The period immediately after 9/11 was in retrospect the high point in U.S.-Russian relations in the three decades since the Soviet collapse.
Moscow likened the anti-terror cooperation to the anti-Hitler coalition in World War II
common enemy was Islamic fundamentalism
But 9/11 happened one year into Putin’s first term in office, when he was interested in improving ties with the West. Putin believed that the road to restoring Russia as a prosperous great power lay though enhanced economic cooperation with the U.S. and Europe. The terrorist attacks provided an opportunity to partner with America and elevate Russia’s international standing
During his speech at the Russian Embassy in Washington in November 2001 he said, “I am sure that today, when our ‘destiny again meets history’ we will be not only partners, but we may well be friends.”
The demise of the post 9/11 U.S.-Russian partnership shows that Moscow and Washington have worked together best when they have a clear, limited goal involving similar interests, be it the defeat of Nazi Germany or the defeat of the Taliban 20 years ago. Once those goals were achieved with the defeat of the common enemy, and in the absence of broader common interests and values, further partnership has foundered on fundamentally different worldviews and mutual suspicions.
The Kremlin’s narrative about the root causes of the deterioration in relations since 9/11 is extensive: Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the invasion of Iraq, Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” and U.S. support for “color revolutions” in Eurasia, and the enlargement of NATO to the Baltic states. In other words, the U.S. failed to appreciate what Russia saw as its legitimate security interests. Yet throughout the two decades since 9/11, counterterrorism has remained an area where the countries have sometimes cooperated. The U.S. provided Russia with information which helped thwart domestic terrorist attacks in 2017 and 2019; Moscow warned Washington about the Tsarnaev brothers who detonated bombs at the Boston Marathon in 2013, although that information was not acted on. Joint counterterrorism work remains challenging because both countries’ intelligence services are wary of sharing too much information. Yet history shows its value, and it could provide a possible avenue for cooperation vis-à-vis a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Putin’s expectations were considerably more extensive. He essentially sought what Dmitri Trenin called an “equal partnership of unequals,” hoping that Russia’s support for the U.S. would return it to the global board of directors after a humiliating post-Soviet decade of domestic and international weakness
Putin also sought a U.S. commitment to eschew any further eastern enlargement of NATO. From Putin’s point of view, the U.S. failed to fulfill its part of the post-9/11 bargain.
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