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.
"We have no political disagreements with the United States. It's all about the financial element of the question," he told reporters in the capital Bishkek, according to the Reuters news agency. "Prices have changed and Kyrgyzstan is in a difficult financial situation."
Washington pays $17.4 million a year for use of the base, and its total annual assistance to Kyrgyzstan is about $150 million. The base houses about 1,000 Americans, and about 15,000 U.S. personnel transit Manas in and out of Afghanistan every month. French and Spanish military units also are stationed there.
U.S. officials said they still hoped to persuade both Kyrgyzstan and Russia that, even though there are alternatives to the Manas base, its continued use would be most beneficial to Afghanistan's stability. They also said they were open to Russian ideas about how cooperation in Central Asia can contribute to a better U.S.-Russia relationship.
Last week, U.S. officials said the Russian aid offer suggested that Moscow is making a bid to increase its influence in Central Asia, perhaps in part to have leverage over U.S. decisions regarding NATO expansion to include former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia.
Mr. Biden said in Munich that the new administration was ready to press the "reset button" for better ties and did not push on issues of NATO expansion or missile defense in Eastern Europe that Russia opposes.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday that Moscow could let U.S. and NATO ship weaponry across its territory into Afghanistan if relations improve.
"The most important thing is to normalize Russia-NATO relations," which were frozen after last summer's Russia-Georgia war, he said.