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That brief U.S.-Russia strategic partnership 15 years ago? New interviews reveal why it derailed.

- September 23, 2016
Russian President Vladimir Putin talks with President George W. Bush during a photo session at the APEC leaders summit in Shanghai on  Oct. 21, 2001. (Fred Chartrand/AP)

U.S.-Russia relations hit new lows this week after the seeming collapse of Syria’s week-old cease-fire. But there was a brief time 15 years ago when the Washington and Moscow had a real opportunity to establish a more durable partnership on security issues.

This was the consensus view in 40 interviews I conducted this year with former U.S. and Russian officials about the past and future of U.S.-Russia relations.

Several former U.S. officials I spoke with acknowledged the crucial Russian contributions immediately after 9/11 to support the Northern Alliance and provide logistical support and share intelligence to U.S.-led coalition efforts to remove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. As one official remarked, “Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001 marked the closest alignment of U.S. and Russian interests, and Russian support was as important as that of any NATO ally.”

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/09/19/can-the-u-s-and-russia-coordinate-militarily-in-syria-here-are-three-concerns/”]The U.S. and Russia are actually cooperating in Syria. Can it work?[/interstitial_link]

Russian officials hoped for a partnership

Some former Russian officials I interviewed recalled the hope in 2001 that Russia, the U.S. and other partners could establish an anti-terrorist coalition, much like the anti-Hitler coalition in World War II. Vladimir Putin proposed this concept again last September at the United Nations.

During Putin’s November 2001 visit to the U.S., he was extraordinarily positive about the prospects for Russia’s relations with the United States and even with NATO. As one former U.S. official put it, “Putin was ready to deal.”

But the Bush administration was not prepared to deal Russia the cards Putin wanted. Within months of Russia’s cooperation in Afghanistan, Washington announced the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. And the U.S. announced that  NATO would bring in the Baltic States in 2004.

One former U.S. official noted, “Putin took the ABM and NATO decisions quite calmly.” But  as one former Russian official remarked, the young Russian president figured out that “a strategic partnership with the United States means if you accept Washington’s agenda, you remain a partner in good standing, but you are not allowed to contribute to developing the agenda jointly; and if you object, you will be thrown overboard.”

The U.S. had its own agenda

U.S.-Russian cooperation in Afghanistan peaked with the defeat of the Taliban in the fall of 2001. The Bush administration’s priority became preparing for the war with Iraq. The U.S. agenda on many international issues, including the scope of the War on Terror, did not align with that of Russia or, for that matter, many important NATO allies.

My interviews revealed that President George W. Bush wanted to improve ties with Russia, but Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and others in the Bush administration did not, and other priorities such as missile defense, enlarging NATO and the war in Iraq took precedence. As one former official put it, “Rumsfeld saw Russia as a second-rate power; not worth a hill of beans.”

Despite his increasing frustrations, Putin maintained, at least publicly, a positive outlook on relations with Washington through the conclusion of his first term in early 2004.

What changed?

The U.S.-Russia anti-terror cooperation shut down after the 2004 attack on Beslan School No. 1 in the Northern Caucasus, marking the end of the short-lived U.S.-Russia collaboration after 9/11.

In a speech just days after the tragedy, Putin implied that the U.S. and the West were supporting the Chechen terrorists. Former Russian officials I interviewed explained that Putin used the shock of Beslan to tighten the screws on Russian domestic politics — those opposed to his views were tarred as lackeys of the West.

After Ukraine’s Orange Revolution later that fall, Russia again played the anti-American card. As one former U.S. officials noted, that’s when the “worm turned” in the U.S.-Russia relationship. Putin denounced the U.S. government and U.S.-supported NGOs for interfering in Ukraine’s elections to support the West’s preferred candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, as a means to weaken Russian influence and power.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/03/31/were-in-a-new-era-of-international-cooperation-against-terrorism-is-that-good-or-bad/”]We’re in a new era of international cooperation against terrorism. Is that good or bad?[/interstitial_link]

Putin lashes back

The 2011 NATO intervention in Libya and death of Moammar Gaddafi marked a further watershed. At an annual meeting of foreign experts I attended that fall, Putin flashed considerable anger, calling the NATO action a “rude violation” (gruboe narushenie) and, in so many words, conveyed the message that he would never allow Bashar al-Assad in Syria to experience the same fate as the murdered Libyan leader.

Former U.S. officials also noted Putin’s anger at Secretary of State Clinton’s critique of Russia’s falsified Duma elections, and his accusations that the State Department and U.S. intelligence services called for the opposition to demonstrate. This overt anti-Americanism formed the foundation of Putin’s 2012 presidential platform to defend Russian sovereignty and interests. The Russian annexation of Crimea and the onset of the war in Donbas in 2014 saw Putin’s anti-American stance reach new highs, these former officials agreed.

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The stalemate on Syria

This toxic confluence of regional security, terrorism and domestic political issues leaves the U.S. and Russian at loggerheads today on both Ukraine and Syria, the two foreign policy issues that have dominated the bilateral relationship for the past several years.

The apparent total breakdown of the Syrian cease-fire after the airstrikes on a U.N. humanitarian convoy following the mistaken U.S. airstrikes on Syrian forces last Saturday reveals not only seemingly intractable differences over policy, but the dangers of U.S., Russian and other military forces operating in such proximity in the fog of this civil war. Former U.S. and Russian officials agreed in my interviews that this is not a “New Cold War” — but many expressed concern that it may actually be more dangerous. As one former U.S. official stated, “It is not as bad as it looks; it is worse.”

Dr. Andrew C. Kuchins is a senior fellow and research professor at the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies (CERES) in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He is the author of “The Long Game of US-Russia-Relations: What We Should Have Learned and What We Should Do Now,” to be published in December 2016 by the Center for Global Interests in Washington, D.C.