How much did Russia know about Manas negotiations?

July 3, 2009

David L. Stern covers the former Soviet Union and the Black Sea region for GlobalPost, where this article originally ran.

KIEV, Ukraine  — Was Kyrgyzstan’s decision last week not to evict American forces from a strategic air base the result of the “Obama Effect” — President Barack Obama’s reputed benign influence on how other nations now view the United States — or evidence of the new president’s hardball negotiating tactics?

The answer holds implications for the American leader’s first meeting with Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, when he is in Moscow July 6 to 8. Depending on whether the Kyrgyz reversal was made with or without the Kremlin’s blessing, the base issue could be a sign of how U.S.-Russian relations will develop over the next four years.

Bishkek announced that an arrangement was reached last week to allow U.S. forces to remain at Manas air base, where they staff a major re-fueling and transport hub for operations in nearby Afghanistan. Parliament, in which all but a few seats are occupied by President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s ruling party, quickly ratified the new agreement.

Rumors of a deal had been swirling around Washington and Bishkek for more than a month, but U.S. and Kyrgyz officials maintained a strict silence that allowed no official confirmation of the back-channel negotiations. Only three weeks ago, Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbayev said that the decision to eject the Americans by August still stood.

Under the new agreement, Washington’s annual rent for using Manas will be upped from $17.5 million to $60 million. In addition, the U.S. will pay some $36 million to renovate Manas International Airport, where the base is located, just outside the capital, and tens of millions more to combat drug trafficking and terrorism, and to promote economic growth. Some news reports placed the total amount of the new package at about $180 million per year. When the U.S. first opened Manas in 2001, its rent was just $2 million.

It is still unclear, however, if the base’s core functions will in any way change. A Russian foreign ministry statement indicated that cargo through Kyrgyzstan would be limited to “non-lethal” goods. Kyrgyz and U.S. officials made no mention of this, however.

Last year more than 6,300 flights took off from the base, while some 189,000 troops passed through and more than 200 million pounds of fuel were used.

But a question remains: Namely, were the Russians aware of the negotiations, or were they kept out of the loop?

The Kremlin appeared to have a vested interest in Bishkek’s original action. President Bakiev made his announcement that he was evicting the Americans just after talks in Moscow where the Russians had promised the Kyrgyz some $2 billion in aid. Many observers believed Russia, which runs an air base of its own in Kyrgyzstan, used financial enticements to achieve its long-stated goal of closing Manas, though both sides denied this.

Moscow immediately put a positive spin on the U-turn. President Medvedev said that he welcomed the decision, while the Russian foreign ministry said Kyrgyzstan wasacting in its rights as a “sovereign nation.”

Not everybody was so sanguine, however. An unnamed senior Russian diplomat told Russia’s Kommersant newspaper that the Kyrgyz had played a “dirty trick” and Moscow would carry out an “adequate response.”

Konstantin Zatulin, a Duma deputy with close ties to the Kremlin and foreign policy establishment, nevertheless believes that Moscow did give its blessing to the negotiations. “Obama’s arrival played a substantive, important role <in the Kremlin’s position>. He created the ground for a new Russian-American relationship.”

Others do not doubt that some Russian officials are dissatisfied, but in the end their opinions matter little. “We have only two ‘senior diplomats’ — Putin and Medvedev,” said Aleksei Malashenko, a Eurasia expert at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, referring to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

If the Russians were on board, some experts wonder if they received anything for their acquiescence — an American concession to abandon an anti-missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, for example. This, however, would be a risky move, as it could be interpreted as a betrayal of the two countries that pushed for the shield, Poland and the Czech Republic.

But others say that the Russians were in fact not informed until the last minute. This raises the question of what measures they will take next. Just prior to the decision to kick the Americans out, Kyrgyzstan experienced a debilitating cyber-attack which some experts subscribed to the Kremlin.

On the other hand, the Americans may have simply handed the Russians a fait accompli, which Moscow, on the eve of its first summit with the new president, will have to accept.

“My sense is that they are as mad as hell,” said Stephen Blank, a professor of national securities studies at the U.S. Army War College. “They thought they had it locked up and we beat them.”

For full article on GlobalPost, click here.


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I think the only ones here with any hardball negotiating tactics were the Kyrgyzstanis and the Russians. One got a ***load of money, the other (almost certainly) important concessions.Pres Obama inherited a situation where he almost has to get along, no matter what. Sometimes though, no deal is better than just any deal.I like Mr. Obama but he clearly has a few things to learn if he wants to play with the big boys. I hope he will.

