Moscow Uses Key US Base As Negotiation Tool: Analysis

03/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

WASHINGTON — A standoff over an obscure air base in a Central Asian country few Americans could find on a map is becoming an opening salvo in a new kind of Cold War with Russia.

The prize is not military mastery or the global supremacy of ideas, but the defensive protection of resources and security. Each of the 20th century nuclear superpowers wants say-so over the decisions the other has reserved the right to make, and with a new U.S. administration signaling possible compromise with Russia on a missile-basing plan detested by Russia, Moscow is using U.S. dependence on the base for the Afghan war to drive a hard bargain.

Security officials in Kyrgyzstan said Friday the United States must quit the Manas air base, but U.S. officials said they have not gotten any official eviction notice and that negotiations to stay are under way.

"I think that the principal motivation is to reassert Russian influence and get visible U.S. presence out of former Soviet republics," said retired Adm. William J. Fallon, who oversaw the Afghan and Iraq war as head of U.S. Central Command until last year.

Also Friday, Russia turned up the heat on the most pressing dispute between Russia and Washington, saying Moscow won't install missiles near Poland if the United States drops its plans for an Eastern Europe-based missile defense system.

President Barack Obama has not been explicit in public about whether he would continue with installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. More broadly he has said he supports missile defense but wants to ensure that it is a proven, reliable system that does not detract from other security priorities.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's threat to deploy the missiles in Kaliningrad came hours after Obama was declared the winner of the U.S. presidential race.

"This administration will be candid with the Russians when we disagree, but seeks a deeper and greater cooperation on issues of mutual national interest," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Friday.

The exchange capped a confusing week in which Russia was widely seen to have offered Kyrgyzstan's leader billions to evict the U.S. military from its main air hub for supplies going into the widening Afghanistan war.

The Kremlin announced Friday that it would begin allowing U.S. supplies for Afghanistan to cross its territory to avoid Pakistan where supply lines are increasingly threatened by militant attacks. But Russia stressed that only nonlethal U.S. supplies would be permitted across its territory _ which would still pose problems for the transit of U.S. weapons and other materiel.

Like the missile defense issue, the future of the U.S. base is a symptom of the deeper contest for influence in central and eastern Europe and in Central Asia.

Russia has long been irritated by the U.S. military presence in what it considers its natural areas of influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, a strategically located region straddling Europe and close to volatile nations such as Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

For Russia the contest is about protecting itself in its own neighborhood. For the United States, it's about ensuring that terrorism and extremism aren't exported from that neighborhood to threaten the United States or its allies.

Both are legitimate goals, and they are not necessarily at odds if the Obama administration addresses Russian gripes and anxieties and if Russia trusts U.S. motives.

"The Russian government appears eager not to close any doors with the Obama administration and to explore opportunities for cooperation," said longtime Russia analyst Dimitri Simes of the Nixon Center in Washington. "But there seems to be a fear, at the same time, that Russia may be taken for a ride again, meaning that the United States would pocket Russian concessions without offering much in return."

What Moscow is telling the new kids on the block, Simes said, is that it is ready to do business "but wants a quid pro quo."

The Obama administration, just more than two weeks in power, has not said much about the future of U.S. relations with its old Cold War adversary. Vice President Joe Biden is expected to confront Russian grievances and expectations during a European security conference this weekend.

The Munich Security Conference gathers a dozen world leaders and 50 top diplomats and defense officials and comes amid high expectations that it could also presage a thaw in relations between Washington and Moscow.

Word that Russia had leaned hard on Kyrgyzstan and dangled new sweeteners a few days before the session is probably not a coincidence, analysts said, nor were double-edged remarks from Medvedev.

Medvedev said Wednesday that Russia and its ex-Soviet allies wanted to cooperate with the United States on stabilizing Afghanistan but he appeared to link any help to changes in Western policy.

These include a halt to NATO enlargement in Europe and the cancellation of plans for the U.S. missile-defense system championed by former President George W. Bush.

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EDITOR'S NOTE_ Anne Gearan and Robert Burns are U.S. national security correspondents based in Washington.

Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.

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