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Russia: Moscow Seen As Moving To Increase Military Ties With Central Asia

The international antiterrorism campaign allied many of the Central Asian countries with the United States. Russia, initially nervous about this development, later said strengthening ties between the U.S. and Central Asia did not pose a threat to Russian interests in the region. Nonetheless, Moscow in the past months has made efforts to re-establish its own military ties with these states. RFE/RL spoke to U.S. experts about the Russian moves and their implications for security and stability in Central Asia.

Washington, 6 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In the months following 11 September, as U.S. relations with the states of Central Asia deepened, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the increased Western presence in Russia's traditional sphere of influence did not pose a threat to Moscow.

Indeed, Putin himself quickly aligned Moscow with Washington in the fight against international terrorism.

Almost one year later, however, as the military presence of the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition in Central Asia continues, Moscow is seen as increasing its efforts to revitalize its own military ties to the region.

For example, Russia's "Kommersant" newspaper recently announced that Moscow is drafting a military agreement with Kyrgyzstan that may include the return of Russian troops to Kyrgyz soil.

At a recent meeting in Moscow with Kyrgyz Ambassador Kemelbek Nanaev, Russian Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo announced joint efforts to fight terrorism in Central Asia.

Rushailo's Kyrgyz counterpart, Misir Ashirkulov, was also quoted as saying the issue of deployment of CIS military forces at an air base in the Kyrgyz city of Kant was almost decided and that Russian Sukhoi 25 warplanes soon would be stationed there.

In addition, the Russian military on 18 July inaugurated a sophisticated optical tracking facility in Tajikistan that is capable of monitoring objects in space. Some 20,000 Russian troops are already stationed in Tajikistan, mostly at the Tajik-Afghan border.

Ian Bremmer is president of the Eurasia Group, a research and consulting organization in New York that specializes in Central Asia and the Caspian. He sees no contradiction in the desire of Central Asian states to forge stronger ties with both the U.S. and Russia because Russia is looking west, as well. "The NATO-Russia Council, Russia joining the G-8, means that for these countries, closer ties with Russia does not necessarily mean competition with the United States. And that's important, because -- let's face it -- there is not all that much outside interest in Central Asia. So from the perspective [of the Central Asian states], the more interest they can attract, the more people they can attract to actually set up shop in their countries, the better it is for them, whether you are talking about multiple pipelines or increased infrastructure or access to businessmen and capital markets," Bremmer said.

Bremmer said the military and security wings of the Russian establishment may be unhappy about the U.S. presence in Central Asia, but that it is difficult to argue when Putin himself is leading the efforts to improve relations with the West.

Bremmer said the U.S. also does not see Russia's expanding military ties with Central Asia -- for example, the new agreement with Kyrgyzstan -- as a threat to its own interests. "I think that the fact of Russia having its own security guarantees and relationships with [Kyrgyzstan] will not be viewed by most in the Bush administration as threatening to U.S. interests. And I think that down the road, in six months, in a year or two years, you could even start to talk about having those relationships occur in a more multilateral fashion under the NATO-Russia umbrella," Bremmer said.

Meanwhile, the Central Asian states are maximizing improved ties with the West to improve their own economic and security situations.

The "Financial Times" recently quoted Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev as saying that Western forces should remain in his country for many years. And the country's deputy prime minister, Jomart Otorbaev, said the presence of U.S. and European troops at military bases in the country should be seen as part of daily life in Kyrgyzstan.

Kazakhstan, meanwhile, is also expanding its military ties with the U.S. Kazakh and U.S. officials signed a document last month that permits U.S. military planes in the antiterrorism campaign to use Almaty airport. Earlier this month, the Kazakh Defense Ministry announced the U.S. will be providing financial assistance to modernize the country's military forces.

The U.S. Senate also approved a $110 million aid package for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan to assist these countries in combating terrorism. And last week, the U.S. ambassador to Tajikistan, Franklin Huddle, announced plans to provide additional U.S. training to the Tajik Army.

Analysts don't see the simultaneous U.S. and Russian actions in Central Asia as a contradiction. Andrew Kutchins is a director of the Russian and Eurasian program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank. He said the Central Asian states are uncertain about the commitment of the U.S., while they know Moscow has long-term interests in the region. "Even though [Russia's] power, its capacity, has diminished tremendously in the last decade to promote security in the region, or even to subvert security in the region, that is likely to change as Russia recovers," Kutchins said.

Kutchins said the governments in Central Asia understand the importance of maintaining good ties with Russia. He said he does not believe the dual U.S.-Russia military presence in the region will create instability. "The tremendous improvement in U.S.-Russian relations since 11 September lessens that possibility. It certainly doesn't mean that it can't happen, but it also means that it is certainly not an inevitability," Kutchins said.

Kutchins said that up until now, relations between the Central Asian states and the U.S. and Russia have been on a bilateral basis, with the countries in the region participating in both NATO's Partnership for Peace Program and the CIS Collective-Security Treaty.

Kutchins said now that the U.S., Russi,a and the Central Asia states share common interests -- namely, to combat terrorism and religious extremism -- relations can take on a more multilateral dimension.