Don't Push the Reset Button Yet


Don't Push the Reset Button Yet

Feb 26, 2009 4 min read

Former Visiting Fellow, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center

Ariel was a Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

Vice President Joe Biden suggested at the Munich international security conference on Feb. 7 that America push "the reset button" on relations with Russia. But the Obama administration shouldn't allow Moscow to pocket gains it has recently made in Eurasia. A "carrots-and-flowers" approach to the Kremlin won't work.

The Kremlin is so concerned with expanding its sphere of influence in Eurasia 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 - hasn't slowed its push into the "near abroad."

Washington's wake-up call should have been the eviction notice that President Kurmanbek Bakiyev of Kyrgyzstan served to the U.S. military. With the Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, at his side, Bakiyev announced in Moscow on Feb. 4 that he wants the U.S. to leave Manas Air Base, a key U.S. military cargo hub at the airport of the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.

The U.S. Air Force has used Manas since the fall of 2001 to ferry troops and matériel in and out of Afghanistan. Yet, judging by Biden's reaction, the Obama administration doesn't want to tease the bear, or worse, is not concerned about Bakiyev's demands, 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 recently blown up), the longer but safer Central Asian supply route is of growing importance.

For years, both Russia and China pressured Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to close the U.S. bases. In 2005, Uzbekistan gave in, evicting the U.S. from the Karshi Khanabad air base.

This year, Moscow offered the cash-strapped Kyrgyz government a $2 billion credit package at below market rates, and $150 million in grants. This package trumped $150 million a year in assistance Kyrgyzstan was receiving from the United States.

Russia also used covert action and other measures to instigate anti-American demonstrations and a media campaign, putting further pressure on the Kyrgyz government.

Simultaneously, the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) of the Commonwealth of Independence States announced the creation of a Rapid Reaction Force. The backbone of this new 15,000-strong force will be Russian paratroops.

The force can be used not only to fight external enemies, but to put down "velvet revolutions" and quell popular unrest, which the authoritarian regimes comprising the CSTO unanimously abhor.

The Russian military also has announced the establishment of three military bases in secessionist Abkhazia. 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 buy allies.

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 - at a price.

This is only the best-case scenario. In the worst case, Russia would benefit from a U.S. defeat in Afghanistan. First, it would be payback for the Soviet fiasco in the 1980s; second, and more importantly, such a defeat would highlight the collapse of NATO power, and with it, America's global dominance.

Russia may mistakenly believe that, together with China and Iran, it can pick up the pieces in Afghanistan and prevent the Taliban from extending its 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 answers.

It comes as no surprise that Russia is moving to secure what Medvedev called "the zone of privileged interests" in his Aug. 31, 2008 speech. This action fits with policies formulated almost two decades ago by Yevgeny Primakov, leader of the so-called Eurasianist school of foreign policy. Many Eurasianists tend to view America as Russia's strategic adversary.

Primakov was Boris Yeltsin's spy chief. In 1994, under his 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 Soviet empire.

Later, Primakov championed the notion of a multipolar world, in which U.S. influence would be crowded out by Russia, China, India and others. Today, Vladimir Putin and Medvedev are calling for a new geopolitical and economic architecture - not only in Europe but throughout the entire world - based on massive spheres of influence.

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; and its massive energy resources, as a force multiplier. This scenario could prove highly destabilizing, even if it fails.

The Obama administration's desire to push the "reset " button in relations with Russia is understandable. Were Moscow on board, nuclear disarmament, the stabilization of Afghanistan, and sanctions to deter Iran from going nuclear might be easier to achieve. However, haste is the enemy of wisdom when it comes to the 200-year relationship between Russia and America.

The United States should look for alternatives to Manas, specifically in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It shouldn't allow Moscow to exploit 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 is senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies at the Heritage Foundation.

First  appeared in International Herald Tribune