Russia and the United States: A New Partnership?

The traumatic events of September 11 have had a profound impact on the world of international politics, an impact very few people could have imagined. It appears possible that the terrorist attacks may have resulted in a fundamental shift in relationships between the United States and the Russian Federation.

Signs of Change

On the day of the attack on the World Trade Towers, the first foreign leader to call President George W. Bush, reaching him on Air Force One, was Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin. In addition to expressing his condolences, Putin made it clear that the Russian army would not mobilize to match the mobilization of U.S. forces – marking the first time since World War Two that one of the competing forces of the Cold War “stood down.”

The next day, the two leaders spoke again. Putin informed Bush that he had declared a moment of silence across Russia and the lowering of flags to half-staff. The two men agreed to work together to defeat the terrorist threat, a threat that put everyone in fear. If the United States could suffer a blow like this, who was safe?

Within a week of the terrorist attack, key Department of State personnel were in Moscow, not only negotiating possible cooperation between the intelligence agencies of both nations, but also exploring the possibility of a whole new bilateral relationship. The terrorist attack may have brought an end to the Cold War and the beginning of a cooperative worldwide effort to fight terrorism.

President Putin’s visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels was yet another sign of change. It was the first visit of its kind by a Russian leader and, during the visit, Putin announced that Moscow could accept the further enlargement of the Western alliance. This change in position was significant, since Russia has historically viewed NATO as a security system created and maintained solely to confront the Red Army.

Ten days after September 11, the two presidents were in high-level meetings with their respective top national security advisors – President Bush at Camp David and President Putin in a retreat center on the Black Sea. A breakthrough conversation occurred that day. Bush called Putin and the two leaders talked for 40 minutes; during this discussion, according to reports by White House insiders, President Putin “decided to go with his gut. He decided to go with the West.”

Putin agreed to share intelligence information with the United States, provide an air corridor across Russian territory for humanitarian flights into Afghanistan, and – most importantly – support the use of military bases in the Central Asian republics for U. S. forces. He also stated that Russian forces would participate with U.S. forces in search-and-rescue missions, if needed.

These were remarkable changes in Russian policies, changes that went against the position of senior Russian military and intelligence elites who would never support the presence of U.S. forces in a region of the world considered by them to be a Russian sphere of influence.

The next day, President Putin announced his decisions on Russian radio and also noted that he intended to supply the Northern Alliance with arms to fight the Taliban. In the days that followed, Putin also announced the closing of a giant listening station in Cuba designed to eavesdrop on American communications. If the United States was really no longer an enemy, Putin argued, what purpose did this listening station serve?

There certainly are those who have witnessed these events yet remain suspicious of Russian motives. These skeptics argue that Russia is attempting to take advantage of the United States during this crisis and will seek to win many concessions from this country as payment for their cooperation against the Taliban.

A Strategic Opportunity

It appears that President Putin has taken a bold step forward, against the advice of many of the elites that have supported him in his presidency. He is a pragmatic leader, not ideologically driven, and he is searching for ways to rebuild his nation and reposition it in its relationship to Western Europe and the United States. If the pride and ideology of the Cold War days can indeed be left behind, there seems to be little that can lead to a conflict between the two nations over vital national interests. There is much to share in common and little to fight about.

These are the times when initiatives in the private sector of both societies are very important. Building friendships and trust on a grassroots level represent what scholars call “Track II Diplomacy,” or “soft diplomacy.” While government leaders are seeking ways to build confidence and cooperation among the various agencies of government in Washington and Moscow, business leaders, educators, and humanitarian agency staff have the opportunity to participate in this process by deepening partnerships with Russians and demonstrating the fruits of cooperation, rather than reverting back to another round of confrontation and rivalry.

Osama bin Laden had no idea when he planned this attack that it could potentially bring about a fundamental realignment in world politics, a realignment that would lead to the end of his support base and the unity of his opponents, who were now willing to share intelligence in unprecedented ways. The challenge for government leaders is to find ways to preserve the unity of the new worldwide coalition against terrorism; the challenge for those of us in the private sector is to continue building people-to-people friendships between our two nations.