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Sphere Of Reluctance: Russia Hesitant About Kyrgyz Intervention

A billboard in southern Kyrgyzstan, where the ethnic violence has killed at least 170 people and injured many hundreds more, shows Russian President Dmitry Medvedev with the now-deposed Kyrgyz leader Kurmanbek Bakiev in April 2010.
A billboard in southern Kyrgyzstan, where the ethnic violence has killed at least 170 people and injured many hundreds more, shows Russian President Dmitry Medvedev with the now-deposed Kyrgyz leader Kurmanbek Bakiev in April 2010.
By Brian Whitmore
Be careful what you wish for.

Russia has long tried to claim the former Soviet space as a "sphere of influence," a privileged zone of responsibility where Moscow was free to act to keep the peace and preserve its interests.

But when ethnic violence erupted in southern Kyrgyzstan last week, pushing the country to the brink of civil war, Bishkek pleaded for Russian assistance. Moscow, however, was reluctant to act.

President Dmitry Medvedev immediately ruled out any unilateral Russian intervention and instead convened an emergency meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a seven-member alliance of former Soviet states, to try to agree on a multilateral response.

The United States is also calling for multilateral action, but Washington and the rest of the international community appear more than willing to let Russia take the lead. The situation, analysts say, creates both an opportunity and a challenge for the Kremlin.

"It is a de facto recognition that nobody else is capable of acting [to stabilize Kyrgyzstan]. For Russia this is a very serious test," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of the Moscow-based journal "Russia in Global Affairs. "We wanted responsibility and influence. OK. So let's go."

Russia's reluctance, analysts say, is understandable. The conflict, in which gangs of ethnic Kyrgyz have been attacking ethnic Uzbeks, has left at least 170 dead and more than 1,700 wounded. It has also sparked a humanitarian crisis as tens of thousands of refugees have streamed to the Uzbek border to escape the violence. International officials have alleged premeditation and even "attempts at ethnic cleansing."

Any intervention by outside forces could easily turn into a quagmire.

"Look at the situation on the ground; the Kyrgyz authorities have lost control," says Paul Quinn-Judge, the Bishkek-based director of the International Crisis Group's Central Asia Program. "At the very least, the security forces in the south, quite often -- but not always, of course -- are not trying very hard to restore law and order. In some cases we believe -- and we are being told increasingly -- that local security forces may be participating in the pogrom.

"You've got a conflict without borders. You've got a conflict without uniforms. I can imagine any Russian general looking at this and responding with something very short and very rude."

The Limits Of Power

Like Russia's 2008 war with Georgia over the pro-Moscow separatist region of South Ossetia, the crisis in Kyrgyzstan is emerging as a watershed moment in Moscow's relations with its former Soviet vassals.

But while the war in Georgia sent a loud and clear message that Russia is prepared to unilaterally use force against its neighbors to achieve its objectives in the region, the Kyrgyz conflict appears to be demonstrating the limits of Moscow's power.

And while the invasion of Georgia had Cold War undertones, pitting a resurgent Russia against a close U.S. ally, the crisis in Kyrgyzstan is highlighting a new spirit of cooperation between Moscow and Washington -- both of which have military bases and vital interests in the small but strategically important Central Asian country.

Russia wants to prevent chaos in its backyard, analysts say, while the United States wants to assure that its mission in Afghanistan, which is supplied via the Manas military base in Kyrgyzstan, is not disrupted. Both have an interest in the situation stabilizing.

"I don't see any competition at all [between Russia and the United States in Kyrgyzstan]," Lukyanov says. "This is a change. But to start competing in this situation would be crazy. It would be suicide and everybody understands this."

A refugee camp for ethnic Uzbeks in the village of Yorkishlak, across the border from Kyrgyzstan
White House spokesman Bill Burton told reporters on June 14 that President Barack Obama has been briefed regularly about the crisis and that U.S. officials "have been in close contact with officials in the region and of course with our counterparts in Russia to make sure we are as up to date as possible."

At a briefing in Washington the same day, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States is working to expedite humanitarian aid to the region and to coordinate any security response with Moscow.

"We are maintaining very close touch with the provisional government of the Kyrgyz Republic, the UN, OSCE, and the Russian Federation as we seek a coordinated, international response to the ongoing violence there," Crowley said.

Washington has no plans to send peacekeeping troops, but the Obama administration says it wants to ensure that any international intervention has the blessing of the United Nations.

Conflict And Cooperation

Until recently, Moscow and Washington jockeyed for influence in Kyrgyzstan. But they began to cooperate more closely after the overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiev following a popular uprising in April. Both are concerned about the stability of the provisional government that came to power after Bakiev's ouster.

