|Vol.7, No.35, 27.9.01, p9
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on America, Russian President Vladimir Putin withdrew to his lavish government residence on the Black Sea coast.
A move which might appear incomprehensible to many did not come as a surprise to his entourage. They claim that Putin took time out to reflect and form a position that might be crucial for Russia in the years to come.
Initially, Moscow did not indicate clearly whether it would join the Western anti-terrorist coalition. It merely pledged assistance in supplying intelligence for the US-led military operation in Afghanistan and said it would facilitate the use of logistically vital airspace.
The Russian president seems to have made up his mind while embarking on his European tour, which began on Tuesday with a three-day visit to Germany and concludes with the EU-Russia summit next Wednesday (3 October) in Brussels.
So what is there at stake for Russia? The terrorist attacks on the US have transformed overnight not only the landscape of New York, but the entire geopolitical landscape, ultimately affecting every country in the world.
The likely next stage of the anti-terrorist operation will shift the action to Russia's immediate neighbourhood, with a risk of triggering instability along its borders. Putin, like his counterparts in Washington, London, Paris, Beijing and other world capitals, is confronted with one of the defining choices of his career.
In the period between the Kosovo crisis and the attacks on the US, Russia's main foreign policy objective had been to reassert its role as a world power. In practical terms it led to a surprisingly prompt reconciliation with NATO in spite of Russia's grievances over the alliance's unilateral actions in Yugoslavia.
In addition, given the hallmarks of America's policy priorities (especially the nuclear missile defence plans), Russia grew remarkably articulate in advocating enhanced security cooperation with the European Union.
However, prior to 11 September the West perceived the forming of an alliance with Russia as both improbable and undesirable. Over the years following the collapse of the Soviet regime, Russia failed to meet Western expectations. Although no longer classed as an official enemy, Russia still fell into the 'them', rather than the 'us' category.
However, the recent terrorist attacks have demonstrated with appalling vividness the face of the real enemy, automatically rendering irrelevant or negligible the perceived gap between 'us' and 'them' in the case of Russia, and also - but less so - in the case of China.
From Russia's perspective, the risk of losses from siding with the West cannot be dismissed. The most likely consequence is that Russia will join the list of potential targets in the eyes of the terrorists.
At the same time this might cause considerable tension inside the country, whose vast Muslim population had so far little sympathy with the Chechen 'freedom fighters'. However, the gains from siding with the West could be enormous.
Several ideas are circulating in the media and think-tank circles in Moscow. First, Russia could credibly raise once again the subject of a new international legal order, offering the options of either reforming the UN or devising a mechanism to tackle universal challenges.
Secondly, Russia might get a virtual green light from the international community to exercise its responsibility in Chechnya and its volatile 'near abroad' regions such as the South Caucasus.
Thirdly, Russia could attempt to strike a deal with the US/NATO, offering political and military support in exchange for a few 'favours', such as limiting its NMD project to non-strategic missile defence and writing off all or part of the old Soviet debts.
To sum up, Russia could make a serious headway towards re-establishing its role as a major actor on the world scene.
However surprising it might seem, the demand to curb NATO expansion may not appear on Russia's shopping list, and for a good reason. The recent terrorist attacks seem to have revitalized internal debates in Russia over its own membership of NATO. Sources in Moscow claim that early last week the issue of Russia's 'operational accession' to NATO was discussed in the Kremlin.
Last week, communists and nationalists in the Duma fiercely protested when vice-speaker Irina Khakamada summed up the position of the liberal and democratic factions: "Russia needs serious guarantees [for assisting NATO/US]. For instance, NATO should de facto cease to be an aggressive alliance that advocates a one-polar world approach ... NATO could consider extending to Russia Article 5 of its statute on collective defence, thus accepting us as an associated member."
This might seem crazy, but who can now draw a clear line between the world of Hollywood-style fantasy and the reality that so brutally stepped into our lives?
Elena Prokhorova broadcasts for the BBC World (Russian) Service.
Major feature assessing the changing mood in Moscow ahead of President Vladimir Putin's visit to Brussels for the EU-Russia summit, 3 October 2001.
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