[Editor's Note: President Obama recently "reset" U.S.-Russian relations at a higher and friendlier level, but things are not as they are supposed to seem, despite news photos showing "buddies" Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in shirtsleeves, quaffing hamburgers June 24 at Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington, Va. Asia Times columnist and former Indian diplomat M. K. Bhadrakumar shows that the reset already needs a reset if relations are to truly improve.]
By M. K. Bhadrakumar
Last week, with a neat turn of phrase, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton captured the quintessence of the United States "reset" of ties with Russia. During her halt in Tbilisi on Monday during her five-day, five-nation tour of Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus, she assured the Georgian leadership that the U.S. "can walk and chew gum at the same time."
What Clinton meant during what commentators described as a "reassurance tour" of Russia's neighbors - Poland, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia - was that the U.S. could pursue the "reset" with Russia and the partnership with them at the same time.
There were three recurring themes to Clinton's tour. First, that the Barack Obama administration will not sacrifice its influence or policies in the post-Soviet space for the sake of improving relations with Russia. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon said Clinton embarked on the tour "to reiterate and demonstrate" that the "better relationship with Russia does not come at the expense of our relationship with sovereign, independent countries that are near Russia."
Second, as Clinton put it in the presence of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in Tbilisi, "With respect to Russia's claims to any sphere of influence, the United States flatly rejects that. We are living in a time when independent sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions about organizations they wish to join, to make determinations that are in the best interests of their own people and how they see their own future."
Third, the U.S. will continue to assert itself in the region, especially in Poland, Ukraine and Azerbaijan, which are in the midst of an unusual warming of ties with Russia. Clinton pressed the pedal on political pluralism and democratic transfer of power in the post-Soviet space and included Russia in a list of countries where the "governments are slowly crushing civil society and the human spirit." Clinton stressed that Washington would continue financing non-governmental organizations in the post-Soviet republics (and Russia) in the endeavor to advance their democratization - something that profoundly irritates Moscow.
On Wednesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry lashed out at U.S. policies under the garb of advancing democracy "which verge on interference in internal affairs: funding for training 'independent observers' of elections, attempts to nurture the so-called autonomous local self-governments, lobbying for the 'right' legislative initiatives, etc." The lengthy statement ended in a combative tone:
"The subjectivist judgments about what is happening in Russia, expressed by individual leaders of the U.S. administration and based on double standards, are hardly appropriate ... Also, it wouldn't be a bad idea to more concretely sort out their [the U.S.'s] own problems in the field of the observance of human rights, including the universal norms of international law in this domain."
As could be expected, Clinton reserved her big punch until she arrived in Tbilisi. She described the Russian military presence in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as "invasion and occupation." This is the first time since the August 2008 conflict in the Caucasus that Washington has used the condemnatory expression.
Clinton assured the Georgian leadership that the U.S. would continue to "call for Russia to abide by the August 2008 ceasefire commitment signed by President Saakashvili and President [Dmitry] Medvedev, including ending the occupation and withdrawing Russian troops from South Ossetia and Abkhazia to their pre-conflict positions."
Arguably, Moscow could draw some satisfaction that the U.S. is still holding back from acceding to Tbilisi's request to provide Georgia with antiaircraft and anti-tank weapons and to post monitors on the borders of the breakaway enclaves. From the Russian perspective, what so far mattered was that the Georgian-U.S. relationship is not as warm as it used to be under the George W Bush administration.
All the same, Moscow has taken exception to Clinton's remarks. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Wednesday rejecting Clinton's reference to Russia's "invasion" and "occupation" of Georgia and demanded that Washington should "take account of this objective reality [of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as sovereign states] in their public and practical activities."
During her tour, Clinton brought back to the frontburner the U.S.-Russia spat over the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the U.S. deployment of a missile defense system in Poland, and rekindled flames of energy rivalry in the Caspian that had lately subsided.
Both in Ukraine and Georgia, Clinton positively viewed their prospects for NATO membership. She enticed the pro-Russian Ukrainian leadership of Viktor Yanukovich with the tantalizing thought that "there are so many opportunities for Ukraine to assume a position of prominence and influence in the region, in Europe, and even beyond." Clinton spoke of possibilities of defense and security cooperation with Ukraine. Clinton remarked:
"I think what Ukraine is doing in trying to balance its relationships between the United States, the European Union and Russia makes a lot of sense. Because what you want is to protect your territorial integrity, your sovereignty, and your independence ... we think this balance that Ukraine is constructing with its very strategic location is in Ukraine's long-term interests and will assist in creating a better atmosphere for relations between and among Russia, Europe, and the United States."
