04.19.10

Russia's New Push for Power

Despite the signs of goodwill between Obama and Medvedev at last week’s nuclear summit, the coup in Kyrgyzstan was further proof of Russia’s dominance in the region at the expense of U.S. interests.

Forget the lavish toasts, soaring rhetoric, and kumbaya photos coming out of Prague and Washington last week as Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev signed the first nuclear arms reduction treaty in a generation and tout their cooperation on locking down dangerous fissile material. The new arms reduction pact, which shrinks the number of strategic nuclear warheads by a third, may well be, as Obama called it in Prague, an “important milestone for nuclear security and nonproliferation.” But it is not, as he also declared, the start of a blissful new era of U.S.-Russian cooperation.

Russia shows no sign of being willing to yield power and influence to the Americans in Eurasia.

Quite the contrary. The upheaval in nearby Kyrgyzstan suggests that Russia has won the latest round of an ongoing U.S.-Russian struggle for influence in Eurasia, and that Russia’s effort to remain dominant in its traditional sphere of influence is likely to intensify in coming months.

First, Washington and Moscow have apparently agreed to disagree about a central and vital nuclear issue in the new treaty—the role of missile defense in Eastern and Central Europe. While senior administration officials stress that the U.S. has reaffirmed its commitment to missile defense, the Russians are arguing that the treaty, in fact, does no such thing. Nor does the treaty address another divisive issue—the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, missiles that Russia and several American European allies want removed, but which American military planners argue must stay, at least for the foreseeable future.

Moreover, the debate about levying new sanctions on Iran is likely to produce even greater tension. While Washington leans heavily on Moscow to support intrusive, crippling sanctions that would slow Iran’s ability to conduct nuclear business-as-usual, Russia is likely to continue resisting such measures given its lucrative, longstanding economic ties with Teheran. Indeed, the sanctions issue is not even on the Security Council’s agenda this month. So while American diplomats spin their wheels in New York and Moscow, centrifuges enriching uranium will continue spinning away in Iran.

Now consider the upheaval in Kyrgyzstan. Although the National Security Council’s senior director of Russian and Eurasian Affairs Michael McFaul has asserted that Russia was not directly involved in the coup, other experts and reporters on the ground disagree. Robert P. Finn, a former American ambassador to Tajikistan and Afghanistan who now teaches at Princeton, points out that the rebellion against the corrupt Kyrgyz leadership was not only encouraged, but also most likely fomented by Moscow after Bakiyev reversed his decision to close down the U.S. base at Manas, a principle supply point for American and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Finn argues that the price surges which brought Kyrgyz citizens into the streets this week were prompted by Russia’s decision in February to stop the second $1.7 billion tranche of a $2 billion dollar loan initially extended to keep Bakiyev afloat after he promised to shut the American base down, and by its subsequent decision on April 1st to raise tariffs on Russian gas and oil to Kyrgyzstan by 30 percent.

“This is their victory,” Finn said.

Clearly, Bakiyev’s opposition, members of which local reporters say are being advised by the FSB, the KGB’s successor, has no qualms about its allegiances. Opposition leaders have long said they would eject Western forces from the base at Manas, as Russia desires. Soon after the coup, Roza Otunbayeva, the new acting President of Kyrgyzstan, called Prime Minister Putin to thank him for Russia’s “significant support.” Putin reaffirmed that the U.S. base should be closed, and that there should only be one base in Kyrgyzstan—a Russian base. Since then, there have been a number of position changes, with the most recent being Otunbayeva announcing the base will stay open through the July lease date, and that the lease will be “automatically” extended for another year. But in an interview Friday with Lally Weymouth in the Washington Post, she specifically declined to say that the lease would be extended for another year, noting that Manas “is not a high priority for us.”

It is surely great interest to Russia, however, which turned on Bakiyev after he double-crossed them and leased the base to the Americans while promising Moscow he wouldn’t do so. Even with the U.S. getting involved and applying pressure on the new government, the best the U.S. is getting amounts to a month-to-month lease of one base. Russia, by contrast, already has two bases and plans a third.

While Moscow immediately recognized the coup leaders as Kyrgyzstan’s legitimate government, Robert Gibbs, President Obama’s press spokesman, clearly taken by surprise by the events in Bishkek, called Thursday for the restoration of “calm” in the country “in a manner consistent with democratic principles and with respect for human rights.”

The timing of the coup was also vintage Russia. Moscow has a history of embarrassing the U.S. during major international events. In the summer of 2008 during the Beijing Olympics, for instance, President Putin casually remarked to President Bush that Russian troops would soon be opening fire in Georgia. With Obama’s nuclear summit this past week just after the signing of the nuclear START treaty, what better time for the Russians to flex their muscles in this tiny impoverished Republic of the former Soviet Union, but one important to American interests?

The message could hardly be clearer. Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, who closely monitors political and economic developments in the region, says that whether or not Russia actively fomented the coup in Bishkek, Moscow clearly stands to benefit from it. The bottom line, says Bremmer, is that the upheaval ensures that "decisions on the base are going to be vetted by or coordinated with Moscow going forward." The events in Kyrgyzstan are bound to increase pressure on other former Soviet republics, he says, to yield to Russia’s geo-strategic demands for pre-eminence in a region it has traditionally controlled. The election of Victor Yanukovich in the Ukraine and his historic deference to Russian interests could well be a harbinger.

None of this should suggest that Washington is heading for an inevitable breach with the Russians. The START treaty clearly provides a framework for both sides to reduce their dependence on nuclear weapons, and this week’s summit aimed at securing “loose nukes” and radioactive material has clear strategic benefits for both Moscow and Washington.

But make no mistake. Russia shows no sign of being willing to yield power and influence to the Americans in Eurasia. The coup in Kyrgyzstan, rather than reflecting an outpouring of anti-authoritarian, pro-democratic sentiment, most likely suggests that Russia intends to continue flexing military and diplomatic muscle in what it considers its traditional and critical sphere of influence.

Judith Miller is an author and a Pulitzer Prize-winning former investigative reporter for the New York Times. She is now an adjunct fellow at Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor to its magazine, City Journal, and a Fox News commentator.

Douglas E. Schoen is a political strategist and author of The Political Fix: Changing the Game of American Democracy, from the Grass Roots to the White House.