Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University and a former foreign policy correspondent for the New York Times, writing in the San Fransisco Chronicle, documents Russia’s brazen, aggressive challenge to Barack Obama:
America’s competitors and adversaries are certainly not greeting President Obama with open arms. During his first month in office, many have given him the stiff arm. Pakistan made a deal with the Taliban to give it a huge swath of territory in the middle of the country for a new haven. North Korea is threatening war with South Korea. Many in the Arab world who had welcomed Obama are now attacking him because he did not denounce Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Iran launched a satellite into space, demonstrating that it has the ability to construct an intercontinental ballistic missile to match up with the nuclear weapons it is apparently trying to build.
There’s more, but none of it can match the sheer gall behind Russia’s open challenge to Washington.
As only the most glaring example, earlier this month Russia suddenly offered to give Kyrgyzstan, its former satellite state, $2.15 billion if Kyrgyzstan agreed to evict American forces from an air base there.
The United States uses the Manas Air Base to ferry troops and cargo to Afghanistan. The facility, the Pentagon says, is critically important for the war effort, as Russia unquestionably knows. Russia and Kyrgyzstan are trying to deny that the two decisions are related, even though they came in serial fashion on the same day: Russia offered the aid, a few hours later, Kyrgyzstan issued the eviction notice.
As if that were not enough to prove Russia’s hostile intent, a few days later a Kyrgyz lawmaker announced that the parliament would not vote on the base-closure proposal until Russia delivered the first $450 million tranche of aid.
Imagine the outrage if the United States suddenly offered to give Kazakhstan, another Central Asian state, $2 billion if, in exchange, the Kazakh government terminated Russia’s lease for its space launch center in Baikonur. A hurt, angry outcry would sweep the globe.
Even with all the anti-American sentiment everywhere these days, most people worldwide know America to be a decent, honest state. For all the justified criticism over the invasion of Iraq, the United States is now beginning to pull out its troops. For all the international anger and hatred of George W. Bush, the American people elected a man who is his antithesis.
The world expects better of America. Not so for Russia. The response to the Kyrgyz bribery episode was muted, unremarkable. No one expects much that’s worthy of admiration from Moscow. That’s a sorry situation for an important state.
Shortly after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was caught bribing Kyrgyzstan, he announced that Russia is, as he put it, “ready for full-fledged cooperation” with the United States in Afghanistan. But then, Medvedev listed the conditions for this generous offer: NATO will have to stop accepting new membership applications from Eastern European and Central Asian states. The United States must abandon its missile-defense plan.
This “offer” came at the end of a meeting with Russia’s regional allies at which they agreed to form a joint military force to counter NATO.
The real message behind all this, it seems, is Russia’s determination to show Obama that Russia controls Central Asia. If Washington wants to make deals and arrangements there, it needs to come to Moscow, not Kyrgyzstan’s Bishkek or other regional capitals.
Well, the hypocrisy there is typical for Russia. For the last couple of years, Russia has been buying influence in Latin America and bragging about it. Central and South America are as much America’s neighborhood as Central Asia is Russia’s. As an example, in Ecuador last fall, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council, said with no reticence that his country wants to collaborate with Ecuadoran intelligence “to expand Moscow’s influence in Latin America and offer a counterweight to the United States.”
Obama, and Bush before him, have seemed so determined not to open a new Cold War – a concern Moscow obviously doesn’t share – that they have let Russian leaders walk all over them.
The Obama administration’s clearest response to the Kyrgyzstan bribery episode came a few days ago, when Undersecretary of State Bill Burns, visiting Moscow, could only manage to say that “we regret” the Kyrgyz airbase decision. At the same time, Vice President Joe Biden said the United States is willing to compromise with Moscow over the antimissile plan that the Russians so despise. In a speech, he said: “It is time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia.”
If only Russia could offer a scintilla of like-minded generosity.