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Russia: Analyst Foresees U.S. 'Payback' After Russian Concessions In Central Asia, Caucasus

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush ushered in their new strategic relationship by signing an arms agreement in Moscow today. RFE/RL looks at how U.S. policies toward Russia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus could change as a result of this new Washington-Moscow "alliance."

Moscow, 24 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir today celebrated their new "strategic relationship" by signing an arms-control treaty at the Kremlin.

Since terrorists attacked New York and Washington on 11 September, analysts say a major Westward shift has taken place in Moscow. Putin has backed the U.S.-led war on terrorism and has not put up undue opposition to Bush's decision to pull out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty or to move U.S. troops into Moscow's Central Asian backyard in support of the fight in Afghanistan.

Besides U.S. soldiers stationed in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, American military advisers arrived in Georgia earlier this month on a $65 million "train and equip" mission to prepare Tbilisi's troops to tackle terrorists in lawless areas such as the Pankisi Gorge.

Despite criticism by nationalists and Communists in the State Duma, Putin treated that move in the Caucasus as he had the earlier American gambits, by not making a fuss. But analysts say Putin is under growing pressure at home to prove he has not "given away the farm," i.e., conceded too much to Washington without getting something substantial in return.

As the two presidents signed a treaty today to cut the number of their strategic nuclear weapons by two-thirds over 10 years, analysts wonder what, if anything, America will be compelled to "pay back" to Moscow. Such rewards could include the U.S.'s "softening" its position on Russia's war in Chechnya, as well as deepening its security relationship with Moscow and increasing cooperation on Caspian energy projects.

Martha Brill Olcott, a leading American expert on Central Asia and the Caucasus, said the days leading up to the Moscow summit have been marked by Russia's attempt to appear "re-engaged" in Central Asia in a bid to quiet Putin's critics and create more leverage for later concessions from Washington.

"All this hype really helps meet Putin's own domestic needs by addressing, by quieting, the lobbyists in Russia that are arguing that Russia is withdrawing from the area. And it preserves the prospects for future action for Russia," Olcott said.

For example, Olcott pointed to a recent agreement in Central Asia on turning a common security pact with Moscow into a common security "organization." Olcott said the change did not improve security, but she noted that the exercise, combined with others, may help win points from Washington.

Likewise, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov vowed earlier this week that Moscow will use the Bush-Putin summit to express its concern about the U.S. presence in Central Asia. "This question cannot but worry us," he told a joint session of the conservative International Affairs committees of both houses of parliament.

But Olcott, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the political forum in Washington that Putin has little room to reassert "Moscow-driven" policies in Central Asia.

Olcott, whose new book is called "Kazakhstan: Unfulfilled Promise," said that regardless of the recent geopolitical shift in Central Asia and the Caucasus, Russia has already lost most of its influence there. In that light, however, the U.S. presence has given Putin fresh opportunities.

"What the U.S. presence in Central Asia does is give Putin an ability to bargain away, to get chips for things he has already lost. And I think that's really what he's doing in Central Asia," Olcott said.

If that's the case, what does Putin hope to gain?

Olcott said that while hard-liners in the Russian military clearly would like to see the U.S. withdraw entirely from Central Asia and Georgia, Putin appears to view these developments as a way to help build a new security relationship with the West.

"For the summit, the discussions for Putin will really be: How long will the U.S. remain in Central Asia, and can the U.S. military presence in Central Asia become part of a redefined security relationship in Europe? That, I think, is really the Russian goal -- or, at least, Putin's goal," Olcott said.

As for that security relationship, it is already about to change. Next week in Rome, the new NATO-Russia Council will be launched, giving Moscow a voice in some decision making by its former alliance foe.

Olcott said Russia's cooperation on the U.S.-led war on terrorism may lead to other U.S. concessions in the security realm, as well, including legitimizing what Moscow calls its "counterterrorist" action in Chechnya.

"It's not beyond the realm of possibility -- not at this summit meeting, but in the next six months -- that Chechnya could be declared a front on the war on terrorism. And that would be more of a plus from the Russian point of view," Olcott said.

At today's signing ceremony, Bush said the U.S. and Russia have agreed to work to end the violence in the breakaway North Caucasus republic.

"Russia and the United States are also determined to work closely on important regional challenges. Together, we will work to rebuild Afghanistan; together, we will work to improve security in Georgia. We will work to end fighting and achieve a political settlement in Chechnya," Olcott said.

On Central Asia, Olcott said Putin appears to have won U.S. "payback" with a deal on U.S. investment and assistance in the energy sector. As expected, Bush and Putin announced at today's joint news conference that they will enhance cooperation on energy projects in the Caspian region.

The statement of their agreement calls for further investment; facilitating production, exploration, and refining of Russian energy products; and promoting their access to world markets.

"Russia and the United States are committed to economic cooperation. We have launched a major new energy partnership. Private firms will take the lead in developing and transforming the vast energy reserves of Russia and the Caspian world to markets, through multiple pipelines such as the Caspian Pipeline Consortium and Baku-Ceyhan," Bush said.

Olcott said it's an important deal that gives Putin results to show his critics.

"In terms of Central Asia, I think that Russia can take its payoffs in the energy sector, and changes in the energy sector will really go a long way to allow Putin to claim to come out a winner," Olcott said.

Elsewhere in Central Asia, Olcott said she believes that U.S. relations with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan touch few of the "core issues" that would upset Moscow. But she said she is still perplexed by new U.S. relations with Turkmenistan.

"It's not so clear what we get from it, but it is clearly helping bolster a very insecure regime and a regime that is not putting out for either Western firms who want to develop their oil and gas, or Russian firms that are eager to keep maintaining their gas," Olcott said.

Turkmenistan's authoritarian government has rejected military cooperation with the war on terrorism but has allowed for some humanitarian access to Afghanistan.

Olcott said further U.S. payback to Putin should come in the form of economic backing on the international scene.

Bush announced today that he will work to help Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization, as well as with the U.S. Congress to repeal Cold War-era trade restrictions known as "Jackson-Vanik."

U.S. officials said yesterday that the administration is also likely to confer "market-economy" status on Russia in June, a step that will help Russian firms avoid American import duties.