The Kremlin's Bankrupt Foreign Policy
Imagine a crank who tries to pass himself off as a 19th-century Russian baron. He grows sideburns, wears a long frock-coat, and carries a walking stick. Anyone who runs into such a figure would sneer and mock him. Now, suppose that same crank attempted to treat passersby as if they were his serfs. In that case, he would risk getting a beating, though perhaps a few beggars would indulge his fantasies in the hope of duping him out of his money.
Something of this sort now characterizes relations between Russia and several former Soviet republics, for the foreign-policy doctrine that guides today's Kremlin is a preposterous mix of 19th-century realpolitik and early 20th-century geopolitics. According to this view, every great power needs obedient satellite countries. Under such an approach, NATO's expansion is represented as an extension of America's sphere of influence, to the detriment of Russia, of course.
In order to compensate for its growing inferiority complex, Russia has cobbled together the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which, by its title and constitutional principles, is a parody of NATO. For all this, the Kremlin is not in the least embarrassed by the fact that the CSTO is essentially a mechanical connection of bilateral military agreements between Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Russia.
Nobody knows what vision of collective defense is to be implemented: one needs a fertile imagination to imagine Belarusian paratroopers defending the Tajik border. Moreover, the constitutions of a number of CSTO countries expressly prohibit sending troops outside national territory. But the Kremlin's myopic concentration on military matters, and its pointless attempts to play a zero-sum game with the West has turned Russia into an object for manipulation by its junior partners.
The virtuoso of such manipulation is Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Belarus's economy can function only if Russia subsidizes energy prices and allocates non-repayable credits. Yet, despite all this, Lukashenko manages to avoid implementing economic projects profitable to Russia (in other words a single currency). Whenever Russia applies pressure, he immediately starts yelling about Moscow's "ingratitude" - proclaiming that "10,000,000 Belarusians protect Russia from NATO's tanks."
Worse, whenever Moscow persists in its demands, Lukashenko abrogates agreements without a twinge of conscience. Thus, when Russia banned imports of Belarusian dairy products (in an attempt to punish Lukashenko for accepting a $2 billion credit but not fulfilling his promise to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia), Lukashenko refused to attend a CSTO summit or join its collective agreement for the establishment of an operational response force.
Lukashenko avoids any major integration projects, even those in the military sphere. The most telling example is the creation of a joint air defense system. Both Russia and Belarus have been trying to realize this project for 10 years; countless agreements have been achieved - on paper. Yet no concrete action is taken. Lukashenko, simply, does not intend to allow even a small part of his army to become subordinated to Moscow.
While the military threat in the West looks as illusory as it is, in Central Asia that threat is concrete. In the event that the coalition of NATO forces in Afghanistan is defeated, a wave of Islamic extremism will submerge the Central Asian states, inciting local civil wars. For Russia, this could mean (in the best case) tens of thousands of refugees or (in the worst case) the arrival of armed militias on its territory.
As a result, the Kremlin has a vital interested in NATO's success in Afghanistan. Yet, for the last four years, Russia has tried to hinder NATO in every possible way. In 2005, at the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Vladimir Putin pressed for the final declaration to include a demand for withdrawal of American bases from Central Asia. Kremlin strategists explained that they feared the United States would oust Russia from Central Asia. But, now that a Russian-American agreement allows supply flights to Afghanistan to go through Russian airspace, it is clear that Russia sought only to monopolize the military cargo transportation routes in order to gain leverage over the US.
In February, the Kremlin gave Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev $500 million for a promise to close America's base in his country. Then the Americans offered Bakiyev $160 million a year, and now there may be no official base, but a "transit center" that serves the same functions. So the Kremlin paid out several hundred million dollars just to replace some signs.
Soon after this, Russian Vice Premier Igor Sechin and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov were sent to Bishkek in an effort to get something for Russia's money. Bakiyev seems to have said: So, you are worried about the American military presence in Central Asia, and you want to confront it. Fine, the Americans can have one base in Kyrgyzstan, and Russia can have two.
The resulting "military asset," however, is strategic gibberish, having been built in Kyrgyzstan's near-lawless Osh region, with its appalling poverty, drug trafficking, and ethnic tensions. Seizure of a Russian military base in order to acquire weapons is, indeed, likely to become a vital goal of "extremists." But, in a way, the Russian soldiers there are already hostages - not least to the Kremlin's bankrupt foreign policy.