Russia Worries That Afghan Success Will Prompt U.S. Unilateralism

With the military campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the mopping up stage, the United States and Russia are struggling to identify the boundaries of strategic cooperation. Initial optimism about broad cooperation has faded. In Moscow, officials and foreign policy experts are now concerned that the United States is experiencing “dizziness from success,” and is embarking on a unilateralist course.

“The existence of the common enemy has eclipsed many complex issues in Russian-American relations, and even certain euphoria has emerged,” says Viktor Kremenyuk, Deputy Director of the USA and Canada Institute in Moscow. “Now, when certain goals in Afghanistan have been achieved and its [Afghanistan's] significance begins to drop, there comes a question: What’s next?”

The U.S. decision to unilaterally withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty appears to have seriously undermined prospects for a substantive U.S.-Russian partnership. Russian commentators link this “unfriendly move” directly to America’s sweeping military success in Afghanistan. The unexpectedly rapid collapse of the al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorist forces significantly diminished the value of Russian support for the U.S.-led war effort, many experts in Moscow believe. The anti-terrorism campaign also confirmed the United States’ seemingly unsurpassed military might in the very region where the Soviet army was so bitterly humiliated in the 1980s.

“One has to admit that Americans displayed quite a powerful performance in Afghanistan,” noted Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov. “Today we can play only a secondary role in this country. [Russia] doesn’t have a bridgehead in Afghanistan today,” he told the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper.

“The Bush administration is experiencing ‘dizziness from success’ in Afghanistan,” argues the leading America analyst Sergei Rogov, Director of the USA and Canada Institute, referring to the title of former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s famous article on Russia’s economic development under the first five-year plan. “[Its] pulling out of the ABM treaty is definitely connected with this.”

The Russian government’s official response to U.S. President George W. Bush’s ABM decision was restrained. President Vladimir Putin pledged to remain “very calm, very constructive.” But behind the façade of normalcy, Russia’s political class seethes over the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM treaty. “The Kremlin got a slap in the face,” wrote leading defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer in the Moskovskie Novosti weekly.

What Russia wants more than anything is to be regarded as an equal partner of the United States and other Western countries in international affairs. President Putin said as much in a recent interview with the Financial Times newspaper: “Deal with us as a partner,” he said. “Give us the same standard terms as anybody else.”

The U.S. move on the ABM treaty sends Moscow a diametrically opposite message. It graphically shows that America no longer views Russia as an equal. Moscow analysts suspect that Washington’s ABM decision has little to do with economic or even security considerations. They interpret it as the culmination of an ideological shift in which the United States sees itself as the world’s only superpower, and thus does not feel bound by any multilateral commitments. “Washington is not going to consider Moscow, Beijing, or anybody else as having an equal strategic status,” says Rogov.

The U.S. unilateralist approach has already cast a dark shadow on U.S.-Russian relations. “It demonstrated how they view our partnership and relations. It is like the relationship between a rider and a mule,” bitterly remarked Aleksei Arbatov, chairman of the Russian State Duma’s Defense Committee.

The perceived disregard for Russia by the United States might erode Moscow’s willingness to further support the U.S.-led campaign against terror. Russian officials are wary about possible U.S. military operations against so-called rogue states. Analysts in Moscow do not exclude potential American unilateral “forceful actions” in Iraq, Somalia, and some other countries. “I think this will lead to the collapse of the international coalition,” Rogov suggested.