From Russia, kind words and a punch in the nose

Posted in United States , Russia | 06-Feb-09 | Author: Ellen Barry| Source: International Herald Tribune

President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia, right, in Moscow on Tuesday with President Kurmanbek Bakiyev of Kyrgyzstan, left, who announced plans to close an air base the United States uses.

MOSCOW: Talk about mixed messages. Russian leaders could not say enough good things about President Barack Obama this week. His statements on Afghanistan were "encouraging," his arms control proposals were "a fresh signal," and plans for talks with Iran were "encouraging signals."

But the compliments came with the geopolitical equivalent of a punch in the nose.

On Tuesday, visiting Moscow to accept $2.15 billion in aid, the president of Kyrgyzstan announced a decision to shut down the U.S. air base of Manas, creating a formidable obstacle to Obama's single biggest foreign policy aim, pursuing the war in Afghanistan.

Maybe this should not have come as a surprise. Beginning with the bristling speech that President Dmitri Medvedev gave hours after Obama was elected, the signals from Moscow to the new U.S. administration have veered from hostile to conciliatory and back again. Moscow is clearly exploring the idea of cooperation. But it is also demanding, in arm-twisting fashion, that Obama make Russian interests a priority.

"It's not clear to me who's calling the shots or what exactly the message is," said Strobe Talbott, who was deputy secretary of state under President Bill Clinton and is now president of the Brookings Institution. "It's an odd way to set the table for a serious, forward-looking dialogue. The Russians claim to want a discussion."

Afghanistan has been seen as an important area for cooperation between the two countries, since Russia is deeply worried about the spread of Islamic extremism in the region. That notion was thrown into doubt Tuesday when, at a news conference in Moscow, the Kyrgyz president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, announced plans to shut down the base.

Kyrgyz and Russian officials have said the move had nothing to do with the pledge of Russian aid, but Moscow has long sought to push the United States out of the bases it has leased in Central Asia. Russian comments since then have suggested that if Obama hopes to move forward with his plans to deploy as many as 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, he will have to secure Moscow's support. That means addressing Russian complaints, including plans for missile defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic and expanding NATO.

"In the Russian mind, there is a window of opportunity to bargain, and if we are sitting down to bargain, we better have good cards on our side of the table," said Oksana Antonenko, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Strategic Studies in London.

"What they see in the best case scenario is a deal. A bargain. It's not a partnership."

The move was startling because it came amid a string of signals that Moscow was actually willing to engage Obama.

U.S. policymakers were encouraged by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, which muted his typically caustic anti-U.S. tone. Medvedev organized a candid, hourlong meeting with the editor of Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper critical of the Kremlin which has lost a series of employees to contract killings, and he promised to rewrite an anti-treason law that had infuriated human rights activists.

In the last two weeks, Moscow announced that it was ready to open a NATO supply route to Afghanistan through Russia. And though official sources would not confirm it, an anonymous Defense Ministry official told the Interfax news service that Moscow had dropped a plan to station a battery of Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad.

Then came the announcement Tuesday about the Manas air base.

"This really did come out of the blue for me," said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia-Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "It is a particularly Russian tactic ? it's sort of brutal, and rude, and makes it harder to achieve what you think their goal is."

It came as a reminder that Russians do not share Europeans' giddiness over Obama. Relations between Russia and the United States last year reached their lowest point since the fall of the Soviet Union, and dialogue between the two governments had basically halted. In that sense, Obama will have to deal with "the tail end of the Bush legacy," including bitter memories of the war in Georgia last summer, said Sergei Rogov, director of the Institute for USA and Canada Studies in Moscow.

"Can you imagine, after the Georgia war, that Russia would lobby Kyrgyzstan on behalf of the United States?" Rogov said, adding that the decision "was not something Russia did, it was something against which Russia didn't object."

Moreover, Russian leaders are getting impatient to see concrete plans from Washington. Obama seems willing to slow the timeline on missile defense and NATO expansion, but not to publicly shelve the projects. Russian leaders, eager to renegotiate the relationship, want to make sure they have Obama's attention.

"The real ball game has not started," Rogov said. "There will be tough bargaining on many issues. It's a legacy of the semi-Cold War."

It may be a mistake to look for a grand plan in statements coming out of Moscow, where major players still disagree about the benefits of a friendlier relationship and may be addressing themselves to domestic audiences.

A single, raw issue ? U.S. influence in post-Soviet space ? underlies the raft of policy disputes between the two capitals, said Angela Stent, who directs Russian studies at Georgetown University. Resolving it, she said, "may be impossible to do, but it has to be tried."

"How much does Russia really want the relationship to change?" she said. "That's still an open question."