Russia will be watching with some anxiety that Ukraine has agreed to hold joint U.S.-Ukraine Sea Breeze military exercises at the end of this month. Clinton's message throughout was that Ukraine shouldn't allow itself to be cowed by Moscow's coercive diplomacy regarding NATO membership and she repeatedly reminded the Ukrainian leadership that "the doors to NATO remain open."
Without doubt, the U.S. has made it clear that it will contest every Moscow effort to regain influence in Ukraine. To this end, Clinton harped on an all-out U.S. effort to make Ukraine "energy independent." She said the U.S. would help on issues relating to the modernization of Ukraine's energy sector so as to "transform Ukraine into an energy producer and becoming more energy efficient" as well as to create a "reformed functioning energy market that will attract investment from around the world."
Clinton assured the Ukrainian leadership that U.S. companies had shown specific interest in Ukraine's nuclear power industry (which Russia has been eyeing), the shale gas and methane gas potential in Ukraine and in deep-water drilling in the Black Sea.
In an indirect criticism of the Russian business practices in Ukraine involving the so-called oligarchs, Clinton called for changes in "the way that the energy sector operates in Ukraine to ensure transparent, credible processes for investing in the opportunities available." She repeatedly stressed that the energy sector was "vital to Ukraine's future" - being the area where Ukraine comes under maximum Russian pressure.
She said the U.S. approach would be to encourage processes that "give Ukraine more control over your own energy future, creating a strong, independent transparent energy sector rooted in Ukraine's own resources ... we know that investing in this energy sector is one of the best ways the United States and other countries can help Ukraine."
The central theme boiled down to Ukraine's autonomy and independence from Russia. "The country stands at a very important turning point in history ... And we wish to work with you in this strategic partnership to assist you in realizing the benefits of the sacrifices that have been made in so many decades past by the Ukrainian people."
The fact that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced the dispersal of a U.S.$14.9 billion loan for Ukraine the very same day Clinton landed in Kiev carried a compelling message for the Ukrainian leadership. Washington has virtually slammed shut the door that Moscow held open for Ukraine to join a customs union with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. In a sign of U.S. diplomacy shifting gear, Clinton will be co-chairing another meeting of the Strategic Partnership Commission - for the second time this year - in Washington.
Clinton's tour has revived the U.S.-Russian rivalry over Caspian energy. The Nabucco gas pipeline project (connecting the Azeri and Turkmen gas fields with the European market via a route bypassing Russia) has reappeared as a frontrunner among the proposed Trans-Caspian projects.
Clinton arrived in Baku within weeks of the Turkey-Azerbaijan gas transit agreement of June 7. Vistas are opening up for the transportation of Azeri gas via Georgia and Turkey as well as a range of other routes. Nabucco tops the Azeri priorities.
Upstream gas field development projects in Azerbaijan, including Shah Deniz and Aphsheron offshore gas projects, also offer huge business opportunities. Nabucco will rely heavily on Azeri gas for the first phase but the U.S. also counts on supplies from Turkmenistan. The managing director of the Nabucco consortium, Reinhard Mitschek, has voiced optimism that with the Turkish-Azeri transit agreement in place, the project can materialize by 2014.
Nabucco presents Russia with a big challenge to its rival South Stream project. As things stand, South Stream is very expensive and everything now depends on gaining access to Turkmen gas. A period of acute struggle lies ahead to win hearts and minds in the Turkmen leadership. Clearly, from the U.S. perspective, the reset doesn't include the geopolitics of Caspian energy. Washington has simply dusted up its brief to reduce Russia's dominance in the energy sector.
But Azerbaijan's importance to the U.S. goes well beyond its pivotal status in Caspian energy politics. The U.S. sees Azerbaijan as a vital link in the supply chain to Afghanistan along a new transit route known as the "Caucasus spur" that bypasses Russian territory. Clinton's tour has been carefully timed to arrest the signs of Baku moving closer to Moscow.
An estimated quarter of all supplies for Afghanistan already pass through the "Caucasus spur." The crisis situation in Kyrgyzstan and the question marks over Manas air base potentially make Azerbaijan a strategic partner for the U.S. for providing a transit route for troops and supplies flowing into Afghanistan. Simply put, the route via Caucasus will reduce the U.S.'s dependence on the Russian route.
However, all this might appear to Moscow as shadowboxing in comparison with the U.S.'s unilateral move to deploy the anti-missile defense system in Poland. During Clinton's visit to Poland, Washington and Warsaw signed a document in the nature of an amendment to the earlier agreement on missile defense.
