PERM, Russia – The trouble began shortly after the vodka toast.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had spent Sunday touring nuclear destruction sites outside this Russian town. Before boarding their plane, they stopped at a reception at the airport to say farewell to their hosts.

“I would like to raise my glass to friendship between Russia and the United States,” Lugar said.

Victor Shmayev, who oversees nuclear warhead destruction at the Federal Space Agency, bid his American friends a safe flight, saying, “Let the number of takeoffs equal the number of landings.”

But for more than three hours, there were no takeoffs or landings. At least not for the plane sitting a few hundred yards away, the white and blue DC-9 with “United States of America” painted on its side in large letters.

The senators and a delegation of 12 Americans were detained in a peaceful yet diplomatically chaotic afternoon episode.

What began as a seemingly bureaucratic misunderstanding escalated into an incident involving the White House, the State Department and a host of 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,” said Ken Myers III, a senior aide to the Foreign Relations committee, to a trio of border officials, who said they were acting on the authority of the FSB, the agency which replaced the former KGB.

And with that, the standoff began.

The city of Perm, about 500 miles east of Moscow, is home to a small airstrip that accepts international flights, even though they aren’t frequent. American officials used cell phones to dial Washington, Moscow and points across Europe, trying to resolve the matter.

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.

Bill 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.

“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.”

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.

“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.”

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