By M K Bhadrakumar
Many people wouldn’t know that former United States president Ronald Reagan’s signature phrase “trust, but verify” is actually the translation of a Russian proverb - doveryai, no proveryai. Two decades into the post-Cold War era, Moscow wants to reclaim the self-contradictory phrase from the American repertoire and apply it to Russia’s “reset” of ties with the United States.
The shellacking that US President Barack Obama received in the mid-term elections to congress, WikiLeaks disclosures about the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) plans to defend against “possible Russian aggression”, the announcement of the US decision to deploy an air force detachment at Lask Air Base in Poland, the belligerent speech last week by Senator John McCain calling into question the entire philosophy behind the reset with Russia - these have created a sense of disquiet in Moscow.
Unsurprisingly, the message that comes out of the summit meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) in Moscow on Saturday is that Moscow wants its own alliance to be further strengthened as a "key element in ensuring the security in the post-Soviet space" and its image to be enhanced globally. CSTO comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
The mid-term elections in the US would leave Russia, like many other countries, wondering whether pinning hopes on Obama's capacity to deliver on the "reset" isn't, in fact, supposing a lot. McCain's speech at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies last Friday signals that the reset is most certainly going to run into stiff opposition from the Republican-dominated congress.
McCain questioned the very need of reset when "Russia is becoming less and less capable of being a global, great power partner with the US"; when American and Russian interests mostly diverge; when they don't have any shared values; when the Russian political system is "unresponsive and predatory" presided over by a "quasi-criminal ruling syndicate" that "steals from, lies to, and assaults its own citizens with virtual immunity".
Citing continuing disagreements with Russia on missile defences in Europe, Russia's overwhelming superiority in tactical nuclear weapons and differing approaches to open energy markets, McCain called on the Obama administration to be "more assertive in the defence of our interests and values" and to link Russia's admission to the World Trade Organisation with its adherence to the rule of law.
The contrived bonhomie at the NATO summit in Lisbon last month has all but dissipated. Meanwhile, the WikiLeaks disclosures put a question mark on NATO's sincerity in a "reset" with Russia. According to US diplomatic cables, NATO drew up plans in January to defend the Baltic states against possible Russian military aggression and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wanted that the plans be kept secret from Moscow.
Moscow says these plans were approved at the Lisbon summit even as the alliance declared that it sought a "true strategic partnership" with Russia based on shared security interests and the need to address "common challenges, jointly identified".
Moscow is annoyed. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, "With one hand NATO... negotiated with us some important documents that were aimed at a joint partnership, and with the other hand took behind our backs decisions about the need for defence against us... We have posed these questions and we expect to get answers. I presume we have the right to do so."
Equally, following talks in Washington on Wednesday between Obama and visiting Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, the two countries announced an enhancement of their defence ties in the spirit of the 2008 US-Polish Declaration on Strategic Cooperation, which includes cooperation between the two air forces and the establishment of a US air detachment in Poland.
The Russian Foreign Ministry reacted, linking the US-Polish decision with the WikiLeaks disclosure and the deployment in 2009 of Patriot air defence systems in Poland, "The true purpose of which also raises questions." Ironically, Komorowski hosted Medvedev in Warsaw just before proceeding to Washington. That was the first visit by a Russian leader to Poland in 10 years and the Western media lauded it as an historic turnaround in European security.
Moscow said: "It seems we are witnessing an old reflex of NATO triggered to build up power to the detriment of other countries' security - all the more odd that all this happens after the positive outcome of the Russia-NATO council summit and the alliance's declarations that Russia is not regarded as an adversary... we [Russia] will be forced to consider the US-Polish plans as we implement our own programmes for building armed forces and in work with our allies."
Thus, the CSTO summit in Moscow on Saturday took place against a complicated political backdrop. Originally, the agenda was to focus on improving the alliance's crisis response mechanism "in order to enhance the CSTO potential for responding to security threats and challenges".
Simply put, the CSTO was virtually prevented by Uzbekistan from intervening in the crisis in Kyrgyzstan in June and an informal summit of the alliance in Yerevan in August had mandated that changes should be made in the statutes of the CSTO "to improve the efficiency... in the field of emergency response". Interestingly, Moscow has met with success in persuading Tashkent to go along with the revision of the CSTO statutes and Uzbek President Islam Karimov attended the summit meeting on Saturday.
