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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Out of Steam or Gathering Momentum?

It has become a platitude to talk of the dramatic improvement in U.S.-Russian relations following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, trumpeted by some as a new era in relations between the two countries based on "shared interests and values." However, on the anniversary of the events that precipitated this "new era," the relationship looks to be under strain, with marked tensions resulting from differences over Iran, Iraq and Georgia. So, is it time for a reassessment?

Things certainly got off to an excellent start last year with Russia's strong backing of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. For President Vladimir Putin the benefits were clear: By joining the international coalition against terrorism, he was able "legitimize" his war in Chechnya and mute much of the international criticism of human rights abuses being committed by federal forces there.

Furthermore, there was a close coincidence of Russian and U.S. interests in Afghanistan. Russia was just as keen as the United States to rid itself of the Taliban and the destabilizing Taliban influence on the CIS's southern border, and was happy to have someone else do the job for it. Putin was also making a virtue out of necessity in not objecting to a U.S. military presence in Central Asia -- no doubt realizing that his powers of persuasion over Central Asia's leaders would be limited in the face of strong U.S. pressure.

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Events since then, however, suggest that the areas where the two countries' interests coincide as closely as in Afghanistan are few and far between.

Putin has shown himself to be a hard-headed pragmatist, who seems to have shaken off many prejudices and preconceptions of the Cold War era, but while the rhetoric and the spin on both sides has switched from confrontational to cordial, underlying interests and positions -- unsurprisingly -- have remained largely unchanged.

Russia quite naturally continues to pursue its business interests in Iran and Iraq, despite U.S. disapproval.

Putin has expressed serious doubts about the wisdom of invading Iraq, although the signals are that Russia may well accede to the wishes of the Bush administration providing that it receives certain guarantees vis-?-vis its economic interests in Iraq.

If this proves to be the case, it would provide further confirmation of Putin's pragmatic approach, with his desire to make the most of a weak hand taking precedence over Russia's ties with the Iraqi regime.

However, in the medium term perhaps the best thing that can come out of the relationship is further integration of Russia into the international community.

Russia's standing in the world has undeniably grown since Sept. 11. The trappings of this new improved status to date are the new NATO-Russia Council, the granting of market economy status by the United States and de facto by the European Union (although, it seems, in a watered-down form), acceleration of WTO negotiations on Russia's accession and a larger role for Russia in the Group of Eight leading industrial nations.

But it could also be argued that aside from boosting the country's self-esteem and the increased opportunities for strutting its stuff on the world stage, Russia has gained little from all this -- that the NATO-Russia Council really doesn't add up to much and that while market status sounds good, the actual economic benefits remain unclear. Moreover, the U.S. Congress has still not repealed the obsolete Jackson-Vanik amendment.

Nevertheless, Russia is on track and if the momentum can be maintained, the potential benefits of greater engagement for Russia and the West across a whole range of areas should not be underestimated.