As presidential delegations from both the United States and Russia arrived in Shanghai yesterday on the eve of this weekend’s Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, speculation continued to swirl about President Vladimir Putin’s unexpected October 17 announcement that Russia will withdraw its troops and personnel unilaterally from Cold War-era bases at Lourdes in Cuba and at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam (see the Monitor, October 18). U.S. President George W. Bush offered high praise for the Russian move yesterday, saying that it reflected an understanding by Putin that “Russia and America are no longer adversaries; we do not judge our successes by how much it complicates life for the other country. Instead both nations are taking down relics of the Cold War and building a new, cooperative and transparent relationship for the twenty-first century” (Washington Post, October 18).
Bush’s comments came, moreover, as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell met with his Russian counterpart in Shanghai, and as another U.S. government official suggested that the launching of the American-led antiterror war may indeed be prompting Moscow to seek cooperation with the United States in areas aside from the antiterror drive (AP, October 18). And that presumably augers well for this weekend’s meeting between Bush and Putin on the margins of the APEC forum–their first since the September 11 attacks–and for the chances that the two countries may achieve significant breakthroughs by the time that the two men convene next month in the United States for a full-fledged U.S.-Russian summit meeting.
In examining Putin’s October 17 announcement, some news commentators have suggested that it represented a sort of grand gesture (even if based on pragmatic domestic and foreign policy considerations), one intended on the eve of this week’s Russian-U.S. talks to impress upon Washington the Kremlin’s desire to improve relations more generally even as the two countries continue to cooperate in the campaign against terrorism.
But an official spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry appeared to tell a different story yesterday. Aleksandr Yakovenko welcomed the U.S. president’s kind words about Putin’s base withdrawal announcement. But he also suggested in a statement released to the press that Moscow expected more than just a thank you for its decision to abandon–in the case of the Lourdes facility–a major listening post and intelligence facility only ninety miles off the Florida coast. “Of course,” Yakovenko reportedly said, “we expect from the United States reciprocity, steps in our direction.” And Yakovenko went on to suggest that Moscow, in fact, hoped for the closure of a commensurate U.S. listening facility located near Russia’s borders. Specifically, he mentioned concerns that Moscow has long raised regarding the U.S.-made Vardo radar station in Norway (Interfax, Strana.ru, October 18).
Located only forty miles from the Russian border, the Vardo X-band radar has unique capabilities that have led many–including the Russian high command–to assume that it is slated to become a part of any future U.S. national missile defense system. And even if not linked to such a system, Vardo could reportedly still be used to monitor Russian tests and to gather information on the radar signature of Russian missile launches. This is information that could be used to improve the performance of the U.S. national missile defense system (Center for Defense Information, “Europe’s Role in National Missile Defense”).
The Kremlin-connected Strana.ru website, meanwhile, offered a slightly different take on what Moscow may be expecting in return for its decision to withdraw from Lourdes, and on what the consequences might be for the United States if it does not respond to Moscow’s gesture in an appropriate fashion. Of perhaps greatest interest, authors Yury Alekseev and Dmitry Gornostaev suggested that China could ultimately supplant Russia as the operator of the Lourdes facility, possibly in an independent fashion, but perhaps more likely as the leading player in a joint operation of some sort that would involve cooperation with Russia. Indeed, the authors outline a scenario in which the Chinese run Lourdes (and pay the bulk of its costs), but make use of the Russian specialists currently manning the facility while also sharing intelligence information with Moscow. With considerations such as these in mind, the authors suggest, Washington might ultimately even decide that it is in U.S. national interests to have Russia continue to control the station (Strana.ru, October 18).
There were also indications in the Russian media yesterday that Putin’s decision to give up Lourdes and Cam Ranh Bay may not be a popular one among Russia’s political and security elite. And the angry reaction of the Cuban government to the announcement certainly suggested that Putin’s decision may have been an abrupt one. Aside from describing the closure decision as a “grave risk” to Cuban security and maligning it as a “special present” to the U.S. president on the eve of this weekend’s presidential talks in Shanghai, the Cuban government complained that it came even as Russian-Cuban negotiations on the fate of the facility were ongoing. In fact, those negotiations were reportedly still taking place on the evening of October 16, only hours before Putin made his announcement. “Unfortunately, the president [Putin], due to the time difference perhaps, didn’t have time to hear our arguments or concerns about this matter before he made the public announcement,” the Cuban government said in a statement read on state television on Wednesday. The Cuban authorities also declared that the “agreement for the Lourdes center is not canceled, as Cuba has not give its approval, and Russia will need to continue negotiating with the Cuban government” (Strana.ru, BBC, AP, Reuters, October 18).
But the pleas of the Cuban government appear, initially at least, to have had little impact on Moscow, though Russian diplomats have emphasized that the Lourdes decision should not be seen as a comment on broader Cuban-Russian relations. But the more interesting questions are whether Yakovenko’s remarks actually reflect Kremlin policy with respect to the Lourdes pullout–he may, after all, be reflecting the views of hardliners within the ministry–and, if they do, exactly what the Russians expect to receive from the United States in return for their decision to give up Lourdes. The answers to those questions should become clearer in the days ahead, as should the answers to parallel questions related to the manner in which broader Russian-U.S. relations are to develop in this new, post-September 11 global environment.
KADYROV PULLS THE RUG OUT FROM UNDER IL’YASOV.