Saturday, September 11, 2021

911 Fundamentally Changed West’s Approach to Moscow and Opened Way for Rise of Putinist Authoritarianism

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Sept. 11 – Today, on the 20th anniversary of the Islamist attacks on the US, Russian analysts, like their counterparts elsewhere, are talking about how that day changed the world, refocusing the attention of the West away from the challenge of transforming post-Soviet states and leading them to accept authoritarian actions if taken in the name of counter-terrorism.

            The most obvious bellwether of this was the shift in the attitude of Western governments and publics away from sympathy for the Chechens fighting for their independence to support for Moscow’s actions against those many in the West came to view as Islamist terrorists (

            Not only did that cause many in the West to show understanding for Vladimir Putin’s relaunching of Moscow’s post-Soviet Chechen war, a conflict that helped boost his approval rating, but it also led, both directly and indirectly, to a greater willingness to back him and his regime even as it began its moves toward ever-greater authoritarianism.

            Directly, many in Western governments and in the Western analytic community became increasingly reluctant to criticize Putin’s harsh policies against those who challenged his rule, viewing them as part and parcel of the anti-terrorist agenda that the West had adopted. If the West was compelled to take such steps, the argument went, it had to accept Russia’s argument.

            And indirectly – and this likely was the more profound reason for the changes in the West’s approach to Russia and the other post-Soviet states – it led the West to pay less attention to what was going on there because all of the West’s attention was concentrated on threats originating in the Islamic world.

            As a result, Putin and other authoritarian leaders were able to take steps, in the wake of 911, that would have brought swift and severe criticism by Western leaders had they occurred earlier. And that allowed these leaders to erect the foundations of the new authoritarianism that they have built upon at the time.

            In critical ways, of course, that shift was, of course, both natural and justified.  Any country attacked as the US was 20 years ago would have had to respond in much the way Washington did. But there was painfully little understanding then and painfully little more now of the broader consequences of doing so – and little effort to limit them.

            During the Cold War, those in Western capitals who prosecuted it against Soviet Russian imperialism were always sensitive to the danger that in fighting the Soviets, they risked becoming like them. But after September 11, these same capitals failed to reflect that their own moves to increase security would be exploited by others to use for their own purposes.

            And such efforts would lead to the authoritarianism of the Putin regime and its counterparts and leave the West in a weakened position to influence outcomes in Russia and elsewhere as well. What the world confronts now in Russia has many roots, but on this anniversary, it should be remembered that they include the West’s response to 911.


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