The summit endorsed a declaration on cooperation in the international arena. Moscow is clearly interested in enhancing the role of the CSTO at the international level as a counter to NATO's self-projection at its Lisbon summit as the only global security organisation. It also decided on a collective peacekeeping force and on undertaking "out-of-area" operations on the pattern that NATO is doing in Afghanistan.
Thus, CSTO member countries have expressed a willingness to not only carry peacekeeping tasks but also "provide on certain terms, these collective peacekeeping forces for operations that are being conducted by decision of the UN Security Council". The Moscow summit put emphasis on "foreign policy coordination" among the CSTO member countries similar to NATO's system.
Clearly, the CSTO has factored in the outcome of NATO's Lisbon summit. Uzbekistan's participation in the summit on Saturday strengthens Moscow's hands. A distinct cooling is apparent in relations between Uzbekistan and the US. Clinton, during her visit to Tashkent on December 2, publicly rebuked the Uzbek government. She said Uzbekistan should "translate words into practice" to improve its human-rights situation.
Addressing a group of non-governmental organisation leaders in Tashkent, Clinton said, "I urged him [Karimov] to demonstrate his commitment through a series of steps, to ensure that human rights and fundamental freedoms are truly protected in this country." Clinton revealed she took up with Karimov the issues of restrictions on religious freedom, torture and child labour in Uzbekistan. "We raise these issues... and will continue to make improvement of human rights in Uzbekistan an integral part of expanding our bilateral relationship."
Washington has reason to be displeased with Tashkent. Karimov teamed up with Russia to smother the US move to introduce the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as the provider of security in Central Asia. More important, Tashkent has turned openly critical of the US's war strategy in Afghanistan.
At the OSCE summit in Astana on December 1 (which Karimov failed to attend), Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov lambasted the OSCE and its structures for a "failure to play a positive role in the prevention and neutralisation of the bloody events" in Kyrgyzstan in June. It was an indictment of Washington's attempt to pitchfork the OSCE into Kyrgyzstan as a substitute for the CSTO in the region.
Even more direct was Norov's criticism of Obama's surge strategy. "It is becoming ever clearer that there is no military solution to the Afghan problem and that the settlement strategy chosen by the coalition forces is not rendering the expected results."
Norov reiterated Tashkent's proposal to find alternative solutions for a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan through multilateral talks under the UN aegis. He said: "The context of the Uzbek initiative is based on the recognition that internal Afghan affairs must be resolved by the Afghan people with assistance from countries whose security interests include bringing an end to the war and promoting stability in Afghanistan." He stressed that talks should be held with "all major opposing sides".
In sum, what emerges from the CSTO summit are the following. First, there is an unspoken but underlying suspicion in Moscow regarding NATO's intentions. This apprehension translates as a new determination to build up the CSTO as a rival organisation that challenges NATO's bid to project itself into the post-Soviet space and its claim to be the sole global security organisation.
Second, Central Asian countries are deeply concerned over the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and the failure of the US's war strategy. They look up to Moscow as a guarantor of regional security. This has translated as the readiness to beef up the CSTO's rapid deployment force and to streamline the decision-making processes within the alliance to meet emergencies or crisis situations.
Third, US's intentions in Afghanistan are far from transparent and an open-ended American military presence is in the cards. The picture remains hazy as to the exact ground situation developing on Afghanistan's border with Tajikistan. Indeed, US intelligence has had covert dealings with Central Asian militants operating out of Afghanistan and there is great wariness among Central Asia countries with regard to the US's democracy project in the region.
Fourth, the Moscow summit paid much attention to the CSTO's activities in the fields of law enforcement, border security and military policy. The CSTO's readiness to play a role in Afghanistan in the post-2014 scenario is self-evident. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is visiting Moscow next week. The CSTO is also moving in the direction of forging links with Pakistan with regard to countering drug trafficking.
Finally, the Moscow summit focused on enhancing the CSTO's foreign policy role. This has factored in US attempts to accentuate intra-Central Asian differences and play the role of a diplomatic spoiler to undercut the Moscow-led integration processes in the region. It becomes necessary for the CSTO member countries to coordinate their foreign policy if they are to undertake peacekeeping operations in global hotspots. The CSTO is emulating NATO's culture.
In sum, Russia trusts the need for a "reset" in ties with NATO, but is under compulsion to "verify" its sincerity. As Lavrov put it, "serious questions arise" out of the contradictory tendencies in NATO's posturing toward Russia. Moscow decided to keep the CSTO as an effective counter-alliance - just in case McCain's school of thinking gains ground in Washington.
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.