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Putin’s Challenge

October 4, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: President Putin backed off his comments that the crash [of a flight from Tel Aviv over the Black Sea] might be a terrorist act. He told reporters there would be a thorough investigation and said they should not sensationalize the accident. And now, two perspectives on the plane crash and challenges in Russia.

Toby Gati, who was Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research in the first Clinton Administration. She’s now an adviser at a Washington law firm.

And Masha Lipman, deputy editor of “Weekly” Magazine, a news magazine in Russia. She is visiting Washington as part of the Eisenhower Fellowship program. And, Toby Gati, the story has all the variables, I guess, that would give people jitters: From Tel Aviv to Russia and going down over the Black Sea. What do you make of this?

TOBY GATI: I think it’s going to heighten everybody’s concern about flying again. People are going to make up scenarios: Who was it? Some group that doesn’t like the Russians because of their support for the anti-terrorist campaign? If the plane took off from Tel Aviv, some people are going to say, well, what happened to El-Al’s wonderful security?

Was there a problem, something put on board? So I think the speculation is going to be intense. I would imagine that’s why Putin and other leaders are trying to damp down the concern, saying we don’t know what happened and not saying it’s a terrorist act, because people are on edge all over the world. We’re in Washington now. Whenever we hear a plane now, people stop whatever they’re doing and look — or an ambulance. I think generally the world is on edge.

RAY SUAREZ: The quotes from unnamed U.S. officials about the possible Ukrainian involvement came really quickly after the accident. Should we take that as a sign that the United States is monitoring this part of the world closely, something like those military exercises?

TOBY GATI: I would assume that the United States would have an interest in military exercises that are conducted in that part of the world, and as with the sinking of the Kursk or other events of that sort we probably have some kind of independent information or other countries in the region who would be interested in what’s happening. But that’s very different from making a conclusion about what happened. We may have some additional evidence. I would be surprised if we could make a definitive judgment at this time.

RAY SUAREZ: Masha Lipman, is there a high degree of sensitivity among Russians to terrorism? Is this an issue that has put people on edge over the years since the fall of the Soviet Union?

MASHA LIPMAN: Of course it has, and especially if we remember that not very long ago two apartment buildings went on air in Moscow with hundreds of people killed. This was the event that started the war in Chechnya. That in itself was a series of terrorist attacks including just recently. So people always think about it.

In another instance, there was a terrible explosion in metro station in Moscow at an hour when there were a lot of people there. People still remember that. So the word “terrorism” means a lot in Russia. And should this be an attack, I think, I hope we will know what happened to that plane, should this the case that Russia was aimed this way, even though those were Israeli citizens I think the fear of flying will spread to Russia as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there such a concern about terrorism in Russia that President Putin joining the United States in a very open way around the issue of terrorism will gain a lot of support at a time when Russia has had its problems with the United States?

MASHA LIPMAN: Well, I think this is a controversial issue. On the one hand, of course, combating terrorism is an important issue and President Putin is sure to get endorsement on that from the public — especially given the fact that he’s very popular, as he is. He enjoys a 70% rating.

However, joining ranks with America would be a far more difficult problem. Russian people differentiated in their response to the terrorist attacks in America between the American people, whom they deeply sympathized with, but it was quite common to then add, “I do not sympathize with America.” People in Russia are not very appreciative of American policy.

And here we’re not exactly joining with the American people. I wonder whether President Putin will be able to explain to the nation back home that this is joining with the American people, rather than the American government, which now brings together almost the whole world and it may resonate back home that this is America which wants to become the boss again. So it is difficult to say. This will be a difficult message to give to the people but I will not rule out that this is a message that people will respond to positively.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, after hearing what Masha Lipman said, Toby Gati, is President Putin taking a risk joining openly with the United States?

TOBY GATI: Well, I think he has two scenarios before him for the future. One is a scenario where he’s isolated and Russia goes its own way and isn’t seen as part of the developed, democratic, prospering world. That’s a big risk for Russia too. So I think it’s not no risk and then a big risk.

The second risk is that people in his own country will say, “what are you doing? We lost the Cold War. We lost our influence all over. We can see the map. The Americans coming closer and closer to our borders through expansion of NATO. Now not only are they close to our borders — we’re actually opening up our country to them.” I think he’s taken a very brave position. I think he’s way ahead of his military and his security people. But I think he has his own reasons for doing it.

