Analysis: Moscow uses base as tool in negotiation

By: By ANNE GEARAN and ROBERT BURNS, Associated Press Writers
By: By ANNE GEARAN and ROBERT BURNS, Associated Press Writers

WASHINGTON (AP) - A standoff over an obscure air base in a Central Asian country few Americans could find on a map is 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.

"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.

Over the last week, Russian officials have issued new warnings against the U.S. medium-range missile system and promised billions to a former client state, Kyrgyzstan, to persuade its strongman leader to evict the U.S. military from its main air hub in the region.

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 like Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Bush administration's plan to base U.S. missiles and receptors at Russia's doorstep in Poland and the Czech Republic is the main irritant in play between Russia and the United States, but it is a symptom of the deeper contest for influence in central and eastern Europe and in Central Asia.

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 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 non-lethal U.S. supplies would be permitted across its territory - which would still pose problems for the transit of U.S. weapons and other materiel.

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 Russian President Dmitry 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. Obama could walk away from the plan, but for now he is keeping it as an option.

Russia also sought to strengthen its security alliance with six ex-Soviet nations Wednesday by forming a joint rapid reaction force in a continuing effort to curb U.S. influence in energy-rich Central Asia.

Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, which had appeared to be looking for the best deal it could make with the U.S., said Friday it would not reverse its decision to close the Manas base. The United States had been preparing a new offer that would raise its rent payments and other economic help.

American officials acknowledge in private that they mishandled a number of incidents at the Manas base in recent years. The first was the 2006 fatal shooting by a U.S. serviceman of a local civilian driver at an entrance to the air base; the U.S. investigation dragged on and Washington would not let the Kyrgyz prosecute the American.

The same year, a U.S. Air Force KC-135 refueling plane collided on the runway at Manas with a Tu-154 aircraft carrying a senior Kyrgyz government official, slicing off a portion of the civilian plane's wing. The Americans blamed the local airport control tower; Kyrgyz authorities said the U.S. pilot was to blame.

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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.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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