By M K Bhadrakumar
An unprecedented military parade in Red Square in Moscow on Sunday, when servicemen from the major North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries will march alongside Russian soldiers, will be a commemorative event marking the 65th anniversary of Victory Day in World War II. Arguably, it is not a parade of NATO troops but rather of Russia's erstwhile allies in the coalition against Adolf Hitler.
Nor are parades necessarily the stuff of real politics or the harbingers of military alliances. Yet, the political symbolism cannot entirely be lost when the Kremlin ramparts resonate with the march of American troops and Vladimir Lenin's mausoleum bears mute witness. The point is that while the 50th and 60th Victor Day anniversaries occurred in the post-Cold War era, they saw no such "allied" parades. In fact, the United States almost acted as a "spoiler" by raking up controversies of Soviet history when the Kremlin marked the day with great pomp and circumstance five years ago.
Indeed, the parade on Sunday cannot be seen without reference to the ''convergence trend'' that has appeared in the Euro-Atlantic region - to cite Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. He elaborated:
This trend is manifested with the improved atmosphere of Russia-US relations, including the elaboration of the new treaty replacing the START I [ Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty], further formation of the strategic partnership with the European Union and ongoing normalization at the Russia-NATO Council. Conditions are forming to overcome the Cold War bloc mentality in the European architecture and the consequential fears regarding spheres of influence.Things seem to be falling into place. Washington didn't say "Aha!" when it became clear that Viktor Yanukovich, president of Ukraine, had begun to waffle with the Kremlin leadership and Cold Warriors voiced criticism that the Barack Obama administration was abandoning influence and power in the post-Soviet space.
Without doubt, the agreement between Moscow and Kiev on extending the deadline for the Black Sea Fleet in the Crimea goes beyond the framework of Russian-Ukrainian relations. The kaleidoscope has moved and the situation is shifting simultaneously in several areas - Eurasia, East Europe's security and the Black Sea basin. That Ukraine delisted from setting bear-traps itself becomes a geopolitical shift of consequence and Russian security is unavoidably a pan-European issue - even a global one.
Yet the Obama administration behaved as if Yanukovich did the most natural thing. True, as Nicolai Petro, pointperson on Russia in the George H W Bush administration in the early years of the post-Soviet era, wrote recently:
It was always wishful thinking to believe that Ukraine where almost any poll taken in the past decade shows a 90 percent favorable view of Russians, and nearly one in five still holds out hope of the two countries becoming one state would be so easily torn away from Russia. If anything, [former president Viktor] Yushchenko's efforts to equate 'pro-Western' with 'anti-Russian' probably did more to undermine the popularity of the Orange Revolution than any other factor.'''No' to 'sphere of influence' ...
What Petro wrote is equally applicable with regard to the Central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan. However, the US has taken a stance in Bishkek. The senior director for Russian and Central Asian affairs at the US National Security Council, Michael McFaul, underscored in Bishkek, the Kyrgyzstan capital, this week that the Obama administration had an entirely novel take on Central Asia.
McFaul insisted that through the power of Kyrgyzstan's example, ''it could also be a model for other countries about how to establish democratic institutions'.' He said openly:
We [the Obama administration] have strategic priority to support the development of democratic institutions and we have a variety of programs, we have a variety of American organizations that work in Kyrgyzstan to do that. They are supported by the American taxpayers ... their sources of funding are supported by the American government ... with this philosophy of dual-track engagement, we will continue to work with the government ... but in parallel we're also going to engage directly with the civil society, with independent media, with legal organizations, to also help to advance the democratic process here in Kyrgyzstan. It has to be both tracks; it cannot be one or the other.Is the future of the US military base in Manas under Russian threat as a consequence? No, McFaul doesn't think so since the US and Russia have a "common interest" in fighting the extremists in Afghanistan and in any case, "President Obama has been very clear, he categorically rejects the notions of 'spheres of influence', the 'Great Game'."
McFaul's repudiation of Moscow's contention that it has "special interests" in the post-Soviet space, but his acknowledgement that it can have "common interests" with Washington casts the US stance on Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in an altogether different perspective.
