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Russia Expands Its Military Presence In Central Asia

An airborne unit of the Tajik Army during joint exercises in southern Tajikistan
An airborne unit of the Tajik Army during joint exercises in southern Tajikistan
The secretary-general of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Nikolai Bordyuzha, recently announced the planned formation of an international force in Central Asia that "should be prepared to repel any threat."

On November 9, after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev submitted an agreement on the expected 5,000-strong force to the State Duma for approval, Bordyuzha said that the force is to be formed immediately upon the agreement's ratification by all participating states.

On November 11, he began a working visit to Kazakhstan to discuss the security situation in the CSTO's zone of responsibility. The CSTO comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

But experts argue that, as Moscow touts its efforts to strengthen military cooperation under the umbrella of the CIS and the CSTO, Russia is really pursuing its own goal of expanding its military presence and influence in Central Asia.

Under the working title "Creeping Expansion Of Mysterious And Unpredictable China" on one side, and "Concerns About the Aggressive Policies of the United States in the Region" on the other, Russia is strengthening its cooperation in the military-political and military-technical spheres in the framework of such alliances as the CIS and CSTO, especially with the countries of Central Asia.

Bordyuzha said on September 12 that five members of the CSTO -- Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- have agreed to dramatically increase the military capabilities of the bloc.

According to Bordyuzha, an international force would be created in Central Asia that "should be capable of repelling any threat from outside." Units of the unified special rapid-reaction force would be part of such a force. It would be composed of 10 battalions, with added protection of the unified air-defense system. The new structure would be financed by all the participants on an equal basis, but Russia would provide weapons under agreeable conditions.

Following this big announcement, there was a meeting on October 15 of CSTO defense ministers in St. Petersburg, where they discussed questions pertaining to the common air-defense system.

Besides this, in recent years the members of the CSTO have held a number of joint military exercises for their forces. Just this September and October there were two joint military exercises: one in Russia, "Center-2008," and another in Kazakhstan, "Aldaspan-2008." A third exercise, "Shield-2008," is to be held in western Kazakhstan in the coming weeks.

'Russia Never Left'

According to General Alibek Kasymov, a former Kazakh defense minister and chief of staff, Russia is pursuing a concrete goal -- to pull its allies closer and give a signal to the West that military cooperation among CIS states is continuing.

But in the opinion of other experts, all these measures are a clear indication of Russia's aspirations to expand its military presence and influence in a strategically vital region.

In the first years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia preserved its position in Central Asia. In particular, it had a large military unit in Turkmenistan (in Mary), in accordance with an agreement between Moscow and Ashgabat under which Russian citizens were serving in the Turkmen Army, and Russian border guards kept watch along the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

During the years of civil war in Tajikistan, several Russian units were based in the country. An elite paratrooper commando unit was stationed in Tajikistan to support the CIS Collective Peacekeeping Force (which included troops from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan).

Moscow-based military expert Vladimir Mukhin says Russia has lost much of its position in Central Asia since then.

But Russia still has troops and bases in Central Asia in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and in Kazakhstan, where Russian troops are based at the Baikonur Cosmodrome (Russia's space forces) and at the Saryshagan military firing range.

Mukhin believes that for Russia it is expedient to strengthen its military presence in several countries of the region.

"First, it was expedient for Russia to stake out its presence at first in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The Khanabad base in Uzbekistan, where earlier strategic bombers were stationed that could reach India, was good air base, a "springboard," and was for us a very important base," Mukhin says.

"One problem was Tajikistan where we did not have a large infrastructure and where it was necessary to practically build everything from scratch. It is a different matter when the base is prepared, the Americans fixed it [the Khanabad base] up very well," he adds. "Secondly, Russia could use, as it did previously, the military base at Mary. A large part of the air defense was deployed there as large air force units."

Fighting For Influence In Central Asia

Russia wants to regain its previous position in this region on the basis of bilateral agreements, Mukhin says, but the countries of Central Asia are not hurrying to allow the Russian military back in. "Some kinds of agreements exist," he says. "But as is known, the Uzbeks do not want to host Russian military units. We also cannot deploy anything in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan."

According to Peter Felstead, a military and defense expert from the London-based "Jane's Defense Weekly," the energy resources of Central Asia are also attractive to Russia and Moscow will continue to try to make advances into the region.

"I think the one thing you can say is that what happened in Georgia fits a pattern, so it's all part of a resurgent Russia that believe that they have been sort of wronged on the world stage and want to come back to a position of major-power status," Felstead says.

"What I would say is that Russia a lot of time has tried to use energy to try and wield its way and extend its influence with its neighbors and certain neighboring countries are almost in a stranglehold from Russia because of their reliance on Russian energy," he adds. "Where their energy comes from Central Asia, then I think that you will find that they will be moving to secure that because that is what they are using to fuel their resurgence."

On the other hand, Tajik analyst Marat Mamadshoev says that merely strengthening its military presence in Central Asia doesn't necessarily mean Russia's influence there will rise.

"Recently we see the politics of China also, which does not have a military base but which is gradually and persistently advancing its influence in this region and in many other regions," Mamadshoev says. "Using this example, it seems to me that the use of economic means is the best way to get a foothold in the region."

All the same, Kasym Bekmukhammad, another independent expert from Dushanbe, says that after the Russia-Georgia conflict in the Caucasus, Russia has found the grounds to expand its presence in Central Asia and strengthen its position in the region. During the existence of the CIS, Russia has strongly warned against the presence of external threats in the Central Asian states.

Bekmukhammad says that so far no one has seen the clear threats Moscow has been warning about, widely read as cross-border terrorism coming from Afghanistan or other regional hot spots, and that Russia is simply pursuing its geopolitical goals in an important region like Central Asia.

Besides that, Bekmukhammad notes hat the experience of the Russian military does not show that Russian troops have played the expected role in resolving internal crises in the countries where they are based. "Russia always takes a passive position and we witnessed such a situation in Kyrgyzstan," he says.

Here the Tajik analyst is speaking about the passive position of Russia during the Tajik civil war in 1992-97, the Andijon bloodshed in May 2005 and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in March 2005, when the regime of Askar Akaev was overthrown.

Sultan-Khan Zhussip is a correspondent in RFE/RL's Kazakh Service

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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