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Asymmetrical Expectations In Washington And Moscow

  • Andrei Tsygankov

President Dmitry Medvedev (left) and Prime Minister Putin at the enthronememnt of the new Russian Orthodox patriarch on February 1

President Dmitry Medvedev (left) and Prime Minister Putin at the enthronememnt of the new Russian Orthodox patriarch on February 1

U.S. expectations of Russian cooperation in Afghanistan are unlikely to be realized. The two countries have not developed adequate perceptions of each other's objectives in Eurasia and are currently proceeding from asymmetrical, although not yet clashing, calculations.

Washington hopes to press the "reset button" with Moscow because Afghanistan is Russia's problem, too. Terrorist camps and intense drug trafficking from the area makes the Kremlin sympathetic to the idea of stabilizing Afghanistan. In addition, for the time being, Washington seems to have abandoned its ideologically ambitious objective of global democracy promotion -- something that Russia has consistently opposed. It is perhaps ironic, but the current Democratic administration in Washington is focusing not on democracy but on pragmatic objectives of security. That is particularly true in the region's most dangerous area -- the Pashtun-populated parts of Afghanistan and northern Pakistan.
To prevent yet another clash in the two countries' mutual perceptions, Washington should learn to understand the limitations of additional military deployments and act in close consultation with Moscow and other key actors in the region.


Still, U.S. calculations of Kremlin cooperation arise largely out of the historical context of U.S.-Russia relations since the Cold War. After three failed attempts to engage the United States and other Western states in a mutually advantageous partnership -- Mikhail Gorbachev's, Boris Yeltsin's, and Vladimir Putin's -- Russia now wants to be sure Washington does not overstep its boundaries in the region. The widespread feeling in Russian political circles is that the United States all too often acts out of a perception of Russia as an irrelevant power. As a result, the Kremlin has lost influence in strategically important areas in Eurasia, including Georgia and pockets of Central Asia.

'Potential Troublemakers'

The common fear in Moscow is that by fighting the Taliban, the United States will further antagonize the local population (as it has done elsewhere), not solving the problem but bringing the instability closer to Russia's borders. Russian military planners are also generally skeptical that any war in Afghanistan can be successful.

In addition, in the eyes of the more hawkish elements within the Russian political class, it makes little difference that Barack Obama is no George W. Bush or Bill Clinton. There is much suspicion of the intentions of America's political class as a whole. For instance, in the words of Andrei Klimov, deputy chairman of the State Duma's Foreign Relations Committee, U.S. bases are "are potential troublemakers for my country." As far as Russians hawks are concerned, it is now time for the United States to withdraw from the region.

At the moment, the Kremlin does not object to the U.S. transit of nonmilitary cargo across the territory of Russia or the Central Asian states. But Moscow wants to see such transit taking place largely on Russia's terms, and only if the United States understands that it is a guest in the region. Russia's support for Kyrgyzstan's decision to close the U.S. military base at Manas too can be explained by the Kremlin's desire to restore the pre-9/11 status quo in Central Asia. In Eurasian tradition, guests must come with valuable gifts and not overstay their welcome.

Geopolitical Lens

The price for repairing Russia's mistrust may soon be considered excessively high in Washington. After all, Barack Obama's administration bears no direct responsibility for previous U.S. policy blunders. But those past blunders continue to shape perceptions of U.S. intentions. After being overly trustful of Western intentions in the past, the Kremlin now views them largely through a geopolitical lens.

To prevent yet another clash in the two countries' mutual perceptions, Washington should learn to understand the limitations of additional military deployments and act in close consultation with Moscow and other key actors in the region.

Andrei Tsygankov is a professor of international relations at San Francisco State University. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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