Russia and Kyrgyzstan Playing for High Stakes in Manas

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 24

The closure of the strategically important U.S. Manas air base in Bishkek, announced following Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s visit to Moscow for bilateral talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, met with disbelief in the West. Kyrgyz Security Council Secretary Adakhan Madumarov briefing journalists in Moscow on February 4 explained that although the U.S. embassy had received no formal notification, this was due to a process initiated by Bakiyev: first preparing a bill for the Kyrgyz parliament which once rushed through, would allow the Foreign Ministry to relay the decision officially and provide Washington with 180 days notice of termination (Interfax, February 4).

This shift in policy, often mooted for political reasons to maximize the financial benefits for the regime in Bishkek, was conceived in Moscow and, in keeping with its diplomatic practices pre-dating the conflict in Georgia, denials of culpability ensued from official sources in Russia. These do not mask the reality that as a close ally, and in keeping with its legal obligations within the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Bakiyev had to inform Medvedev and, in fact, could only reach the decision as a result of close consultation. On the other hand, Medvedev sought to distance Moscow quickly from involvement in the process, emphasizing that the ultimate decision was made in Bishkek.

After the announcement in Moscow on February 3, Medvedev stressed that Russia and Kyrgyzstan would continue to cooperate with the United States on Afghanistan, once the base had closed. It should be noted that Medvedev, unlike Western observers, was in no doubt that its closure would take place. He gave no hint that Bakiyev’s closure of Manas was merely political positioning but looked beyond the departure of coalition forces suggesting, "We could join our efforts to promote stability in the region; our countries will help the operations underway in the region. We are ready for coordinated action." Miroslav Niyazov, ex-secretary of the Kyrgyz Security Council, was convinced that Moscow had played a significant role in closing the base: "It is totally clear that the decision to close the airbase was not made without Russia’s participation" (RIA Novosti, February 4).

Russia’s opposition to the U.S. military presence in Central Asia has long been known, and the Kyrgyz leadership was familiar with these objections. In December 2008 Army General Nikolay Makarov, Russia’s Chief of General Staff, not only complained about the United States maintaining a military presence at Manas but alleged that Washington was planning additional bases in the near future: his rhetoric emulated the Russian fear of NATO enlargement. Moscow’s leverage, however, was clear: exploiting the weakness of the Kyrgyz regime, its present economic crisis, and concerns in Bishkek that the opposition may unite to undermine Bakiyev’s rule. The $2 billion loan, which formed part of the overall bilateral deal signed in Moscow on February 3, had already been agreed upon in 2008, causing anxiety in the Kyrgyz government over its delays. Its linkage to closing the base further exposed the Kyrgyz government’s heavy reliance on Russia. Russian military assistance to Kyrgyzstan also provides some additional insights into the wider security thinking which reflects Russia’s wider foreign policy goals in the region.

The host of reasons for ending the coalition’s access to Manas, ranging from the death of a Kyrgyz civilian there in 2006 to complaints that Washington underestimated Bishkek’s need for deeper financial aid, were joined by Russian diplomatic comments depicting Moscow as a likely beneficiary. Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin linked the termination of Manas to "America’s failure" in Afghanistan, which raised a threat to neighboring countries. "The leadership of Kyrgyzstan has the right to believe this air base may be more necessary for CSTO rapid reaction forces than for foreign troops," Rogozin asserted. (ITAR-TASS, Moscow, February 4).

Russia’s air defense assistance to Kyrgyzstan will now add the provision of air defense systems to protect its southern areas from enemy aircraft. Oleg Popikov, commander of the Kyrgyz air defense forces, said on February 3 that Russia would step up its military cooperation to help protect Kyrgyzstan’s southern borders. Automated radar and an antiaircraft missile complex have been supplied to its northern Chuy region and these will also appear in the south by late 2009. Combined with additional helicopter supplies and a planned mobile helicopter maintenance unit, Russia is intensifying its military cooperation with Kyrgyzstan (AKIpres, February 3; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 4).

The sense of surprise surrounding Manas’s closing is reminiscent of the Western reaction to Russia’s actions in Georgia in August 2008 and its recent gas conflict with neighboring Ukraine. But this may follow a pattern of Moscow pursuing policies about which the West is powerless to act. Bakiyev has the right to close the base providing 180 days notice to leave. Unlike the closure of Karshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan in 2005 as a result of deteriorating relations between Washington and Tashkent, however, the announcement of the decision in the context of a high profile bilateral meeting in Moscow complicates any potential to rescind it. Any effort on the part of the United States to repair the damage and conclude a settlement over Manas could now only take place with Moscow’s knowledge, involvement, and consent: in other words, de facto recognition of Russia’s pre-eminent security role in the region.