Russia intends to further strengthen its military presence within Central Asia this year, beginning with deepening its commitment to its airbase in Kant, Kyrgyzstan. Essentially designed to enhance the anti-terrorist dimension of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), this will be accompanied by broad-ranging Russian efforts to convince its allies in Central Asia that it is serious about fostering regional security. Moscow’s keenness to increase its military presence in Kyrgyzstan comes at a time when it is also refining joint plans with Dushanbe to agree on basing rights for the 201st Motor Rifle Division (MRD), currently located in Tajikistan’s capital. Moreover, it will also supply military equipment to Central Asian countries within the CSTO at preferential domestic prices (NTV, Mir, August 6).
Russia’s Defense Minister, Sergei Ivanov, announced Moscow’s plan to develop its airbase at Kant in the aftermath of this month’s successful CSTO anti-terrorist exercises held in Kyrgyzstan. President Vladimir Putin had cleared the plan before these exercises took place, though the timing of the announcement coincided with Russia’s efforts to promote a positive image of collective anti-terrorist capabilities juxtaposed against the U.S. and coalition military presence in Central Asia. The “Border 2004” anti-terrorist exercises saw the participation of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, rehearsing their tactics against a terrorist incursion into the region.
Though the Collective Rapid Deployment Forces (CRDF) have appeared in recent years to be a primarily paper organization, Russia has attempted to stimulate support for their development and has largely funded their growth to date. Participating forces landed at Kant airbase, created by Russia within the CSTO in 2003, demonstrating that the base can receive large transport aircraft. Content with the deployment and positively assessing the course of the exercise, Moscow has determined that the time has come to enlarge the Russian military presence at Kant. According to Army General Vladimir Mikhailov, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Air Force, by the end of 2004 Kant will consist of around 700 personnel, including 200 civilians. The air fleet will grow to 20 units, including Su-27 fighters, Su-25 ground attack aircraft, L-39 training aircraft, and Mi-8 helicopters. Mikhailov believes the overall plan is to double the current size of the deployment and ensure that the landing strip can support any type of aircraft, which implies that Moscow intends to invest more money in the military infrastructure of the base (Interfax, August 6).
The CSTO anti-terrorist exercises in Kyrgyzstan demonstrated the firepower of the modernized Su-24M aircraft, ideal for use in mountainous terrain. Indeed, the exercises tended to rely too much on the demonstration of air power, which can only be effective against large groups of terrorists on the move through territory in which they can be pinpointed and struck from the air. Unfortunately, few groups operate in this air-power-friendly manner, and the exercise scenario showed little awareness of divergent terrorist tactics, which entailed an incursion of militants from Afghanistan, through Tajik territory, arriving in southern Kyrgyzstan and appealing to local Islamic extremists for support in destabilizing the region and provoking a military response from the CSTO through the CRDF (Interfax, August 7). This scenario curiously resembled the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’s incursions in Batken in 1999 and 2000, which left the Kyrgyz military weakness exposed and continues to present a fearful specter in Central Asia. There is no denying, however, that terrorists must be faced on the ground and reliance on air power can only breed a false impression of any anti-terrorist potential. Ivanov did admit that the CRDF sub-units need more work on their coordination and effectiveness in closely cooperating in any future operation. And it does seem clear that leaders such as Kyrgyz President Akaev would look to the CSTO to intervene in the event of a serious large-scale incursion.
Russia can easily enhance its military presence, pleasing some governments in the region, though it remains unclear how this in any way enhances security. Terrorism within Central Asia has undergone rapid evolution in recent years, and though preparedness for any repetition of the Batken tactics may go down well with Central Asian leaders, it plainly ignores the use of bombings and suicide bombers, which has taken the authorities in Uzbekistan by surprise — against which air power is ineffective.
The strategy of strengthening Russia’s military presence and influence in the region, whether by increasing its personnel levels or making military equipment more readily available, signals Moscow’s determination not to allow foreign powers to exert too much pressure on its traditional role. Nonetheless, creating more bases, enlarging existing ones, or pouring arms into Central Asia is no sure way to enhance security. The regimes need to open their societies, determine what about their policymaking creates an environment that fuels terrorism and extremism, and develop their own effective, well-trained anti-terrorist forces — without turning Central Asia into an armed camp. That is the challenge facing both Washington and Moscow, as each competes for the role of security and stability guarantor in the region.