A few days ago a momentous event in Russia-U.S. relations was marked. Russia formally offered the U.S. to use a military base in its eastern city of Ulyanovsk to be used for the transit of troops and military supplies to Afghanistan. A few days after the election of Vladimir Putin to Russian presidency, this move by Russia is strategically significant. It is a strong signal to the U.S. and speaks of Russian willingness to accommodate Western compulsions in relation to the war in Afghanistan for the larger interest of giving a renewed push to the stalled "reset" in the two countries' relations.
It is also meant to be a signal to the U.S. that the upcoming presidency of Vladimir Putin will be imbued with pragmatism and yet much more of it if the U.S. makes an effort to accommodate Russian grievances and begin to treat Russia as an "equal partner". The list of Russian grievances is long and Russia, including Putin himself, is desperate to persuade the U.S. to take these grievances more seriously.
The ascendance of Vladimir Putinto Russian presidency will have far-reaching implications as far the Russia-U.S. relations are concerned. The infamous "reset" of relations between the two countries sponsored by the Obama administration has not gotten anywhere yet. However, with situation in the Middle East fast changing and Russia bent on finding avenues of cooperation with the West rather than confrontation, Putin's coming to power will augur a new chapter in Russia's modern history as well as its ties with the West.
With Putin back to Russia's presidency, years of indecisionand hesitation in Russia are coming to an end. Putin's presidency will chart anew way for Russia and big events lie on the horizon. It will be interesting tosee how Putin will try to reconcile Russia's dependence on Western capital andtechnology (for the long-overdue modernization of Russian economy) with his ownvision of an independent Russia that works with the U.S. as an "equal partner"and not a junior one.
The "reset" of relations betweenthe U.S. and Russia has had only a very moderate success. The reset as part of larger context of Russia-U.S. relations has been through a great deal of turbulence with Russia still viewing the U.S. with suspicion. The American plans for a European missile defense shield has irked Russia to no limits.
Western activism with regards to the Arab Spring, the Syrian conundrum, the Libyan crisis and the Iranian nuclear program has further added fuel to the fire of Russian suspicion. As far as the Russian establishment is concerned, they view the Western efforts in these areas as a continuation of Western expansionism ofthe Cold War era.
In Russian view, Iran is a major milestone in the West's quest for building a pan-Eurasian hegemony and the road to Tehran goes through Damascus. But, on the other hand, the pragmatism of Russian foreign policy cannot be underestimated. Kremlin and the Russian foreign policy establishment, including Sergey Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister and a seasoned diplomat, astutely areon the lookout for potential grounds of cooperation with the West, given Russia's economic and technological constraints and its need for Western capital and technology.
The vision of a future Russia that Medvedev had outlined in 2011 was a Russia that is economically reinvigorated and modernized. In an eloquent speech in 2011, Medvedev talked about the need to modernize and reinvigorate the Russian economy which still largely relies on export of hydrocarbon resources.
Many Russian statesmen such as Medvedev himself fare well cognizant of the threat of Russia falling behind in the Asian race foreconomic modernization. At present, Russia is evidently afraid of China'scontinued economic expansion and the fact that China's economy is way ahead of Russia's in terms of diversity and global reach. For Russia of today diversification and modernization of its economy are two imperatives that it cannot afford toneglect. And for that to get on track, Western capital and technology are indispensable.
The fact is that Russia needs the West and despite all the Putin-style rhetoric bashing the West and the NATO and its "continued eastward expansion", at the end of the day, Russia finds that accommodating the West and working step by step towards a broad-based relationshipbased on equality is the only pragmatic way forward. As discussed, unless Russia moves to allow in much more of Western capital and technology, the Russian economy will not have good days ahead. In the forthcoming NATO's 60th anniversary summit in Chicago, we might see much more of Russian efforts to showgestures of good will to the West.
If the offer is accepted by the U.S. and the Ulyanovsk finally becomes a transit point into Afghanistan used by the U.S. and NATO, it might very well turn a new page in the decade old war inAfghanistan. It would qualify to be a quantum jump towards making Russia astake-holder in U.S./NATO was in Afghanistan. It would give Russia a much more important stake in the state of the war in Afghanistan and the fate of the so-called "end-game". For Islamabad and Tehran, its implications in terms of better Russia-U.S. relations would be significant – especially for Pakistan that counted on the sour relations between these two countries.
The opening of a full-fledged transit point on Russian soil for the transit of NATO troops and supplies into Afghanistan would diminish NATO's dependence on transit routes via Pakistan. It would also strengthen the position of the U.S. viz-a-viz Pakistan and would give Washington greater leeway in negotiating and possibly resetting relations with Pakistan.
Pakistan had attached great importance to the upcoming Putin's visit to Islamabad in terms of finding the opportunity to synchronize its positions viz-a-viz the U.S. with Russia. Now it has to readjust its calculations and assess the implications of renewed Russian eagerness to constructively engage the U.S. Added to this, the Pentagon will be freed from the troubles it had in Kyrgyz airbase in Manas. After all, Russia would no more seek to instigate Kyrgyzistan to close down the Manas airbase.
The renewed Russian enthusiasm to accommodate Western interests and compulsions and seek out avenues of cooperation will be fruitful if only the U.S. can reciprocate meaningfully. The Obama administration, including Obama himself, should be watchful of the Cold War old boys and other Russian xenophobes who are bent on directing the course of Russia-U.S. relations towards one of confrontation rather than convergence.