MOSCOW: Just two weeks into President Obama’s administration, Russia is moving to reassert its influence over former Soviet republics in Central Asia. Moscow is pushing military cooperation and offering financial aid in what some say is reminiscent of the Kremlin’s client-state relationships during the Cold War.
The U.S. is in talks with the government of Kyrgyzstan over the use of a military air base in the Central Asian nation, White House and Pentagon officials say. Kyrgyzstan said Tuesday it was evicting the U.S. from the Manas air base, which is critical to U.S. military operations in neighboring Afghanistan. Many analysts see the hand of Russia behind Kyrgyzstan’s decision.
The U.S. military began running operations out of the Manas air base shortly after invading Afghanistan in late 2001. The site has evolved into a key staging point for U.S. and NATO troops and some supplies heading into Afghanistan. It is also where the U.S. bases its air-to-air refueling tankers used in the region.
Manas became the last remaining U.S. air base in central Asia when Uzbekistan evicted the American military from its soil in 2005. Using that as leverage, Kyrgyzstan has, in the past, threatened to close down Manas, says George Friedman, the CEO of the global intelligence company Stratfor and the author of The Next 100 Years. “It’s happened a number of times in the past where the issue is simply money,” Friedman says. “The question we don’t know the answer to is whether or not that’s the primary issue right now.”
Friedman says the timing of Kyrgyzstan’s announcement is important: It came just hours after Russia offered the former Soviet republic $2 billion in aid. He says this puts the U.S. in an interesting position. “The Russians have offered them money to close it; we’re offering them money to keep it open,” he says.
Friedman says the Russians have levers aside from money, including influence inside Kyrgyzstan and many old connections. “So unlike previous times when the essential issue was the Kyrgyzstan government trying to shake down the United States for more cash,” Friedman says, “this time it’s more of a bidding war.”
Many analysts say they believe Kyrgyzstan could carry through with its threat this time. Already, the government sent a decree to parliament on closing the U.S. air base. Alexander Cooley, an associate professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University, says one factor in Kyrgyzstan’s action most likely has to do with President Obama’s decision to make Afghanistan a priority.
Cooley says both Kyrgyzstan and Russia want to test the importance of that — for different reasons. “The Kyrgyz see the importance of Afghanistan as only elevating the importance of their asset, which is in essence hosting the U.S. base,” says Cooley, who wrote Base Politics, which examines U.S. bases overseas, including the one at Manas. “Russia sees this as an opportunity to send a shot across the bow: ‘We can influence the region; we can make life unpleasant for you,'” he says.-SANA