US-Russian Relations

Do Russians Back An Alliance With the United States?

By Reese Erlich for the Russia Project

Moscow—Blue-collar worker Andrei Guantinfa strongly opposes the war in Afghanistan and Russia's newfound alliance with the United States. "We must fight terrorism," he said, "but not this way. It's not the big shots, but the common people who die."

Radio station owner Yuri Kostin strongly disagrees. "We should have been together with the US a long time ago," he said.

Freelance culture writer Anna Berkut is profoundly conflicted about the war. She agrees that terrorism must be stopped, but said "the US could become bogged down (in Afghanistan) just like the Soviet Union."

President Vladimir Putin has strongly backed the US war in Afghanistan, but ordinary Russians aren't so sure. While 42 percent of Russians think their country should build a military-political bloc with the United States, 36 percent oppose it, according to a November public opinion poll. And when asked who are Russia's current allies, only 14 percent named the United States.

President Putin has embarked on a major shift in Russian foreign policy and has yet to decisively win over public opinion. Vyacheslav Nikonov, a pro-Putin, former member of parliament who now heads the Polity think tank in Moscow, said Putin hopes to expand the alliance, with Russia joining the World Trade Organization and even NATO.

Putin "is more convinced that Russia should be engaged in the antiterrorist operation than probably 95 percent of the Russian political establishment and definitely 95 percent of the Russian public," Nikonov said.

To better understand the views of that public, this reporter returned to Russia this year to find people he first interviewed in 1990.

Anna Berkut was a translator for a group of American public radio reporters visiting the USSR in 1990. She was a free-spirited, Soviet-style hippie flowering in the Gorbachev era.

By 1992, however, she had become a solid businesswoman, managing a travel agency and helping to manage a weekly cultural magazine and an alternative rock nightclub. But like all nouveau Russian riche, the company owner spent a lot of money on chauffeur-driven cars and fancy vacations.

The Russian mafia demanded protection money and, ultimately, the business collapsed. Today Anna is unemployed, eking out a living as a freelance magazine journalist.

Berkut remembers the 1999 terrorist bombings of apartment buildings in Russia, something largely ignored in the West. Nearly 300 people died in those attacks, which the government blames on secessionist rebels from Chechnya.

"We can't allow terrorists to blow up buildings," said Berkut, either in Russia or the United States.

But she said the Russian government hasn't caught the masterminds of the apartment bombings and is still waging a long-term, brutal war in Chechnya. She said the United States can draw lessons from Russia's experiences both in Chechnya and years earlier in Afghanistan.

Defeating the Taliban may be easier than establishing a viable government, she said. The United States and its allies may have to station troops there for years to come. "We had this experience in Afghanistan," said Berkut.

Yuri Kostin strongly supports closer ties with the United States, perhaps because he has benefited greatly from Russia's capitalist transformation. In 1990 Kostin was an editor at Radio Moscow. He quit his job, bought a radio license for $300, and started Moscow's first rock radio station with only 16 CDs. He built Radio 101 into one of Moscow's most successful stations.

Today, as owner of Internet 101, a Web broadcaster, he rides in a chauffeur-driven Volvo, enjoys Florida vacations, and flies a private plane.

He argues that Russia and the United States are fighting a common war against Muslim fundamentalism. The terrorists in Afghanistan support the Chechen fundamentalists fighting Russia, he said.

Terrorists "will try to start wars on our borders," said Kostin, "and penetrate our country."

By joining the American alliance, Russia is ultimately protecting its own territorial integrity, he said. But like Berkut, he worries that "the war will last a long time."

Andrei Guantinfa, a plumber by trade, reflects the views of many working-class people fed up with Russia's economic collapse and Putin's new friendliness with President Bush.

Guantinfa works at the Yasnogarsk Machine Factory, 100 miles south of Moscow, which makes heavy equipment for coal mines.

In 1998 factory management claimed they had no money to pay workers' wages. Then two managers were arrested for allegedly stealing company assets, leading to a seven-month strike.

Today Guantinfa is one of three workers who must approve all company paperwork as a means to prevent management theft. So, it's not surprising that he remains suspicious of those in power.

The United States is "bombing, so the population dies," he said. "Humanitarian aid does not get to those who need it."

"The Americans criticize us for the war in Chechnya," Guantinfa continued, "but they do the same in Afghanistan."

Analyst Nikonov argues while people such as Guantinfa reflect the views of some Russians, public opinion is shifting. Russians will gradually come to more strongly support the war in Afghanistan and a long-term alliance with the United States, he said.

"Now the whole political debate in Russia is somewhat different," he said, "although, of course, there is still this anti-Western, anti-American momentum [among] some of Russia's politicians. That is definitely not the case with the Russian government."

For the moment, Putin has enough support to continue his alliance with the United States. But unless Russians see some specific benefits from this new cooperation, Putin may find his support drying up in the winter cold.