US-Russia Relations

Reported by Simon Marks, executive producer, Feature Story News

WALTER CRONKITE: The September 11 attacks have led to a major realignment in Washington-Moscow relations. But given the recent history of antagonism between the two powers, will the new-found alliance last? Correspondent Simon Marks has more.

[Sound Montage of September 11]

REPORTER: Another plane was seen by eyewitnesses careening into the left-hand tower. Smoke is pluming from both the towers.

EYEWITNESS: I saw people jumping out of—off the building. Many, many people just jumping, and in a panic I had my....

SIMON MARKS: The events of September 11 have staggered America—and led to rethinking many of the assumptions of US foreign policy. That includes reordering relations between Washington and Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first foreign leader to contact President Bush in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks.

LILIA SHEVTSOVA: This point brought Russia back to the Western world.

MARKS: Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is one of the preeminent analysts of the Russian political scene. As a critic of President Putin, she was rather surprised by the Russian leader's pragmatism.

SHEVTSOVA: Putin jumped into the water and risked. He risked a lot. And it seems to me that at that moment he discovered that he didn't want Russia to be marginalized.

MARKS: Many people say Russia and the US have entered a new era of economic and military cooperation. But Analyst Anatol Lieven, a former Moscow correspondent for The Times of London, warns that the distrust of the Cold War years won't be easily eradicated.

ANATOL LIEVEN: There are now wildly exaggerated hopes from this new relationship, that Russia will be asked to join NATO next year, that you're going to have a completely new relationship, that Russia will move towards the European Union, that there will be a new equal partnership between America and Russia.

MARKS: After all, it was only a few years ago that Washington and Moscow were entering another, whole new relationship. Russian president Boris Yeltsin insisted that his country be treated as a great power, including maintaining a sphere of influence in the territory of the former Soviet Union. The West largely went along with him, despite his controversial decisions to suppress separatists in the breakaway region of Chechnya and send tanks onto the streets of Moscow in 1993 to defeat his parliamentary opponents.

[New Year celebrations]

But then, on the last day of the last century, as his countrymen celebrated the dawn of a new age in Red Square, Boris Yeltsin was gone. His sudden resignation caught US policy makers completely off guard—and so did his choice of successor—Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, about whom Washington knew little beyond the fact that he'd spent a lifetime working for the KGB.

[SOUND EX RADIO MOSCOW] This is the Voice of Russia World Service. First the headlines. Acting President Vladimir Putin is sure the antiterrorist operation in Chechnya will be a success....

MARKS: Within weeks, the clock seemed to be turning back. The Voice of Russia sounded more like the Cold War-era Radio Moscow. Order became the order of the day. The President curbed freedom of the press, proposed limiting the number of Russian political parties, railed against US plans to expand NATO and introduce National Missile Defense, and watched his popularity soar among Russians who craved a strong leader who got things done.

[BUSH SWEARING IN] "I George Walker Bush do solemnly swear" "I George Walker Bush do solemnly swear...." "That I will faithfully...."

MARKS: The new President in Washington had campaigned for office criticizing Bill Clinton's record on Russia—saying his predecessor was too invested in Boris Yeltsin personally and insufficiently focused on the process of reform. But after his first meeting with Vladimir Putin in Slovenia in June, President Bush said he'd had a chance to look into the Russia leader's eyes and "see his soul." With the benefit of hindsight, the apparent warmth of that first meeting set the stage for the blossoming ties that occurred after September 11th. Analyst Lilia Shevtsova argues that was part of the Russian leader's plan.

SHEVTSOVA: Putin appears to be rather smart guy. At least so far he is avoiding any kind of trade-offs. But he definitely waits. He anticipates softening of the position not only on Chechnya, but softening of the position on NATO.

MARKS: NATO, a pillar of the West for 50 years, is now expanding eastwards, and since September the 11th, Vladimir Putin has indicated that he's softening his opposition to the notion of extending NATO's reach right up to Russia's borders. Some analysts in Moscow, like Vyacheslav Nikonov of the Polity Foundation, argue that Russian membership of the North Atlantic alliance is the logical next step.

VYACHESLAV NIKONOV: If Russia is proposed membership, I think Putin's decision would be yes, we do agree. And that would be a strategic decision. That is a decision which changes the world, and these are the kind of decisions which change destinies of countries.

MARKS: But others say there's still a long way to go before the US and Russia can build a permanent, enduring alliance. Analyst Anatol Lieven says many Russians don't believe the US has given up its unilateral approach to foreign affairs.

LIEVEN: You have a lot of people here in America who are saying, oh great, Russia is our friend, so that means we can enlarge NATO without consulting Russia, that we can abrogate the ABM treaty—that we can do this, that we can do that and because Russia is our friend, Russia isn't going to complain. Well, both sides are frankly crazy if they pursue this line, the two of them, then the relationship is going to break down very, very soon.

MARKS: There remain, both in the US and Russia, constituencies that oppose the very notion of cooperation. President Putin has had to battle senior generals who urged him not to sign on to President Bush's "war on terror." And some in the Bush administration remain commited to a unilateralist strategy. The meetings between the two leaders in Washington and Crawford, Texas failed to provide any new breakthroughs, and in fact, revealed continuing disagreements over the US missile shield program. So far the US and Russia are cooperating in the short-term fight against terrorism, but it remains to be seen if it will expand into a wider-ranging, long-term alliance.

For the Russia Project, I'm Simon Marks, Washington.

© 2001 by The Stanley Foundation
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