Kant Air Base and Russia’s Strategic Planning in Central Asia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 41

Former Russian President Vladimir Putin and Former Kyrgyzstan President Askar Akayev tour Kant Air Base

Russia is currently actively promoting deeper defense and security ties with the Kyrgyz Republic. Following the announced activation of the CSTO Rapid Reaction Forces, established in Moscow on February 3, and the Russian-inspired eviction of the U.S. military from Manas Air Base, Russia’s military interests in the country are steadily increasing. The primary focus of this activity is the Russian air base at Kant, which operates under the CSTO and may point to an increased Russian military presence in the country. Significantly, a unit of 30 Russian Railroad Troops arrived at the Kant Air Base on February 20 to carry out road and railroad repairs at the facility (Interfax, February 20).

Kant serves as an important CSTO rapid reaction base in Central Asia and has been used for joint air defense exercises. The arrival of Russian railroad troops is ominous and signals a shift in Kremlin security policy as Moscow awaits the imminent closure of Manas. The wider aim is to connect existing Russian military facilities within the country. Russia’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) stated that the troops had been sent to repair roads leading to the base, specifically a lubricants warehouse located within the base. They are laying 800 meters (0.5 miles) of railroad tracks, which are the first such repairs since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Railroad tracks and other equipment needed for the two-week repair work were flown into Kant. The railroad unit will connect the base to the national rail and road infrastructure, so that during a crisis Kant can be reinforced by air, rail, and road, facilitating the rapid movement of Russian troops and supplies. Furthermore, by linking Kant to the rail infrastructure, Russia’s access to its naval testing center at Issyk-Kul will be easier and more secure. It will be possible to transport torpedoes by air to Kant and then to their destination by rail, as opposed to the existing overland route through Kazakhstan and northern Kyrgyzstan (Interfax, February 20).

A complicating factor is the ubiquitous corruption within the Russian armed forces. This can, however, also work to Moscow’s advantage as a tool to exaggerate the need for reliance on Russian intelligence support against "rogue" elements. On February 25 Russia’s chief military prosecutor, Sergey Fridinsky, told the board of the Prosecutor-General’s Office that 30 antisubmarine missiles and about 200 aerial bombs had been smuggled into Tajikistan allegedly for sale in China for $18 million. "At present, the possible involvement in this scam of a number of senior Navy officers, vice and rear admirals among them, is being established," the source said. Certificates claiming that the munitions were obsolete were also discovered, as well as evidence of the misuse of state funds estimated at around $1.6 million to cover the trail of the missing missiles and bombs, which reveals the sophistication of planning and corruption involved. The incident was downplayed in Dushanbe. The military prosecutor’s office issued a statement saying that it had "received no information" on the weapons smuggling from its counterpart in Russia (ITAR-TASS, February 25; www.avesta.tj, February 25).

Although much of the reporting in the Russian media indicated that the weapons were of Russian origin, on February 26 www.gazeta.ru alleged they had been taken from the Russian naval facility on Lake Issyk-Kul and that the aerial bombs might have come from the CSTO base at Kant, both in the Kyrgyz Republic. A spokesman in Issyk-Kul denied that the base was involved in the scandal or that the antisubmarine weapons matched anything used or tested in the center. The Kyrgyz MoD was evasive, saying that it could make no official comment since both facilities were under the control and regulation of the CSTO command (www.gazeta.ru, February 26).

The smuggling of Russian munitions within Central Asia raises concern in both Bishkek and Dushanbe, whose intelligence services are heavily reliant on cooperation with their counterparts in Russia. Minimizing the risks of weapons smuggling certainly proves alluring to the authorities in these Central Asian countries. The Russian Railroad Troops at Kant are in part allaying these fears.

It is interesting to note the sense of urgency in making these repairs, which only emerged after the announcement of the Manas closure. Leonid Bondarets, a independent Kyrgyz military expert, recently observed how far Russia has deliberately pushed its image as a security guarantor in Central Asia: "The international situation is changing. The war in South Ossetia in August 2008 has demonstrated that the West and first of all the United States still sees Russia as a serious opponent." Moscow’s success in this regard seems to be in convincing its allies in the region that only Russia can be relied on to act decisively in a regional crisis. "I have big doubts that Washington would offer us military assistance if the Batken events ever happened again. Meanwhile, the Collective Security Treaty Organization has taken this responsibility," Bondarets said (www.24.kg, February 18).

Since opening in 2003, the Kant base has gradually been expanded to include three squadrons of Russian Su-25 ground attack aircraft (NATO name Frogfoot) and Su-27 fighter aircraft (NATO name Flanker). Russian transport aircraft (An-26) and a small number of helicopters and L-39 training aircraft augment the presence of the only fighter regiment in the Kyrgyz air force, which consists of 48 MiG-21 fighters (NATO name Fishbed). Current personnel levels exceed 700, although these numbers and the aircraft deployed at Kant would increase significantly during any CSTO operation. In November 2008 locals reported that additional Russian fighter aircraft arrived at Kant after testing the Ayni airfield in neighboring Tajikistan. This fits a pattern currently unfolding in Central Asia, marking Moscow’s policy shift toward enhancing its military presence in the region. Its eventual goal seems be to establish an air base at Anyi, Tajikistan, and transform the facility at Kant into a CSTO forward operating base, probably with emergency access to the former Soviet air base at Osh. This also explains the Kyrgyz procurement of Russian air defense systems for southern Kyrgyzstan.