Russia strengthens its hand in Central Asia

Putin in Tajikistan October 2012. Photo Хадамоти матбуот, Office of the President of Tajikistan

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Dushanbe in October with Tajik counterpart Emomali Rahmonov

By John Drennan, Research Assistant, IISS-US

Russia is using military aid and basing deals to shore up its strategic position in Central Asia, ahead of NATO’s 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan. A $1.1 billion military aid package to Kyrgyzstan was finalised recently, and in November Moscow announced a plan to provide $200 million in Russian assistance to upgrade Tajikistan’s air-defence system.

The Russian government has also signed two new deals trading economic assistance for basing rights in Central Asia. In October, the Tajik government agreed to extend the lease on Russia’s base in Dushanbe until 2042, in exchange for a nominal sum plus military training and better access to the Russian labour market for Tajik citizens. (Currently, almost half of Tajikistan’s GDP comes through remittances.) In September, Moscow announced a 15-year extension of its air base in Kyrgyzstan in return for $489m in debt settlement and an agreement for energy infrastructure upgrades. Kyrgyzstan’s parliament officially ratified the agreement on 13 December.

These developments strengthen Russia’s position in Central Asia at a time of great uncertainty about the future role of the United States, which has had a basing footprint in the region as part of NATO’s campaign in Afghanistan since 2001.

Afghanistan presents extraordinary logistical challenges to the US military. As Undersecretary of Defense Ashton Carter suggests: ‘Next to Antarctica, Afghanistan is probably the most incommodious place, from a logistics point of view, to be trying to fight a war.’

Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were initially supportive of the US and NATO efforts, providing important nodes along the Northern Distribution Network – the crucial military supply route through which at least 40% of all supplies to Afghanistan pass. However, both countries have wavered over the years on basing agreements.

Indeed, in August 2005, the United States was evicted from the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base (K2) in southeastern Uzbekistan. Although the US was given no official explanation for the eviction, it came shortly after the US sharply criticised the Uzbek government’s brutal crackdown on protesters in the eastern city of Andijan. Tashkent has since relented and allowed materiel to transit through the country to the border with Afghanistan. It has also sought and received limited military assistance from the US.

Of all the former Soviet Central Asian countries, Uzbekistan is perhaps most wary of Russian intentions, as demonstrated in its suspension of its Collective Security Treaty Organisation (the Russian-led regional military alliance) membership in June and the adoption of a new ban on foreign military bases in August.

The US’s basing relationship with Kyrgyzstan has also been rocky, although the transit centre at Manas currently remains operational. In February 2009, the Kyrgyz government ordered the closure of the facility, under suspected pressure from Moscow. But in June that year, following the ‘reset’ of US–Russia relations, the US was able to renegotiate the terms of the lease; it was allowed to continue using Manas after agreeing to pay an extra $40m in rent and $36m for an airport upgrade, while renaming the facility a ‘transit centre’.

Manas again became controversial in 2010–11 following the violent overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, whose family was alleged to have enriched itself from Manas-related contracts. Shortly after his election, the new Krygyz president, Almazbek Atambayev, took the opposite side of the politically charged basing issue, announcing that Manas would be used only for civilian purposes after 2014. In an interview with the Voice of Russia radio in February 2012, he reaffirmed his position, saying that ‘all military forces should be pulled out from the Manas Airport by June 2014’.

The 2014 drawdown will leave a region strategically important to both Washington and Moscow in a state of flux. Moscow, which sees the region as its backyard, fears US encroachment. Yet, at the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin has urged NATO not to leave Afghanistan too soon, saying: ‘It is regrettable that many participants in this operation are thinking about how to pull out of there. They took up this burden and should carry it to the end.’

All parties are worried about instability spilling over from Afghanistan after the US withdrawal. That potential has forced Russia to take steps to strengthen and solidify its own strategic position along its southern border.


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