Ex-Soviet Club Presidents’ Summit Shows Russia’s Increasing Clout

Just as the Obama administration is getting prepared to ramp up US military strength in Afghanistan by about another 30,000 troops, a very real problem has arisen as to how to keep supplied the NATO troops already on the ground there, much less bring in brand new forces. The land supply-route from Pakistan via the Khyber Pass has lately become somewhat insecure and unreliable, but now the air route threatens to become much longer and more difficult due to the announced closure to NATO use, within six months, of the Manas airbase near the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. The Washington Independent’s ace (US) national security reporter, Spencer Ackerman, now considers the Manas closing as inevitable, while Scott Horton over at Harper’s enlightens us as to the corrupt and high-handed (even deadly) American behavior there that caused relations with the Kyrgyz to sour to bring us to this point.

The world-renowned French daily Le Monde provides yet more context for that Kyrgyz government decision (Five countries of the ex-USSR create a fund for dealing with the crisis). Those five countries are Russia herself, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and, yes, Kyrgyzstan, and the article shows clearly how Russia has succeeded in re-extending it’s influence over the Central Asian countries both financially and militarily. Sure, there is that $2 billion loan and $150 million in an outright grant reported by the New York Times that Russia has offered to Kyrgyzstan. But that august newspaper failed to report that Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiev travelled to Moscow in the first place to take part in a summit with Russian president Medvedev and the presidents of five other ex-Soviet states. It was there that the subset named above established a collective $10 billion fund (with a disproportionate Russian contribution, one would expect) as an emergency and stabilization reserve for confronting the worldwide financial crisis.

But that same summit had an important military dimension as well. All seven of the presidents in attendance (i.e. the five listed above plus those of Armenia and Uzbekistan) agreed to create “collective armed forces” for responding to common external threats. And it was actually in connection with this summit meeting that Kyrgyz president Bakiev made his announcement that the Manas airbase would shortly be closed to the Americans.

Although it is true that “collective armed forces” is a vague phrase, and that one should wait and see what comes of it in operational practice (if anything – it’s highly unlikely to mean a fusion of all those nations’ armies, for example), it is nonetheless clear that Russia’s influence in Central Asia is waxing. But it’s also probably useful to remember that American access to airbases in the region, starting in 2001 (i.e. less than ten years after these states had gained a sort of “independence” from Soviet Russia) was extraordinary to begin with, and really only due to the world political climate in the wake of the 9-11 attacks, which among other effects brought about toleration for this extraordinary concept from the Russian government. If that attitude cooled soon thereafter, it did so somewhat less quickly in the states actually hosting American bases, namely Uzbekistan (with an airbase made available until 2005) and Kyrgyzstan, giving them for a while at least a veneer of policy “independence” from Moscow. The impending loss of the Manas base, however – although considerably helped along by American behavior, as Scott Horton reminds us – was in this geopolitical context something inevitable, so that one would rather hope and expect that contingency plans for what to do next are already in place at the Pentagon.

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