Conceivably, the US hasn't really conceded Ukraine as a Russian "sphere of influence" but recognizes that Washington and Moscow have a "shared interest" in that country's stability. The hard reality is that the Ukrainian economy is perilously close to a risk of default and the country is situated close to the heart of Europe and it is bigger than Greece but not a member of the European Union.
Europe (or the US) is not in a position to salvage the Ukrainian economy through massive aid. And if Moscow shows the political will (and has enough financial surplus) to help brotherly Ukraine to the tune of US$4 billion per year - as payment for retaining the Sevastopol naval base for Russia's Black Sea Fleet - American interests are not damaged.
As prominent Russian politician Boris Nemtsov pointed out, "No one in the world is paying that kind of money for naval bases." The US, in comparison, pays a paltry $800 million a year to rent its huge naval base in Okinawa, Japan. The Black Sea Fleet comprises ships built 30 to 40 years ago and is incapable of threatening the US. The flagship of the fleet, the missile carrier Moskva, was commissioned in 1980. The fleet is in poor shape for combat activities with NATO. Besides, according to Nemtsov, "only an incurable optimist" would insist that Sevastopol is for Russia's keep for the next quarter century. Given the fluidity in Ukrainian politics, Yanukovich could always get replaced and the new leader may quote chapter and verse from a national constitution that forbids foreign military bases.
... but 'Yes' to common interests
All-in-all, the Obama administration is making a tantalizing proposition to Moscow: the post-Soviet republics can have "'you" as well as "us". If Moscow's strategic tie-up with Ukraine helps toward forging peace up to the Urals and thereby create conditions for Russia to focus on its modernization, the Obama administration is prepared to regard it as of "common interest". Similarly, the US's military base in Manas poses no threat to Russia's vital interests while it creates conditions for regional stability, which are of "common interest" to both Russia and the US.
Even the advent of democracy in Central Asia does not undercut Russian interests. The authoritarian regimes in the region are increasingly adept at playing off Moscow against Washington. Besides, the US is willing to concede, as McFaul phrased it with tremendous clarity during his Bishkek visit on Tuesday, "We [US] don't support one individual or one political view and we most certainly don't support an American-style democracy. That's not our policy at all. There are lots of varieties of democracy around the world. There is no one truth, there is no one way to build democracy."
In essence, McFaul virtually echoes the Kremlin's thought process and hopes to convince Russia that it may have a "common interest" in the democratization of the post-Soviet space. As Ukraine's example shows, color revolutions need not invariably result in anti-Russia regimes. Then, there are other signals.
The Obama administration has studiously distanced itself from Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili. The US ambassador to Russia, John Beyrle, indicated that the US was willing to take in its stride the proposed sale of four French Mistral warships to Russia. He told Moskovsky Komsomolets, the Moscow daily newspaper, "The only question [about the Mistral sale] is the overall stability in the region. And I believe that it will not be infringed as a result of this agreement. [Moreover] we understand that this is an agreement between two sovereign countries."
The Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty is back on the negotiating agenda with Russia and NATO has offered it could work with Russia on a missile shield. The US's energy czar, Richard Morningstar, has quietened, while Moscow dramatically advances the prospects of the South Stream gas pipeline that helps fasten a southern European/Balkan gas grid to Russian energy sources. It almost seems the purge of Russian influence from the Balkans was an error.
A US-Russia strategic understanding over the post-Soviet space is still some time away. It will take time to build mutual confidence that it would be a fool's errand for Washington to try to set the former Soviet republics against Russia, while equally, Moscow need not insist that the ''stans'' should route their dealings with the US via the Russian capital. The broader issue is whether the new START treaty heralded a new US-Russia relationship that, in turn, made the Russian-Ukrainian breakthrough possible.
Yanukovich indeed deferred to the Obama administration by surrendering Ukraine's weapons-grade plutonium - and that suggests some degree of coordinated US and Russian policies toward Ukraine.
Moscow remains calm about Manas and is unflustered by the ratcheting up of US influence in Bishkek. Can things move in the direction of a completely different nature of US-Russia equations in the post-Soviet space? Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan seem early signposts.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.