America's Anti-Terrorist Campaign and Russia's Choice

By Dmitri Trenin
September 19, 2001

Immediately after the terrorist attack on New York and Washington, President Putin made a statement about giving America political and moral support. Now, on the eve of America's anti-terrorist response, the Russian leadership faces a serious choice-either to go into battle along with the Americans, or cool its heels on the sidelines. The stakes are extremely high. The correct choice could reap an immense reward, but an exceptionally high price will have to be paid for a mistake.

Should We Distance Ourselves from Washington?

A significant portion of the political elite is inclined to remain on the sidelines. Their general stance boils down to the following.

September 11, 2001 did not completely transform the world. All the old problems, from NATO enlargement to the situation in the Balkans to the fate of the ABM treaty, are still as large as life. The terrorist attack was a heinous and appalling outcome of America's own foreign policy. The residents of American cities felt what the people of Belgrade and Baghdad have experienced some time ago. The USA has long criticized Russia for its indiscriminate use of force in Chechnya, but now, finding itself in a similar position, it is ready to unleash all the might of its weaponry on the Taliban. Russia has a sad experience from the war in Afghanistan, which cost it 14,000 lives, and has absolutely no desire to repeat that experience.

Along with general considerations, more specific arguments are being put forward. Here are a few of them.

  • The asymmetry of current Russian-American relations. Despite the apparent increase in Russia's political clout, attained in part by skillfully taking advantage of political developments, the difference in weight categories between Russia and America is such that Moscow can only claim the role of Washington's junior partner—even if in the specific Afghan situation it would be more experienced than other partners.
  • The absence of a joint decision-making mechanism and America's unwillingness to coordinate its actions with Russia. Moscow will essentially be forced to accept America's decisions, which it has had absolutely no part in making.
  • The likelihood that if its anti-terrorist campaign is crowned with success, the United States will strengthen its foothold as a state-hegemon in Central Asia and the Caspian Basin for years to come, ultimately ousting Russia from this region.
  • The possibility that, if it fails, America's campaign will incite a powerful wave of religious extremism, separatism, and terrorism, which will be unleashed northward from Afghanistan, destroying the fragile stability in Central Asia and threatening to foment confessional and ethnic unrest in Russia.
  • The suspicion that the Americans, while commanding an international coalition and independently conducting primarily air strikes, will use Russian soldiers as cannon-fodder in surface operations.

At first glance, many of the arguments presented are impressive and convincing. It goes without saying that the US will take sole command of the helm. Coordinating the campaign is a daunting task, but not an impossible one. Fears about America's long-term presence and premature departure balance each other out. Only the argument about "cannon-fodder" is incorrect. It seems it really would be the most sensible thing to remain on the sidelines, giving the Americans free reign to act independently and consequently take responsibility for their own actions. And, in the meantime, quietly get on with Chechnya, particularly since under the current circumstances there are few people in the West who would dare to criticize Moscow for the brutality of its actions.

Stepping aside, however, is also a choice. And it also has its consequences. Among them are the following:

  • Russia may acquire the image in the US, and the West as a whole, of a country that essentially closes its eyes to terrorists who choose America as their target. Moscow will get its favorite accusation of "double standards" thrown back in its face.
  • There will be an inevitable increase in anti-American sentiments among the Russian political elite, and pressure placed on the authorities to "resolutely dissociate themselves from the speculative actions of the US and its satellites."
  • It will be a signal to the terrorists that a breach is in the offing between Moscow and Washington, which will create additional room for maneuver. In the recent past, Milosevich and Saddam Hussein successfully exploited this contingency in their own interests.
  • There will be aggravation of Russian-American rivalry in the post-Soviet space: the question "who are you with?" confronts not only Russia, and there is no guarantee of a unified response from the other CIS countries.

Finally—and this is ultimately the most important—if we do not stand together, we will be picked off one by one. The audacity of the plan, and the scale and immaculate execution of the terrorist act force us to admit that the enemy has vast resources and is capable of setting the most resolute goals. He will not stop unless he is stopped. The next strike on modern civilization could be just as sudden and even more painful. In order to prevent this, we need more than just cooperation or even a "strategic partnership," we need a full-scale alliance between Russia and NATO.


For the first time since 1945, Russia and the US have a common adversary. Is this fact a sufficient grounds to achieve what was impossible at the end of the cold war, that is, to include Russia in the security system "from Vancouver to Vladivostok," as was the pat phrase back then, under conditions acceptable to both sides?

Right up until 11 September, America had a very skeptical attitude toward Russia, which is best conveyed by a line from a well-known song by Russian bard Vladimir Vysotsky: "neither friend, nor foe, just so-so..." After the terrorist attack, the US's interest in Russia dramatically rose. The Americans are attracted by Russia's advantageous geopolitical location, by the military potential it still possesses, its military-political foothold and infrastructure in Central Asia, its connections with the Afghan "Northern Alliance", and its 20-year experience of an essentially continuous struggle with the Afghan mujaheddins, Tajik Islamic fundamentalists, Chechen separatists and, finally, international terrorists. Today, America needs Russia not as evidence of the universality of democratic values and not as an economic partner, but as a military ally.

