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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Old Habits Die Hard

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Everyone agrees that Sept. 11, 2001, changed the world. Much has been said and written about the impact the terrorist attacks had on the United States, how Europe responded and the Middle East was transformed, and about the effect the attacks had on the institutions of international relations in general.

But how did the events affect Russia? This question is rarely the subject of debate, but 9/11 and its consequences facilitated a change not just in Russia's relations with the outside world, but in its domestic political atmosphere as well.

President Vladimir Putin's instantaneous and flawless reaction to the U.S. tragedy created the possibility for a fundamental change in Russia's relations with the United States and with the West as a whole. The Kremlin sided with the White House, offering moral support and practical assistance. It is not important what was guiding Putin -- sincere solidarity with the United States, hope for preferential political and economic treatment, the conviction that terrorism represents an enormous threat, or the desire to legitimize its own campaign in Chechnya, as many of its detractors claimed. Whatever the case, it was a sweeping gesture.

Later events showed that the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush took this reaction as a given. Washington was unable or unwilling to understand that gestures from another great power -- and one with interests very much at odds with those of the United States -- should be answered in kind. The overriding impression was that the shock of 9/11 deprived the United States of its capacity to pick up on subtle diplomatic gestures. The nation and its leaders focused entirely on their own fears and on the measures needed to overcome them. Here we are talking not just about U.S. relations with Russia, but the United States' behavior in the international arena in general, including toward its allies.

The chance for a breakthrough in U.S.-Russian relations that existed following 9/11 and roughly until fall 2002 was missed. Washington calmly and deliberately put into effect its own agenda, disregarding outside objections and failing to take seriously whether its agenda matched the interests of the rest of the world.

The greatest destructive potential for relations between Russia and the United States -- and for Moscow's pro-Western course in the international arena in general -- was the Bush administration's main ideological tenet of tying global security issues to the cause of advancing democracy. Outside partners found it hard to swallow a neoconservative ideology that organically combined genuine democratic messianism with adherence to definite U.S. geopolitical ambitions. In this sense, Russia was a particularly difficult case.

Russia's political sensibilities have traditionally been rooted in geopolitical architecture. Moscow bases its modus operandi exclusively on national interests and a balance of power more appropriate to the classical geopolitics of the 19th century. Humanitarian and ideological motivations behind the actions of others are interpreted as an attempt to conceal the genuine intent. This happens even in those cases when the non-political nature of the action is obvious. From this standpoint, there is not much to say about the reception of a foreign policy course designed by architects like those in the Bush administration who deliberately combine democratic rhetoric with their own geopolitical -- and sometimes purely commercial -- interests and put them into practice by the use of force.

In the final analysis, Russia has come to the conclusion that the global war on terrorism is simply a new arena for unfolding global competition, and the accompanying phenomenon, labeled "promoting democracy," is a tool in that competition. Thus, Russia should not just sit back, but take advantage of the opportunities presented by today's complex global situation. Arms sales to Iran, Syria and Venezuela, for example, are often seen as anti-U.S. political moves. In fact, they are pure business and not at all personal, especially given that Russian capitalism is young and rapacious, as young capitalism was everywhere else in the world two centuries ago. If there is a quick buck to be made somewhere, that's where we'll make it because that's what everybody else does, and the only difference is that we're more open about it and have not yet learned how to dress greed for gain in idealistic language.

The unbounded political cynicism reigning among Russia's political elite is in part the result of five years in the counter-terrorist coalition. There is still no sign of the common enemy, while double standards are alive and kicking. All of the main participants are wrestling with their own enemies: Occasionally, the interests of several "allies" coincide, but more often, they do not. Whatever the case, 9/11 was not a moment of truth after which global players set aside their previous differences in the face of a new threat.

The obsession with the problem of security has led to uninhibited growth in the role of intelligence services. There is general paranoia and an expectation of bloody attacks that inevitably flow from the search for new threats, including from various "fifth columns" and foreign elements within society. Traditionalism is on the rise, as is religious consciousness as an attempt to resist something from inside. None of these phenomena in Russia is solely the result of the events of Sept. 11; they all have internal preconditions. Unfortunately, Russia has joined a growing global sociopolitical trend over the last five years that includes all of these components. And this serves only to strengthen the current state of affairs.

In a world where democracy is becoming an applied instrument -- and one, that is not working as it was meant to -- there are few role models left to copy. This plays surprisingly well into the hands of those who would build some kind of "sovereign democracy," as they can always ask whether we can see anything worth striving for. If there are no ideals left but only naked pragmatic interests, then what do you want from us, they ask?

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.