Last year, in the spirit of "reset" of ties with Russia, Obama announced a new missile defense system, which in the first phase will be completed by 2011 and will involve sea-based SM-3 interceptor missiles and in the second phase (sometime around 2015) will see upgraded SM-3s put on the ground in Southern and Central Europe. Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also agreed to hold consultations on the matter.
Now, Poland has received a Patriot missile battery, situated at the military base at Morag, some 250 kilometers north of Warsaw and just 60 kilometers from the border with Russia's Kaliningrad territory. Around 150 U.S. troops will be stationed in Poland to service the ground-to-air installation and to train Polish personnel to operate it.
Curiously, the U.S. has forced the pace of the Polish-Russian relationship in the bargain, which was looking up lately and seemed promising with the election last week of Bronislaw Komorowski as the new Polish president, whom Moscow viewed as someone it could do business with. The development led one Russian commentator to say that "Moscow and Warsaw may be on the verge of truly significant changes," just at the time the U.S. struck.
Indeed, Moscow was cruising toward a "reset" in its ties with the two biggest players on its western periphery - with Yanukovich in power Kiev and Komorowski now in Warsaw - when Clinton appeared to apply the brake.
The Russian Foreign Ministry came out with a lengthy statement on Tuesday alleging that the U.S. had unilaterally gone back on the "guidelines" regarding missile defense (which Obama and Medvedev agreed on in July last year) and instead of seeking a "jointly worked out solution," had begun to deploy elements of the missile defense system, "which fails to take into account Russia's legitimate interests and concerns."
The statement called for "more objectivity and sincerity" on Washington's part and questioned the need of the deployment in Poland since "there are currently no missile threats for Europe, nor are they likely in the future, to counter which it is necessary to deploy a missile defense system near Russian borders."
The statement reiterated Moscow's readiness to work with the U.S. and NATO on an "equal footing" in creating a future European missile defense architecture, but warned that if "as under the previous [Bush] administration, attempts continue to 'fasten' us to a model already approved in Washington and endorsed in Brussels [by NATO], this option won't work."
Three statements have been crafted by the Russian Foreign Ministry within the space of two days criticizing Washington's policies towards Moscow. What has gone so suddenly wrong with the U.S.-Russia "reset"? Obama treated Medvedev in "Ray's Hell Burger" to the “spirit of America" hardly a fortnight ago - a cheeseburger and fries plus a ride in the limo. But no sooner had Medvedev got back home, the ridiculous "spy scandal" broke and Russia's image has ever since been comprehensively rubbished in Western opinion.
The Kremlin nonetheless put on a brave face and insisted the "reset" remained unaffected. But Moscow would have estimated by now that with the image of Cold War spies embedded so deep in US opinion, there is no hope on earth that the US would revoke the Jackson-Vanik amendment that denies Russia “most favored nation" status. Yet, Medvedev had banked on the MFN as a cornerstone of his grand design regarding the Russian economy's "innovation."
Even the passage of START II through the US Congress seems problematic after Russia's image received such a battering. Just as well that Moscow is going ahead with the customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus as prospects seem to recede that Russia will be admitted into the World Trade Organization by the September 30 target.
On top of it all comes Clinton's provocative tour of Russia's western neighborhood where she single-mindedly kept exhorting the leaders to assert their independence from Russia and promised all-out US support in the enterprise. In Poland and Ukraine, in particular, the US is actually preparing to play the spoiler's role, frustrating Moscow's hopes to launch a predictable relationship with its two most important neighbors.
Intriguing questions arise. Was Uncle Sam really as intense as he seemed about the "reset"? Was its real purpose merely to extract Russia's cooperation in isolating Iran? What is the balance sheet of the "reset" so far for Russia? With all the happenings of the past fortnight, does the "reset" hold out the prospect of putting the US-Russia relationship on a sure footing, let alone a real partnership? If not, what next?
The track opened by the Prague Treaty in April on arms control seems to be meandering already. Equally, the Iran sanctions route on which Obama and Medvedev held hands for a determined walk seems to have reached a T-junction and the two must now part ways, with the US imposing sanctions unilaterally.
Meanwhile, Moscow's capacity to influence Iran has sharply declined with the dramatic worsening of Russian-Iranian ties. Washington may not even feel inclined to see much utility in the Kremlin's stance on the Iran nuclear issue anymore. (Moscow announced on Thursday that the Bushehr nuclear power plant was now set to become operational.) In any case, the US might as well turn to Turkey or Brazil to influence Tehran. Yet, Iran was a major focus of the US-Russia "reset."
Washington now has a convenient excuse in the hugely odd spy story, which popped up from nowhere at the right moment, to relegate the "reset" to the backburner. It seems highly probable that Uncle Sam was chewing gum all through the walk.
—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. This article appeared in Asia Times July 10.