"Until everything blew up in the south, the Russians and the Americans thought they were pretty much on the same page with regard to Kyrgyzstan," Quinn-Judge says. "Both shared a sense of bafflement and a certain sense of skepticism about the country's future and viability."

With Washington and Moscow's interests overlapping in Kyrgyzstan, can the crisis lead to a deepening of the cooperation that was set in motion by Obama's move to reset U.S.-Russian relations?

"It's hard for me to see this spinning out in a way where it becomes a point of contention between Washington and Moscow," says Steven Pifer, a former U.S. State Department official who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "But will it become something where they work together so at the end of the day they can say this was a success for [the] reset, where we cooperated and feel good about it? I'm not sure you can predict that either.

"I think at this point, the risk is not high that it will do damage to Russian-American relations. But it is yet an unknown whether it could be a positive piece on the U.S.-Russian agenda."

The Perils Of Peacekeeping

The situation on the ground in Kyrgyzstan would make any intervention complicated. In addition to the long-standing tensions between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, the crisis has also been stoked by the country's complicated clan politics and ongoing animosity between the interim government and supporters of Bakiev, who is in exile in Belarus.

Kyrgyz officials accuse Bakiev, who enjoys support in the country's south, of provoking the violence. Bakiev denies the allegation.

Moreover, the CSTO, which is designed to protect its members from outside threats, is ill equipped for peacekeeping missions.

"The capabilities of the CSTO peacekeeping forces are much lower those that of NATO, which is currently operating in Afghanistan," Viktor Litovkin, a Moscow-based defense analyst, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service. "And as we know, NATO isn't able to do everything it wants to do in Afghanistan."

In June 1990, Moscow was forced to send thousands of troops to southern Kyrgyzstan, then part of the Soviet Union, to quell similar unrest between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks that began with a water dispute.

In order for Russia to mount an effective peacekeeping mission in Kyrgyzstan, analysts say Moscow will need at least the tacit support of the key countries in the region -- support which may not be easy to secure.

"Russia needs to get the agreement of neighboring countries, most importantly Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan," Lukyanov says. "These countries understand the need to stop the chaos in Kyrgyzstan. But on the other hand, they are afraid to establish a precedent for [Russian] intervention in their own internal affairs."

Kazakhstan has said it would accept refugees and give humanitarian aid but has thus far been silent on whether it would support military intervention by Russia.

In the end, analysts say, Russia will probably have no choice but to act.

"I think that in the end Russia will intervene," Lukyanov says. "But now they are working to make sure they don't find themselves not just in the middle of a civil war, but in a war between two states. Imagine a situation where there is no agreement with Uzbekistan, and Russian troops end up between cross fire between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz."
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Comments
     
by: Alex from: Ottawa
June 15, 2010 21:11
While I do agree with most of this article, it should be clarified that it was not Russia's war with Georgia but rather Georgia's war with Russia; after all, it was Georgian troops who fired first upon Russian soldiers. There was nothing 'Cold War' about Russia invading a 'close US ally,' it was a rather stupid decision made on the part of a man who thought he was far more important than he really was.
In Response

by: Andrew from: Tbilisi
June 17, 2010 05:04
Actually Alex, I suggest you read the IFFC report.

The report clearly states that Georgia was reacting to separatist military attacks upon its civilians, but that Georgia used "too much force", the report also finds no evidence that the Georgians deliberately attacked Russian "Peace Keepers" (who really were not peace keepers anyway, given their training and arming of the separatists), but did find plenty of evidence of Russian/Ossetian crimes against humanity.

There was a great deal of "Cold War" in the August war, Russia had been waiting for an opportunity to attack Georgia, as shown by the scale of its invasion (given the fact that many of the units involved were normally based in the St.Petersburg military region.....) which required months of preparation, the fact that the Black Sea fleet sortied from harbor 24 hours before the Georgians went in to remove a racist terrorist puppet regime in Tshkinvali.

In Response

by: Sergey from: U.S.
June 19, 2010 17:33
It is unfortunate how mislead people are, especially in the west. Facts are Georgian forces attacked south Ossetia first, gunning down civilians children hospitals and school with anti- tank equipment.
I'm sure United states and Russia both anticipated such event to occur, especially considering Bush's involvement in the region.
South Ossetia practically does not have military of it's own, it's own people had to arm themselves as last resort (even then it's so called separatist had no real power to resist invading Georgian forces).
If you wish to speak of crimes against humanity, it was George w. Bush and his administration that played a crucial role in creation of this war. As well as killing it's own people on Georgian behalf should not be neglected.
Georgian troops for trained and prepared for this event to take place, this was proven by many analysis from different portions of the world.

