Central Asia

Military buildup ends US-Russian honeymoon
By Hooman Peimani

In his last week's meeting with Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Tashkent, General Tommy L Franks, commander of the American forces in Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Persian Gulf, announced what many states, including Russia, Iran and China, had long been concerned about. Meeting Karimov after visiting Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, he announced that the American military presence in Central Asia and Afghanistan would increase, the Americans would expand their military relations with the Central Asian countries and the American forces would stay longer than expected in Afghanistan.

On the same day, an American Congressional delegation visiting Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, stressed the American determination to stay in the region. Given Russia's current political, economic and military vulnerability, there is little doubt, if any at all, that an expanding American military presence in Russia's proximity will contribute significantly to a strategic rift between Moscow and Washington, with regional and global implications.

The American military presence in Afghanistan and in certain countries in its proximity, that is, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, has been a source of concern for three regional powers, namely China, Iran and Russia, since the arrival of the first American units in October 2001. Sharing long borders with Afghanistan and/or Central Asia, they were suspicious of the long-term objectives of the Americans in their region where they have vested interests. That region is also of interest to the Americans for its significant oil and gas resources and for a potential role that it could play in "containing" the three regional powers with reasons for grievances with the United States.

In the aftermath of September 11, Russia's opposition to the stationing of American military forces close to its borders in Central Asia and the Caucasus made its neighboring Central Asian states reject the idea of letting American forces use their territories for their operation in Afghanistan. However, certain factors convinced the Russians to change their position and to get credit for their cooperative policy in their future dealing with the Americans. They included Russia's interest in the Taliban regime's fall, its interest in expanding economic ties with the United States requiring friendly bilateral relations, and its concern about a possible acceptance of American requests for bases by Central Asians despite its opposition.

To allay the Russian concerns, many American military and civilian officials stressed last year the short term nature of the American military presence in Central Asia and Afghanistan and the immediate withdrawal of their troops from there once their military operation was over. However, Russia, along with Iran and China, was well aware of the probability of the Americans using the opportunity to stay in the region long after meeting their announced military objectives.

The well-known American political and economic interests in Central Asia and the Caucasus aside, the pattern of American military deployment in Central Asia, unjustifiable for a limited warfare in Afghanistan, served as a clear indicator of the intention to stay for a long time. Having secured an airbase in Uzbekistan neighboring Afghanistan, the Americans also obtained the right to use another airbase, this one in Kyrgyzstan, without any apparent necessity or usefulness, as the country does not share a border with Afghanistan. The Kazakh government turned down the US request for a third airbase in Kazakhstan, a country far from Afghanistan. However, it granted them overflight and emergency landing rights, while the Americans received overflight rights from Turkmenistan as well.

Despite their buildup in Central Asia and Afghanistan, the Americans also deployed heavily their naval and air forces in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, with no obvious direct relevance to their type of operation in landlocked Afghanistan, separated from the Arabian Sea by Pakistan. While maintaining their bases in Saudi Arabia, they secured new bases in Oman and Qatar, expanded their forces in Kuwait and Bahrain, and received overflight rights from the United Arab Emirates. Given the extent of the American military deployment in Central Asia and the Persian Gulf, the whole declared "anti-terrorist" military preparation seemed, and still seems, totally unproportional to the declared objective of uprooting the remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda armed mainly with light weapons.

Against this background, the mentioned statements of American military and political figures, including those of General Franks, contradicted the American government's previous assurances for its forces' short stay in the region, but they should not surprise the Russians. Nevertheless, the resulting expansion of American forces in Central Asia and Afghanistan will surely contribute to worsening American ties with Russia, whose approval made the American presence in its former republics feasible in the first place.

The American decision for long-term stay in West Asia signifies an emerging aggressive American foreign policy towards Russia, China, Iran, whose elements have been surfacing since the election of President George W Bush 18 months ago. Added to its deploying military "advisers" in Georgia and to its growing military ties with Azerbaijan, the long-term American military presence in Central Asia will surely create serious security concerns in Russia. Russia's fear about its encirclement by hostile countries will make it closer to Iran, a large neighboring country also sharing that fear. The two countries' multi-dimensional bilateral relations have been on a friendly path since the last years of the Soviet Union.

While its friendly ties with Iran are not a new development, Russia's efforts to restore its extensive Soviet-era relations with Iraq and North Korea indicate not only its efforts to regain its lost markets, but also its clear attempt to pursue its national interests without regard to American disapproval. Russia now seeks to demonstrate its fundamental differences with the United States over various international issues, including ties with certain countries on uneasy terms with the United States. That is part of its bid to reestablish its lost preeminent international status by capitalizing on a new Russian foreign policy not aligned with that of the United States.

Having that objective in mind, the Russian government announced plans for major contracts with Iran and Iraq in early August. Thus, it disclosed preparing an agreement with Iran to sell $5 billion worth of advanced weapons and to expand their annual trade to $5 billion, while expressing readiness to sell six more nuclear power reactors to Iran. It also announced preparing a plan for a $40 billion economic pact with Iraq. Finally, President Vladimir Putin met with North Korean President Kim Jong-il in Vladivostock last week. During the meeting, he stressed Russia's interest in connecting South Korean railways to the Russian rail network via North Korea and China.

Russia's seeking closer ties with the members of the axis of evil symbolically indicate the practical end of its "honeymoon" with the United States and the beginning of an era of tension and conflict in American-Russian relations.

Dr Hooman Peimani works as an independent consultant with international organizations in Geneva and does research in international relations.

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Aug 29, 2002

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