One of them is it very much supports his rhetoric that the Chechen rebels are also funded by terrorists and they are a danger, therefore, you have to deal with Chechnya. I think it also… there is a deep feeling, a pro American feeling in a sense, if you saw the American embassy, the pictures, there are people who I think really do sympathize with America and with the position we’re taking.

I think it makes him look like a world leader and one that has to be reckoned with on many issues. And the issues range from NATO expansion to missile defense to Russia’s role in the world economy and World Trade Organization membership.

RAY SUAREZ: For the time being, what happens to all those problems that you mentioned? NATO expansion, there have been clashes about arms sales on the part of the Russians in West Asia and South Asia, the very region that could become a battle ground. What happens? Do they just go into suspension?

TOBY GATI: Well, if the United States is wise– and I think we can have a policy that differentiates between loving Russia and thinking that they’re going to agree with us on everything, and hating Russia and saying we can ignore them– I think we can have a policy that says we have overlapping interests of which anti-terrorism is one, fighting terrorists, and we still have differences but those differences are not going to be as important in the next few weeks and months as they were before.

And it’s going to be much easier to make compromises on some of those issues because both sides will be able to say, “we’re doing this for a larger cause, and the cause is fighting terrorism.”

RAY SUAREZ: Given the part of the world that’s getting a lot of attention now, Masha Lipman, does the United States particularly need Russia, what Russia has in the way of strength and information in this part of the world?

MASHA LIPMAN: I think the United States needs Russia today because Russia does not border on Afghanistan but Russia has close ties and influence upon its former republics of the U.S.S.R., that are now independent states bordering on Afghanistan. Russia takes a very active part in guarding the border with Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

It was a very important issue in Russia and there wasn’t immediately a consensus over whether exactly the United States could use the territories of those countries, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, for air bases, for air space. There were conflicting statements from very high-ranking officials, statements that were encountered what President Putin said himself.

However, it seems that President Putin, realizing the need of America here, was able to deliver to America air space, air bases, Russia’s assistance, Russia’s support. This was not an easy decision.

RAY SUAREZ: But if it’s as risky as you suggested earlier for President Putin to do this, what does he have to get in return in some of these issues where the United States and Russia have clashed?

MASHA LIPMAN: I think President Putin identified this moment after the tragic events of September 11 as a unique chance for his country to turn with its face to the West, something that’s indispensable to Russia. President Putin realizes Russia’s dire economic situation.

He knows that Russia will not be able to make it alone, that integration with the West, joining WTO Organization, maybe debt relief are key to Russia’s economy. I think he may hope that by delivering Central Asia cooperation to the United States he may get quite something for Russia economically.

RAY SUAREZ: Could he also get a green light in Chechnya, Toby Gati?

TOBY GATI: I think for a while people will look at Chechnya and say, “terrorist.” And they will be much more likely to be quiet in criticism. But I would call your attention to what President Bush said before Congress about countries that support terrorists. He said that we would go after terrorists and from now on, we would look at how a country treated its terrorist groups. I think that was a clear message to states that had had a terrible record in housing terrorist groups or giving them support that….

RAY SUAREZ: Those three words “from now on”?

TOBY GATI: From now on. Right. In a way what he has said about Chechnya in effect is, “we know what you’ve done. We’ve criticized it. You’ve heard us. From now on you say you’re going to look for political solution. You say it’s going to be different.

We will give you the benefit of the doubt.” Now those people with long memories will say the Russians will take that and pocket it and then go ahead and go continue with the war. But everything has changed in the way Russia is perceived and many countries since September 11. So I think we’re going to have a short period where some of the issues that mattered– Chechnya, some of the press freedom issues.

After all, if Uzbekistan can be our ally, then some of our other allies like Russia look frankly speaking more democratic than we might have said a month ago. And I think we will give the Russians the benefit of the doubt, and the Russians from their side have a great chance here to become much more a part of the West, to be included not only as an afterthought but to be asked, “what is your opinion? What do you think? What kind of structure do you want? How do you fight terrorism? What should NATO look like?”

And that is a new approach on the part of the United States. So we shouldn’t just look at the risk to Russia but also the fact that Putin is willing to take the chance and grab at some opportunities.

RAY SUAREZ: Toby Gati, Masha Lipman, thank you both.

MASHA LIPMAN: My pleasure.