Putin's Policy of Realpolitik

In pledging support to the West's fight against terrorism, the Russian leader is advancing the national interest of his country—and hedging his bets

With characteristically cold eyes and dour demeanor, President Vladimir Putin appeared on Russian television a few hours after the terrorist attacks of September 11 to offer his sympathy and support to the American people. Russians, he said, knew of terrorism "ne po naslyshke" ("not by hearsay"), a reference to the wave of apartment-building bombings in Moscow and Volgadonsk in 1999 and to the Kremlin's long war against Chechen separatists. (The bombings remain unsolved, although Osama bin Laden's name has surfaced in the investigation; Putin calls the war in Chechnya "an anti-terrorist operation" against forces aided by foreign Muslim "mercenaries.") The attacks in the United States, Putin asserted, underscored the need for what he had been proposing since coming to power—a worldwide struggle against "international terrorism." His dry delivery notwithstanding, Putin's address marked Russia's at least temporary return to the role of great power, and the horrific images of the tragedies, broadcast on Russian television by live CNN feeds, prompted an unprecedented outpouring of sympathy among Russians toward Americans. By all appearances the United States had acquired the full support of both the Kremlin and the Russian people.

But as the shock of September 11 began to wear off, many Russians started manifesting other reactions. "America deserved it," people told me, for supporting Israel in its attempt to crush the second Palestinian uprising and for bombing Yugoslavia to stop Belgrade from persecuting Kosovar Albanians—matters unrelated to each other except that both highlight Russia's loss of superpower status. (The Soviet Union was a key benefactor of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Russia had claimed the Balkans as part of its sphere of influence for centuries.) Moreover, Putin's pledges of help to the United States have sparked fears that Russia might get dragged into the conflict and become a target of further terrorist assault—not unreasonable concerns, given that 20 million of Russia's 145 million citizens are Muslims (living mostly in the oil-producing regions of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan), and that Afghanistan borders several of the republics of formerly Soviet Central Asia.

Considering these reservations about helping the United States, it might appear that Putin's plans run counter to Russian interests. They do not. It is important to remember that his calculations are ultimately based on his people's desire for a return to superpower status and on the unsentimental dictates of realpolitik. An alliance with the West against terrorism does not conflict with Russian national interest, because no matter how events play out, Russia cannot lose. If the United States smashes bin Laden's network, it will have done Moscow a favor by eliminating a presumed (and likely) sponsor of the Chechen struggle for independence. If the United States fails, and especially if it fails in Afghanistan, it will have crashed on the rocks of the same mountainous country that dealt the Red Army a defeat so demoralizing that it contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In defeat the United States would prove vulnerable, and its superpower status would suffer—a net gain for Russia, according to the zero-sum Cold War logic pervading much of the Kremlin's foreign policy. Putin may also have an economic motive for siding with the West against bin Laden: conflict in the Middle East is sure to raise oil prices, at least in the short term, and thereby boost the Russian economy. Russia is the second largest producer of crude petroleum in the world (behind Saudi Arabia), and a third of its revenue comes from taxes on the sale of oil.

As a former KGB agent and a onetime head of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, Putin has no doubt interpreted the terrorist attacks as a humiliating failure of intelligence on the part of the FBI and the CIA. Many Russians I spoke with have reached that conclusion, and with some surprise: the Russians generally ascribed to the FBI and the CIA powers and efficacy commensurate with those of the security services that have long dominated life in their country. Rather than admit that they were wrong, some Russians have turned to conspiracy theory, positing that American spy agencies either arranged the attacks or knew about them and did nothing to stop them, in order to precipitate an increase in defense spending and return the military to its Cold War grandeur. Two educated Russian acquaintances of mine suggested that the CIA colluded with a foreign power: only a government, they reasoned, would have the resources to train terrorists to plot and carry out such attacks. Which country could this have been? They settled on Turkey, the only Muslim member of NATO and a perennial enemy of Russia's. Still other Russians told me that the U.S. government abetted the attacks to afford itself a pretext for destroying regimes friendly to Moscow in Baghdad, Damascus, Tehran, and elsewhere.

All this may smack of paranoia and nonsense, but those who propounded it are not reactionaries or extremists, and they are not overtly anti-American. Their postulations certainly underscore the complexity of the Russian people's response to the American crisis. Putin's official response, no less complex once one looks beneath the surface, adroitly positions his country to benefit from the West's campaign against terrorism, no matter how the campaign fares.