The evidence you provide suggests severe absence of consideration of multiple parties at play, including neglect and cruelty of Georgian president and his so called administration.
Please keep in mind if Georgian people had the power of decision, none of these hostilities would have taken place.
In Response

by: Andrew from: Tbilisi
June 20, 2010 11:37
Well Sergey, nice to see you are lying as usual.

You say " Facts are Georgian forces attacked south Ossetia first, gunning down civilians children hospitals and school with anti- tank equipment."

Funny, the IFFC report rubbished all of these Russia/Ossetian lies, pointing out that they were all without foundation, as did investigations by groups such as Memorial (Russian) and HRW (American), not to mention the UN.

As for this Russian lie "South Ossetia practically does not have military of it's own" well South Ossetia had tanks including T-72's and BMP IFV's(supplied by Russia), Artillery such as 152mm howitzers, 122mm mortars, and Grads (all supplied by Russia), and remember it was (according to all independent investigations) the RUSSIANS and OSSETIANS that were committing crimes against civilians including rape, murder, looting and ethnic cleansing.

I mean we all know that you are incapable of telling the truth Sergey, but come on....

by: Anonymous from: usa
June 15, 2010 21:18
US and Rus can use this opportunity for a reset,
but if they wait too long... Chinese peacekeepers.

I think Rus is hesitant to show that sort of weakness,
but they've been bluffing the whole time...
If they are afraid to modernize, how can they defend a sphere?
They better up and take this chance now, immediately, before China.

... and if a crossfire, even better. ;) Imagine Rus and US soldiers in the same foxhole together, fighting to save one another. From that, an alliance can begin. And an alliance we'll need, if Turkey's plans for Israel escalate.

Besides. Russia doesn't actually have any friends left. China would love to eat Siberia. All the neighbors are going Terrorist, or worse, European! The foreigners (Venz, Syr, Ira) just want to loot the leftover Soviet weapons. What's left? Not even Orthodox Georgia, not even the Slavs.

The only country that still has respect for Russia is America. Russia may be like a washed up boxer that long ago gave up his gloves, but America was in the ring with that guy, and remembers. One button away from annihilation.


by: Aibek
June 15, 2010 22:47
I wonder if Russia is thinking of the perils of rescuing a drowning man: the one drowning, in desperation and panic, could drag down the person coming to rescue him.

I was in Bishkek several years ago when Putin came to visit. I fully expected the ethnic Russians in Kyrgyzstan to be happy to see him, but all Kyrgyz were excited, and I think a large part of it was hoping that Russia would come and save them like in the old days.

Now you add ethnic conflict and the spectre of civil war, and is it any wonder that even Moscow is hesitant to rush in?

by: Paul from: Mexica
June 16, 2010 10:00
This the hand of Russia. Russia wants to use this opportunity to restore its previous influence in Central Asia.

by: justcomment from: Tbilisi
June 16, 2010 10:22
If you compare Russia's intervention in Georgian and its reluctance now to intervene in Kyrgistan, basically one can reveal the cause behind Russian actions in Georgia. There was much more at stake in the case of Georgia where Russia was in advance preparing military intervention "if things get worse" or if Georgia succeeds to reapproche Western institutions like NATO and EU.So, basically, war intended to stop Georgia's integration to NATO and EU, while in case of Kyrgistan there is no such threat and US military base there is for Afghanistan mission and has no implied threat for Russia. I think Russia's reluctance to intervene in Kyrgistan to stop bloodshed, vividly demonstrates what its aims and goals were in August 2008 when Putin and Medvedev waged war against Georgia to stop later's integration (what they see as NATO's enlargement to East) into the West.
In Response

by: J from: US
June 17, 2010 03:19
You are not making much sense. Geiorgia was not going to join EU or anything. Maybe they simply care less about Uzbeks
In Response

by: texas ukrainian from: Texas, US
June 17, 2010 18:46
justcomment: Good point on comparing Georgian and Kyrgyz situations. I doubt Russia is not acting in Kyrgyzstan out of reluctance - I think Russia just doesn't have enough money and conscript slaves at the moment.
In Response

by: Sergey from: U.S. Russia-Ukrainian
June 19, 2010 18:05
That is a silly statement considering Russia's financial situation is considerably better than many of it's counterparts (considerably more than half of the world) and it does not take much for Russia to equip it's troops in the region. Even if Russia was financially burdened to support stabilization of the region, it would never admit it and go through with the process to show of it's level influence.

Simple truth is that Russia does not want to get involved in the region which practically has no government structure, and risk being seen as an aggressor by many sides. Especially that it's nearly impossible to distinguish ethnic and visual differences between the mobs,gangs ect in the region. Who would Russian troops separate or point their guns at, sooner or later it would have to happen.
The region is a disaster no one would want to get involved in this mass, specially risk life's of their own troops for making situation worse.
It is far better and easier to enter the region when demand and support for increases, from the mass population and political organization of regional international societies. There for Russia waits.

