The monstrous events of September 11 have given the United States a second historic chance, after the squandered opportunity of the 1990s, to establish a truly cooperative relationship with post-Communist Russia. Such a relationship is essential for coping with today’s real security dangers, which exceed those of the cold war and make the United States so vulnerable that even it can no longer meaningfully be considered a “superpower.” Indeed, both the decay of Russia’s nuclear infrastructure since 1992 and the “low-tech, high-concept” attacks on America in September may be omens of an unprecedented dark age of international insecurity. None of its dangers can be dealt with effectively without Russia, the world’s only other fully nuclearized country and its largest crossroad of civilizations.
President Vladimir Putin’s agreement to cooperate with Washington’s military campaign against terrorism, specifically in neighboring Afghanistan, opens the way to such a relationship, but it will require major revisions in US policies that existed before September 11. Those unwise steps had led to a Russia seething with anti-American sentiment and a cold peace between the former cold war rivals. They included the Clinton Administration’s policies of virtually imposing shock-therapy economic measures, along with crushing foreign debt, on Moscow in the name of “reform”; violating a US promise to the Kremlin in 1990-91 not to expand NATO eastward; and bombing Serbia, Russia’s fellow Slav nation.
During its first eight months in office, the Bush Administration also based its policy on the prevailing myopic notion that “Russia no longer matters.” Disdaining serious negotiations with Moscow, it declared its intention to push NATO all the way to Russia’s borders by including the former Soviet republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and to unilaterally abrogate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which Moscow considers vital to its nuclear security.
Despite grudging applause for Putin’s decision to participate in the US antiterrorism campaign, there is no sign of any American official or media rethinking of these policies. (It does not seem to matter, for instance, that since September 11 Russia has become more important to US objectives than are most NATO members.) There are instead reaffirmations of those policies and dire editorial warnings against making any substantial concessions in return for Moscow’s participation, particularly in regard to the Kremlin’s brutal war in Chechnya.
But it is unlikely that Putin can stay the American course against terrorism without significant US concessions, if only because he is surrounded by political elites deeply distrustful of Washington and unhappy with his decision. They are already reminding him of the despised “Gorbachev-Yeltsin syndrome”–a pattern of far-reaching Russian concessions in the 1980s and 1990s that were met only by broken Western promises and aggrandizement. They are warning, for example, that the Bush Administration will transform permission to use bases in Uzbekistan into a permanent US military presence in former Soviet Central Asia; exploit Russian assistance in Afghanistan to install a pro-American regime in Kabul; and use the “coalition” to settle accounts with Iraq, a move long opposed by Moscow.
Nor is a softening of US opposition to the Chechen war, which has always been mostly rhetorical, high on Putin’s list of needed concessions. Of much greater importance are NATO expansion (few people on either side take seriously the talk of Russian membership), the ABM treaty and Moscow’s inability to invest in its ravaged economy and impoverished people while servicing its foreign debt of some $165 billion.
US policy changes on all three issues are both necessary and desirable. Can we really expect Moscow to support NATO’s war against terrorism while that same cold war alliance is creeping toward Russia? Can we expect Moscow, whose defense budget is only some 15 percent of Washington’s, to bear the costs of military cooperation in Afghanistan and possibly elsewhere without debt relief? And can the White House ask the Kremlin to trust its intentions after the United States no longer needs Russian help while continuing to refuse to negotiate on missile defense and the ABM Treaty?
Still more, all of these “concessions” would be in America’s long-term national interest. A Russia whose Western borders are menaced by NATO, whose nuclear security is undermined by US strategic unilateralism and whose economy is in bondage to Western debt will eventually respond by doing what the United States should hope it will not do–by seeking reliable allies in the East, by further overloading its decrepit nuclear infrastructures with more weapons and by selling more arms to states Washington has accused of sponsoring terrorism.
Thus the events of September 11 confront George W. Bush with not one but two historic challenges–to defend America from unprecedented dangers and to develop an unprecedented relationship with Russia. Properly understood, they are inseparable.