Posted by Laz | Report as abusive

Why is a professor at the U.S Army War College allowed to put his propaganda spin on what I thought was a news article? I had just read an AP article about Russia approving a deal to let us ship weapons thru their territory. U.S military analyst Alexander Golts similarly does puts a propaganda spin on that “news report”, warning we should be under no illusions about Russia’s intentions. “The Russian leadership still has the mind-set of ’19th century Realpolitik’, and seeks the ability to hold its partners ‘by the throat’. Hmm. The Czar ruled Russian in the 19th century. Russia was never our “Cold War Rival”. The Soviet Union was. Those Communists were our WWII allies, and I bet FDR was under no illusions about using them to prevent American soldiers from dying on D-Day, if it had been in 1941.

Posted by Helen Frigo | Report as abusive

Everyone seems to be saying, “I like Obama…” or “He keeps doing x, y, and z, but he IS ethical.”. Why are people saying this, I wonder.

Posted by John | Report as abusive

Obama has more cards than anyone thinks or knows, give him a second/break. Thanks for your support!

Posted by tony | Report as abusive

It is imperative that Russia and America improve relations and make the world a safer place. At the same time there is definitely a new ethical, pragmatic approach by the Obama Administration to reach out and create new dynamics with the Russians and the rest of the world. A gentler and more pragmatic America regaining the respect and trust of the world at large. If only these policies were put into motion eight years ago. Alas there was a different President!That explains most of it.

Posted by Pancha Chandra | Report as abusive

In all the major stories we see in all the major journals, newspapers and press releases we seem to see one common thread, sovereign states fighting to maintain their sovereignty. This is often put forward as a natural state of nations however, maybe the time is coming to review theses assumptions?? Is it idealistic or utopic to beleive that the world was not always a conglomerate of independent, sovereign states fighting against each other to maintain such a futile thing as “this is mine and that is yours?” it seems that through the year we have learnt little, or nothing… as we continue to read of these events that seem more like a scene from a kindergarden playground than a civilized world.

Posted by Diego van Dyk | Report as abusive

Neocons think if they aren’t allowed to do things at their will and on the cheap then there must be sinister forces working against them. Everyone has their own self-interests so now the USA had to ante up some more money. I wouldn’t let someone use my land for free either.

Posted by rich | Report as abusive

While there are doubts about how happy the Russians are about the decision regarding Manas, the opening of airspace, as is being reported now, is purely a Russian prerogative. I would be surprised, if Russia was not involved in the decision on Manas, given that, as an SCO member, the government in Kyrgyzstan would have been more sensitive to the Russian (and Chinese) expectations. And, of course, if the Russians were upset with the decision, the opening of airspace is even more strange – one would have expected a more retaliatory move…So, if it was just a message for the Americans about who rules in Central Asia, I guess the message was delivered successfully and now it is back to business.

Posted by Paritosh | Report as abusive

I think it wasn’t the Obama effect but the US Dollar effect, threatening to close the base was the perfect leverage to persuade the US into paying more money.

Posted by Nikkei 225 | Report as abusive

After a long interval,i have completed the article on How much Russia know about this negotiations?by Mr.David Stern.very good to know about the latest beneficial to America and Russia.I have studied both American and Russians business interests.Russia Foreign minister, was very clever not to say much anything about American forces to remain at Manas Air base.Whereas, Russian President,Mr.Medvedav took U-turn to the above issue.We have to wait and see ,what was the conversation of this matter between two countries president.Over all,Obama!s foreign policies are closely watched by BRIC Nations.Now, Brazil,Russia,India and China are known as fast developing nations in regard standard of living,exports,foreign reserves,constant economic growth,enlarging their knowledge bases.Sometimes,History never repeat itself.

Posted by krishnamurthi ramachandran | Report as abusive

I think more money from the americans gave the Kyrgyz the excuse to cancel the treat of closing the base. They did not want to close the base from the outset, it was the assertive mood of Russia combined with the weakened america after the arrival of obama which made former us allies to feel lost. Hence, Obama did not contribute positively to the decision. Afterall, all what he has been doing in the last several months is give concession after concession to everybody. If it was not for fear of scorning the Czechs and the Polishs, he would conceed the missile defence too.

Posted by welko | Report as abusive