It is hardly a secret that Russia has been unhappy with the U.S. military presence in Central Asia, which was established in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Kremlin’s favored instrument for attempting to dislodge the Pentagon’s presence has been the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, comprised of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. At the July 5, 2005, SCO summit, members issued a statement urging the establishment of a timetable to withdraw the U.S.-led international security assistance force from Afghanistan (RIA-Novosti, July 5, 2005). The statement was directed at the U.S. Air Force’s use of Uzbekistan’s Karshi-Khanabad airbase, which was evacuated by the end of the year, as well as a facility in Manas, Kyrgyzstan, which is still in operation.
Conveniently for Moscow, the SCO made no mention of Moscow’s presence at Kyrgyzstan’s Kant airbase. Recently the Russian and Kyrgyz press have carried reports about three additional Russian facilities in Kyrgyzstan, which, according to Kyrgyz Defense Minister Ismail Isakov, consist of facilities “in the village of Chaldovar in the Chui Region, near Karakul in the Issyk-Kul region in northern Kyrgyzstan and in Mailuu-Suu in the Jalalabad region in southern Kyrgyzstan” (Interfax, March 25).
Isakov’s remarks were in response to discussions in the Kyrgyz parliament about the sites. On March 18 a parliamentary committee on security, rule of law, and judicial and legal reform approved a resolution, “On the Ratification of Protocols between Kyrgyzstan and Russia on the Procedure of Using Russian Military Facilities in the Country and the Status of servicemen of the Russian Armed Forces in the Republic of Kyrgyzstan.” The agreement, which was concluded by Kyrgyzstan and Russia in 1997, is one of 41 interstate agreements on security cooperation concluded between Bishkek and Moscow since 1991 (Itar-Tass, March 19). The bill provides for the Russian military to use Kyrgyz territory for the next 15 years.
Responding to questions regarding Russia’s payment of rent and concerns about possible environmental damage caused by the Russian naval base in Karakul, Isakov said, “All speculation over alleged plans to hand the territory of the naval base [on Lake Issyk-Kul] over to Russia was groundless. The rent agreement is automatically extended by 12 months each year. Newly elected deputies who were not aware [of the arrangement], raised the issue in parliament. The extension of the rent benefits both sides. No environmental damage will be inflicted on Lake Issyk-Kul.” According to Isakov, Russia currently pays $4.5 million annually to use the military installations.
Isakov characterized the three Russian military sites as “an anti-submarine weapons testing range” (Karakul), a “communications site” (Chaldovar), and a “seismic station” (Mailuu-Suu)(Agenstvo Voyennykh Novostei, March 18).
Foreign military analysts are most intrigued by the Russian torpedo testing facility on Lake Issyk-Kul. During a press conference in Bishkek on March 25 Isakov asserted that torpedo testing at Karakul by the Russians will not damage the environment, even as he confirmed that the Karakul base was necessary for Russian torpedo production (Tsentral’noaziatskaia novostnaia sluzhba, March 19). Karakul, which has been a torpedo-testing range since Soviet times, provided both a test bed and production facilities for one of the USSR’s most innovative ongoing maritime weapon systems, the super-cavitating 220 mph “Skhval” rocket torpedo, which has a six-mile range. The weapons system was first offered for sale at the IDEX-99 arms exhibition in the United Arab Emirates (Rossiiskaya gazeta, March 24, 1999). Lake Issyk-Kul’s remote geography makes it an ideal weapons testing site, far away from the prying eyes of Western intelligence agents. Western navies currently have no effective countermeasure against the weapon.
Whatever the state of Russia’s current maritime test program at Lake Karakul, under the new agreement Russia will receive 3.5 square miles of territory there for a naval center, located in the Jeti-Oguz district on the northeastern shore of Issyk-Kul on the Karabulun peninsula (Akipress, March 13). According to a March 13 report in the De Fakto newspaper, “An agreement on friendship, cooperation, and mutual help, signed between the Kyrgyz and Russian governments, as well as on classified materials, envisages a clause that stipulates that ‘the territory given to Russia in the Karabulun peninsula will be closed to citizens of third countries’.”
It is more than a little ironic that while the Pentagon remains fixated on Russia’s aerial assets in Central Asia, an even greater potential threat to its global maritime superiority is quietly being refined in an isolated lake high in the Pamir Mountains.