Russia and US march in post-Soviet step
By M K Bhadrakumar
An unprecedented military parade in Red Square in Moscow on Sunday, when
servicemen from the major North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries
will march alongside Russian soldiers, will be a commemorative event marking
the 65th anniversary of Victory Day in World War II. Arguably, it is not a
parade of NATO troops but rather of Russia's erstwhile allies in the coalition
against Adolf Hitler.
Nor are parades necessarily the stuff of real politics or the harbingers of
military alliances. Yet, the political symbolism cannot entirely be lost when
the Kremlin ramparts resonate with the march of American troops and Vladimir
Lenin's mausoleum bears mute witness. The point is that while the 50th and 60th
Victor Day anniversaries occurred in the post-Cold War era, they
saw no such "allied" parades. In fact, the United States almost acted as a
"spoiler" by raking up controversies of Soviet history when the Kremlin marked
the day with great pomp and circumstance five years ago.
Indeed, the parade on Sunday cannot be seen without reference to the
''convergence trend'' that has appeared in the Euro-Atlantic region - to cite
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. He elaborated:
This trend is
manifested with the improved atmosphere of Russia-US relations, including the
elaboration of the new treaty replacing the START I [ Strategic Arms Reduction
Treaty], further formation of the strategic partnership with the European Union
and ongoing normalization at the Russia-NATO Council. Conditions are forming to
overcome the Cold War bloc mentality in the European architecture and the
consequential fears regarding spheres of influence.
seem to be falling into place. Washington didn't say "Aha!" when it became
clear that Viktor Yanukovich, president of Ukraine, had begun to waffle with
the Kremlin leadership and Cold Warriors voiced criticism that the Barack Obama
administration was abandoning influence and power in the post-Soviet space.
Without doubt, the agreement between Moscow and Kiev on extending the deadline
for the Black Sea Fleet in the Crimea goes beyond the framework of
Russian-Ukrainian relations. The kaleidoscope has moved and the situation is
shifting simultaneously in several areas - Eurasia, East Europe's security and
the Black Sea basin. That Ukraine delisted from setting bear-traps itself
becomes a geopolitical shift of consequence and Russian security is unavoidably
a pan-European issue - even a global one.
Yet the Obama administration behaved as if Yanukovich did the most natural
thing. True, as Nicolai Petro, pointperson on Russia in the George H W Bush
administration in the early years of the post-Soviet era, wrote recently:
was always wishful thinking to believe that Ukraine where almost any poll taken
in the past decade shows a 90 percent favorable view of Russians, and nearly
one in five still holds out hope of the two countries becoming one state would
be so easily torn away from Russia. If anything, [former president Viktor]
Yushchenko's efforts to equate 'pro-Western' with 'anti-Russian' probably did
more to undermine the popularity of the Orange Revolution than any other
'No' to 'sphere of influence' ...
What Petro wrote is equally applicable with regard to the Central Asian state
of Kyrgyzstan. However, the US has taken a stance in Bishkek. The senior
director for Russian and Central Asian affairs at the US National Security
Council, Michael McFaul, underscored in Bishkek, the Kyrgyzstan capital, this
week that the Obama administration had an entirely novel take on Central Asia.
McFaul insisted that through the power of Kyrgyzstan's example, ''it could also
be a model for other countries about how to establish democratic
institutions'.' He said openly:
We [the Obama administration] have
strategic priority to support the development of democratic institutions and we
have a variety of programs, we have a variety of American organizations that
work in Kyrgyzstan to do that. They are supported by the American taxpayers ...
their sources of funding are supported by the American government ... with this
philosophy of dual-track engagement, we will continue to work with the
government ... but in parallel we're also going to engage directly with the
civil society, with independent media, with legal organizations, to also help
to advance the democratic process here in Kyrgyzstan. It has to be both tracks;
it cannot be one or the other.
Is the future of the US military
base in Manas under Russian threat as a consequence? No, McFaul doesn't think
so since the US and Russia have a "common interest" in fighting the extremists
in Afghanistan and in any case, "President Obama has been very clear, he
categorically rejects the notions of 'spheres of influence', the 'Great Game'."
McFaul's repudiation of Moscow's contention that it has "special interests" in
the post-Soviet space, but his acknowledgement that it can have "common
interests" with Washington casts the US stance on Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in an
altogether different perspective.
