A mystery wrapped in an ambiguity inside an unknown: What is Russia getting into in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks?
The key to Winston Churchill's famous supposition is Russia's self-interest, so what happens when the Russia doesn't know which direction its self-interest points in? After the shock of the suicide hijackings on the World Trade Center, pundits immediately started talking about a seismic geopolitical shift but initially no one knew in what direction. Russia's bipolar reaction, perhaps best personified by Defense Sergei Ivanov's categorical refusal to admit NATO troops to the CIS only days after his offer of all necessary help to the US, was equally unsure of itself. The Russian elite quickly closed ranks, however, and presented a consistent front to the world.
Last week, President Vladimir Putin revealed the terms Russia is offering, even as he hinted at the possibility of a broader alliance. Those terms included use of Russian and former Soviet Central Asian airspace, Russian participation in search-and-rescue missions, and direct Russian military aid to the Northern Alliance. He also has made clear what Russia expects in return: freedom from criticism of the war in Chechnya and US assistance if the war in Afghanistan spills into the former Soviet Union.
There are several peripheral benefits for Russia, too - serious talk of eventual NATO membership, a slowdown in the American push to abrogate the ABM treaty, access to IMF funds if oil prices continue to decline, a renewed sense of import in the world community after a decade of obsolescence. Right now, Russia seems to be at the top of its game, winning praise from the halls of the Reichstag to the editorials of America.
But have the Russians really achieved any lasting geopolitical coups, or will they be reversed as quickly as they appeared? While Russia's short-term successes are innumerable, far too many volatile factors exist for them to be considered solid victories. The excited talk about a new world order and Russia finally positioning itself in the Western camp is certainly premature.
Allies, the enemies of enemies or delusions of unions?
Since the attacks, much has been made of the perceived convergence of Russian and American strategic interests. The debate centers on the degree of convergence, not whether it actually happened. For example, Europe and the US have dropped complaints about human rights abuses in Chechnya amidst talk of a united front against Islamic extremism, handily ignoring the fact that the war in Chechnya is a textbook anti-colonial movement.
Rather than sharing a mutual goal (such as defeating the Nazis in the Second World War), Russia and the US are willing to make concessions to each other in order to pursue separate objectives.
Russia removes the one of the main stumbling blocks on its path to improved relations with the West and, having offered an insincere truce to the Chechen rebels, will now be able to step up operations, free of criticism. International concern about collateral damage - an issue never high on Russia's priorities - will be kept to a minimum. Meanwhile, the US gets an essential support platform in Central Asia.
But Russia only appears to benefit from the deal when the means are confused with the end. Russia isn't seeking international approval of its Chechnya policy or even the permission to carpet-bomb the republic. Russia wants these things only because the political elite imagines that a free hand in Chechnya will facilitate an end to the conflict.
Past experience in colonial wars, however, prove that assumption to be wrong. Brutal colonial wars always fail eventually, from Vietnam to the first war in Chechnya. Even if Chechens lose some international funding as a result of a US-lead financial crackdown on terrorist resources (which in itself is a dubious preposition), enough arms are floating around the North Caucasus to sustain a guerilla war forever.