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A Day In The Life Of Russia's Collective Unconscious

Did Russia's Dmitry Medvedev (left) get enough from Belarus's Alyaksandr Lukashenka...
Did Russia's Dmitry Medvedev (left) get enough from Belarus's Alyaksandr Lukashenka...
There are some surprising -- I'd even say, clinical -- changes happening in the Russian collective unconscious and in foreign policy, which is directed largely at shaping that collective unconscious.

Take a look at the news reports from just one day, February 3. The day started with two articles. One in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" was written in such a way that it caused a sensation: U.S. State Department official Matthew Bryza was portrayed as threatening Moscow with the prospect that the United States would establish military bases in Georgia in retaliation for planned Russian military installations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And "Kommersant," citing unnamed sources, reported that during talks later that day between Kyrgyzstan's president and his Russian counterpart it would be announced that Bishkek would demand the closure of the U.S. base at Manas.

These reports were followed by the announcement that Russia and Belarus had signed an agreement on creating a joint, unified missile-defense system that would protect the two countries from an insidious aerial or space-based attack by NATO. The day ended with a staged appearance by Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev at which he explained in a confused sort of way that the Kyrgyz people had demanded the closure of the U.S. base, inasmuch as Bishkek had been unable to agree with Washington on how much the U.S. should pay.

At first glance it would appear that, in full accordance with the Kremlin's realpolitik, the entire territory of the former Soviet Union has been turned into one giant chessboard on which the battle between Moscow and Washington is being played out. The only problem is that in this match, there is only one player and he seems to be carrying out some complex maneuver aimed at himself.

The new administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is preoccupied with little matters like getting out of Iraq, achieving victory in Afghanistan, and coping with Iran -- which, as it happens, launched its own satellite on the very same day as all the events listed above. The White House has no time for the Kremlin.

And this would seem the perfect moment for ratcheting up the anti-Americanism.

Playing Realpolitik Solitaire

So Russia is focused on creating both real and deeply imaginary unpleasantness for Washington. Of course, Bryza didn't utter any stupidities about U.S. bases in Georgia. This was reported by the "authoritative" Kavkas-Press news agency. But none of the Russians who spent the whole day repeating this nonsense bothered to check whether Bryza ever said any such thing. Why? Because they think that Washington and Moscow are both engaged in the game of turning Georgia into their own military testing ground.

The situation with the Russian-Belarusian missile-defense system is a bit stranger. Moscow and Minsk have been floating this trial balloon now and again for years now. It would be hard to count all the joint statements on this question. There have been three attempts to sign a final document.

...or Kyrgyzstan's Kurmanbek Bakiev (left) to justify all the trouble?
But each time the wily Alyaksandr Lukashenka managed to wriggle out of Moscow's embrace, each time carrying off a couple hundred million dollars in Russian loans. But what's a few million among family? It would simply be tactless to talk about a few pathetic dollars (a million barrels more, a million barrels less -- what's the difference?) when the Motherland is at stake. We are talking about defending Russia from that accursed NATO.

But now, it seems, the unattainable has been achieved: Belarusian President Lukashenka signed the necessary papers. True, even now he continues trading, announcing that the agreement must be "viewed as part of a whole package of measures to intensify military-technical cooperation." He also emphasized that "many problems have accumulated that demand joint discussion and a working out of the optimal solutions." That is, he is asking for more money. Then he disappeared without commenting further.

The content of the agreement was revealed only by President Dmitry Medvedev's foreign-policy adviser, Sergei Prikhodko. He explained that the unified system would consist of five antiaircraft batteries, 10 surface-to-air missile-defense systems, five radar installations, and one radio-monitoring unit. That is, under the most ambitious counting, we are talking about 50-70 military aircraft and perhaps 100 antimissile rocket batteries. It would be hard to claim that this force would actually be able to counter an attack from NATO, which deployed more than 1,500 military aircraft during its operations in the former Yugoslavia.

Moreover, as far as I can tell, no sort of "unification" is happening at all. Lukashenka remains extremely cautious about placing Belarusian forces under Moscow's command. At present, the only agreement is for a joint command structure in the event of "a time of threat."

Finally, we come to Bakiev's sensational announcement of the closure of the U.S. base at Manas, which Moscow has been lobbying for over the last two years. A series of complex intrigues collapsed in 2006 when then-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld traveled to Bishkek and laid a little more money on the table. I strongly suspect that the story will end the same way this time -- with Washington increasing its proposed payment for the base.

But it is nonetheless interesting to try to figure out exactly what Russia is trying to achieve. After all, it is hard to deny that the United States and NATO are defending Russia's national security in Afghanistan. Imagine that Moscow's game succeeds and Manas is closed. As a result, the supply of international forces in Afghanistan is cut off. So the Americans end the operation and withdraw. The victorious Taliban immediately begin moving into Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, with all the consequences that implies for Russia.

It is sufficient to recall that back in 2000, the Russian General Staff had worked out a contingency plan for moving a force of some 60,000 men "in a southerly direction," to counter the threat from Afghanistan.

So, what did Moscow achieve on February 3? It forced Minsk to sign a meaningless agreement and compelled Bishkek to say it will ask the United States to withdraw from Manas. That is to say, no concrete, direct benefits, and indirectly the Kremlin only harmed its own security, not that of the United States. But Moscow got to indulge its own inferiority complex by creating the impression that Moscow and Washington are playing the same game.

Aleksandr Golts is deputy editor of the website "Yezhednevny zhurnal," where this comment first appeared. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL