“NEAR ABROAD,” R.I.P.

Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 103

Meeting in Moscow on May 24, U.S. President George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin of Russia paid considerable attention to the problems of the post-Soviet area, in the context of both U.S.-Russia relations and the antiterrorism campaign. The two presidents’ Joint Declaration on the New Strategic Relationship and Joint Statement on Counterterrorism Cooperation should–judging by the wording–open the door to a major American role in shaping the future of the once-Soviet-ruled countries. These documents clearly bear Washington’s drafting imprint on the points that deal with the post-Soviet area. They wipe the slate clean of the notion of a Russian “near abroad.”

The documents envisage a U.S.-Russian partnership in tackling these areas’ problems, “meeting the challenges of the twenty-first century.” This premise alone should dispose of Moscow’s past-oriented claims to “special interests” in this part of Eurasia. Moreover, as long as Russia is committed to such a partnership with the United States, the vast disparity of resources between the two sides should place the United States in the role of senior partner. Indeed, the formula “United States and Russia” is used throughout the documents on every point related to the post-Soviet area. History, geography, alphabetical order and Russia’s role as host of the summit could–and may well–have been invoked in order to have Russia listed first. Nevertheless, for the first time since 1991, Russia is being relegated to second place in a set of major international documents that lay some ground rules of conduct in the ex-Soviet area.

According to these documents, “the United States and Russia are already acting as partners and friends… are already allied in the global struggle against international terrorism…. In Central Asia and the South Caucasus, we recognize our common interest in promoting the stability, sovereignty and territorial integrity of all the nations of this region.” (Joint Declaration). In stipulating the existence of common, fundamental U.S. and Russian interests in this area, and defining them in the way it does, the document legitimizes a major U.S. say there. Again, the disparity of resources can make that say a prevalent one.

“The United States and Russia will cooperate to resolve regional conflicts, including those in Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Transnistrian issue in Moldova” (Joint Declaration). If implemented, this stipulation should to all intents and purposes transfer the negotiating processes–and potentially also the peacekeeping operations–from the existing, Russian-dominated frameworks to new ones, in which the United States would have the means to play a decisive role.

Among the three problems listed in that paragraph, that of Transdniester is the least intractable, as the use in the text of the term “issue,” rather than “conflict,” suggests. It is also the most urgent to solve because of the December 2002 deadline on the withdrawal of Russian troops. A Russian failure to observe that deadline under whatever pretext would allow the problem to fester indefinitely. Transdniester will provide an early test of Moscow’s willingness to shift the paradigm of its conduct, from that of fostering and exploiting instability to that of cooperating in efforts to stabilize the area.

Under these documents, “the United States and Russia will work with the government of Georgia on counterterrorism issues while upholding Georgia’s sovereignty.” The United States and Russia, furthermore, shall “advance a peaceful, political resolution to the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia… work closely with all the relevant parties to these conflicts… and foster a lasting political settlement that preserves Georgia’s territorial integrity and the rights of all those involved in these conflicts” (Joint Statement). If adhered to, this wording would, first, rule out a Russian “antiterrorist” operation in Georgia, such as Moscow has repeatedly threatened to undertake in disregard of Georgia’s sovereignty. By the same token, the wording enshrines Georgia’s sovereign right to choose to work with the U.S. on antiterrorism, and specifically to host the U.S. Army’s train-and-equip mission. On Abkhazia and South Ossetia, too, the wording fully reflects Georgia and Washington’s common position on settling those conflicts on the basis of autonomy and devolution of powers within a territorially whole Georgia.

At no point do the U.S.-Russia documents mention the CIS or the “peacekeeping” endeavors under its nominal aegis, let alone the CIS Collective Security Treaty (CST) or the recently created Collective Security Organization (CSO). Just days before the U.S.-Russia summit, the Kremlin had mounted an all-out political offensive to bring CIS peacekeeping and antiterrorism endeavors, the CST and CSO to the center stage of discussions on security in Eurasia. If Putin had hoped to obtain at least a nod from Washington that could be construed acceptance of those bodies, the gambit did not work. Nor do the joint documents in any way mention–let alone regulate–the duration of the U.S. military presence in Central Asia, though Moscow had announced its intention to seek “clarifications” on that score at the summit (Joint Declaration on the New Strategic Relationship and Joint Statement on Counterterrorism Cooperation, May 24; see the Monitor, May 1, 3, 9-10, 15-17, 23; Fortnight in Review, May 17).

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