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February 10, 2009
By Ariel Cohen, Ph.D.
Vice President Joe Biden suggested at the Munich international
security conference that America push "the reset button" on
relations with Russia. The Obama Administration, however, needs to
proceed with caution and not allow Moscow to pocket gains it has
recently made in Eurasia. An improvement in U.S.-Russian relations
is desirable, but a "carrots and flowers" approach to the Kremlin
will not work.
Since the war with Georgia last August, Russia has been on the
offensive across Eurasia. The Kremlin is so concerned with
expansion of its sphere of influence that even today's severe
economic crisis--which has seen the ruble plunge 50 percent against
the dollar and the Moscow stock market capitalization drop 80
percent--has not slowed its push into the "near abroad."
Washington's wake-up call should have been the eviction notice
served by Kurmanbek Bakiyev, president of Kyrgyzstan, to the U.S.
military. With Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at his side,
Bakiyev announced in Moscow that he wants the U.S. to leave Manas
Air Base, a key military cargo hub at the airport of the Kyrgyz
capital Bishkek. The U.S. and NATO have used Manas since the fall
of 2001 to ferry troops and materiel in and out of Afghanistan. Yet
judging by Joe Biden's reaction, the Obama Administration does not
want to tease the bear or, worse, is not concerned about Bakiyev's
demand, instigated by Russia.
It should be. With the shorter supply route through Pakistan
under increasing attacks by the Taliban (a key bridge through the
Khyber Pass was blown up last week), the longer but safer Central
Asian supply route is taking on growing importance as a way to keep
U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan re-supplied. The Kremlin
understands the situation quite well--the Soviet debacle in
Afghanistan (1979-1989) is fresh in its collective memory.
For years, both Russia and China pressured Kyrgyzstan and
Uzbekistan to kick out the U.S. bases. In 2005, Uzbekistan gave in,
evicting the U.S. from the Karshi Khanabad air base and leaving
Manas in Kyrgyzstan as the only remaining American hub.
This year, Moscow offered the cash-strapped Kyrgyz government at
least $2 billion in credit package at below market rates, with most
of the money going toward building a hydropower station while
another portion went to debt forgiveness, and $150 million in
grants. This package trumped the $17 million-a-year lease fees for
Manas and $150 million a year in assistance Kyrgyzstan was
receiving from the U.S. Russia also used covert action and
influence operations to instigate anti-American street
demonstrations and a media campaign, thereby placing pressure on
the Kyrgyz regime.
Paratroopers and Bases
Simultaneously, the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty
Organization (CSTO) of the Commonwealth of Independence States
announced the creation of a Rapid Reaction Force (RRF). President
Medvedev specified that the capabilities of this force were to
match those of NATO's RRF. The backbone of the new 15,000-strong
RRF will be a Russian paratroop division and a paratroop brigade,
strengthened by units from Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan,
Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Uzbekistan will participate on an ad
hoc basis. The RRF not only can be used to fight external
enemies but is likely to be available to put down "velvet
revolutions" and quell popular unrest, which the authoritarian
regimes comprising the CSTO unanimously abhor.
The Russian military also announced the establishment of three
military bases in secessionist Abkhazia: a naval base in
Ochamchire, the Bombora air base near Gudauta, and an alpine
special forces base in the Kodori Gorge. Not only do these
deployments violate the terms of the cease-fire negotiated by
French President Nicolas Sarkozy after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war,
but they extend Russia's power projection capabilities into the
Southern Caucasus, threatening the already precarious position of
Georgia and the major oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian Sea to
Turkey and Europe.
Russia has taken additional steps to secure its clout from
Poland to the Pacific. It initiated a joint air-and-missile defense
system with Belarus, which may cost billions. It also announced the
creation of a $10 billion stabilization fund for the CIS countries,
most of which ($7.5 billion) Moscow will front. The reason for the
spending spree is simple: money and weapons consolidate control
President Medvedev has announced that the U.S. needs to come to
Moscow--not to the capitals of Eurasian independent states--to ask
for transit to Afghanistan. Thus, Russia can first create a problem
and then provide a solution. However, this is only the best-case
scenario. In the worst case, as some analysts in Moscow suggest,
Russia would benefit from a U.S. defeat in Afghanistan: first,
because it would be a payback for the Soviet fiasco in the 1980s,
but second, and more importantly, because such a defeat would
highlight the collapse of NATO power and, with it, America's global
Russia may mistakenly believe that, together with China and
Iran, it would be able to pick up the pieces in Afghanistan and
prevent the Taliban from extending their influence over allies in
Central Asia and the Caucasus. However, radical Islamists--not
America--are the long-term systemic threat toward the "soft
underbelly" of Russia's south--a threat for which Moscow lacks
Empire Above All?
It comes as no surprise that Russia is moving to secure what
President Medvedev called "the zone of privileged interests" in his
August 31, 2008, speech. This action is consistent with policies
formulated almost two decades ago by Yevgeny M. Primakov, leader of
the Eurasianist school of foreign policy. Many Eurasianists tend to
view America as a strategic adversary.
Primakov was Boris Yeltsin's spy chief and later became a
foreign minister and then prime minister. In 1994, under Primakov's
direction, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service published a
report calling for Russian domination of the "near abroad"--the
newly independent states that emerged from the rubble of the
collapsed Soviet empire.
Later, Primakov championed the notion of a multi-polar world, in
which U.S. influence would be crowded out by Russia, China, and
India. Today, Vladimir Putin and Medvedev are echoing Primakov,
calling for a new geopolitical and economic architecture--not only
in Europe but throughout entire world--based on massive spheres of
Russia wants to be a regional leader, capitalizing on its
military power (and willingness to use it), its unique geopolitical
position from the Atlantic to the Pacific, its massive energy
resources, and its gas and oil pipelines as a force multiplier.
Moscow views China and India as the other regional leaders, thereby
pushing the U.S. out of the Eastern Hemisphere. While this scenario
is unlikely to succeed, it could still prove highly
Haste Is the Enemy of Wisdom
The Obama Administration's desire to "push the reset button" in
relations with Russia is understandable. Were Moscow on board,
nuclear disarmament, counter-proliferation, the stabilization of
Afghanistan, and sanctions to deter Iran from going nuclear might
be easier to achieve. However, this is a big "if," and haste is the
enemy of wisdom when it comes to the 200-year relationship between
Russia and America.
The U.S. should look for alternatives to Manas, specifically in
Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. It should not allow
Moscow to pocket its gains in Eurasia, especially in the Caucasus,
nor should it abandon the newly independent states to the vagaries
of the Russian "sphere of influence"--privileged or otherwise.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is
Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and
International Energy Security at the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom
Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage
Vice President Joe Biden suggested at the Munich internationalsecurity conference that America push "the reset button" onrelations with Russia. The Obama Administration, however, needs toproceed with caution.
American Leadership Initiative of the Leadership for America Campaign
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D.
Senior Research Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy, The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies
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