MOSCOW - Following countless delays, Russia and Kyrgyzstan have finally clinched an unprecedented airbase deal. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Kyrgyz counterpart Askar Akayev witnessed their respective defense ministers, Sergei Ivanov and Esen Topoyev, signing the agreement on Kant base on Monday in Moscow. The Russian air force can now move into the military airfield in Kant, about 20 kilometers east of the capital Bishkek. The deployment, say commentators, comes as the most significant outside Russia's borders since the Soviet collapse in 1991.
No big wonder that Ivanov hailed the deal as "the first and the only purely Russian military base that we have opened in the 13 years of the existence of the Russian Federation". He added that although the Russian military was present in all Commonwealth of Independent States, except Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, formal arrangements to set up a new base come as a novelty.
The move is presumably designed to reassert Russia's military influence in a region where the United States has its own semi-permanent military presence, with bases also in Kyrgyzstan (Manas) as well as Uzbekistan.
The Russian force at Kant is ultimately due to include more than 20 Russian aircraft and more than 300 troops. In all, Russia is expected 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.
A task force will provide the air power for a contingent of ground forces. Known as a rapid reaction force, this group could total more than 5,000, with 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, or CSTO.
Kyrgyz defense minister Topoyev had earlier stated that the Kant base would not be "purely Russian". It will operate under Russian jurisdiction, but will be under the tactical control of the CSTO rapid reaction force's commander, Topoyev said.
During a brief stopover in Bishkek in December 2002, Putin endorsed Russian deployment of fighter jets, bombers and other aircraft in that country. He stated that Russian air force deployment was very important and brought "a new quality" to security arrangements in the region. At the same time, Akayev urged Russia to become a "main strategic cornerstone of Central Asia".
At this time Russian and Kyrgyz officials also signed the Bishkek Declaration, pledging closer security and economic ties. This agreement is not directed against third countries, Putin stated. A deal to write off some US$40 million of Kyrgyz debt to Moscow was also agreed.
The Russian deployment now means that Kyrgyzstan is formally host to two foreign air bases, the other being the US facility at Manas, a Bishkek suburb, just 30 kilometers from Kant. 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 are now based at Manas. The US forces also use former Soviet bases in neighboring Uzbekistan.
Russia and Kyrgyzstan have maintained close political and military ties, and Akayev has tended to support the Kremlin's policies in the region…
Moscow has backed Akayev's regime and warned against interference in Kyrgyz internal affairs. The security deal over Kant air base arguably indicates that Akayev's regime still depends on Russian backing.
However, political implications of the base deal were kept low profile. "The Russian military personnel will not interfere in Kyrgyz internal affairs," Russian General Oleg Latypov said on Monday. He added that the Kant base agreement included clauses stipulating - in case of need - Russia's reimbursement of environmental and other damages to Kyrgyzstan.
Russia has reportedly spent more than $2 million to upgrade the Kant base. Kyrgyz Finance Minister Bolot Abildayev has stated that Kyrgyzstan was not going to fund the air base. On Monday, Latypov confirmed that Russia would be financing the base in full.
However, the total bill is yet to be revealed. Last December, Ivanov dismissed rumors that Russian deployment at Kant would cost up to $300 million a year.
Incidentally, the Russian officials conceded that the country did not really need its more famous overseas military bases. On Monday, Ivanov stated that the liquidation process of Cam Ranh base in Vietnam and Lourdes facility in Cuba "had been completed". "General efficiency of these two bases raised serious doubts," Ivanov commented.
By Sergei Blagov,
Asia Times, September 24, 2003