Accessibility links

Breaking News

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.
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."

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

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.