U.S. Takes Russia for Granted at Its Peril

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor of the Nation. Stephen F. Cohen is professor of Russian studies at New York University.

Unless American policy changes significantly before Presidents Bush and Vladimir V. Putin meet in late May, the possibility of a historic U.S.-Russia partnership may be lost.

Indeed, in the seven months since Putin became the Bush administration’s most valuable ally in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan, this second chance to establish a truly cooperative relationship with post-Communist Russia--after the squandered opportunity of the 1990s--has been gravely endangered by Bush’s own policies.

Russia’s contribution to the U.S. counter-terror operation in Afghanistan in the weeks after Sept. 11 exceeded that of all NATO allies combined. Moscow not only provided intelligence information, it allowed the Pentagon to use its airspace and crucial Soviet-built airfields in Central Asia.


It also stepped up its military assistance to the Afghan Northern Alliance, which Russia had supported long before Sept. 11 and which did most of the ground fighting until recently.

But now, even Russia’s pro-Western lobbies are asking: “What did we get in return?”

Revelations in March that the Pentagon’s new nuclear doctrines continue to include Russia as a possible target were the lead story for days in Russia’s media. Most of the headlines and commentary were angrily anti-American. Such sentiments, which had diminished after Sept. 11, have been growing rapidly. Symptomatic is the widely expressed view that a U.S.-led plot had deprived Russian athletes of gold medals at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

More serious, however, is the opinion spreading across Moscow’s political spectrum that the Bush administration’s war on terrorism has less to do with helping Russia fight Islamic extremism on its borders than with establishing military outposts for a new American empire--”a new Rome,” as one political insider called it. The primary goal of this empire is believed to be control over the region’s enormous oil and gas reserves. Even Russians who consider themselves pro-American are finding it increasingly difficult to counter this charge.

As seen from Moscow, the Bush administration since Sept. 11 has been systematically imposing what Russia has always feared--military encirclement. That view is not surprising: It appears likely that by 2003 there will be a U.S. or NATO military presence in at least nine of the 15 former Soviet republics.

Meanwhile, Putin is coming under increasing attack in Moscow for “losing” Central Asia and the Caucasus by succumbing to U.S. imperialism. Of special importance has been a series of published open letters signed by retired generals, including a former defense minister, accusing Putin of betraying the nation’s security and other vital interests. A struggle over the wisdom of Putin’s strategic choice of an alliance with the U.S.--and perhaps over Putin’s leadership itself--is clearly underway in Russia’s political class.


If nothing else, the new U.S. strategic thinking, including its enhanced status for tactical nuclear weapons, strengthens elements in the Russian military that have lobbied since the 1990s for giving “surgical” battlefield nukes a larger role in the Kremlin’s own doctrine. As a leading Russian military specialist has contended, the new U.S. doctrine gives the Russian military additional incentive for new testing and deployment.

All this suggests that the scheduled summit in Russia between Bush and Putin may turn out to be little more than a show designed to promote the two leaders’ political fortunes while doing nothing to achieve today’s most urgent security need--sharp reductions in both sides’ nuclear arsenals.

Sept. 11 notwithstanding, the post-Cold War nuclear world is more dangerous than the Cold War period itself. The main reason is the instability of Russia’s nuclear infrastructures. CIA Director George Tenet has emphasized, for example, that Russia’s nuclear devices, materials and knowledge might become the primary source of proliferation.

The Bush administration’s policy of treating Russia not as a real partner but merely as a helper when it suits U.S. purposes--not to mention a potential nuclear target--only increases the dangers.

In that fundamental sense, the U.S. today has an administration whose policies toward Russia are endangering America’s national security.