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    South Asia
     Feb 1, 2008
Russian turbulence for Indian airbase
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - It does seem that India will have to downsize its big-power dreams in Central Asia. Its plan to deploy aircraft at the base at Ayni in Tajikistan is facing opposition from an unexpected quarter - Russia.

Ayni, located 10 kilometers from the Tajik capital Dushanbe, was used by the Soviets during the 1980s to support their military operations in Afghanistan. Following their withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Soviets left Ayni and the base fell into a dilapidated condition.

In 2002, India undertook renovation of the base under a bilateral defense agreement with the Tajiks. It spent over US$1.1 million

renovating the base: extending and re-laying its runway, and constructing three aircraft hangars, an air-traffic control tower and the base's perimeter fencing.

But India's interest in renovating Ayni is not just about making the base usable. It has been keen on setting up a military outpost there.

Ayni's value to India stems from Tajikistan's geographic location. The country shares borders with China, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. A narrow strip of Afghan territory - the Wakhan corridor - separates Tajikistan from Pakistan. Besides, although Tajikistan is not a producer of gas, it is close to countries that are.

A base at Ayni would provide India with a platform from which it could respond rapidly in the event of threats to its interests in the region. It may be recalled that when an Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu in Nepal to Delhi was hijacked to Kandahar in Afghanistan in December 1999, India was unable to respond effectively.

An outpost at Ayni would provide muscle to India's ambitions of extending its strategic reach into Central Asia, a region that is volatile and resource rich.

India's relationship with Tajikistan has traditionally been warm. The two countries were on the same side in the Afghan civil war in the late 1990s. Both were opposed to the Taliban and backed the Northern Alliance. At Farkhor, southeast of Dushanbe, India ran a 25-bed hospital for injured fighters of the Northern Alliance in the late 1990s. And it was out of Tajikistan that India channeled its assistance to the Northern Alliance, which included, among other things, advice on strategy and help in repairing the Northern Alliance's Soviet-made aircraft.

After the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, India was keen to retain its foothold in Tajikistan. Hence, the interest in renovating Ayni and setting up an outpost there.

India initially planned to deploy fixed-wing MiG-29 fighters at Ayni. Subsequently it was said to be deploying only a squadron of Mi-17 V1 helicopters. And then late last year, reports indicated the Indians were likely to be evicted from Ayni.

India already has some 150 military personnel, mainly engineers and support staff at Ayni. And while the base is renovated, it is still not fully operational.

Recently, India's Defense Minister Arackaparambil Kurian Antony attributed the delay to some "technical glitches". It is more likely that Russian objections to India's presence at Ayni were behind the delay.

The Russians, it seems, are pressuring the Tajiks to not only refuse India permission to deploy at Ayni but also deny it access to the base.

The Russian obstruction has come as a bit of a surprise to India, especially since Moscow had earlier given its nod. In fact, Russia, Tajikistan and India had also informally agreed they would share command and control over the base, holding it by rotation. India and Russia had also agreed to jointly maintain the base.

An Indian military outpost at Ayni was expected to ruffle feathers in Islamabad and Beijing, not Moscow, given the decades of warm ties between India and Russia. The Russian turnaround indicates how much India's equation with the big powers has changed in recent years.

The Russian rethink on India's role at Ayni appears to have been prompted by unease over India's new closeness to the Americans.

The Russian pressure on the Tajiks was aimed at signaling to Delhi that if India wanted to reap the benefits of its long-term closeness to Moscow, then it would have to maintain a distance with the Americans. India could not expect to have a strategic beachhead in Central Asia if it pursued close ties with the Americans.

The Russian move was also aimed at putting pressure on India to decide in its favor in a host of big-ticket defense deals that are in the pipeline. India is expected to spend about $40 billion in the next few years to replace aging equipment and upgrade its military hardware and the Russians are anxious that India, which has in the past depended on Russia to meet its military needs, will now turn to the US, France and others.

The Russian move was aimed at reminding India that it still needs the Russians to realize its ambitions. A base in Central Asia for instance, the Russians are underscoring, would not be possible without their nod.

Over the past few months, India is reported to have raised the Ayni issue with the Russians alongside several other irritants that have cropped up in their relations. India is annoyed with Russia over the delay in delivery of the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov and the steep hike in costs of the Sukhoi fighter aircraft.

Indian government officials insist that the outpost at Ayni is still very much in the cards. At a recent meeting with his Tajik counterpart Colonel-General Khairullaev Sherali, India's Defense Minister Antony is reported to have sorted out some issues regarding India's role at Ayni. Ayni is still part of India's gameplan in Central Asia - at least for now.

However, India's presence at Ayni will be a much scaled down version of what it originally envisaged for itself.

Phunchok Stobdan, Central Asia expert and senior fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, says that deployment of a squadron of helicopters "now seems rather far-fetched". A full-time stationing of troops at Ayni is doubtful but "it is likely that Ayni would be available for India's use in a contingency", he told Asia Times Online.

The Russians would like any Indian role at Ayni to be part of a multilateral approach to crisis under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, for instance, says Stobdan.

That would give it an anti-US color, which is not the way India interprets its role in Central Asia.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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