Like virtually all Russians, Americans were shocked and outraged by the deaths of innocent children in the Beslan hostage tragedy just over one month ago. A troubling aspect, then, about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reaction to the tragedy was his implied suggestion that the West in general and United States in particular, somehow bore a significant share of the blame for the deaths. As bizarre as this idea may seem to many Americans, I learned during a recent visit to Moscow that many Russians genuinely share Putin’s perspective of the Beslan crisis.
In early September, shortly after the Beslan crisis reached its bloody climax, I gave a lecture on Russian-American relations to upper division undergraduates at Moscow’s prestigious USA and Canada Institute (a part of the Russian Academy of Sciences). In the Q&A session that followed my remarks, students expressed the following views:
President Putin was right to ridicule the West for maintaining a double standard, in which it urged Moscow to engage the Chechen rebels, while adopting a hard-line stance towards Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. The Chechen rebels and al Qaeda are one and the same. Just as any Western attempt to negotiate with al Qaeda would be futile, so would a Russian attempt to negotiate with the Chechens.
It is outrageous that the United States and other Western governments hold talks with Chechen opposition figures and refuse to extradite those indicted by Moscow back to Russia.
The inclusion of the three Baltic states in NATO and the American military presence in Georgia and Central Asia are aimed at preventing Russia from reasserting its influence in the former Soviet republics.
The American military presence in Central Asia was stimulating the rise of Islamic radicalism in the region.
The American willingness to use force unilaterally while advising Moscow not to do so shows that Washington sought to keep Russia weak.
I tried to challenge these perceptions. I argued that not all Chechens belonged to al Qaeda, and that Moscow should work with those who don’t in an effort to marginalize the most radical elements of the Chechen resistance. I pointed out that a State Department meeting with Chechen opposition figures was a far cry from American support for them, and that these meetings were aimed at promoting a peaceful settlement. I also argued that the American military presence in Central Asia was aimed at Islamic extremists, and not at Russia.
I went on to suggest that if Russia didn’t like the growing American/NATO presence in Georgia and the Baltics, the best way to halt it would be for Moscow to pursue friendly policies toward these small countries, instead of embracing policies that are perceived as threatening by its neighbors. And, if it is true (as I fear it is) that the growing American military presence in Central Asia is fueling the rise of Islamic extremism, I maintained that a growing Russian military presence in the region is likewise fueling the radicalization trend. Finally, I argued that it was not in the United States’ best strategic interests to push for a weak Russia. Washington preferred to see a stronger Russia, capable of working effectively to contain Islamic radicalism today, and potentially offering a balance to rising Chinese power in the future.
The Russian students didn’t buy any of my arguments. Their sense of injury about what they interpreted as American disregard for Russian interests had rendered them suspicious of anything American officials said, or did.
This is worrisome. If the attitudes of this group reflect those of Russians as a whole, they pose a significant obstacle to Russian-American cooperation. If anything, this group of elite students is probably more apt to be pro-American than the general population.
The negative views of the United States held by what seems to be a large majority of Russians appear to be deeply entrenched. I came away from my discussion with the students with the sense that American diplomacy needs to do a much better job of explaining US policies in the region. The Russian public must hear cogent explanations as to why American actions — including talking with Chechen opposition figures, and the stationing of troops in Central Asia — are not designed to undermine Moscow’s interests, but are aimed at combating a common enemy — Islamic extremism.
US diplomacy may well be critical to the United States’ struggle to contain Islamic radicalism, especially in Central Asia. As one young man, Nikita, said to me after the lecture: “It’s not just that we should be allies in this fight. We must be.”
Originally published by EurasiaNet.org, October 12, 2004.