume. Earlier, Washington warned that if the deal was not reached by November, it would unilaterally abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Now it looks as if it will have other things on its mind.
Ana Uzelac is a Moscow-based journalist who writes for the Moscow Times and other English- and Polish-language publications.