- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2009


The Obama administration sent two top officials to Moscow on Wednesday in a determined effort to retain access to a key military base in Central Asia and the first major test of the new administration’s relations with Russia.

William J. Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs and former ambassador to Moscow, planned to hold talks with senior Russian officials to better understand the link that Washington says exists between the Kyrgyz government’s decision to end the U.S. lease of the Manas air base and a Russian offer of $2 billion in aid for Kyrgyzstan, U.S. officials said.

“Burns will be discussing the Manas base issue,” one senior administration official said.

Another official said the administration wants to hear “what it is Kyrgyzstan wants” and whether the Russians want anything in exchange for continued U.S. use of the base, which Washington deems vital to U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan - especially at a time when the U.S. is preparing to surge 30,000 more troops into the country.

Both U.S. officials asked that their names not be used because of the sensitivity of the matter. They added that Mr. Burns was accompanied by Michael McFaul, the top Russia specialist on the White House National Security Council.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood confirmed the visit.

While in Moscow, they also will “discuss a broad range of issues in the bilateral relationship,” he said. “We look forward to working together on those areas where our interests coincide. There are many such areas, such as reducing nuclear weapons and working toward a stable Afghanistan.”

Mr. Wood called the visit a “natural follow-up to recent conversations” President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have had with their Russian counterparts, as well as Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s outreach toward Moscow at a security conference in Germany last weekend.

If the U.S. retains the lease on the base, it would be viewed by Washington as a sign that Russia wants a better relationship with the new U.S. administration than it had with the Bush government.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced his intention to oust the Americans after a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, in Moscow last week. The Russians insisted, however, that they had nothing to do with the decision, saying the aid package had been under discussion for months.

The Washington Times reported last week that the Obama administration was prepared to engage in a bidding war with Russia to retain access to the base, which is a major hub for U.S. troops and cargo. It warned the Kyrgyz that they might be hoodwinked by the Russian offer, and that keeping the base open would be more beneficial to them than the aid package, which includes loans and grants.

Since then, a planned vote in the Kyrgyz parliament on the government’s recommendation has been postponed three times.

Kyrgyz Prime Minister Igor Chudinov said last week that his Cabinet wanted to shut down the base because it disagrees with U.S. war-fighting methods in Afghanistan.

But Mr. Bakiyev acknowledged Wednesday that the real reason for the closure is financial. He said the Bush administration had repeatedly rejected his government’s requests to pay more rent for the facility.

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