Russian and U.S. space flight veterans met earlier this month to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Apollo-Soyuz mission that featured docking of U.S. and Russian orbit modules and a historic handshake in space.
The 1975 event became a symbol of detente. Yours truly - then a seventh grader at a Moscow school that taught a number of subjects in English - was writing compositions on that subject and participating in staged exhibits of friendliness toward U.S. delegations frequenting Moscow.
Now, 30 years later, Russians are speculating on Web sites and in newspapers whether the United States and Russia are natural enemies after all. This polemic is inspired by the Kremlin ideologues who seek to exploit the controversy around the U.S. military presence in Central Asia to stir the notorious Russian xenophobia.
As a result, Russian newspapers carry articles that suggest the two U.S. bases in Central Asia that serve as transportation hubs for the military mission in Afghanistan pose a threat to Russian interests in the region. Moreover, some suggest that they are footholds the U.S. military intends to use to build up its presence in the region with a primary goal of securing the ability to deliver air strikes anywhere in Russia.
These sentiments became especially strong after Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the July 5 summit meeting of the so-called Shanghai Cooperation Organization with China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan as member states.
Mr. Putin made sure that the summit adopted what many observers considered anti-U.S. rhetoric. The leaders of the six countries suggested that the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan should announce a timetable for withdrawal and issued a declaration that urges a limitation of outside interference in internal affairs of any country. This language smacks of Pravda editorials of the Cold War times.
To give the United States credit, it reacted promptly and adequately to this show of discontent.
First, the outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow talked on the Ekho Moskvy (Moscow Echo) radio, once again explaining rather obvious things to the Russians. He emphasized that the U.S. military is using the bases to curb the spread of terrorism from Afghanistan, shielding Russia and the more volatile Central Asian states from it.
Second, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited the region, securing commitments from its leaders that the bases are good to stay at least as long as the military mission in Afghanistan goes on.
You may wonder why the Kremlin would first go along with deployment of U.S. military in Central Asia (which is so obviously in its own interest) and then would try to end it.
The reason is the Kremlin paranoia of the growing U.S. influence in some former Soviet republics, namely of the U.S. sponsorship of pro-democracy nongovernmental organizations the Kremlin blames for recent regime changes in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.
Mindful of his own trespasses against democracy, Mr. Putin is going out of his way to prevent similar developments in Russia. Mr. Putin has too much invested in reversing democratic change in Russia to risk changing course and being ostracized by the Kremlin bureaucracy, so he instead is launching an assault on nongovernmental organizations.
This assault is twofold. First, he is trying to outlaw the practice of foreign sponsorship of NGOs. Second, he is inspiring their tongue-lashing in the media.
Unfortunately, the TV images of bombings in Yugoslavia and Iraq have done their job. At least half of all Russians believe that the U.S. military bases in Central Asia pose a threat to them, as evidenced in public opinion polls by independent Russian media.
No number of handshakes between U.S. and Russian politicians or space explorers will bridge the gap of misunderstanding between the Russians and the Americans as long as the United States continues largely ignoring the long-term anti-democratic tendencies in Russia in exchange for immediate foreign-policy concessions by the Kremlin.