Russia’s regional policies are poised to take a dramatic turn with the move to offer an air base for the use of the United States to ferry troops and military cargo to Afghanistan. There is some delightful irony as well insofar as the base being offered is located in the city of Ulyanovsk on the Volga, which happens to be the birth place of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
The Kremlin move is strategic, geopolitically speaking. The Kremlin is signaling to Washington that the forthcoming Vladimir Putin presidency will carry pragmatism in Russian foreign policy to new heights if only the American side would reciprocate in some ways.
Indeed, Washington is reciprocating, too — signaling it might share with Russia as a ‘confidence-building measure’ some classified data relating to its missile defence system about which Moscow is visibly worked up.
Now, in turn, this may need yet another reciprocal gesture by the Kremlin. Any guesses what it could be? To my mind, it is all crystal clear: Putin may well attend the historic 60th anniversary summit of NATO in May in Chicago.
At least two Middle Eastern capitals (Tehran and Damascus) and one Far East Asian capital (Beijing) plus at least three Central Asian capitals (Bishkek, Dushanbe and Tashkent) must be shell-shocked by the timing of it all. But they shouldn’t be. Post-Soviet Russia has never hidden that its national interests and pragmatism will always remain the leitmotif of the Kremlin’s foreign policy.
Besides, look at it this way. Moscow’s compulsions are genuine and are, perhaps, understandable. The short point is, Russia is desperately in need of the ‘reset’ with the US to resume. Rhetorical flourishes apart, the stark truth is that Russian foreign policy finds itself in a cul-de-sac.
Russia will stagnate unless it can tap into western capital and technology. But the ties with the West are at a low point and Moscow is scared of becoming a junior partner to China. As the political elites in Moscow see it, the best happening for Russia will be if Barack Obama somehow pays attention to some of Moscow’s legitimate grievances.
It is actually a windfall also for Obama to get the Russians onto his side of the Afghan war. Of course, Russia will make some money out of leasing Ulyanovsk base (250 million dollars or so annually) but for Pentagon, it’s okay. The bonus is that Russia won’t again play dirty by instigating Kyrgyzstan to shut down the US base in Manas.
The US defence secretary Leon Panetta visited Bishkek Tuesday to broach the subject of the extension of the lease for Manas, which expires in July 2014. But Kyrgyz leadership, which is close to Putin, was non-committal. Washington can now expect Bishkek to climb down from the high horse.
Again, if Russia and US get together on this ghastly business of the war in Afghanistan, Washington’s need of the two transit routes via Pakistan diminishes. In turn, Washington can hope to calmly negotiate the reset of its ties with islamabad.
Islamabad was pinning hopes on a visit by Putin which would augur a new chapter in the great game in South and Central Asia. But all that was predicated on the chill in US-Russia ties. Now, it may turn out to be a classic case of the miss between the cup and the lip.
If Russia becomes a ‘stakeholder’ in the US/NATO military presence in Afghanistan, Islamabad needs to figure out the implications. So indeed Kabul and Tehran.
All in all, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov left little to the imagination when he said Wednesday, “We [Russians] are interested in having those [Americans] who counter [terrorism] issues facing Russia inside Afghanistan to do their job efficiently.” That was Lavrov at this best as a diplomat. Lenin’s embalmed face must be smiling.
– March 15, 2012