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Mideast Watch: Putin Presses US

America's "refusal" to set a timetable to withdraw from Iraq will strengthen Putin's justification for resisting the mounting international demands to withdraw Russian troops from Moldova, or domestic political pressure to disengage from the conflict in Chechnya the way his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, did in 1996 to end the first Chechen war.

Washington (UPI) Aug 29, 2005
In mid-August, Russia's President Vladimir Putin called for a timetable to be set for the withdrawal of foreign (that is: American) forces from Iraq.

A few weeks previously, Russia along with the other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) called upon Washington to set a departure date for its forces from bases set up in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001. Why is he doing this?

The obvious explanation is that the Russian president increasingly sees the United States as an adversary. Putin regards American support for democratic revolutions in Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004, and Kyrgyzstan in 2005 as a threat to Russian influence on its very borders.

He wants desperately to forestall any further democratic revolutions in the former Soviet republics (including Russia itself), and so he wants American forces out of them. Calling for an American withdrawal from Iraq shows that Putin wants to align Russia with anti-American forces farther a field in a resurgence of Cold War competitiveness.

But while this may appear to be the obvious explanation, it must always be remembered that nothing about Russia is ever obvious. Putin's call for the withdrawal of American troops both from Central Asia and Iraq are no exception. Indeed, a case can be made that Putin does not want the United States to withdraw its troops from these places at all.

Moscow, it must be recalled, also maintains forces in other countries. In some of these (including Armenia, Tajikistan, and Syria), these Russian forces are welcome. But in others (Georgia, Moldova, and increasingly Ukraine), they are not. Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia in particular has been trying to get the Russians to leave. After stubbornly resisting this move for nearly a decade and a half, Moscow in May 2005 finally agreed to a withdrawal, but insists that this cannot be completed until the end of 2008.

The Russians really do not want to withdraw from Georgia at all, and regard doing so, especially under American pressure, as a national humiliation. Putin does not want to withdraw his forces from anywhere else. It is in this context that the July 2005 call by Russia (along with other Shanghai Cooperation Organization countries) must be understood.

If Russian forces had to leave Georgia, it only seemed fair in the eyes of Putin and probably most Russians that American forces should leave Central Asia. Further, if Washington balked at pulling its troops from Central Asia, this could provide sufficient reason in the Russian mind for Moscow not to pull its troops out of any other former Soviet republic, or perhaps even to avoid completing the withdrawal from Georgia.

If this was Putin's motive in getting the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to call for the withdrawal of American troops from Central Asia, then Washington's immediate rejection of this must have suited his purposes. If Washington did not need to set a timetable for withdrawing its forces from Central Asia, then what need was there for Russia to agree or honor a timetable for withdrawing its troops from anywhere either?

Washington, though, had rejected the SCO withdrawal demand on the grounds that its basing agreements were bilateral ones with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The future status of these bases, then, would be negotiated with each of these two governments, and not with the SCO.

Putin was undoubtedly pleased when at the end of July 2005 the Uzbek government gave the United States six months notice to vacate the air base on its territory that it had been using since shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. Just as Russian forces had to leave Georgia, American ones now had to leave Uzbekistan. Putin, though, must have been surprised that Washington, instead of bitterly resisting the way Moscow would, immediately indicated that it would comply with Tashkent's demand. Indeed, Washington's willingness to withdraw its forces from Uzbekistan within six months stood in stark contrast to Moscow's reluctant withdrawal from Georgia taking place over two and a half years.

Nor could have Putin been pleased by events in Kyrgyzstan. In response to suggestions by the newly elected president there that American forces should also leave Kyrgyzstan, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Bishkek and got the new Kyrgyz government to allow the American presence there to continue in exchange, reportedly, for more money from Washington. Putin certainly did not want Russia to have to pay more to keep its forces in other countries.

It is in this context that Putin's upping the ante by calling for a timetable for an American withdrawal from Iraq must be understood. Putin knows full well that President George W. Bush refuses to set any such timetable. Nor is there any question of Washington paying (much less paying more) for basing rights to a government that is dependent on the United States for its very survival.

America's "refusal," though, to set a timetable to withdraw from Iraq will strengthen Putin's justification for resisting the mounting international demands to withdraw Russian troops from Moldova, or domestic political pressure to disengage from the conflict in Chechnya the way his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, did in 1996 to end the first Chechen war.

Far from really wanting American forces to heed calls by him (or anyone else) to depart from Central Asia or the Middle East, Putin may instead be counting on Bush to "hang tough" and not withdraw American forces from any other countries--especially Iraq. For any further American troop withdrawals may ultimately make it impossible for Putin to avoid further Russian troop withdrawals.

(Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.)

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