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The Washington Quarterly 25.1 (2002) 161-172



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U.S.-Russian Military Relations:
Between Friend and Foe

Sarah E. Mendelson


How much and what precisely has changed since September 11? How quickly can relationships evolve, and how meaningful are promises of collaboration likely to be? These questions are much in the minds of those watching U.S.-Russian relations. Has the United States (finally) entered the qualitatively new era of cooperation with Russia--particularly between both militaries--that has been sought since the end of the Cold War? If serious cooperation ensues, what will it look like? Leaders in both countries have compared the war on terrorism with the struggle against Nazism. Ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, could terrorism be the enemy that makes Russia and the United States if not exactly friends, then at least effective allies? If so, the change will be dramatic indeed.

In the months prior to September 11, the U.S.-Russian relationship had become stuck somewhere between friend and foe. Aside from some sweet murmurings by each president to the other at their first meeting, a chill was still in the air two years after the use of force by NATO in Kosovo--to which the Russians had vociferously objected. Perhaps unsurprisingly, policy drifted, particularly contact between the two militaries. Just weeks before the September attack, some Pentagon staffers confessed that they had little clue about what the goal of the relationship was supposed to be. 1

It has not always been this way. If a high level of cooperation is achieved between the U.S. and Russian militaries in the coming months, it will not be [End Page 161] the first time since the end of the cold war. In the 1990s, these militaries frequently worked together productively, and they received well-deserved attention from senior leadership on both sides. Initial efforts in Bosnia and specific aspects of nuclear transparency and nonproliferation stand out, as do joint search-and-rescue operations in the Arctic and the U.S. Pacific Command's relationship with the Russian navy. 2

The breakthroughs, however, have been maddeningly ephemeral. The close relationship that developed between U.S. secretary of defense William Perry and Russian defense minister Pavel Grachev seemed to evaporate when they discussed Russia's first bloody war in Chechnya. 3 The initial strengths of joint U.S.-Russian peacekeeping operations in Bosnia were unsustained and failed to translate into a collaborative approach when Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic spread death and violence to Kosovo. Who can forget that June day in 1999 when U.S. and Russian troops (the latter from the very same brigade in Bosnia working with U.S. soldiers) nearly came to blows at the Pristina airfield? 4

The events of September 2001 should make the U.S.-Russian military relationship more important to both countries. When considering what U.S.-Russian military relations will be, however, it is worth recalling that the expectations of policymakers in the mid-1990s never quite matched the realities of the militaries' work together. Even with Russian president Vladimir Putin and U.S. president George W. Bush making the most reassuring pronouncements supporting joint efforts to combat terrorism, both militaries are likely to lag in their enthusiasm for the other side's proposals in the day-to-day grind, as they have in the very recent past. Before either side can expect close and efficient cooperation, several issues must be resolved, including reaching a common understanding of who is a terrorist and how to fight this enemy. It is a tall order; the United States and Russia will need to restructure their military relations at the same time that Washington restructures its foreign policy priorities.

Before September 2001

In the early to mid-1990s, on the U.S. side at least, a fairly clear and ambitious concept guided U.S. interactions with the Russian military--"preventive defense." The theoretical purpose of improved relations between the militaries had three goals: (1) transforming the two militaries from "former mortal enemies [End Page 162] into partners...

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