Following the Bush-Putin summit, political observers in Russia are cautious about the prospects of the rapprochement between Moscow and Washington. Despite the current cooperation in the anti-terrorism campaign and a good rapport between the Russian and US leaders, many Russians still see substantial strategic differences that separate the two countries.
The November 13-15 summit between US President George W. Bush and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin finished with mixed results. The two leaders agreed in principle on large cuts in both countries' nuclear arsenals, but could not find common ground on anti-ballistic missile defense-related issues.
The news that Bush and Putin couldn't make a deal over the US effort to build a missile defense shield evidently came as no surprise to Russians. Only 20 percent of Russians believe that Putin's support of the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan signifies a "radical turn in the relations between the two countries," according to the Russian Center for Public Opinion Studies.
"In a short while, when the euphoria of the joint participation in the anti-terrorist coalition subsides, the tough reality will take the upper hand, and Russia and America will part ways again since there exist very many reasons for them to part ways," said Alexei Pushkov, a Moscow political scientist and the host of the "Postscriptum" television program.
The differences in political systems create an imposing obstacle to lasting cooperation, according to political observers in both Russia and the United States. Russia's lack of fully developed democratic institutions impedes trust between Moscow and Western democracies. As long as the Bush administration needs Russia's backing for the anti-terrorism campaign, the deficiencies of the Russian political system will continue to be downplayed. But Western silence cannot be expected to last forever. As the political scientists Nikolai Zlobin and Michael McFaul recently wrote in the Obshchaya Gazeta weekly: "A semi-democratic Russia will always remain a semi-ally of the United States."
On a more practical level, political scientists in Moscow say that sooner or later the differing foreign policy priorities of Russia and the United States will erode the current spirit of cooperation, and lead to a renewal of competition between the two states. "The leaders' personal chemistry, and the official rhetoric, cannot eliminate the real geopolitical contradictions," said Vladlen Sirotkin, the deputy director of the Human Rights Institute in Moscow.
Putin willingly backed America's strike against the Taliban. However, as the president of the Russian Foreign Policy Association Sergei Kortunov argues in an interview with the governmental Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper: "The Kremlin is doing what is first of all profitable for Russia."
Indeed, at the moment Moscow is content to let other states, namely the United States, bear the chief burden of containing Islamic radicalism in central and southwest Asia. Russian political interests say it is in Russia's vital national interest to encourage the United States to follow through with stabilization efforts in Afghanistan.
"It is from Afghanistan that the wave of destabilization spreads into Central Asia, Chechnya, and some other regions of Russia. If the Taliban and the organizations that enjoy their support are not destroyed, the situation in Russia might significantly worsen," writes the director of the Moscow-based USA and Canada Institute Sergei Rogov in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper.
At the same time, a number of Russian commentators contend, the American presence on the territory of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia is fraught with serious problems for Moscow. Now, strategy planners are asking themselves whether the Americans will ever leave the region. So far, there is no consensus on this question.
Kortunov said there were two different scenarios concerning the future US relationship with Central Asian states. In the first scenario, the United States will retain and strengthen its presence in Central Asia, causing a gradual loss of Russian military, geopolitical and economic influence in the region. Under the second scenario, the United States will withdraw from the region shortly after wrapping up its mission in Afghanistan. As a result, Russia will find itself alone "vis-a-vis the disturbed Islamist anthill." This would leave Russian forces to act as a buffer "protecting the West from the Islamist threat," Kortunov said.
A looming concern in Moscow is whether the US military will use the former Soviet military bases in Central Asia to deliver strikes against the countries that Moscow does not consider to be its foes, especially Iraq. "If Moscow and Washington do not achieve mutual understanding [on this issue]," warns Rogov, "the fragile Russian-American alliance will collapse even before it takes a proper shape."
The Russian observers are also concerned that, as soon as the immediate danger posed by terrorism is deemed to be contained, the United States will revert to its former practice of "exerting soft pressure" on Moscow to squeeze Russia out of important regions and markets, including Iran. The influential commentator Sergei Karaganov, chairman of the Council For Foreign and Defense Policy, suggests, in his column in the Moskovskie Novosti weekly, that Washington might continue its backing of any - even the most odious, corrupt and bankrupt - regimes on the territory of the former Soviet Union, if only they claim they are pro-Western."
The continuation of open American pressure on the leadership of Belarus, "the only active Russia's ally within the CIS" is absolutely unjustified, adds Karaganov, since "the local regime is no worse that those which the United States are currently supporting [in Central Asia]."
In addition, ongoing talk about NATO's continued eastward expansion, Moscow analysts argue, does not bode well for close US-Russian strategic ties. It would seem that the broadening of cooperation with the Atlantic Alliance, from Russia's point of view, rests on two preconditions: Moscow becomes an equal participant in the NATO decision-making process, and the indefinite postponement of the question of the Baltic states' membership in NATO. The chances that these conditions are fulfilled appear to be very slim, Russian observers concede.
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was a Regional Exchange Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC, 1995; Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 1988-1997; and Kiev correspondent for the Paris-based weekly Russkaya mysl, 1998-2000.