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Kyrgyzstan Review, 10 years ago

[09.04.23] The Russian Air Force In Kyrgyzstan: The Security Dynamics

In late 2002, the Russian Air Force deployed Frontal Aviation and Military Transport Aviation aircraft to Kant airbase in Kyrgyzstan. The purpose of the trial deployment was ostensibly not to create a Russian base in Kyrgyzstan, but to develop a joint Russian-Kyrgyz military operational airbase to support the multinational Collective Rapid Deployment Forces (CRDF) that is established under the Collective Security Treaty (CST). One battalion from each member state (Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) are committed to the CRDF.
BACKGROUND: Since 1999, Kyrgyzstan has been struggling to effectively confront a growing terrorist threat. Bishkek early on embraced the idea of forming rapid reaction forces within the CST, created in 2001, which it hoped would boost its neighbors commitment to provide military assistance in the event of crisis or conflict.
It soon became clear that Moscow placed great emphasis on the potential for the CRDF to enhance regional security, and in the aftermath of the deployment of U.S. forces in Central Asia in the autumn of 2001, the group seemed ready to supply a lifeline to rekindle Russia's security role in the region. Russian sources also openly described the CST as a counterweight to the growing U.S. and NATO presence and influence
In addition to the national components of the CRDF, the regional Antiterrorist Center based in Bishkek was also involved in the exercises, as were heavy ground equipment, combat aircraft and air defense systems. Nonetheless, the results of these exercises suggest that the CRDF remains far from being an effective multinational antiterrorist force.
Although Bishkek has traditionally looked to Moscow for security assistance, there have been important points of contention in their bilateral relations, including Russia's use of military facilities in Kyrgyzstan and Bishkek's growing debt to Moscow. After the signing of a 1993 bilateral treaty on military cooperation, Russia did not pay for its use of these facilities in Kyrgyzstan, giving in exchange free education to Kyrgyz servicemen. However, according to Esen Topoyev, Kyrgyz Defense Minister, Bishkek was by the late 1990s considering demanding rent, apparently aspiring to $5 million per annum. One possible settlement could entail Russia supplying military hardware and equipment in exchange. The issue of Bishkek's debt of around $160 million to Moscow also surfaces intermittently, usually at some embarrassment to Bishkek.
In response to Kyrgyzstan's call for military assistance to confront increased terrorist threats, China provided small amounts of direct military assistance, transferring stocks of small arms, ammunition, and other equipment, and participated in a series of unique antiterrorist exercises. With their shared concerns, it was no surprise to Beijing to learn of the deployment of the Russian air force to Kant, which according to senior sources in the Kyrgyz government only took place after extensive consultations with China. On the whole, it appears that Beijing fully agreed with the Kyrgyz decision to open its base in this way.
IMPLICATIONS: Clearly, the security environment has markedly changed following the deployment of U.S. troops in Kyrgyzstan, the defeat of the Taliban, and the occupation of Afghanistan and damage to the infrastructure of several terrorist organizations, including the IMU. But the war itself did not stabilize Bishkek's security environment Key players such as Russia and China, despite common desires for regional stability, undoubtedly will interpret U.S. activity as an effort to gain hegemony in what they consider their backyard.
For Russia, the situation is much different, as it has long been a provider of markets and assistance, including security assistance, to Bishkek. But the nature and level of that support has been far below expectations. During the latter part of the Yeltsin presidency, the Central Asian states virtually fell off Moscow's foreign policy agenda and it was President Putin that scrambled to re-establish fruitful relations with these states, building on their common concern over the spread of fundamentalist-bred terrorism. The development of the CRDF and the deployment of Russian air assets are in part a response to these common concerns.
CONCLUSION: Kyrgyzstan is too close to potential disaster to turn down reasonable assistance from any party, as long as the conditions are tolerable and the demands are reasonable; and it finds itself in a position where two powers see strategic value in fostering expanded relations. Both the U.S. and Russia can effectively provide both military and economic assistance. However, what Russia can provide is tempered by its own economic constraints and the limitations of the Russian military, which remains heavily committed in Chechnya. U.S. military assistance since 9/11 has been significant and increasing, but Washington has not shown a willingness to extend to Kyrgyzstan security guarantees similar to those it has recently extended to Uzbekistan. Kyrgyz regional concerns remain focused on Tashkent's perceived aggressive actions, more than those of any other regional stateAnother Kyrgyz concern is that Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan appear to be the focus of U.S. regional policy and the question remains open in Bishkek as to whether Washington's policy toward it is only one-dimensional. What will happen when the situation in Afghanistan stabilizes and America's war on terrorism moves elsewhere?
For Moscow, Bishkek seems to have broader implications and plays an important role in challenging Washington's mantle as the region's new security manager and help re-establish Russia's position as a critical regional player. Moreover, the government in Moscow will not push for political and economic reform and will be much more willing to support President Akaev against his domestic opponents.
By William D. O'Malley and Roger N. McDermott, Central Asia - Caucuses Analyst, April 09, 2003

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