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The Tricky U.S.-Russia ‘Reset’ Button

Author: Jeffrey Mankoff
February 18, 2009

The diplomatic agenda between the United States and Russia remains focused to a significant degree on military "hard security" issues, largely because of their failure over the past two decades to institutionalize trust and cooperation in the bilateral relationship. While both now appear eager to move ahead with talks on a new strategic arms control pact, developments in two other aspects of the hard security relationship--missile defense and the war in Afghanistan--will determine whether the United States and Russia can move from limited cooperation to a more durable partnership. The danger is that because these issues are so critical and politically sensitive, failure could do real damage, making progress in other areas difficult.

Washington's support for building a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic has been a major source of tension with Moscow, which fears the weakening of its nuclear deterrent capacity and, more importantly, opposes the establishment of an American military footprint close to the frontiers of the former Soviet Union. Moscow quickly signaled that new President Barack Obama would have to confront this issue head-on. The day after Obama's November election victory, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared in his annual state of the nation address that Russia would station short-range Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, just miles from the Polish and Lithuanian borders. Such missiles, which the proposed missile defense system would be unable to counter, appeared designed largely to pressure Warsaw and Prague to backtrack on their support.

Missile Diplomacy

The announcement placed Obama in a difficult position. Throughout the electoral campaign, the then-Illinois senator expressed a willingness to reconsider the Bush Administration's support for missile defense. The threat of Iskanders in Kaliningrad, however, made it difficult for Obama to withdraw U.S. support without appearing to buckle in the face of a Russian threat.

Moscow "opposes the establishment of an American military footprint close to the frontiers of the former Soviet Union."

For that reason, the recent willingness of both Washington and Moscow to scale back the dispute is noteworthy. U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden's remark at the Munich Security Conference that Washington should "press the reset button" in relations with Russia was well-received in Moscow. Biden made clear that the United States would continue to develop a missile defense program against the threat of Iranian rockets but only "provided the technology is proven and it is cost-effective" and only in consultation with Moscow. Moscow responded by indicating that it would cancel the planned Kaliningrad deployment if the United States would agree not to build the missile defense system.

Obama then also hinted that the United States would be willing to slow development of the system in exchange for Russian assistance against Iran's ballistic missile and nuclear program. Meeting with Russian officials in Moscow, U.S. Under Secretary of State William Burns further suggested that the United States would consider including Russia as a partner in the development of the missile defense system. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in an interview published on Saturday, rejected any linkage between the U.S. missile system and Iran but welcomed the offer of talks on the missiles.

Even as the ice was thawing on missile defense, Washington was caught off guard by the announcement of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev on February 3 that U.S. troops would have to vacate the Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan, which has been a principal conduit for supplies going to the conflict zone in Afghanistan. Bakiyev's announcement came just after Russian officials agreed to provide Kyrgyzstan over $2 billion in development aid. The Kyrgyz decision appeared to be a quid pro quo for the Russian aid and an indication of the Central Asian nation's increasing tilt toward Russia.

Even as the overall relationship between Moscow and Washington has deteriorated recently, Russia has continued to support the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan, and had agreed to the initial deployment of U.S. troops to Central Asia in 2002. Moscow, whose involvement in Afghanistan dates back before the Soviet invasion of 1979, has been a longtime foe of the Taliban, which it views as part of a larger threat to the secular, pro-Russian strongmen ruling the predominantly Muslim Central Asian states, and blames for training and arming the separatist guerrillas in Chechnya until the U.S.-led invasion of 2002.

Raising the Ante

"The disputes over missile defense and the Kyrgyz air base provide hints of how the U.S.-Russian relationship will unfold during the Obama Administration."

Given Russia's hostility to the Taliban and support for U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan, its pressure on Kyrgyzstan to close Manas caught U.S. officials by surprise. Medvedev cleared up much of the confusion a few days later when he offered Washington the use of Russian air space to ferry supplies to Afghanistan in place of the route through Kyrgyzstan. The Russians were, in essence, using Obama's increased focus on the Afghan conflict as a source of leverage--announcing that if Washington wanted the anti-Taliban campaign to succeed, it would have to have to go through Moscow.

The disputes over missile defense and the Kyrgyz air base provide hints of how the U.S.-Russian relationship will unfold during the Obama Administration. Greater flexibility on missile defense provides an opportunity to explore deeper U.S.-Russian cooperation in Europe, where recent conflicts over NATO expansion, the war in Georgia, and the January energy crisis make it especially urgent for Washington and Moscow to "press the reset button." Obama will still have to tread carefully. As he backs away from the Bush administration's unwavering commitment to missile defense, he will have to reassure the Eastern Europeans (especially the Poles) that their interests will not be sacrificed as part of a deal, especially as Obama has also been cooler toward further NATO expansion. Obama will also need to avoid tempting the Kremlin--increasingly worried about domestic instability resulting from economic troubles--into manufacturing a new European crisis.

In Central Asia as well, recent events offer both an opportunity and a warning. The Kyrgyz parliament has yet to schedule a vote on the closure of Manas, and while the parliament is generally subservient to the executive branch, the delay offers an opening for US diplomacy. Regardless of  whether Bishkek forces the American troops to leave in the near future, the US presence at Manas has long been on borrowed time anyway. The Kyrgyz and Russian approval of the original deployment was based on the assumption it would be temporary. Since coming to power in Kyrgyzstan in 2005, Bakiyev has stepped up pressure over Manas, demanding ever higher lease payments and criticizing the behavior of US soldiers.

Washington cannot rejoice over the expulsion of its troops from Kyrgyzstan just as it plans to increase troop levels in Afghanistan and as its principal overland supply route through Pakistan is menaced by stepped up Taliban attacks. Yet using Russia as principal supply corridor for Afghanistan has some advantages. Unlike the Pakistan route, transit across Russia would not be subject to disruption by Taliban attacks. It would also further align U.S. and Russian interests in both Afghanistan and Central Asia more broadly.

The downside, of course, is increased U.S. dependence on Moscow. While Russia is committed to seeing the Taliban defeated, it could still use American dependence to extract concessions in other areas. To avoid such dependence on Moscow, among a host of other reasons, it is therefore critical the United States help restore stability in Pakistan. Washington also needs to reach out more to other states with a stake in the Afghan conflict, including Iran.

Finally, it would also be helpful if Washington could use the recent thaw with Moscow to explore moving beyond limited cooperation on hard security issues. A Russian leadership that is less concerned about attempts to expand U.S. influence in its strategic "back yard" is less likely to cause problems for Washington, in Afghanistan, Europe, or elsewhere.

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