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Central Asia: Analysis From Washington--A Jump Too Far?

Washington, 2 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - American military involvement in a peacekeeping exercise in Central Asia later this month is the latest indication of a shift in the balance of power in a region long dominated by Moscow.

Each of the five countries in the region, both the three that are participating with the U.S. and the two that are not, enjoy unprecedented freedom of action as a result.

But because a single exercise by itself will not be enough to institutionalize this change, it almost certainly will be tested by Russia, which retains important assets both within and around this region.

Last Thursday, Brigadier General Martin Berndt, the U.S. Atlantic Command's director for joint exercises and training, announced that American military forces will participate in a joint military exercise known as Centrasbat 97 from September 15 to 21.

He said that some 500 paratroopers from the army's 82nd Airborne Division along with 40 Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks will fly non-stop from the U.S. to Kazakhstan and then parachute in to the exercise area. Joining them in this jump will be 40 soldiers from Turkey, 40 from Russia, and Marine Corps General John J. Sheehan, who is the commander of the U.S. Atlantic Command.

After their arrival, troops from Latvia and Georgia will join the peacekeeping and humanitarian aid training sessions to take place in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

General Berndt stressed that the 13,000 kilometer airlift of paratroopers represented a remarkable "first" by virtue of its distance -- "a strategic airlift of airborne troops that has not been seen before."

He said the exercises were intended to promote regional military cooperation, to reinforce the sovereignty of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan whose soldiers make up the Central Asian battalion under the Partnership for Peace Program, and to help these countries upgrade their ability to participate in international peacekeeping activities.

But he hastened to add that the United States is not trying to send any message to the nations not involved, either the two Central Asian non-participants -- Turkmenistan and Tajikistan -- or anyone else.

Regardless of Washington's intentions, however, American military involvement in this exercise, especially because of its high profile, will send some very powerful messages not only to the two Central Asian states not participating but also to the three countries of the region whose soldiers are taking part and to Russia as well.

To the Turkmens and Tajiks, this high-visibility operation will serve notice that the United States intends to be a serious player in the Central Asian region and that they thus have a strong incentive to modify their policies in ways that will allow them to cooperate both with their neighbors, who did not invite them to participate in this current exercise, and with the U.S.

To the three Central Asian states that are participating, this exercise provides the clearest indication yet that the U.S. is prepared to work with them on much the same basis that it is cooperating with the Baltic countries and Ukraine. It will provide yet another impulse toward greater regional cooperation across the board.

And it will signal that the U.S. is not prepared to accept Russian pretensions to a continuing sphere of influence in the region. That alone will allow these countries to adopt increasingly independent foreign policies, sometimes even directly challenging Moscow's positions. An example of the increased independence that this American involvement helps to promote happened last week. On Wednesday, Kazakhstan's foreign minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev said Alma Ata was extremely concerned by recent Russian efforts to lay a claim on oil fields in the Caspian that Kazakhstan considers to be its property.

But if this exercise sends these messages to the Central Asian countries, it also sends them to Russia as well. And at least some in Moscow may react to what they are likely to see as a direct and intentional American challenge to what many Russians believe is properly their sphere of influence.

If the Russian government follows their lead -- and recent statements by President Boris Yeltsin about American involvement in the Caucasus suggest that it might -- Moscow might decide to react in some way. If so, Moscow has some significant assets that it can bring into play.

It has a variety of means of exacerbating the situation in Tajikistan, including the threat of pulling out Russian peacekeeping forces now there, a step that could weaken the Dushanbe regime and lead to instability in Uzbekistan, and putting in place new obstacles to the export of oil and gas from the countries of Central Asia.

To the extent the Russian government does so, the United States and the West more generally may be forced to provide even more political assistance to its Central Asian partners lest its paratroop drop into Kazakhstan on September 15 prove to be a jump too far.