Moscow Gives Muted Response To U.S. Troop Redeployment

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 75

In mid-August, the Bush administration unveiled plans for the global redeployment of U.S. troops. According to the Pentagon blueprint, around 100,000 U.S. servicemen will be moved from Western Europe and Asia back to North America, while some units will be sent to new forward positions in Eastern Europe and, possibly, some former Soviet republics. Moscow’s response to the redeployment plans has been muted. Russia’s Defense Ministry said the redeployment is of no concern to the Russian military. The Foreign Ministry chose not to comment, and the country’s media gave the story very little play. There are four major reasons why the Kremlin reacted calmly to this new development.

First, Moscow views the announcement as connected to the American presidential campaign. Since the race is going to be close, some Russian commentators say, President George W. Bush is particularly keen to cast himself as a shrewd leader who has a firm grasp of military planning and will send troops to places where they are needed to protect vital U.S. interests, rather than keep them in positions of dubious strategic value. By announcing the redeployment plan, Bush pulled a clever PR trick, argues one Russian observer, since his primary objective is to “portray himself an experienced and far-sighted commander-in-chief.” Furthermore, Russian security experts know that U.S. Democrats strongly attacked the White House’s blueprint. “All the plans that Bush has announced might remain unrealized or might be realized somewhat differently if there’s a change of power in Washington,” notes Vyacheslav Nikonov, an influential foreign policy analyst and head of the Politika Foundation (Trud, August 23).

Second, the bulk of Russian strategists agree that the U.S. redeployment plan, even if fully implemented, does not pose a direct threat to Russia’s security. No one in Moscow seriously believes that the United States or NATO will ever attack Russia. In fact, Washington is changing its strategy away from Cold War confrontation toward a more flexible tactic of global response to all kind of extremists. “We are aware of U.S. plans to reconfigure its [armed] forces and we understand them. These plans are of no concern to us,” Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told journalists in Moscow on August 17.

More critically minded Russian commentators are almost envious of Washington’s unprecedented capabilities to project military force. The Pentagon, they say, has demonstrated how to create mobile forces in practice, while Russia’s top brass only talk about the need to have such military units. Now the United States is planning to equip bases in a vast number of forward positions across the globe, while “Russia and its rusting military are left to sulk on the sidelines,” defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer bitterly noted in a Moscow Times commentary (Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 18; Moscow Times, August 24).

Third, the Kremlin appears to fully understand that Russia simply cannot prevent Washington from implementing its redeployment plan. “To be sure, we cannot undertake any countermoves [to stall U.S. troop movements],” argues Viktor Kremenyuk, Deputy Director of the U.S. and Canada Institute. “The U.S. is acting without asking Russia’s or anyone else’s permission,” Kremenyuk commented in an August 17 interview with the website. Since Moscow does not have strong leverage to influence Washington or its own CIS neighbors, some analysts suggest, it would be more prudent to put on a brave face instead of protesting in vain, as the Kremlin did when the United States deployed its troops in Central Asia as part of the military operation in Afghanistan.

Finally, a number of Russian defense specialists contend that the Pentagon’s anti-terrorist strategy does not contradict Russia’s vital national interests. In fact, the two countries have one common strategic objective. Both Moscow and Washington seek to prevent Islamic fundamentalism from undermining security in the volatile countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia. The analysts concede, though, that the commonality of goals does not exclude some elements of geopolitical competition. “It is clear that the redeployment of the U.S. troops closer to Russia’s borders will restrict our country’s freedom of action in such regions like the Transcaucasus and particularly in Georgia,” Kremenyuk said. He added that for Washington, Georgia’s strategic importance lies primarily in the country’s transit potential, since the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline will run across Georgian territory. “The pipeline needs to be protected; that’s why Americans are preparing to take care of it,” Kremenyuk suggested. But in his opinion, Russia has no other option but to adapt to the new geopolitical situation, “as the Soviet times have ended for good” (Rossiiskaya gazeta, August 17).