Vladimir Putin, then the president of Russia, was the first to call President George W. Bush to express his support and solidarity with the American people after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001. Some were surprised; others searched for a hidden meaning in that call. But all agreed that the tragedy was an opportunity for Russia and the United States to significantly improve relations. A few years later the consensus was that they had missed it.
But was there ever such an opportunity?
In the fall of 2001, it seemed that the terrorist threat, equally dangerous to all, could unite nations despite their historical, geopolitical and ideological differences. At the time, Russia was waging a bloody war in Chechnya that was criticized by the West, and it hoped that 9/11 would encourage the United States to reevaluate its stance on Chechen militants. Although the West did not abandon its double standards regarding that war, it no longer provided the moral support it had given the Chechen “freedom fighters” in the 1990s.
This probably helped Russia win the war in Chechnya, but it was the only positive outcome in U.S.-Russian relations after September 2001. The U.S. tragedy did not and could not bring the two countries closer together.
Al Qaida’s attack gave the United States free reign in the world. Americans, who were brought up to believe in their country’s invulnerability, at least on their home soil, suddenly saw that danger can appear out of nowhere without any discernible reason. And so, to ensure their own safety, they believed they needed a global solution, combining social and political change (the spread of democracy) with retaliatory or, better yet, preventive strikes. In other words, the U.S. leadership in the world – a concept born at the end of the Cold War – was suddenly given a concrete mission: the security of the United States. Those who refused to help the United States were automatically denounced as accomplices to evil.
In late 2001 and the first half of 2002, Moscow made what it considered to be major geopolitical concessions to Washington, including developing cooperation in Central Asia, where U.S. bases had been established, and closing its military facilities on Cuba and in Vietnam. However, Washington did not take any reciprocal moves. Good will and compromise on strategic issues are always the result of tough bargaining and never reciprocity. Furthermore, part of the U.S. administration, above all the U.S. president, sincerely thought that support given to the United States should be a natural reaction for any normal country, without expecting anything in return.
Unfortunately, when Russia and the United States were allegedly given a chance to dramatically improve their relations, they were not in the mood to capitalize on it. Washington ruled out concessions; the most it could agree to was to discuss the terms of other countries’ roles in the U.S. strategy. But Russia, which was recovering from the cataclysms of the 1990s, was searching for ways to reinforce its standing on the international stage.
That disconnect became obvious in late 2001. The United States clearly indicated that it did not plan to sacrifice any item on its agenda, even within the context of the newly-created anti-terror coalition. The U.S. administration announced its withdrawal from the 1972 ABM treaty, which has been the cornerstone of strategic nuclear stability. Next followed the invasion of Iraq and problems in Georgia and Ukraine.
Washington failed to see that Russia’s unexpectedly harsh reaction to this was not proof of its lingering imperial ambitions, but the result of feeling that it had been betrayed. Whereas Putin tried to develop a new model of relations with the United States, Washington started pushing Russia back in all areas. Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in February 2007 was Russia’s public farewell to the illusions of 2001, and the Georgian-Russian war in August 2008 was direct consequence of the opportunity Russia and the United States missed in 2001. Disillusioned about the possibility of seeing eye to eye with Washington, Moscow yet again concluded that only power is respected in this world.
Former CIA Director George Tenet writes in his memoir, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA, that U.S.-Russian counterterrorism cooperation, which seemed to be on the rise after September 2001, did not have a chance. “In the final analysis, it was still a game of spy versus spy,” he writes.
The idea of U.S.-Russian friendship based on a common enemy was an unsuccessful attempt to bypass deep-seated problems in the bilateral relationship. It came as no surprise, therefore, that Russia and the United States ultimately returned to familiar issues inherited from the Cold War; the “reset” was just the latest detente between the two powers. Russia and the United States have now reached a new crossroads, but in today’s uncertain world there is little concern that they might choose the same road again.