U.S. Searches for Alternative to Central Asian Base
A senior State Department official said that negotiations with Kyrgyzstan over the base had been halted and that the alternatives under consideration included bases in Europe and the Persian Gulf, as well as a possible expansion of existing bases in Afghanistan. The United States has leased the Central Asian base since after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, but American officials said they believed that Russia was using an offer of more than $2 billion in loans and grants to Kyrgyzstan to force the United States out of the region, colloquially referred to as “the Stans.” “The motivation is to have a strong bilateral relationship with the Stans that prevents the Stans from hosting U.S. or NATO facilities on their soils,” a Defense Department official said. About 15,000 personnel and 500 tons of cargo pass through Manas each month. The base is also the home of large tanker aircraft that are used for in-air refueling of fighter planes on combat missions over Afghanistan.
The American officials, who insisted on anonymity because of the delicacy of the negotiations, said that it was possible that the United States would resume talks with Kyrgyzstan but that for the next weeks the United States would be investigating whether some of the functions of the base could be relocated, perhaps to more than one place. The State Department official said it was still possible that the United States might offer Kyrgyzstan more compensation for the base after the other alternatives and their costs had been explored. “Once we evaluate what this is really worth to us, we’ll talk to them about money,” he said. The United States calculates that it pays Kyrgyzstan more than $150 million in assistance and compensation each year. But the State Department official said that only a portion of that money went directly to the Kyrgyz government. “Frankly, we haven’t been excessively generous,” the official said.
The State Department official said that “fundamentally it comes to money, and the Russians are trying to buy us out.” A statement by the Kyrgyz government on Wednesday argued that the American mission in Afghanistan had outlasted its original goals, the terrorist threat there had “been removed,” and that NATO airstrikes in Afghanistan had caused unacceptable civilian casualties. The Kyrgyz president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, announced the decision on Tuesday in Moscow, where his impoverished country won $150 million in aid and the forgiveness of $180 million in debt in addition to the $2 billion in loans. Russian officials claimed that the announcement of the base closure was purely coincidental, but Russia has long resented the United States presence in Central Asia.
If the measure passes the Kyrgyz Parliament on Friday, as expected, Washington would have 180 days to close the base. The senior Defense official said the closure “has all the earmarks of being a done deal.” Russian officials took pains on Wednesday to reassure President Obama that they hoped to cooperate with him in Afghanistan and elsewhere. But the conciliatory words sounded peculiar beside the blunt fact of the base closure, which seemed to communicate that American plans in the region should be coordinated with Moscow. “The calculation behind the Russian move is that the Americans have not so many alternatives,” said Fyodor A. Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Politics. “If you need something there, you should go not to Bishkek but to Moscow.”
Russian leaders also hope to secure concessions from Mr. Obama on a variety of issues, among them planned missile defense facilities in the Czech Republic and Poland, revamped security structures in Europe, and a renegotiation of the Start I arms treaty. President Dmitri A. Medvedev said Wednesday that Russia and its allies were ready for full-fledged, comprehensive cooperation with the United States and other coalition members in fighting terrorism in the region. But he also laid out his own view of the best approach in Afghanistan, with veiled criticism of the United States. “Democracy cannot be forced — it must grow from within,” he said. “It’s not the number of bases that matters. It would be good if that would reduce the number of terrorists, but the fight against terrorism is not limited to building up military forces.”
But by stressing that they are ready to search for alternatives in Europe, the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan itself, the Americans also appeared eager to signal that they would not allow Russia to dictate the terms of its engagement in Afghanistan or the region. This is not the first time that United States officials have tangled with Kyrgyzstan over the base at Manas. During negotiations this summer, the State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States would pay more than $150 million in assistance and compensation for the base this year. At the time, a government statement said the United States had contributed more than $850 million to support democracy, economic development, aid projects and security in the Kyrgyz Republic since its independence from the Soviet Union. At a news conference in Moscow on Tuesday, Mr. Bakiyev complained about a 2006 incident in which a United States serviceman had shot a Kyrgyz truck driver on the base, and said Washington had also ignored his requests for more money. “Eight years have passed,” he said. “We have repeatedly raised with the United States the matter of economic compensation for the existence of the base in Kyrgyzstan, but we have not been understood.”
Kyrgyzstan’s close relations with the United States have long unsettled Russia and China, which both have military interests in the region. In 2005, the country appeared to move further into Washington’s orbit after a popular uprising, supported in part by the United States, toppled the corrupt and increasingly authoritarian government of Askar A. Akayev, sending the president fleeing across the border. The bloodless coup was part of a wave of popular revolts, known as color revolutions, that remain a source of anger and suspicion among Russian officials, who consider them Washington-hatched schemes meant to undermine Russia’s influence in the region.
