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How Russia Plays the Great Game

  0 comments   |     by Richard Weitz

Russia is playing a careful balancing game in Central Asia – stirring up worries about the U.S. military presence is just part of the game.

America’s Russia policy is still very much driven by Cold War thinking and overthrowing regimes for being too “pro-Russian” is still one of its primary goals. The ill-fated colour revolutions are not forgotten. No Russian is fooled by the missile shield either – it is clearly a measure that is primarily aimed at Russia.

So it is very understandable that containment is an import element of Russia’s foreign policy when it comes to American involvement in Central Asia. But rather than focus on Russia – that doesn’t have much choice – the article would have done better to focus on the US that leaves Russia no choice.

In keeping with their post-Soviet realpolitik, Russian officials consistently voice support for NATO’s Afghanistan mission. After all, they do not want NATO forces to withdraw from Afghanistan too soon for fear that the Afghan War burden will be dumped on them.  But should the alliance’s stabilization effort succeed, Russians will be the first to demand the departure of Western troops. And in the meantime, Russian officials are determined to constrain NATO’s military presence in Eurasia by making it dependent on Moscow’s goodwill.

Until recently, most NATO non-lethal supplies bound for Afghanistan were routed through Karachi. But with the closure of the Pakistani route since late November 2011, almost all NATO supplies now enter Afghanistan via the so-called Northern Distribution Network (NDN). The NDN, which is used primarily for non-lethal supplies and equipment, connects Baltic and Caspian ports with Afghanistan via Russia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. This 5,000 kilometre transportation network involves the delivery of supplies to European ports, where they are loaded onto railway carriages or airplanes and sent through Russia to Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan. From there, the cargo is placed on trucks or trains for shipment into Afghanistan.

Only the most important items are sent by air to Afghanistan, such as weapons, ammunition, critical equipment, and U.S. soldiers, who enter and leave Afghanistan via the Manas Transit Centre in Kyrgyzstan. Although not formally part of the NDN, almost all NATO forces in Afghanistan transit through this air base, which also provides aerial refuelling, emergency evacuation, and other essential services.

U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta travelled to Kyrgyzstan this month to emphasize to the new Kyrgyz government the importance of the base for the Afghan war effort, which the Pentagon has used to support U.S. military operations in Afghanistan since late 2001. Its importance grew after the Pentagon was expelled from Uzbekistan in 2005, following a dispute over the Uzbek government’s human rights policies.

The Pentagon currently pays some $60 million each year for use of the facility, up from the $17 million before the lease was renewed in 2009. The 1,500 American troops and private contractors also buy goods and services from the local economy. Lacking the oil and gas resources found in other Central Asian countries, this landlocked former Sovietrepublic of 5.5 million people has few other sources of income. Kyrgyz officials have therefore indicated that, even if the U.S. can no longer use the facility for military operations, they could still use it to move non-lethal supplies.

Crucially, though, the NDN can’t function without access to Russian territory or in the face of Russian opposition given Moscow’s decisive influence in the former Soviet republics. Moscow has therefore found itself in a pivotal position from the perspective of meeting NATO’s logistical needs in Eurasia. Although Russia wants NATO forces to remain in Afghanistan for the time being, it also wants to keep Iran alienated from the United States, deepen Central Asian fears about supporting an enduring U.S. military presence in their region, and remind Washington that the Kremlin still considers the former Soviet Union as a zone where Moscow should exercise strategic primacy.

As a result, Russian officials have sought to play up fears of a confrontation involving Iran by warning Central Asians that the United States could exploit any basing and other military privileges (such as over flight rights) to entangle them in a war. Russia’s state-controlled media has, for its part, supported Iranian claims that the Americans use military facilities in Central Asia not to defend local governments against the Taliban and al-Qaeda (their stated aim), but to wage a covert war against the Iranian government. For example, in 2010, Russia’s English-language RT television cited Kyrgyz political analyst Toktogul Kakchekeev as saying: “It's sad that the U.S. air base has now become a transit corridor for pro-American militants from Sunni insurgent groups which organize attacks in Iran.”

More recently, Russian officials have exploited current expectations of possible Israeli or U.S. military action against Iran to warn Central Asian states that providing access to military facilities or over flight rights could entangle them in a conflict with Iran. In February of this year, for example, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich cautioned that, “It can’t be excluded that this site [Manas] could be used in a potential conflict with Iran,” which he said would violate the Pentagon’s lease agreement with Bishkek.

