Dangerous Bargaining

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With NATO's summit in Bucharest approaching on April 2, Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza reported that the Kremlin would be looking for a certain quid pro quo with the Atlantic alliance -- Moscow's help on Afghanistan in exchange for a promise to keep Ukraine and Georgia out of NATO. On March 14, the Polish daily cited Washington-based sources as saying Russia would agree to send troops to Afghanistan and support operations against the Taliban. In exchange, President Vladimir Putin reportedly sought a NATO promise not to approve a so-called Membership Action Plan for either Ukraine or Georgia.

While this report turned out to be inaccurate, it nonetheless raises an important question seldom discussed openly: What price is the West willing to pay for Russian support on global hotspots like Afghanistan, and how do Central European interests figure into that calculation?

Regardless of how one feels about having Ukraine in NATO, many countries in Central Europe have lobbied the alliance to move forward on Kiev's application to join. Poland in particular sees Ukraine as a necessary buffer against Moscow. There are very real fears in Poland and other countries in the region that the United States and its major European allies could trade away Central European interests -- NATO enlargement in this case -- when dealing with Moscow.

Traditionally, Poland has complained that Germany and other West European countries have struck deals with the Kremlin without consulting with Warsaw and other regional capitals. And if Ukraine does not get accepted into the Membership Action Plan, it will probably be because Berlin, Paris and Rome didn't want to get on the Kremlin's bad side. Disturbingly, a number of Central European officials privately admit their fear that the United States may also one day be willing to brush aside their concerns when it has bigger fish to fry with Russia.

From Moscow's perspective, Central Europe sits at the center of the chessboard, because the area between the Baltic states and the Black Sea are vital for Russia to re-establish its sphere of influence. Overstretched and confronted with a host of challenges requiring the Kremlin's cooperation, Washington may, under the right circumstances, find itself tempted to trade away Central Europe's security interests to win Russian cooperation on issues it considers more pressing.

Besides Georgia and Ukraine, the issue of Iran's nuclear program could provide another opportunity for a trade-off with the Kremlin. Thus far, Washington has resisted direct negotiations with Iran, and it has focused on building an international coalition to isolate the Islamic Republic. Analysts have suggested that getting Russia fully on board could be the "last best hope" for a nonmilitary solution to the crisis. Not a bad idea, but the question is what the Russians might get in return.

Some voices in the United States already hint at accommodating the Kremlin's interests in the former Soviet republics in exchange for assistance in dealing with Tehran. At least one U.S. congressman, Brad Sherman, has publicly flirted with the idea of buying off the Russians by not opposing Russia's aggressive policies toward Georgia. Although Georgia is not Central Europe per se, the same disturbing logic can be extended to areas further west.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman once suggested that presidential candidate Barack Obama commit to "abandoning the anti-Russia policies of the Bush team" and enlisting Putin's help on Iran.

But what did Friedman mean exactly by U.S. President George W. Bush's "anti-Russia" policies? He did not elaborate, but Russia would probably include in this category: Bush's support for Ukraine's pro-Western foreign policy, NATO's expansion to the Baltic states, U.S. demands that Russia withdraw its forces from Moldova and U.S. support in bolstering Europe's energy security. Putin may regard these as insults, but Central European nations would consider them as strategic necessities.

Bargaining away these issues would open a Pandora's box that could haunt Western policymakers. If U.S. or European diplomats were to compromise on fronts like NATO enlargement or even pipeline diplomacy to win Russian cooperation, then the Kremlin may come back with bigger demands next time. And the United States should be careful to avoid the perception of appeasing Russia for the sake of not negotiating with Iran.

Ryan Miller is a research analyst at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington.