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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Graceless Exit for Russia

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The leadership of this country has a remarkable knack for making the same mistake over and over. On a trip to the Far East last week, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced that the Army had no intention of pulling out of the self-proclaimed republic of Transdnestr. Until Russia's huge stockpiles of arms and equipment were removed, Russian troops would remain in the republic even if the Moldovan authorities ordered them to leave, Ivanov said.

Ivanov had apparently forgotten that top Kremlin officials recently insisted that the closure of two Russian military bases in Georgia would take 10 to 12 years. When Tbilisi issued an ultimatum, threatening to declare the continued presence of Russian soldiers on Georgian soil illegal and to blockade the bases, Moscow trimmed its estimate to three years. The day after Ivanov sounded off about Transdnestr, the first trucks loaded with military equipment were on their way out of Georgia.

There is every reason to assume that history will be repeated in Transdnestr. The stockpiles in the republic made quite an impression on me when I visited: millions of enamel mugs and mess kits, hundreds of field kitchens and trucks and a considerable store of weapons, from Kalashnikovs to self-propelled howitzers. Russia has an obvious interest in bringing all this home and would have done so long ago if our leaders hadn't simultaneously been desperate to maintain a presence in the region.

Transdnestr authorities are far too dependent on Moscow to reject an agreement on the removal of military property. Yet while the Kremlin has proclaimed its intention to withdraw, it has made a point of seriously considering the protests of the Transdnestr leadership, which has done all it can to block the departure of every trainload of equipment.

It's not hard to figure out what will happen next. The OSCE will adopt some version of Ukraine's plan for a reduction of Russia's military presence in the region, and Russia will be forced to comply. In other words, Moscow is making the same mistake in Moldova as it did in Georgia.

Moscow attaches excessive importance to the issue of military presence -- its own or someone else's -- in the former Soviet republics. The U.S. bases in Central Asia are extremely useful for Russia. They were created to support the U.S. offensive against the Taliban, which Moscow until recently considered a major threat to national security. The U.S. bases can also be viewed as an important stabilizing factor in the region. They contribute millions of dollars to the economies of impoverished Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, which could help to mitigate social tension. And we musn't forget that in the case of upheaval in Central Asia, thousands of refugees will pour into Russia, because our southern border simply doesn't exist.

Despite all that, President Vladimir Putin pushed for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to call for the United States to set a deadline for departure from its bases in Central Asia. When the Uzbek government ordered U.S. military personnel to leave within six months, Moscow hailed the decision as a victory. And when U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld traveled to Bishkek and won fresh promises that the U.S. air base could stay, Moscow viewed the agreement as a defeat.

The Kremlin is blowing the significance of military bases out of proportion. Putin and his team regard such bases as the best way to influence the country where the bases are located. Moscow previously abandoned its bases in Vietnam and Cuba, which were too distant to maintain and had lost their significance with the end of the Cold War. What's more, Putin helped the United States to establish its bases in Central Asia, assuming that Washington would recognize the so-called near abroad as Russia's zone of influence. When the leaders of Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova made NATO membership a priority, the Kremlin felt they had broken a standing agreement and began fighting to hold on to bases that it no longer needs.

The top brass often point to the rapid withdrawal from Eastern Europe as a case in point. Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin were too willing to compromise, they say, and as a result, the troops were withdrawn with no thought about where to station them. But at least those soldiers departed with their dignity intact. Moscow's attempts to hold on to its bases will almost certainly fail, because it has no real influence over the CIS countries. And the Kremlin's stubbornness will likely end in humiliation when the troops are sent packing all the same.

Alexander Golts, deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.