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
June 16, 2010 12:30
I think that the recent US experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has demonstrated the limits of armed intervention. Moreover, I'm not sure that in their much-reduced armed arsenal, the Russians have more than a brigade or two that could be used for such a mission. I think the Russians will likely adopt the approach that was advocated in the early 90s by the US regarding former Yugoslavia. Let the fires of ethnic nationalism burn, and once clear lines of division have been established, and the ethnic cleansing largely complete, consider sending in 'peacekeepers' to keep the fire from reigniting.

by: rick from: Milan
June 16, 2010 23:23
Who put Bakiev in power ?

USA , with its o called "colored revolution"

sponsored by Jon Mccain .

So
who do the danger in this country with an artificial revolution ?

Who do danger now must repair ......

Well done Russia !

ps:
justcomment from Tbilisi , I am sorry for you
but
we dont live in regime like in Georgia

we are free and we know very well the truth about war in Georgia .

Should be better you will pass your time
thinking how take back your liberty
In Response

by: Andrew from: Tbilisi
June 18, 2010 11:39
No Rick,

You live in Italy, where a mad little dwarf rewrites the law to allow him to grease his way out of facing charges of corruption, where the same mad little dwarf appoints showgirls to positions of authority because they have serviced him well on flights to his holiday home paid for by his mafia connections and with money stolen from the taxpayer, the same mad little dwarf lauds Putin as a democrat (which should give you some idea of his ideas about democracy) but this is only to be expected from a man who compares himself to Mussolini.

Justcomment's comment was quite correct regarding the war.

However Rick is simply a parrot for Berlusconi and Putins fascism.

by: jay from: earth
June 17, 2010 11:00
Hello rus do the same when taliban reach your border,keep quiet

by: Adam from: Philadelphia
June 19, 2010 02:34
Russia has surpassed everyone’s expectations on defensive buildup and did 20 years of money raising in about 5, mainly due to their energy market considering next to the Arabian Peninsula, Russia is number two for oil production. This was all since mainly 2003/2008. They have full intention of annexing land to the north for energy appropriation to fund their military ventures even more. Putin has repeatedly spoke of his desire to appropriate half of Ukraine's territory. Examples of their military strength are that they alone produce 15 percent of the output of military grade aircraft (seems small but is a huge amount), have quadruple the amount of armored attack vehicles than the UK the next highest military power in Europe, and have an army of 4,000,000 (including reserves and para-military) which could be deployed rapidly to anywhere on the Eurasian land mass. This is all modern state of the art fighting weaponry and its growing quickly since 50 percent of their national expenditures go military spending. Their only main opponent (the US) is already preoccupied with a double and soon to be triple front war (pending future actions in Indonesia, Yemen, Pakistan, Iran). I think Russia is going to wait to see how far this turmoil can spread before making their move. We've seen aggression in Georgia, the legitimacy of the "elections" in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan being highly in question, the mysterious deaths of a large portion of the Polish Government in a plane crash on Russian soil, a permanent naval foothold in the black sea, war games in the Caribbean through collusion with Venezuela, constancy of subs surfacing off the Finish coast. It goes on and on. They are amassing this huge fighting force for what? All of these factors are leading to something very bad.
In Response

by: Anonymous from: USA
June 19, 2010 09:32
Adam-
Calm down....Russia has severe internal problems with their military. Their ranks are still largely unwilling conscripts. Some draftees have resorted to bribing officials to avoid doing service. Their military-industrial complex is so incapable, it has resorted to buying foreign-made weapons (like Mistral ship). Official theivery is so common in the halls of power, that much of the money set aside for new weaponry gets stolen. I only fear aging Russian nukes...and the consequences of an accidental launch. The threat from Russia is a bit exaggerated.

by: Zoltan from: Hungary
June 19, 2010 12:32
I would not mind if Russia would send peacekeepers to Kyrgyzstan. Why would it be so bad?

When a rebellion occured in Chad in 2006. and in 2008. France have intervened.

If Russian peackeepers are able to stop bloodshed then why not?

Why is it bad if Central-Asia is a sphere of Russian interest? If North-Africa is a sphere of interest of France meanwhile?

Great Britain also tried to keep its sphere of interest in the form of the Commonwealth.

It is absolutely natural that a country tries to influence other countries. Also Poland tries to influence what is going on in Belarus or Ukraine.

The problem is not the attempt itself for gaining influence. The problem is if someone tries to influence another country by supporting undemocratic regimes.

If Russia or any other country send peakeepers to a democratic country to restore order that is not a problem I think.

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