Late last night I posted that Senators Lugar and Obama were detained before departing from Russia yesterday. They were there on a fact finding mission, touring nuclear weapon destruction sites.
Jeff Zeleny, a Chicago Tribune correspondent posed this question about the incident: “Wasn’t the Cold War supposed to be over?” Here’s a few quips from his story:
What began as a seeming bureaucratic misunderstanding escalated into an incident involving the White House, the State Department and several U.S. military officials in Washington and their Russian counterparts in Moscow.
When Obama and Lugar prepared to board their plane bound for Ukraine, local Russian border officials demanded to search the American aircraft. U.S. military pilots refused, saying the plane is protected from searches by international law and a joint agreement between the two countries.
“We don’t search Russian aircraft in the United States. You will not search U.S. aircraft in Russia,” Ken Myers III, a senior aide to the Foreign Relations Committee, said to three border officials, who said they were acting on the authority of the FSB, the agency that replaced the KGB.
And with that, the standoff began.
For a time, the Americans were locked behind a glass door inside a lounge at the Perm airport, which came equipped with the comforts of two easy chairs, one sofa and an aquarium. Lugar took a seat in a burgundy chair and did not become directly involved in the disagreement. Obama, meanwhile, found a spot on a floral sofa.
The senators used the detention period to catch a brief afternoon nap, and the doors eventually were unlocked. But local Russian officials kept the U.S. passports.
William Burns, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, made clear to Moscow officials that Lugar, a high-ranking Senate chairman, and Obama, a prominent newcomer, were being detained. The supreme allied commander for Europe, Gen. James Jones, also was apprised of the situation.
One reason for the detention, according to the discussions, was that local border officials weren’t convinced the delegation was flying in an official military plane, which under a joint U.S.-Russian agreement does not require inspection.
“Do you have proof that this is a military plane?” a Russian border control official asked.
One of the pilots presented documents to the official, but he was not satisfied. All the while, two translators traveling with the delegation tried to make sense of the back-and-forth, calmly relaying the messages.
After heated discussions and repeated calls between officials in both countries, the situation was resolved, and Russian authorities returned the delegation’s U.S. passports. One Russian guard, distributing the documents, apologized.
Lugar and Obama were both interviewed after the plane had departed.
“It’s unfortunate,” Lugar said in an interview after boarding the plane bound for Ukraine. “It illustrates a dysfunctional state where the left and right hand don’t know what either is doing, and people are enforcing their whims of the day without deference to the world.”
“In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, now you have these dispersed power centers,” Obama said in an interview shortly before the plane arrived at Kiev, Ukraine, on Sunday night. “They are clearly still working out the kinks.”
“Finally, good prevails,” said Lugar, smiling about the incident as he flew to Kiev. “But it makes you wonder who really is running the country.”