Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

One Year On, Russia No Longer a Junk Bond

It may sound cynical, even sacrilegious, but there's no getting around it: In terms of its international standing, Russia has benefited from the deadly terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

After President Vladimir Putin threw his unequivocal support behind the U.S.-led war against the Taliban and al-Qaida, Moscow's status in world affairs jumped from junk bond to blue chip, and its ties with the West seemed more durable than ever before.

But despite a greater respect for its role in world affairs, Russia's rewards for its support in the war on terror proved less tangible and immediate than many here had hoped. Moreover, the international coalition rallied by the United States to combat terrorism has been shaken by discord in recent months as Washington pushes ahead with its plans to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

If the blossoming relationship between Russia and the West is to bear fruit, analysts say, both sides will have to work hard to find a common language on the areas where their interests overlap but don't necessarily coincide -- especially the fight against terrorism and enhanced economic cooperation.

"The major change that has taken place is the further integration of Russia into the world community," John Reppert of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs said by phone Wednesday. If potential fault lines in Russia's relationship with the West do exist, he said, they are ideological, especially in finding a common definition of terrorism and terrorists.

On this front, Russia and the United States clearly disagree over at least three countries. One is Iran, where Russia is busy building nuclear power reactors that U.S. diplomats have called the thorniest issue on the bilateral agenda. Another is Iraq, an important trade partner for Russia but considered a sponsor of international terrorism by Washington. U.S. President George W. Bush has made it clear that he wants a regime change in Iraq, while Russia, like most of its European neighbors, has insisted that the conflict with Baghdad cannot be resolved without the participation of the United Nations Security Council.

The third point of friction is Georgia, an important hub in the unstable but strategically important Caucasus region, where both Russia and the United States have interests. Alexander Pikayev of the Moscow Carnegie Center said that in the immediate future, the Caucasus could prove to be the most sensitive issue in U.S.-Russian relations. As U.S. security policy has shifted eastward, Pikayev said, Washington has gone ever deeper into a zone of vital importance to Russia, including both the Caucasus and Central Asia. This new proximity of interests could work either way: to damage the bilateral relationship or to reinforce it.

"The current situation is much riskier for Russia; the stakes are higher," Pikayev said. "On one hand, the United States' shift toward Asia could serve to bring Russia and the United States significantly closer together in the long term." Many have argued that the U.S. military presence in Central Asia provides a handy security buffer for Russia's "soft underbelly." At the same time, Pikayev said, the two nations' interests and sympathies in the region don't always coincide. Because the region is so unstable, the discrepancies could blow up and damage U.S.-Russia ties, he said.

Opponents of Putin's pro-Western stance have decried what they see as unfair trade-offs and a betrayal of Russia's national interests. Their indignation is not surprising. Apart from its improved international standing, the gains Russia has made since throwing its lot in with the West a year ago have been only "small steps forward," as Pikayev put it.

One step was Russia's enhanced status in the Group of Eight industrial nations. The exclusive club voted in June to let Moscow host its 2006 summit, effectively recognizing Russia as a full-fledged member and giving it the right, as host, to shape the meeting's agenda.

But many of the most widely publicized agreements redefining Russia's relationship with the West have been more hype than substance. In return for gracefully bowing out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Russia -- although retaining its sought-after right to have missiles with multiple warheads -- got the largely meaningless arms reduction agreement signed by Putin and Bush during a summit in May.

Likewise, it is not clear whether the new arrangement between Russia and NATO will significantly increase Moscow's clout in the alliance. Moreover, the international war on terror has rapidly expanded the list of possible candidates for NATO entry, giving top Russian military brass the jitters.

One of the biggest disappointments for Russia has been the lack of direct economic benefit from its new closeness with the West. Government spokesman Alexei Volin said Tuesday that "the Russian side understands that our relations [with the United States] have room for growth, especially if cooperation in the political arena moves into the economic dimension," Interfax reported.

Although both Washington and the European Union have effectively granted Russia market economy status, the benefits of that distinction seem questionable thus far, particularly since Europe has made moves to significantly water down the perks Russia was to get.

In the long term, however, Russia could benefit financially, for example if the United States gets serious about buying its oil as an alternative to energy supplies from the Arab world. "The advantages Russia is getting and will eventually get ... are opportunities rather than hard cash," Boris Makarenko of Moscow's Center for Political Technologies recently told Reuters.

For the time being, a disgruntled Moscow has continued to pursue strategic and economic interests that sometimes send shivers down the spines of leaders in Washington and Brussels -- notably, nuclear cooperation with Iran, a pending $40 billion trade deal with Iraq and growing arms sales to China.

Pikayev said that, in light of Russia's economic weakness and the dearth of investment and new economic incentives from the West, such a pragmatic "open door" policy is perfectly understandable.

"What can Russia do but turn to other countries?" Pikayev said. "It would be unwise to act otherwise."

Vladimir Frolov, an official with the State Duma's foreign relations committee, said Russia's ability to maintain and benefit from its new international status depends in large part on its economic progress. He said Russia and the United States would have to strive to find a common language on global issues.

"Rallying around a common enemy, as World War II demonstrated, cannot bring long-term benefits if there is not a common view of the world," Frolov said.

In order to work to mutual advantage, the Russia-West tandem would require a great deal of coordination, including military cooperation, Pikayev said. "The fewer surprises the better."