Russia and Obama: A Long Brawl Just Begun
The thaw between the US and Russia is superficial and don’t hold your breath for progress to substantive gains any time soon. At recent key meetings in Brussels and Geneva, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offered an outstretched hand but Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov only slightly unclenched his fist.
Moscow is preparing to wage a kind of asymmetrical diplomatic tussle with Washington. This is far from Cold War or hostility of any kind. But it is tough competition conducted with hawk’s eye vigilance and clever resolve to hem in Washington’s freedom to conduct foreign policy without paying a high price.
It recognizes that Russia is not America’s equal as a world power but moves ahead in the conviction that it is possible to prevent the US from achieving its foreign policy and security goals outside Europe. To remove each hurdle, Moscow wants to extract a bribe as painful as feasible.
Russia’s resolve is surprising because its power is weakening rapidly as its economy slides into the furnace of depression quickened by lower oil and other commodity prices. But it shows how far respect for American power has fallen because of the debacle of capitalism that President Barack Obama does seem to know how to halt convincingly.
It also shows how the fear of US military power has been eroded by the swamps of Iraq and Afghanistan where lightly armed insurgents have proved that US war goals can be stymied through asymmetrical conflict.
Clinton jokingly presented Lavrov with a big red button with an inscription that was supposed to read “reset” but read “overload” instead. The slip revealed the current situation neatly. The Obama administration is resetting its approach to Russia to get rid of the overload of hubris and debris of the George Bush years.
Yet, the short but substantive discussions showed that the outstretched hand is tactical rather than strategic so far. Lavrov was too diplomatic to point this out in public but his comments were laconic. He welcomed the changed style and insisted that he has warm personal rapport with Hilary. But he did not give an inch on any issue ranging from long-standing ones like arms control and nuclear reactor exports to recent ones like Georgia, Kosovo and pressure on Iran. He favored talks about everything in the overloaded bilateral agenda, which is an old Russian method of doing nothing while buying time.
His words were cooperative but turning that cooperation into bankable reality will take much more than a change of style and tactics at the White House. Substantive changes in foreign policy will have to be made to accommodate Russia’s perceptions of its military and economic security concerns in the vast Asian region. There is no consensus or even strategy in Washington about what to give up and what to obtain in this complex relationship.
Russia’s ability to create trouble in asymmetrical ways without being hostile or offensive is considerable. For example, on immediate questions of vital importance for saving American lives, Russia continues to encourage Kyrgyzstan to close a US military base critical for NATO’s conduct of the war in Afghanistan.
With Taliban and its sympathizers threatening land supply routes from Pakistan, losing the Kyrgyz base will disrupt the US military’s ability to support its troops in Afghanistan. It can be replaced but finding new secure routes is a herculean, expensive and delicate task.
The closure is six months away, which is enough to negotiate a solution. But that will not be possible without Moscow’s intervention because the Russians have bought Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s cooperation with a $2 billion aid package, compared with the $63 million that the US pays as annual rent for the base. With its other financial troubles, Washington is not well positioned to compete with the Russia on this one.
Moscow wants to reassert its strategic authority over the entire Central Asian region as its zone of political influence since the now independent countries belonged to the former Soviet Union. It is sending a clear message to the US and its European allies that they can no longer venture out of their traditional territories to conduct operations, military or otherwise, without explicit Russian cooperation.
To drive home this point, Lavrov repeated an old offer to let non-lethal supplies be transported by rail across Russia to Afghanistan. But Moscow will make a point of checking all shipments thoroughly, probably causing delays and additional costs.
This example, one of many, illustrates the fundamental Russian mindset of intense nationalism and great suspicion of American intentions near its borders and in the Middle East and Asia in general.
Recognizing this, Clinton wants to set new paths of cooperation with Russia by trying to allay distrust and separating the contentious issues for handling one by one rather than as a loose package. But Russia does not seem to be ready for this kind of pragmatic working together although Lavrov pays lip service on every occasion, including in Brussels and Geneva.