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Russia: Moscow Looks To Expand Military Presence In Central Asia

Russian tanks in joint exercises in Tajikistan (ITAR-TASS) Some events this month indicate Russia is trying to boost its military presence in energy-rich Central Asia, and the region's governments seem content to expand their military ties with Russia.

Earlier this month, Russian media quoted Russian Air Force commander Colonel General Aleksandr Zelin as saying Moscow will deploy more personnel and equipment -- including more aircraft -- to its air base in Kant, outside the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.

And last week, the Russian State Duma, the lower house of parliament, ratified an agreement with Tajikistan on the mutual use of military forces. The document was first signed in November 2006 and has already been approved by the Tajik parliament.

Military and political experts both in Russia and Central Asia say the timing of Russia's ratification of the bilateral agreement with Tajikistan and its plans to reinforce the Kant air base are not coincidental, and show Moscow's seriousness about fortifying its influence in Central Asia.

Vladimir Mukhin, a Moscow-based journalist and expert on military affairs, says that while Central Asia is an important region in terms of energy resources and geopolitics, Russia "has apparently come to the conclusion that military cooperation is the first and the most important step in regaining influence in the region."

Mukhin adds that "Military and military-technical cooperation is -- should be -- of foremost importance in former Soviet countries. The security and sovereignty of these countries depend on the level of their military integration and military-technical cooperation because all armaments in the CIS are Russian-made weaponry [leftover from the Soviet era]. And Russia still produces and exports these armaments."

With some 7,000 troops from Russia's 201st Motorized Rifle Division, the military base in Tajikistan is the largest Russian deployment outside its borders.

The air base in Kant hosts some 400 personnel and is reportedly equipped with Russian Su-25, Su-27, An-24, and Il-76 aircraft as well as Mi-8 helicopters. The base was established in 2003. Sources at the base have denied reports that additional reinforcements will be sent there by Russia.

But Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha, a Russian, has reportedly confirmed the imminent reinforcement at Kant, even suggesting that the additional troops and equipment will increase the significance of Russia's military presence in Central Asia.

Russia The 'Most Realistic Partner'

Some Central Asian governments are welcoming the increased Russian military presence in their region. According to the Russian presidential office, the "further expansion of military-technical cooperation" was high on the agenda earlier this month when President Dmitry Medvedev met with his Tajik counterpart, Emomali Rahmon, in St. Petersburg.

Ismoil Rahmatov, an expert on political affairs at the Strategic Studies think tank in Dushanbe, says that "after a few years of courtship with other world players -- the U.S., Europe, and China -- Central Asian countries have realized that Russia is their most realistic partner."

Rahmatov notes that while China shares a border of more than 570 kilometers with Tajikistan and the United States is "the most powerful country in the world and it provides significant assistance" to Tajikistan, "all their aid can't come close to the assistance the Tajik people get from Russia -- [that is], the money Tajik migrants make in Russia. Russia is the only country that has always been-- and will be -- by Tajikistan's side."

According to the Tajik expert, there were times -- especially after the terrorist attacks against the United States in 2001 -- that Central Asian countries were willing to expand their cooperation with the West and to decrease their dependency on Russia.

However, such cooperation did not meet all of their expectations, and two main reasons are suggested for their general disappointment in cooperating with the West.

First, most of the Western aid was conditioned on an improvement of human rights and the implementation of democratic changes in Central Asia, something the mainly authoritarian governments of Central Asia were not looking to make anytime soon.

The second reason is the great geographical distance between the West and Central Asia. Millions of families in Central Asia depend heavily on their seasonal jobs at construction sites, markets, and factories in Russia for their livelihood. Their physical connections to Europe, China, and the United States pale in comparison.

Wider Regional Cooperation To Come?

Some observers say Russia and Central Asian countries are entering a new phase in their relationships -- both in the framework of bilateral cooperation with Moscow and in the framework of regional treaties, such as the CSTO, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the Eurasian Economic Community (Eurasec).

Uzbek President Islam Karimov recently suggested that the CSTO and the Eurasec should merge to create a "powerful union capable of becoming a counterbalance to NATO and the EU."

That's because none of the numerous regional organizations set up in the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union have united the "newly independent states," with most such organizations -- particularly the CSTO and the Eurasec -- having been dismissed as ineffective talk shops.

And while Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's idea to form a Central Asian union has received some acceptance, it is opposed by Uzbekistan and faces far too many hurdles to become a reality any time in the near future.

So, with multiple but unsatisfying regional organizations to turn to, Central Asian countries seem to be welcoming Russia back with open arms -- though they haven't yet closed their doors to greater ties with the West.

Not far from the Russian air base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan hosts a U.S. military base at its Manas International Airport that has some 1,000 personnel. The base reportedly contributes $50 million to the Kyrgyz economy every year and is one of the greatest sources of foreign currency for the impoverished country.

There are also some 200 French troops stationed in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, and the country gets significant financial aid from the United States and the EU, including funds for constructing a bridge linking Tajikistan with Afghanistan and funds to train its border guards.

And Uzbekistan, which closed a U.S. military base on its territory in 2005, recently allowed its reuse by NATO forces involved in Afghanistan and is reconsidering its "current state of affairs" with the United States.

Even Turkmenistan, which was a reclusive country with few ties to the West, has greatly opened itself up and has even been cooperating with NATO in recent months under President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

All prime reasons why Moscow undoubtedly believes it has no time to lose in expanding its ties -- including militarily -- with all the Central Asian countries.

Central Asia In Focus

Central Asia In Focus

THE COMPLETE STORY: Click on the icon to view a dedicated webpage bringing together all of RFE/RL's coverage of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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