Conceivably, the US hasn't really conceded Ukraine as a Russian "sphere of
influence" but recognizes that Washington and Moscow have a "shared interest"
in that country's stability. The hard reality is that the Ukrainian economy is
perilously close to a risk of default and the country is situated close to the
heart of Europe and it is bigger than Greece but not a member of the European
Europe (or the US) is not in a position to salvage the Ukrainian economy
through massive aid. And if Moscow shows the political will (and has enough
financial surplus) to help brotherly Ukraine to the tune of US$4 billion per
year - as payment for retaining the Sevastopol naval base for Russia's Black
Sea Fleet - American interests are not damaged.
As prominent Russian politician Boris Nemtsov pointed out, "No one in the world
is paying that kind of money for naval bases." The US, in comparison, pays a
paltry $800 million a year to rent its huge naval base in Okinawa, Japan. The
Black Sea Fleet comprises ships built 30 to 40 years ago and is incapable of
threatening the US. The flagship of the fleet, the missile carrier Moskva,
was commissioned in 1980. The fleet is in poor shape for combat activities with
NATO. Besides, according to Nemtsov, "only an incurable optimist" would insist
that Sevastopol is for Russia's keep for the next quarter century. Given the
fluidity in Ukrainian politics, Yanukovich could always get replaced and the
new leader may quote chapter and verse from a national constitution that
forbids foreign military bases.
... but 'Yes' to common interests
All-in-all, the Obama administration is making a tantalizing proposition to
Moscow: the post-Soviet republics can have "'you" as well as "us". If Moscow's
strategic tie-up with Ukraine helps toward forging peace up to the Urals and
thereby create conditions for Russia to focus on its modernization, the Obama
administration is prepared to regard it as of "common interest". Similarly, the
US's military base in Manas poses no threat to Russia's vital interests while
it creates conditions for regional stability, which are of "common interest" to
both Russia and the US.
Even the advent of democracy in Central Asia does not undercut Russian
interests. The authoritarian regimes in the region are increasingly adept at
playing off Moscow against Washington. Besides, the US is willing to concede,
as McFaul phrased it with tremendous clarity during his Bishkek visit on
Tuesday, "We [US] don't support one individual or one political view and we
most certainly don't support an American-style democracy. That's not our policy
at all. There are lots of varieties of democracy around the world. There is no
one truth, there is no one way to build democracy."
In essence, McFaul virtually echoes the Kremlin's thought process and hopes to
convince Russia that it may have a "common interest" in the democratization of
the post-Soviet space. As Ukraine's example shows, color revolutions need not
invariably result in anti-Russia regimes. Then, there are other signals.
The Obama administration has studiously distanced itself from Georgia's Mikheil
Saakashvili. The US ambassador to Russia, John Beyrle, indicated that the US
was willing to take in its stride the proposed sale of four French Mistral
warships to Russia. He told Moskovsky Komsomolets, the Moscow daily newspaper,
"The only question [about the Mistral sale] is the overall stability in the
region. And I believe that it will not be infringed as a result of this
agreement. [Moreover] we understand that this is an agreement between two
The Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty is back on the negotiating
agenda with Russia and NATO has offered it could work with Russia on a missile
shield. The US's energy czar, Richard Morningstar, has quietened, while Moscow
dramatically advances the prospects of the South Stream gas pipeline that helps
fasten a southern European/Balkan gas grid to Russian energy sources. It almost
seems the purge of Russian influence from the Balkans was an error.
A US-Russia strategic understanding over the post-Soviet space is still some
time away. It will take time to build mutual confidence that it would be a
fool's errand for Washington to try to set the former Soviet republics against
Russia, while equally, Moscow need not insist that the ''stans'' should route
their dealings with the US via the Russian capital. The broader issue is
whether the new START treaty heralded a new US-Russia relationship that, in
turn, made the Russian-Ukrainian breakthrough possible.
Yanukovich indeed deferred to the Obama administration by surrendering
Ukraine's weapons-grade plutonium - and that suggests some degree of
coordinated US and Russian policies toward Ukraine.
Moscow remains calm about Manas and is unflustered by the ratcheting up of US
influence in Bishkek. Can things move in the direction of a completely
different nature of US-Russia equations in the post-Soviet space? Ukraine and
Kyrgyzstan seem early signposts.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.