Central Asia

Scramble for Central Asian bases
By Stephen Blank

Even before September 11, Central Asia was rising in strategic importance to nations such as Russia, Iran, China and the United States. Since then, the region's strategic significance has grown by orders of magnitude. The most tangible and visible manifestation of its new-found importance is the scramble for military bases there.

America, Russia and India all have bases in Central Asia, and China is evidently seeking one as well. These bases often have military significance beyond Central Asia. For example, India’s air base in Tajikistan, reportedly at an operational status according to Jane's, clearly owes much to the high degree of bilateral military tension with Pakistan since late 2001, not just to India's quest for enhanced leverage and influence in Central Asia. Similarly, the bases offered by Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to the US are intended primarily, if not exclusively, for the prosecution of the war on terrorism in Afghanistan.

However, it is clear that the foreign air and other bases in Central Asia are connected to phenomena beyond the region. Chinese elites see America's presence there as possibly betokening a future "encirclement" of China. Russia's military-political elites, who remain defiantly unreconciled to strategic reality and the loss of hegemony over the region, also see the American bases as a threat to vital Russian interests and have responded by coercing Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan into granting Moscow air bases in their territories.

Unconfirmed reports state that either Moscow had to coordinate acquisition of a base in Kyrgyzstan with Beijing or that Beijing wanted this air base for itself. Whichever account may be true, they both show the extent of the great power scramble for air and other bases in Central Asia as well as China's burgeoning interest in regional military issues.

And when one examines the circumstances surrounding these bases, the different kinds of relationships between the host countries on the one hand and with America and Russia on the other are striking. In the American case, the host countries invited American bases after September 11 knowing that these would be reliable bases to be used against terrorists and against Russian-Chinese efforts to compromise their security. It should be remembered that despite earlier promises of Russian assistance, actual provision of weapons and training was far short of what was needed to take on the Taliban and its proteges.

Likewise, Chinese promises to intervene under the charter of the Shanghai Cooperative Organization proved to be written in sand. After September 11, China demanded prior compensations and a veto power over the American response to those attacks, conditions that ruled out effective provision of Chinese support to Central Asian regimes. In any case, the prior relationships of these states to both Moscow and Beijing were not such as to inspire confidence in those governments' benevolent intentions or capability to materially assist Central Asian security.

But whereas the American bases were the products of invitations where governments actively solicited Washington's involvement and presence, the Russian bases are a rather different affair. Close examination suggests that the outmoded and minimal air force capabilities that Moscow is bringing to these bases cannot be an effective force against terrorism.

While those forces are openly advertised as the first steps toward creation of true coalition forces among the Commonwealth of Independent States countries, the record of Russian operations against terrorists is not one that most of its partners would welcome for their own territory. The forces involved apparently are intended as much to show the flag or to provide a sign of support for one or another domestic faction in the host states as they are supposed to provide effective military capability.

Moreover, reports from the region suggest that these bases were not the product of an invitation, rather they were the result of coercion. Kyrgyzstan, facing massive internal unrest and being turned down by Washington for more assistance because of its failing democratization, was obliged to turn to Russia and make several concessions to Moscow. It made Russian an official language, unified its defense industry with Russia and generally raised trade with Moscow 49 percent in 2002. The new base in Kant is evidently another of these concessions made to Moscow to gain its support for an embattled regime.

Similarly, Tajikistan, which also welcomed an American military presence after September 11, has come under withering attacks by Russian diplomats, politicians and media for its attempts to escape from Moscow's shadow. Thus high-level visitors came to Tajikistan to tell Dushanbe to convert the deployment of the Russian army’s 201st division - a force widely reputed to be involved with the drug trade - into a base to provide for a more enduring deployment there.

These tactics coincide with intensified efforts by the traditionally anti-American elites of the ministries of foreign affairs and defense to undermine the post-September 11 partnership with America and to exploit the war with Iraq to that end. They also coincide with efforts to use the security forces to achieve greater penetration or intervention in Central Asia, for example, the November 2002 coup in Tajikistan which the Russian intelligence service SVR apparently helped to facilitate. These policies comport with the ongoing and unrelenting pressure on Georgia, most recently manifested in signs of greater willingness to support Abkhazia's secession and convert it into part of the Russian Federation.

However, as has often happened in the past, Russia's generals and diplomats have been too clever by half. Hitherto it has been unclear how long American forces would remain in their Central Asian bases. It was assumed that once the war in Afghanistan ended those forces would return home except for retaining the right to access to those bases in future contingencies to be specified by mutual agreement.

But because Russia has coerced Central Asian states into giving it bases to compete with Washington, that outcome would now be counterproductive. Whether Russia intends to support one domestic faction against another in host countries, actively prosecute a war on terrorists, or subordinate Central Asian militaries to a new version of the Warsaw pact, the so called Collective Security Treaty Organization, no longer matters. What is clear is that Moscow is as willing to threaten weak states with coercive power even if it cannot effectively sustain that power abroad or to threaten intervention in their domestic politics.

Either way, it is unlikely that Central Asian governments, understanding Russia's game, will urge American forces to leave, even if Afghanistan is stabilized any time soon. In other words, Russia's heavy-handed response to the American bases in Central Asia all but precludes the option of a future unilateral American withdrawal form there.

Neither America nor local governments could then accept conditions where Russia alone or together with China can project military power into Central Asia. Russia's effort to take counsel of its fears concerning Washington's objectives may well bring about a true scramble for military bases in Central Asia and a heightened military dimension to the rivalries that now engulf this region.

Unfortunately, such a rivalry or heightened military competition is about the last thing Central Asia or Russia now needs. To be sure, a military competition for influence and presence there benefits neither the local states' nor Russia's interests. Rather than acting to bring about cooperative and multilateral security in Central Asia, the great powers now appear to be ratcheting upward the new version of an old and ultimately futile game which could easily end up with no winners but with many losers.

Stephen Blank is an analyst of international security affairs residing in Harrisburg, PA.

(©2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
 
Apr 9, 2003


Uzbek strongman under Russian attack (Mar 13, '03)

Concerns and divisions in Central Asia (Mar 27, '03)

Russia pushes its agenda in Central Asia (Feb 22, '03)

 

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