Vladimir Putin adopted his usual serious demeanor during an October 8 meeting with his “power ministers,” the men who head Russian defense and security agencies. The ex-KGB operative grimly noted that the U.S. losses in the September 11 terrorist attacks were “colossal,” more than twice that of (official) Russian casualties in the Chechen war. Putin then switched gears: Looking directly into the TV camera, he stated that Russia would stand by her “partners” in the international “antiterrorist coalition” Washington was assembling—but only so far. Only “humanitarian aid” for the suffering Afghans would be allowed to cross Russian airspace. Moreover, Russia would not directly take part in any combat operations in Afghanistan. Otherwise, Moscow would cooperate, offering the coalition what intelligence the Russian “special services” could offer on the Taliban and the situation in Central Asia. Putin thus summed up Russia’s position on operation “Enduring Freedom,” including, by implication, what Moscow wants from the West in return for the use of Russian airspace and an American presence (temporarily, the Kremlin hopes) in Central Asia.

First, by linking the September 11 attacks to Russia’s war in Chechnya, Putin was emphasizing that Moscow wants a free hand in crushing the Chechen separatists, some of whom likely have ties to the Taliban and “terrorist number one,” Osama bin Laden.

Second, Moscow is reluctant to take part in any joint U.S.-British operations in Afghanistan: The Russians have their hands full at home (though rumors of Russian “advisors” operating tanks for the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance are circulating in the Russian media).

Third, Russia wants the West, broadly speaking (NATO, the European Union, the WTO, the IMF), to consider Moscow a “partner.” Thus, NATO should reconsider its proposed expansion to the east (though Putin had stated earlier that Russia would no longer oppose such moves; not coincidently, Putin has recently stopped mentioning Moscow’s opposition to National Missile Defense) and should henceforth make the Kremlin a “partner” in its decisionmaking processes, themes he brought up during his September trip to Germany. While the West was at it, the IMF could reschedule Russian debt and accept Russia into the WTO and the European Union.

The fly in the ointment of rapprochement, however, could be the increasing pressure on the Bush administration from Republican neoconservative hawks, who are demanding a wider war, one that would target Iraq and, possibly, other “rogue states” with whom Moscow has been busily mending post-Cold War fences. Following Washington’s hints that a campaign limited to targets in Afghanistan may not be enough to “defeat terrorism,” Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov and Kremlin-friendly media were quick to convey Moscow’s negative view of a widened conflict. Rumor has it that Putin is already considering Plan B: Seeing the British, too, balking at the prospect of World War III, Putin will hone in on “friend Tony [Blair]” and capitalize on his particularly friendly relations with the Germans, pushing the Kremlin’s agenda and simultaneously taking Washington down a notch or two. The ball is now in President Bush’s court.