The Russian military is set to expand its military presence in Kyrgyzstan later this year by increasing the number of Russian personnel at its airbase in Kant, near Bishkek. According to Colonel-General Vladimir Mikhailov, commander of the Russian air force, by the end of 2006 Russia will have increased its military presence at Kant by 150%. The move to strengthen the airbase underlines Moscow’s commitment to promoting its military and security interests in Kyrgyzstan, as well as more generally within Central Asia; serves to bring pressure on the Bakiyev regime to avoid a Westward drift in its security policy; and confirms a sense of ongoing rivalry with the U.S. base at Manas (RTR, Russia TV, May 12).
During a working visit to Kyrgyzstan, Mikhailov highlighted the proposed expansion and noted that the only delay in the deployment of additional Russian air force servicemen emanated from a lack of suitable accommodations. “I don’t want to bring people here unless housing is built, although the headquarters of the new base has already been opened. The base has, as it were, already been expanded. But I am getting personnel trained for this base at airfields and military facilities inside Russia, at 5th Army bases. That’s all there is to it. The people who are training there know that as soon as the order is given, they will be transferred here. But they will not live in apartments,” explained Mikhailov. Of course, he was also keen to promote the image of his service branch and to remind Russian policymakers that he can deliver a potentially cost-effective, high-profile show of Russian interests and Russian military strength, despite the wider problems that currently beset the Russian air force.
Russian military ways, thinking, and influence, which permeate all the post-Soviet legacy forces in the region to a greater or lesser extent, is extended through the Kant base. On May 11 Kyrgyz Defense Minister Ismail Isakov announced Bishkek’s plan to create a new structure within the armed forces, namely the Air Defense Forces. “They will comprise three elements: watching our airspace, destroying violators of our country’s airspace, and radio-technical units,” Isakov declared. In fact, Isakov and Mikhailov discussed the prospects for setting up air defense forces from subunits and subdivisions of Kyrgyzstan’s air defense and air force personnel. Moreover, Mikhailov expressed his readiness to organize training courses for Kyrgyz air personnel at Russian educational establishments. Training flights will also be organized at the airbase in Kant. There are currently four aircraft being modified for this task.
Of course, observers believed that something akin to air defense forces already existed in the country, but the current air defense system only provides cover to Bishkek and not the whole country. Isakov also disclosed the likelihood of promoting an army general, with no experience regarding air power, to command the new structure. Thus, another general will be added to the already top-heavy Soviet-style senior management system. While demonstrating the regime’s confidence in structures and reform shows the creation of something apparently “new,” it does not tackle head on the existing and arguably more problems, presented by inefficient management systems (Akipress, May 11; Kyrgyz Radio First Program, May 12).
Deputy Defense Minister Boris Yugay has been much more explicit regarding how much the Bakiyev regime relies on Russia in its efforts to strengthen security. Kyrgyzstan is ensuring security, in his view, primarily through its participation in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). He downplayed the role of the United States in stabilizing the region or influencing the security situation in Kyrgyzstan, notably its presence at the Ganci Base at Manas, choosing to focus instead on the CSTO, which he believes should ensure stability and security in Kyrgyzstan as well as across the Central Asian region. The Russian air base at Kant is functioning as the aviation component of the Collective Rapid Reaction Forces for the CSTO’s Central Asian region. “This fact confirms the great significance of the CSTO, as a guarantor of stability and military security for not only the Central Asian region but also all member states of the organization,” Yugay explained (Kabar, May 10).
Yugay’s comments raise questions as to how accurately such thinking reflects the views of the current leadership at the Kyrgyz Defense Ministry. If in fact they do, the task of improving the Kyrgyz armed forces through Western security assistance programs remains an uphill struggle, with the senior leadership in Bishkek still expecting more from Moscow and with less political risk attached. In any case, Mikhailov’s working visit to the country and his affirmation of developing further still the level of Russian commitment to the airbase at Kant suggest Russian policymakers are pro-active in the region. Equally, the announcement of new structures designed to improve Kyrgyz security will undoubtedly lead to yet more scope for Russian military and security influence to be exerted on its Central Asian ally.