The Realist Prism: Bin Laden's Death Leaves Russia With Strategic Void

By Nikolas Gvosdev

Much has been written about the potential impact that the demise of Osama bin Laden and the possible disintegration of al-Qaida will have on U.S. foreign policy, beginning with the question of whether this will trigger a more rapid disengagement from Afghanistan. But bin Laden's death could also change the foreign policy calculus of other states, notably Russia, which for the past 10 years has promulgated its own version of the global war on terror as a central organizing principle for international affairs.

Even before the Sept. 11 attacks, Moscow had already seen bin Laden as a threat to the interests of a disparate group of major powers and proposed that a coalition of states be prepared to take action against al-Qaida. After Sept. 11, "cooperation in the war on terror" became a major plank in Russia's case for its relationships with the United States, Europe, China and India. It also became the organizing principle for subsuming the various insurgencies in the North Caucasus, notably in Chechnya, under the banner of the global struggle against Islamist extremism and terrorism worldwide. Bin Laden's departure from the global scene and the potential unraveling of al-Qaida into smaller, disconnected terrorist franchises now calls these assumptions into question.

The impact could be felt in a number of ways. To begin with, it increases the probability that the international community will once again delink the Caucasian insurgencies, and the terrorist acts they have engendered in other parts of Russia, from the broader scourge of international terrorism. The tacit bargain made by the Bush administration in the months after Sept. 11 allowed Russia to "include" Chechen attacks as part and parcel of al-Qaida's global campaign. Prior to Sept. 11, Moscow had found itself coming under increasing pressure from both the U.S. and Europe to negotiate with the separatists in this region and to accommodate their demands.

Such proposals were easily dispensed with after Sept. 11. In 2004, for instance, then-President Vladimir Putin dismissed calls to engage in talks with the Chechens by rhetorically asking whether the United States would be ready to receive bin Laden at the White House. Russia's stance was generally respected, even if some Chechen leaders did find asylum in the United States and the United Kingdom. But now, Russia's claims that fighters in the North Caucasus are acting under the direction or control of a centralized al-Qaida leadership will not be so easily accepted. Instead, outside observers might prefer to see the insurgencies as a local problem, the result of Moscow's own failings to adequately govern these regions, rather than as the work of global terrorist networks.

This points to a larger issue: the ongoing development of equities in the overall U.S.-Russia relationship. The reset engineered by the Obama administration has born some modest fruit, among them the New START arms control treaty, a civil nuclear deal and the promise of U.S. participation in the development of Russia's Black Sea hydrocarbons. But strong roots have yet to develop. The fight against global terror, announced by former President George W. Bush and Putin as one of the core principles of the U.S.-Russia partnership, provided a compelling rationale for the military and intelligence services of both countries to work together and to develop cooperative arrangements. If that war has "come to an end" with the death of bin Laden, it is not entirely clear what might continue to motivate and sustain fledgling contacts between two national security apparatuses that still have to overcome a good deal of Cold War baggage in order to develop trust.

But while its implications for Russia's relations with the West are significant, Bin Laden's demise may have the most unexpected consequences in Russia's efforts to broker improved relations between China and India. Moscow has a compelling strategic interest in balancing its ties with Beijing and New Delhi. Collectively, India and China represent some 80 percent of the market for Russian arms exports. Russia needs to avoid any situation where it might be forced to choose between its equally lucrative relations with one over the other. Aligning the interests of Russia, India and China is a priority of Russian foreign policy, and the rise of bin Laden and al-Qaida seemed to provide a compelling rationale for closer cooperation between the three Asian giants. After all, the group's stated interests included fomenting separatism in Kashmir, Xinjiang and the Caucasus.

It is true that China's strategic partnership with Pakistan, and India's ongoing flirtation with the United States, acted as roadblocks to consolidation of this cooperative arrangement, but it was against this background of a shared threat that "one has to assess the evolving cooperation in counterterrorism among India, China and Russia," as B. Raman, the former head of the counterterrorism division of India's intelligence agency, argued in November 2003. The fight against extremism and terrorism also helped to bring India closer to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and gave renewed impetus to the Russia-India-China trilateral forum, which in the 1990s had been more of a theoretical construct but now has become a geopolitical reality.

Trade between the "RIC" members, even after Brazil and South Africa are added to the mix, is still not sufficient to hold this forum together, and neither is the attractiveness of balancing against the Euro-American bloc in international organizations. If the terrorist threat recedes, then the impetus for rapprochement between the Indian and Chinese defense establishments likewise recedes, reviving the specter for Russia of a future Sino-Indian split that jeopardizes Moscow's ability to balance both sides. And whether bin Laden's death might also be the impetus for the decline of the SCO itself cannot be ruled out.

So the Russian foreign policy establishment may be glad that bin Laden is dead, given the threat he posed to the country's territorial integrity. But the disappearance of that threat may expose the fragility of Russia's post-Sept. 11 partnerships, and Moscow has no ready or apparent replacement for it in sight.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the former editor of the National Interest, and a frequent foreign policy commentator in both the print and broadcast media. He is currently on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the U.S. government.