Maybe this should not have come as a surprise. Starting with the bristling speech by President Dmitri A. Medvedev hours after Mr. Obama was elected, the signals from Moscow to the new American administration have veered from hostile to conciliatory and back. Moscow is clearly exploring the idea of cooperation. But it also insists, in arm-twisting fashion, that Mr. Obama make Russia’s interests a priority. "It’s not clear to me who’s calling the shots or what exactly the message is,” said Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state under President Clinton and 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 countries because Russia has deep worries about the spread of Islamic extremism in the region. That notion was thrown into doubt on Tuesday when the Kyrgyz president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, announced plans to close the base, which is used to supply the military operation in Afghanistan. Kyrgyz and Russian officials have said the move has 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 Mr. Obama hopes to proceed with his plans to deploy as many as 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan, he will have to secure Moscow’s support. That means addressing Russian complaints about issues that include American plans for missile-defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic and the expansion of 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 International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “What they see in the best-case scenario is a deal. A bargain,” she said. “It’s not a partnership.” The move was startling because it occurred amid a string of signals that Moscow was willing to engage Mr. Obama. American policy makers were encouraged by Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin’s speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in which he muted his caustic anti-American tone. Mr. Medvedev organized a candid, hourlong meeting with the editor of Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper that is critical of the Kremlin and has lost a series of employees to gangster-style killings. He also 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 Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, near the Polish border. Then came Tuesday’s announcement about the Manas air base. “This really did come out of the blue for me,” said Andrew C. Kuchins, director of the Russia and 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.”
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview on Thursday that he called his counterpart in Moscow, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, on Wednesday, but had made no headway on the base closing. The Russians do not share Europeans’ giddiness over Mr. Obama. Relations between Russia and the United States last year reached their lowest point since the Soviet Union’s fall. Mr. Obama will have to deal with “the tail end of the Bush legacy,” including memories of last summer’s war in Georgia, said Sergei M. Rogov, director of the Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies in Moscow. “Can you imagine, after the Georgia war, that Russia would lobby Kyrgyzstan on behalf of the United States?” he asked. He added that the decision “was not something Russia did, it was something against which Russia didn’t object.”
And Russian leaders are growing impatient to see concrete plans from Washington. Mr. Obama seems willing to slow the timeline on missile defense and NATO expansion, but not to shelve the projects publicly. “The real ballgame has not started,” Mr. Rogov said. “There will be tough bargaining on many issues.” 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 domestic audiences. One raw issue — American influence in the post-Soviet sphere — underlies the raft of policy disputes between the capitals, said Professor Angela E. Stent, who directs Russian studies at Georgetown University. Resolving it “may be impossible to do,” she said, “but it has to be tried.”
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Russia Offers Aid on Afghanistan - With Strings
President Dmitry Medvedev said Wednesday that Russia and its ex-Soviet allies want to cooperate with the United States on stabilizing Afghanistan but he appeared to link any help to changes in Western policy. Saying Moscow and its allies "are ready for full-fledged, comprehensive cooperation," the Russian leader seemed to imply that Moscow's help on Afghanistan is contingent on a broader list of changes it wants from the new U.S. administration. These include a halt to NATO enlargement in Europe and the cancellation of plans for a U.S. missile-defense system on Russia's western borders. His mix of conciliatory language and implicit demand for U.S. concessions may represent a risky attempt to pursue conflicting strategic goals at a moment when U.S. policy on Afghanistan is being remade by President Obama. Russia has long been irritated by the U.S. military presence in what is considers its natural areas of influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The Kremlin is widely believed to be behind the move against the United States by Kyrgyzstan's government, which submitted a draft bill to parliament Wednesday that would close the Manas Air Base. But Moscow, which fought its own bloody and unsuccessful 10-year war to control Afghanistan, also does not want the country's instability spreading north toward Russia. The Kremlin has said it is open to aiding U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan by helping to find alternatives to Pakistani supply lines that are increasingly threatened by militant attacks. Medvedev spoke after a meeting of presidents from the seven-member Collective Security Treaty Organization - a loose, Moscow-dominated alliance made up of Kyrgyzstan and other ex-Soviet states. The group announced the creation of a joint rapid-reaction force that would boost the military dimension of an alliance that has until now served mostly as a forum for security consultations.