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Our new best friend

By Steven Martinovich
web posted November 26, 2001

That Britain is considered a close ally of the United States should be no surprise. The former imperial power has enjoyed a close relationship with its former colony since the Second World War and the two have maintained a tight military and intelligence-related alliance for several decades. Giving conservatives pause, however, is America's new ally. Long an enemy, and lately an untrustworthy friend, conservatives are reticent to accept Russia in the fold.

You can see that in the pages of Enter Stage Right. This journal has printed a number essays in recent years urging extreme caution when dealing with the new Russia, pieces that may be been overly antagonistic towards Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin and the new democracy they carved out of the ashes of the Soviet Union.

Vladimir Putin and George W. BushThis journal believes that it is time for the old paradigm to give way to a new one. It is a paradigm which recognizes that Russia is an important strategic ally and that Putin, who admittedly has his faults, is a man that America needs to be friendly with and accept as an equal. That gives most conservatives pause, unfortunately, but the one conservative who counts, US President George W. Bush, is ignoring the old guard and forging his own relationship with Russia. It is a relationship which is already paying huge dividends and promises to provide a huge return on investment in the coming years.

While the press loves to describe the war in Afghanistan as an American campaign, it should be fairer to point to it as an American-British-Russian effort. While all three nations have contributed to the war effort, Russia in ways that we may not know about, but all feel.

Russia's recent fight with OPEC was, as Andrew Sullivan recently pointed out in a Sunday Times essay, not a coincidence. In fact, it was done partly for our benefit. Russia's recent economic strength has come as a result of higher oil prices, its main export these days. By helping to drive down the price of oil, Putin is building valuable goodwill with the west that will translate into future investment by western oil firms. If America decides against exploiting oil reserves in Alaska, it won't be because of increased oil from the Middle East, but rather Russia.

The Russians have also provided valuable intelligence courtesy of their allies in Afghanistan to American military planners and remained largely mum on the prospect of their former military bases in the breakaway republics being used by their former Cold War enemy.

Recent discussions to reduce the nuclear stockpiles of the two nations also signal a renewed thaw between Russia and the US. Granted, it's in the economic interest for the Russians to reduce the size of a stockpile that they can't simply afford to maintain, but it also reduces the likelihood that these weapons will fall into the hand of future al-Qaidas. When you combine that with an increasing Russian tolerance for Bush's proposed missile defense system and the recent comments of Tony Blair's and US Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow stating that an alliance between NATO and Russia was negotiable, you have a massive shift in east-west relations.

All of this is possible because of the growing friendship between Putin and Bush. The two men, both who reportedly share deep religious convictions, have a warm rapport as evidenced by their mini-summit in Texas recently. During a press conference, Putin stated that, "Of course, it is very important to be born under a happy star and to have destiny facing your way. And indeed, I'm in agreement with the president, perhaps, God was looking quite positively on this.

"But there are different approaches to addressing such kind of problem. There are people deeply religious who usually say that God knows what is to befall a nation of people or a person. But there are people, no less devoted to God, but who still believe that the people, a person, should also take care of their own destiny and lives. And it gives me great pleasure to deal and to work with President Bush, who is a person, a man who does what he says."

It was at once praise for a man that Putin clearly identifies with and a dig at the former Clinton Administration that exasperated the Russians to no end. Simply put, it shows that Russia is once again looking west for its future, something not seriously done since the days of Peter the Great.

Of course, for many conservatives, these recent Russian actions are merely a clear campaign of maskirova. Writers like Steve Farrell and Steve Montgomery point out that Russia's actions and words don't always balance out on the ledger sheet. For their proof, the two pointed out in an October article that, according to Centre for International & Security Studies at York University research associate Taras Kuzio, the Russians were promoting four strategic goals in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

If we accept Farrell and Montgomery as representatives of the conservative old-guard when it comes to dealing with Russia, we can also accept their contention of what these four goals are: a halt to America's plan for a missile defense shield, the creation of a Russian sphere of influence that is essentially the borders of the old Soviet Union, the removal of three Baltic nations from the list of potential second round NATO members and a free hand in dealing with the Chechen uprising.

Of the four, the sphere of influence goals are the easiest to deal with. It makes sense for Russia to consider its old borders a sphere of influence, just as the United States has considered the entire North American continent to be its sphere of influence since the Monroe Doctrine, one that has yet to be disavowed by Washington, D.C. It is an extension of that thought that has prompted Russia to ask for Baltic nations to be removed from the list, one that the United States would have surely registered during the Cold War had Moscow invited Cuba to join the Warsaw Pact.

As noted before, Russian resistance to the idea of an American missile defense system is beginning to wane, perhaps because of the inevitability of the project. Regardless of its technical merits, a system will be in place one day and the events of September 11 have only assured its outcome. The Russians understand that the Bush Administration will move forward and it is in their best interests to complain, but not too loudly.

The hardest charge to address is Russia's conduct during its on-again, off-again war in Chechnya. Farrell and Montgomery are right when they say giving the Russians a freer hand in Chechnya would only lead to more human rights abuses. Thankfully, the Bush Administration pulled away from the use of tactical level nuclear weapons in Afghanistan, something that the Russians unofficially announced they would allow providing that they too were allowed to use them in Chechnya. That said, unless the United States and its allies are willing to intervene militarily in what is still nominally a Russian province - making it an internal Russian matter - the best the west can hope for is to lodge our protests and document any atrocities.

Admittedly, Russian strategic interests may not mesh completely with those of the United States and Britain, but neither are they insurmountable. British and American interests also do not mesh on every issue – witness America's desire to use force against Saddam Hussein as a follow up to their war in Afghanistan, something that the British are reticent to do - but there are no deal breaking issues. Outside of Chechnya, one could easily argue that Russia's interests are entirely reasonable and responsible for nation that is surrounded by hostile forces. The same forces, as Russia's military can provide with ample evidence, which attacked the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

As any married couple can tell you, no partnership is without its hiccups. Russia's decision to sell conventional weaponry and nuclear technology to Iran is at best regrettable, at worst it is irresponsible. Russia has been too slow to transition to a free market economy and its citizens' freedoms can sometimes be tenuous.

Ultimately, however, it is too late - not to mention foolish - to go back to the bad old days of the late 1990s when Russia was viewed with open suspicion. Bush, Blair and Putin have all invested far too much political capital in a three-way relationship to have it fall apart now. Each receives something that they need. For Bush, it is a chance to prove that he's not the naive bumpkin hopelessly out of his element when it comes to foreign affairs and that America's future is a safer one with a healthy Russia. For Blair, a stronger Russia provides a valuable economic and political counterweight to other rising nations. For Putin, a closer relationship with Britain and the United States is the best way to move his nation into the future.

As Sullivan pointed out on November 19, "[T]his trilateralism could actually work, i.e. do more useful things than employ professional diplomats." All we can hope is that the right -- under the rubric of nothing ventured, nothing gained -- will give it a chance. It would be fitting that out of the ashes of the World Trade Center, not only did America vanquish a new foe, but it also made a new friend.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario. A modified version of this essay appeared in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record on November 23, 2001.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • Vladimir Putin: America's "trusted friend" by Steve Montgomery and Steve Farrell (November 26, 2001)
    Steve Montgomery and Steve Farrell disagree and think that Vladimir Putin can't be trusted and is certainly no friend of the United States
  • Stiff Right Jab: Out of the rubble - The new Soviet Union By Steve Montgomery & Steve Farrell (October 8, 2001)
    Continuing Russian actions have convinced Steve Montgomery and Steve Farrell that they aren't as close allies as George W. Bush would like to think
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