This is a rare opportunity. Until now, Russia has faced a choice: either to retreat into itself ("Great Russia"), or rehash the results of the cold war ("the eastern choice"), or join Europe. Of the three alternatives, the first has few prospects, the second is destructive, and the third optimal, but until now it has not aroused any genuine enthusiasm. An alliance with the US and NATO, on the contrary, will allow Moscow to make a contribution in military-political currency to the general undertaking; it is psychologically more comfortable and opens up the prospect of further and universal integration under more privileged conditions. In other words, Russia should be looking for a kind of "France-plus" status.

If Moscow goes for this kind of alliance, Russians will be able to count on the fact that their participation in joint actions with the US and other members of the international coalition will raise Russia's international status, strengthen its position with respect to NATO, make the US more sensitive to Russia's security interests, and, finally, help find a practical solution to several of Russia's well-known problems. Western help, apart from everything else, would also promote an improvement in the financial and material state of Russia's armed forces.

Will the Idea of an Alliance Gather Enough Support?

In the US, those in the administration and establishment in favor of an essentially political alliance with Russia believe that Russia's indeterminate status in the modern world is too great a luxury for America. At the same time, Russia, as a true friend and reliable ally, will arouse greater fondness among the American public than could be generated by any image-making campaign to improve the country's standing. Russia's new image in the US and Europe will become its truly priceless capital.

In Russia, those in the political elite staunchly in favor of an alliance are convinced of the need to integrate the country into western (European) structures, but until now they have been unsuccessfully striving to achieve this integration under more or less privileged conditions. Now, Russia has an historic chance to achieve its goal by converting America's need for a strategic ally into conditions acceptable for Russia.

The success of the pro-alliance forces in Russia and the US will largely depend on the position of the heads of state-Putin and Bush-and their ability to entice the elite and society with them along the path to closer cooperation between the two countries. In so doing, they can rely on the fact that the traditional "bureaucracy of national security," i.e. the military, law-enforcement, and intelligence communities of both countries, can under certain conditions be relatively easily reoriented toward a joint resolution of the problems. The Russian military, which is straightforward, but clear, in its thinking, "there are Arabs there, and there are Arabs here," is ready, as the Balkan experience showed, for joint combat efforts. All they need is a clear command.

President Putin has no need to worry about serious internal opposition to an alliance with America and NATO. The state bureaucracy is always precisely in tune with the leader's mood. It will usually stand to attention. In the Duma, Zyuganov's tedious mumbling and Shandybin's cheerful mumbling will eclipse the new aphorisms of Zhirinovsky, who in simple and as always paradoxical form will explain why the patriots must support America in order to wash their boots in the Indian Ocean. The regions at least will not object.

What Should We Do?

The line of action presented above is extremely difficult to carry out. A global vision of the prospects must be united with a very pragmatic strategy that moves steadfastly towards the goal. A global vision includes the following.

  • Russia must strengthen its anti-terrorist stance and essentially reject the very idea of neutrality between civilization and barbarity. It must join the broad international coalition being formed. This coalition must help to reinforce international moderate or non-aggressive forces in the Middle East and isolate terrorists within the region and in individual countries. At the same time, Moscow must take advantage of this favorable situation to find acceptable solutions to the main problems in relations between the US and Russia, from antiballistic missile defense and NATO's expansion to Russian exports to Iran. In so doing, the "response" to the ABM problem could be uniting the American program with the Russian project for Europe; "payment" for the Baltic countries joining NATO could be an active Russia-NATO alliance, and the "Iranian problem" could be resolved within the framework of an anti-terrorist coalition, in which there could also be a place for Teheran.

A more specific strategy of action could include the following:

  • Constant and substantial consultations with the US and NATO on a bilateral and multilateral (within the framework of the Russia-NATO Permanent Joint Council) basis. By rendering the US assistance and support in conducting its anti-terrorist campaign, Russia would naturally become part of the process of joint planning and coordination. By consulting with the US and its allies and based on the rich experience of its own "southern" campaigns, Russia could not only prevent the West from making mistakes, but also have an additional indirect impact on the planning and execution of the campaign.
  • Strengthened cooperation between Russian and western military organizations and security and intelligence structures. Exchange of lists of terrorists and saboteurs compiled during the cold war years by the special services. Exchange of information on the terrorists' financial channels. Coordination of a list of real and potential threats to common security. Elaboration of a strategy regarding terrorists' future targets and resources, from nuclear power stations to biological weapons.
  • Begin joint work with partners to reinforce the Russia-NATO Fundamental Act in order to adapt it to the security challenges of the 21st century. Make the Act the political foundation of an actual alliance between Russia and NATO by the fifth anniversary of its signing (May 2002). Officially formalize this alliance at a special Russia-NATO summit. Immediately begin reforming the Permanent Joint Council, with the goal of transforming it into a regular body that makes decisions and monitors their implementation, along the lines of the NATO Council. Place top priority on creating a JPC Military Committee, a Committee on Anti-Terrorist Campaigns, and a Non-Proliferation Committee.

The list presented above is of course illustrative in nature. The governments concerned must be responsible for drawing up a corresponding strategy. The main thing is mutual trust. Both sides must think broadly and act decisively and positively. Pettiness, conceit and attempts to bargain are contraindicated.

And last, but not least, President Putin, if he makes the right choice, could go down in Russian and world history not as an ineffectual "Caucasian captive," but as a world-class state figure, one of the leaders of an international anti-terrorist coalition and a person who made it possible for Russia to occupy a dignified place in the new Europe. Time will not wait. Broad Russian-American mutual understanding could be reached as early as October—by a quirk of fate—at the meeting in Shanghai.