The Kremlin has not taken kindly to the U.S. ambassador's suggestion that Russia "bribed" Kyrgyzstan in 2009 to kick the U.S. out of the Manas air base. The controversy began Friday, when Ambassador Michael McFaul addressed a group of Russian students and reportedly told them that:
Russia had “bribed” Kyrgyzstan four years ago to prompt the country to shut down the U.S. military airbase in Manas airport near Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek. In his speech, he admitted that the United States had also offered a bribe to Kyrgyzstan, but ten times less.
The website of the U.S. embassy in Moscow, which posts texts of most of McFaul's public speeches, for some reason has only a slide presentation (pdf) of this particular address, which contains no reference to Kyrgyzstan or bribery, so it's not clear what his exact words were. But obviously he was referring to the episode when former Kyrgyzstan president Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced -- in Moscow -- that Kyrgyzstan was booting the U.S. out of the base. And at the same time, Russia announced a $2.15 billion aid package for Kyrgyzstan.
It took a few days, but on Monday Russia's Foreign Ministry reacted strongly, issuing a harsh statement:
The Russian Foreign Ministry was extremely bewildered by the U.S. ambassador’s statements… His estimates of Russian-U.S. cooperation go far beyond diplomatic etiquette and represent a deliberate distortion of a number of aspects of Russian-American dialogue...
As for Manas, Mr McFaul knows better what kind of bribe, and to whom, Washington gave. We can only say that ten years ago, the Bush administration assured us of the need to use the Manas base a year or two. We understand that a different administration is in power in Washington, but that does not eliminate the problem of predictability and transparency of U.S. activities in Central Asia. The ambassador should be able to at least explain the discrepancy between word and deed.
McFaul then walked back a bit, taking to twitter to explain that he is "[s]till learning the craft of speaking more diplomatically," and pointing out that his speech also highlighted many positive aspects of the U.S.-Russia reset.
Did Russia offer that $2 billion in the understanding that Kyrgyzstan would do what Moscow wanted with respect to Manas? Of course. But countries around the world, including the U.S., do this, as McFaul himself acknowledged. Given that the Russian money was public, it seems like less of a "bribe" and more of a "quid pro quo." But should McFaul care to dig into the archives of the U.S. negotiations with Bishkek over Manas in 2009, he would find some language that comes uncomfortably close to bribery: "Bakiyev can still be bought, and should the U.S. offer him enough money, we could retain access to Manas," read one cable from the period.
Anyway, the Kremlin's reaction seems less about Manas in particular than the desire to score some points against McFaul and the U.S. Russia still seems to be going forward with its plan to set up a NATO logistics hub in Ulyanovsk, so any criticism of U.S. military presence in Central Asia has to be considered with that in mind. Still, with the new Putin presidency just a few weeks old, it appears to be rougher sailing ahead, at least rhetorically, for U.S.-Russian relations.