|US, Russia marching on Central
By Sergei Blagov
MOSCOW - During a brief stopover in Bishkek, the
Kyrgyz capital, on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir
Putin endorsed Russian deployment of fighter jets,
bombers and other aircraft in that country. The move is
obviously designed to reassert Russia's military
influence in a region where the United States has its
own semi-permanent military presence with bases in also
in Kyrgyzstan as well as Uzbekistan.
Wednesday, Putin told journalists in Bishkek that
Russian air force deployment was very important and
brought "a new quality" to security arrangements in the
region. Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev urged Russia to
become a "main strategic cornerstone of Central Asia".
Russian and Kyrgyz officials also signed the
Bishkek Declaration, pledging closer security and
economic ties. This agreement is not directed against
third countries, Putin was quoted as saying. A deal to
write off some $40 million of Kyrgyz debt to Moscow was
also agreed to.
On December 2, two Su-25 attack
jets and two Il-76 military transport planes (along with
70 troops to establish air traffic control systems and
provide security) arrived from neighboring Tajikistan
and landed at a military airfield in Kant, about 20
kilometers east of Bishkek.
And on December 4,
three Su-27 fighter jets arrived from the Lipetsk base
in Central Russia. Incidentally, one of them, plane No
17, is dubbed the "presidential aircraft" by Russian
pilots because Putin used this plane to fly over
Chechnya in an unprecedented public relations exercise
two years ago.
Although the three Su-27 fighter
jets are to return to Lipetsk soon, the two Su-25 are to
stay. This symbolic presence is the vanguard of a force
that will ultimately include more than 20 Russian
aircraft and more than 700 troops, eventually to become
the most significant outside Russia's borders since the
Soviet collapse in 1991.
In all, Russia plans to
deploy five Su-25 attack jets, five Su-27 fighters, two
An-26 transports, two Il-76 transports, five L-39
training jets and two Mi-8 helicopters at Kant,
according to RIA, the official Russian news agency. The
Russian aircraft will form the core of the air unit
based at Kant.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei
Ivanov arrived in Kyrgyzstan on December 4 to inspect
Kant base. He announced that the Russian task force was
to provide the air power for a contingent of ground
forces. Known as a rapid reaction force, this group
could total more than 5,000 troops from Russia, as well
as from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, members
of an alliance of former Soviet republics known as the
Collective Security Treaty Organization. Ivanov also
dismissed rumors that Russian deployment would cost up
to US$300 million a year.
The Russian deployment
comes against a backdrop of recent protests in southern
Kyrgyzstan, provoked by a controversial border treaty
under which Kyrgyzstan agrees to transfer some 95,000
hectares of its territory to China in an attempt to
settle a long-running border dispute over land. The
Russian deployment now means that Kyrgyzstan is host to
two foreign air bases, the other being the US facility
at Manas, a Bishkek suburb.
The US base, which
was established in the aftermath of the September 11
terrorist attacks, is designed to provide air support
for regional operations by the anti-terrorism coalition
in Afghanistan. Some 2,000 American personnel now occupy
Manas and up to 5,000 coalition soldiers are expected to
be based there eventually. Although this force could
help Kyrgyz authorities to deal with terrorist threats,
coalition troops are unlikely to back the government in
disputes with the opposition.
The security deal
between Moscow and Bishkek arguably indicates that the
US has failed to provide sufficient support to the
Akayev administration in terms of security needs and
domestic political problems with the opposition.
Therefore, Akayev is now increasingly depending on
Russian backing, military, political and financial.
Russia and Kyrgyzstan have maintained close
political and military ties, and Akayev has tended to
support the Kremlin's policies in the region. In
response, Moscow has backed Akayev's regime and warned
against interference in Kyrgyz internal affairs.
However, Moscow carefully denied that the
Russian deployment in Kyrgyzstan was anti-American.
Nobody was going to push the Americans from Central Asia
or try a strategic encirclement, the RIA commented. But
now Russia, as well as China and India, realized that
the Americans were unable to clear the region from
terrorism, according to RIA. It was not impossible that
Russian troops could eventually need to defend the
Americans in the event of worst-case scenarios, the
As Putin traveled to China on
December 1-3 and India on December 3-5, speculation
re-surfaced about the three countries ganging up
together to form a China-India-Russia "strategic
triangle" to help balance the global dominance of the
United States. However, Russian experts concede that
such a triangle appeared unlikely to materialize since
Russia, China and India were keen to strengthen good
relations with Washington and they have backed the US
war on terror.
The idea of the strategic
triangle was first spelled out by former Russian chief
diplomat and then prime minister Yevgeny Primakov back
in 1998. Primakov, a veteran Middle East expert and
former chief of Russia's main intelligence agency, was
widely seen as a leading proponent of Moscow's pro-Asian
and anti-American policy.
So far both China and
India have distanced themselves from the idea of an
India-Russia-China strategic axis. However, foreign
ministers of the three countries met on the sidelines of
the United Nations General Assembly session in New York
in September for trilateral informal talks. It has been
understood that such meetings would be held regularly.
In 1998, Primakov's "strategic triangle" concept
as a counterbalance to US dominance was little more than
a bold vision, RIA said earlier this week. However, by
December 2002 the situation had changed dramatically and
the Moscow-Bejing-New Delhi axis was becoming more
realistic, yet without its anti-US agenda, the agency
But although the "strategic triangle"
concept still has some supporters in Moscow, Putin's
Asian tour come in the wake of improved relations with
the West by supporting the US war on terror and tacitly
accepting NATO's eastward expansion. Therefore, the
"strategic triangle" idea is unlikely to become Russia's
official policy at this stage, indicating that Moscow
wants partners in both the East and West.
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