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 was acting 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.”
More on Manas air base:
The path to Afghanistan now runs through Central Asia
Why the air base debate drags on
Manas Air Base: A Pyrrhic victory?