MOSCOW — At their meeting here this week, President Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin can take a dramatic step toward a new U.S.-Russian partnership by building upon a revolution in the geopolitics of Eurasia that has been rapidly unfolding since Sept. 11. Coming on the heels of last week's agreements to cut nuclear arsenals and create a NATO-Russia council, burgeoning cooperation on Eurasian security could transform U.S.-Russian relations.
For centuries, Russia has dominated Central Asia and the Caucasus, all the while warning Western powers to steer clear. But Moscow is backing off. The U.S. military now has footholds in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Georgia, all a direct result of America's war on terrorism. Bases in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have facilitated U.S. operations in Afghanistan; U.S. troops in Georgia will help prepare forces there to attack terrorists in the country's lawless Pankisi Gorge. Remarkably, U.S. forces have arrived under Russia's approving eye.
The motivations behind Moscow's cooperation go well beyond the fight against terrorism. Putin's welcome of U.S. forces into Russia's backyard is part of a profound shift in his country's policy toward its neighbors. Before Putin, Moscow worked hard to limit Western influence in the former Soviet republics, saw Russia as the sole arbiter of regional disputes and showed interest in reconstituting an imperial zone. In contrast, Putin's policy is based on economic pragmatism and recognition that Russia would pay too high a price for seeking to retain tight control over its periphery.
Economic reconstruction of Russia is Putin's key goal, and foreign policy is to serve this end. His increased respect for the sovereignty of Russia's smaller neighbors and his willingness to offer the West more economic and strategic access to Central Asia and the Caucasus follow logically.
The Russian president has gradually implemented his policy since 2000. Russia has dropped its opposition to the U.S.-backed Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, which would bring Caspian oil to the international market without crossing Russian territory. Russian companies are vying to participate in the project. In peace talks over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, Moscow has allowed Western countries to become influential partners in mediation. Russia also is withdrawing from many of its military bases across the region, fully aware that its presence is expensive and strains relations with the United States.
In orchestrating this about-face, Putin continues to encounter opposition from the military and others in the Russian elite, but his commanding political power has enabled him to prevail. Russia's interest in countering the terrorist threat from Central Asia and the Caucasus has strengthened Putin's pragmatic hand. As Alexei G. Arbatov, a leading defense expert in the Duma, or lower house of parliament, recently remarked, "Either Islamic terrorists operate there freely, or an American political and military presence begins building up. Since Russia today is unable, unfortunately, to liquidate hotbeds of terrorism on its own, there is no other choice."
This evolution in Russian policy represents a remarkably rapid decline in Russia's residual imperial mind-set. The Soviet Union existed only 11 years ago, and Russia is Eurasia's dominant state, tempting it to encroach upon its weaker neighbors. Nonetheless, Moscow is retreating from decades of reliance on coercion and intimidation to sustain a sphere of influence, a momentous shift that opens up opportunities for the U.S. to develop a regional partnership with Russia.
The new U.S.-Russia partnership should focus on shared strategic, political and economic objectives. Fulfilling its strategic goals would entail a long-term U.S. military presence in Central Asia, a prospect most Russian elites privately support. The U.S. would use these bases to continue the fight against terrorism, of particular importance in light of the questionable future of U.S. access to bases in Saudi Arabia. The bases would also help combat Islamic radicals in the region who are reportedly funneling arms and money to Palestinian extremists. In addition, the U.S. would use its foothold in Central Asia to work with Moscow to limit China's growing influence--Beijing's intentions are of deep concern to Russian elites--and to manage conflict between India and Pakistan.