In the reams of analysis and remembrance of the cataclysmic events of 11 September 2001, a significant aspect has been somewhat overlooked – the impact of the War on Terror on US-Russia relations. It is important to focus on what a leading expert has termed the expectations mismatch between Washington and Moscow emanating from the close cooperation and coordinated actions in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the World Trade Centre attacks. It all started with the famous phone call on 9 September 2001, made by Russian President Vladimir Putin to his American counterpart George W. Bush, informing him that the leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance Ahmad Shah Masood had been assassinated in Afghanistan and warning the latter of “a foreboding that something was about to happen, something long in preparation”. Two days later, Al-Qaida struck the US mainland in a spectacular act of terrorism. The weeks and months after 9/11 marked the apogee of the Russo-American relationship, with Moscow likening anti-terror cooperation to the anti-Hitler coalition in World War II, writes Russia expert Prof. Angela Stent.
So, what transpired over the next two decades to cause what is today a definitive rupture in US-Russia ties which the Taliban, now back as rulers of Afghanistan, must be delighted by? Washington’s misplaced geopolitical assessments and overreach are in large part responsible for the current state of play. The Kremlin, it must be remembered, was still smarting under the humiliation of being reduced to a second-rung world power by the turn of the millennium within a decade of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mr Putin was in the first year of his first term as Russian President when 9/11 happened, and the old KGB hand saw it as an opportunity to prove that his publicly stated desire for a meaningful relationship with the USA was meant to regain the global heft of the Soviet state and enhance economic cooperation with the West as the way to prosperity for Russia. So, he backed off despite initial misgivings when the USA established military bases in Russia’s Central Asian backyard in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. He also got the Russian establishment to swallow a bitter pill and offer insightful advice and actionable intelligence on how to deal with a complex country to the very Americans who had been instrumental in creating the mujahideen (from which the Taliban emerged) that forced the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In return for Moscow’s assistance in Afghanistan, however, Washington was at best willing to look the other way on Chechnya, work with Russia on the modernisation of its economy, and facilitate its admission to the WTO. Moscow’s expectations were for an equal partnership between the world’s two most militarily powerful nations, with Russia returning to the global high table and asserting the right to a ‘sphere of influence’. Washington didn’t play ball. Today, it must negotiate its diminishing power at the cost of a Russia-China alliance which is in the ascendance globally, including in Afghanistan.