“The worries are shared not just by Kyrgyzstan, where a debate has erupted about the risk of a retaliatory strike from Iran,” he added.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has also claimed that Western powers have been exploiting the Iranian nuclear issue to “re-carve the geopolitical map of the large hydrocarbon-rich region that includes Central Asia.” Such remarks came in the context of Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev’s February 24 visit to Moscow. Throughout his election campaign, Atambayev insisted that he wouldn’t renew the Pentagon’s lease to the facility when it expires in July 2014. Although Kyrgyz authorities insist that the United States can’t use the base for military operations against Iran or for any other purpose except to support NATO operations in Afghanistan, Atambayev has also expressed alarm that Iran would retaliate for any U.S. military strike by retaliating against Manas.

This tactic of sowing fear among Central Asian states over being dragged into a war with Iran complements Moscow’s efforts at securing an agreement last December among the leaders of Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan under which all member governments of the Collective Security Treaty Organization have to consent to the establishment of a foreign military base in any member’s country. The intent of these measures is to constrain the U.S. military presence in Eurasia and also make it dependent on Moscow’s good will, further enhancing Russian leverage.

When he met Atambayev in Moscow last month, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev extended Lukashevich’s warning to encompass Western pressure on Syria. He claimed that developments related to “the Middle East (around Iran and Syria, and certain other countries) has direct influence on the situation in our region.” Medvedev called on these governments to cooperate closely with Russia to address this threat.

Are Central Asian governments’ worries about a U.S. attack on Iran justified? Probably not – it’s very unlikely that the United States would attack Iran, Syria, or any other Middle Eastern country from Central Asia given the superior and better-situated U.S. military facilities and platforms in the Persian Gulf, both on land and at sea. For example, U.S. Navy carrier-based aircraft could bomb Iranian nuclear targets without needing to fly through any other countries’ airspace.

But this won’t stop Russian officials focusing on the Iranian threat, not least because they want to distract Central Asian states from their own gripes with Moscow. It’s important to recall, for example, that before visiting Moscow, Atambayev had focused his remarks on Russia’s failure to provide sufficient compensation to Kyrgyzstan for hosting Russian military facilities, including an air base at Kant, Russia’s largest military facility in Central Asia. In an interview with Kommersant, Atambayevsaid that the base should be closed since it doesn’t enhance regional security and does nothing except “flatter the vanity of Russian generals.” 

Of course, as well as seeking to secure more payments for Kyrgyzstan, Atambayev may also be seeking to demonstrate to Kyrgyz his tough nationalist stance and his ability to stand up to, and even manipulate, the great powers. (Kyrgyzstan has the most democratic political system in Central Asia, and politicians need to pay more attention to their popularity to secure re-election than in other Central Asian states).

The Russian Defence Ministry for its part says that its lease terms don’t require rent for Kant, which Moscow has defined as coming under the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization rather than as a Russian base. (It did, though, acknowledge to Kommersant that Russia hadn’t paid rent due on its three other military facilities, and that it had ceased fulfilling its 1993 contract to provide Kyrgyzstan with military training and weapons in exchange for the base).

But while Russia’s manoeuvrings with Kyrgyzstan have generally bubbled under the surface of international headlines, another of Moscow’s relationships has been very much in the news – ties with Tehran.

Russia and Iran share important interests in Central Asia, including promoting the region’s energy and economic development as an alternative to Western markets, countering Sunni-inspired terrorism, and balancing American influence in the region. Russia therefore supports the Iranian objective of limiting the U.S. military presence in Central Asia and neighbouring regions, including territory, airspace, or military facilities in Central Asia that could be used to attack Iran.

And traditionally, Tehran has respected Moscow’s primacy when dealing with Central Asia. For example, Iran endorsed Russia’s military intervention during the Tajikistan civil war – Iran’s bilateral ties with Russia remain more important than its still limited relations with the Central Asian states. Also, since Iran hopes to expand its commercial relations with Central Asia, and because it fears the advent of another burdensome civil war such as that in Afghanistan, which flooded Iran with millions of refugees, Tehran views Russia’s stabilizing military presence with favour. 

So, does this mean that the West is contending with a Moscow-Tehran alliance? Not necessarily – despite some shared interests, it’s important not to exaggerate the degree of alignment between Russia and Iran. Tehran’s links with international terrorism movements, its support for anti-government groups in Lebanon and other countries, and above all its controversial nuclear energy program, have all made Moscow keep its distance from Tehran.

Ultimately, the reality is that Moscow’s support for Tehran’s goals in Central Asia, like those of Washington and its NATO’s allies, is about advancing Russia’s own goals.

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