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The Challenges of Alliance with Russia

Author: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
October 5, 2001
The New York Times

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Throughout the 1990's, any use of force by the United States sent President Boris Yeltsin of Russia into a red-faced fury. No matter the target, he would fulminate about Washington's arrogance, invoke Russia's nuclear might, even warn of World War III. Mr. Yeltsin's outbursts were brief but ferocious, and they reflected a widespread conviction among Russians that deep down, America's interests were different from theirs.

Now comes Vladimir Putin -- by instinct and training a less likely friend of the United States than was Mr. Yeltsin -- to offer support in our struggle against terrorism. His presence on President Bush's bandwagon is more than just a reversal of Russian policy on America's use of force. Mr. Putin, unlike his predecessor, seems to believe that there is a domestic consensus, or that he can create one, in favor of a broad rapprochement between Russia and the West.

This offers huge potential payoffs for American policy, and both sides should work hard to make it a reality. Mr. Putin showed his readiness to do so this week, in a statement that seemed to relax Russia's opposition to the enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The Bush administration is reciprocating with talk of speeding up Russia's admission to the World Trade Organization.

Yet a long-term Russian-American realignment will require more than such statements and the better atmosphere they create. It will demand realism about the risks and difficulties of cooperation on the very issue -- terrorism -- that seems to bring us together.

The most obvious problem is Moscow's appallingly brutal war in Chechnya. The administration has sought to narrow its differences with Russia on this issue, commending Mr. Putin's proposal for a political dialogue with the Chechen rebels and echoing his demand that they expel foreign "terrorists." (No one denies such fighters are there).

The desire to take the edge off Russian-American disagreements is understandable. We're embarked on a large struggle and need the support even of those we disagree with. Yet getting too close to Mr. Putin's Chechnya policy is far more dangerous than keeping our distance from it. If the United States is to win this new war, our coalition partners need to believe that the effort is not anti-Islamic, that we do not apply the terrorist label carelessly and that we will not target civilians indiscriminately.

Mr. Putin discredits us on every point. His generals, moreover, are pushing for a new offensive that, with its inevitable atrocities, will blacken his reputation further We should not let them blacken ours as well.

Russia's war in Chechnya has been a magnet and a motivator for the very terrorists who threaten Americans worldwide. It has given them new battlefield experience, extra fund-raising appeal, fresh recruits and greater fervor -- the same fervor they deploy against us.

Mr. Putin says he has been fighting our enemies, alone, for the past two years. But has he made them weaker or stronger? The United States needs allies who can help us succeed, not the advice of ones who have already shown how to fail.

If the first threat to Russian-American cooperation is Moscow's effort to cast the Chechens in the role of Osama bin Laden, the second is the attempt to cast neighboring Georgia in the role of the Taliban -- that is, as the protector of terrorists. We have had many differences with the Russians over Georgia. Mr. Putin seems particularly to enjoy shocking American visitors with his open hatred of the Georgian president, Eduard Shevardnadze. But Moscow's attitude has rarely been more ominous than it is now.

Since Sept. 11, Russian officials have repeatedly demanded that Georgia close down what Russia considers terrorist bases on its territory. To make the message more menacing, Russian state television recently aired a respectful interview with Igor Giorgadze, long wanted in Georgia for trying to assassinate Mr. Shevardnadze.

No one disputes that of the several thousand Chechen refugees Georgia has accepted, some are armed fighters. The Georgian government has to do more to contain this problem. But, although weak and disorganized, it has already cooperated with the Russian army in policing the border, has invited foreign monitors into border areas and camps, and has launched periodic offensives to keep order among the refugees.

Russia's charge that Georgia is a Taliban-style haven for terrorists is preposterous. The danger it creates, however, cannot be ignored. When President Bush meets Mr. Shevardnadze today in Washington, he should leave no doubt about America's support for Georgia.

A third obstacle to lasting cooperation is the one on which many wartime alliances founder: postwar arrangements. When Mr. Putin chose not to try to keep his Central Asian neighbors from cooperating with the United States, he removed a major obstacle to a successful war effort. Yet in doing so, he is likely to have tried to assure skeptical advisers that his choice would not lead to a long-term American military presence in Central Asia.

Was he right? Before Sept. 11, it would have been easy to answer yes. American interest in the region has been increasing, but nothing suggested the need for deeper military involvement.

The cooperation now developing between the United States and Central Asian governments will change all this. Those that put themselves in the line of fire with us today will face the risk of retaliation and revenge tomorrow.

They will want a shield: maybe thin, or even invisible, but real. And they will not want to rely exclusively on the two countries -- Russia and China -- that may be quickest to offer their services. One Uzbek official said just this week, "We want a guarantee that America will not begin a conflict and then just leave us to deal with the consequences."

It is no longer honest to disclaim, or prudent to forswear, the possibility of some kind of American military presence in Central Asia lasting well beyond a round or two of antiterrorist operations. Remembering the damage done by our indifference to Afghanistan once it had driven out the Soviet army, the United States cannot easily walk away from this war when it is over. Russia, having thought of the region as its natural sphere of influence for 150 years, will not easily accept our staying. Moscow and Washington may not be able to come to grips with this issue yet, but when and how they take it up will say a great deal about the depth and durability of their rapprochement.


Stephen Sestanovich is senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of diplomacy at Columbia University.

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