Anti-Terror Coalition Needs Russia

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The March 14 elections in Spain and comments this week from leaders in Poland, South Korea, and Italy have caused concern that the U.S.-led international coalition against international terrorism could be coming unglued. The administration of President George W. Bush has been scrambling to hold things together at a time when -- with high-profile terrorist incidents in Turkey, Russia, Spain, Iraq, and elsewhere -- a unified effort seems as badly needed as ever. "There can be no separate peace with the terrorist enemy," Bush said on March 19. "Any sign of weakness or retreat simply validates terrorist violence and invites more violence for all nations. The only certain way to protect our people is by united and decisive action."

Against this background, perhaps it is time to reassess Russia's role within the antiterrorism coalition. Moscow, of course, joined France and Germany last year in vigorously opposing military action against the regime of deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein without additional UN authorization and, perhaps, even international control. Obviously, this position earned the scorn of the U.S. administration, even though coalition stalwart British Prime Minister Tony Blair has conceded that reasonable people equally committed to combating terror could disagree on this point.

The Kremlin's opposition to the war in Iraq was allowed to overshadow completely Moscow's previous support for Washington's efforts in the field. Overnight, the United States forgot that Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first foreign leader to telephone Bush following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. On Sept. 12, 2001, Putin issued a statement that precisely echoes what Bush is saying today: "The entire international community should unite in the struggle against terrorism," Putin said.

Also forgotten was the fact that Putin himself visited Ground Zero in New York on Nov. 16, 2001. As was Russia's active and vocal support for the U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan. Moscow's secret services had long cultivated ties with that country's anti-Taliban forces, especially with the Northern Alliance. The United States has acknowledged that the intelligence the Kremlin shared made it easier to launch the kind of quick, effective new-style warfare that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld trumpeted in that action.

Forgotten was the fact that Russia largely swallowed its pride and raised no objections to a radically stepped-up U.S. military presence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, regions that Moscow has considered to be within its sphere of influence for centuries.

Analysts in Russia and the West have still not come to grips with exactly why Putin so spontaneously offered such unwavering support to the international effort against terrorism. Time and again, they have been forced to concede the possibility that he did it primarily because he felt it was the right thing to do.

But he did it, and Russia's contribution made a real difference. Intelligence experts concede that Moscow, despite its ongoing conflict with Muslim Chechnya and its own missteps in the Islamic world over the years, has parlayed its extensive ties in Central Asia, Iran, Hussein's Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere into a network of political and intelligence resources that the United States and Britain cannot help but envy. The fact that no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq so far would seem to vindicate Putin's prewar assessment of the Iraqi threat, an assessment no doubt based on the intelligence resources at his disposal.

In his first public appearance following his landslide re-election victory on March 14, Putin took pains to reassure both his domestic audience and the international community that combating terrorism is at the center of his attention. Moreover, a Pew Center survey released this week revealed that "only in Britain and Russia [of the eight foreign countries surveyed] do large majorities believe that the U.S. is right to be so concerned about terrorism."

U.S. decision makers might have been concerned when Putin on March 9 appointed Ambassador to the UN Sergei Lavrov as his new foreign minister. Lavrov, of course, was one of the point men for Moscow's opposition to the military intervention in Iraq and he gained a reputation for caustic remarks. But in his first news conference as foreign minister, Lavrov also stressed that combating terrorism is a foreign-policy priority for the Kremlin. "The position of the Russian leadership remains unchanged: There must be no compromises in the fight against terrorism," Lavrov said on March 17.

Lavrov also defended Russia's longstanding assistance to Iran's nuclear program and, strangely to U.S. ears, called Tehran "a most important partner in the coalition against terrorism."

But perhaps the international antiterrorism coalition should make the effort to find out what Lavrov has in mind. After all, the coalition has had to engage regimes of all sorts in its effort to combat terror, and perhaps the arguments for engaging, rather than confronting Tehran as strong as are those for engaging Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, or Uzbekistan.

Taking another look at reestablishing Moscow's credentials within the antiterrorism coalition would seem a prudent move, especially now when the coalition seems shakier than ever.

Robert Coalson, a former editorial page editor at The Moscow Times, is a regional analyst specializing in Russia with Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe in Prague.