On May 29 and 30 Admiral Vladimir Vysotskiy, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, visited the Kyrgyz Republic in an effort to bolster military-technical cooperation and display a positive image of Russia’s naval strength. During talks with Kyrgyz officials, Vysotskiy secured agreement on the continued use of the two Russian Naval facilities in the country, which had survived from the Soviet period. These meetings built on the already strong defense cooperation that exists between Moscow and Bishkek, served as a means for reassuring both sides of the necessity of extending the interests of the Russian Navy in Kyrgyzstan, while implying that Moscow’s aspirations are competitive in a wider international setting.
Admiral Vysotskiy arrived at the Kant Air base, where elements of the Russian Air force (VVS) are deployed under the auspices of the CSTO. From there he traveled to Chuy and Issyk-Kul, to inspect the Russian Naval centers. He also held talks with Secretary of the Kyrgyz Security Council Ismail Isakov, Prime Minister Igor Chudinov and Chief of the Kyrgyz Defense Ministry’s main headquarters Boris Yugay. They reportedly discussed the Kyrgyz open stock company Dastan, which manufactures naval weapons and was formerly part of the Soviet military industry complex. Russia may be exploring the possibility of buying controlling interest in Dastan. In any case, Admiral Vysotskiy confirmed that earlier this year Russia had placed a $4 million order, which could be increased, for weaponry from Dastan. He described the nature of the order as “equipment used in underwater operations.” Dastan could, in fact, be the key to unlocking the potential for Russia’s naval research facilities in Kyrgyzstan (ITAR-TASS, Moscow, May 28-30).
Russia’s military ties to the Kyrgyz defense establishment have been close not only on the bilateral level but also through the CSTO and SCO. Yet the interests of the Russian Navy until now have been underplayed, carefully handled and maintained without creating an impression of naval ambitions or rivalry relating to the Caspian region. Choosing to “step up” this aspect of military cooperation in such a public manner seems calculated to send a signal to other powers that Russia’s navy, if not “back in business,” certainly dreams of better times ahead. “We have been strategic allies for a long time and we are ready for mutually beneficial cooperation. My visit to the naval base on Lake Issyk-Kul and several other facilities is connected with the fact that the Russian Navy is actively returning to the world oceans,” Admiral Vysotskiy said. It may be deduced that there are those inside the Russian Navy advancing the concept of Russia becoming a blue-water naval power, instead of focusing on rethinking and designing the type of Navy that suits Russia’s actual security needs. One point made clear as a result of the visit is that Russia attaches a high level of significance to the two seemingly “low-key” research centers, either calculated to arouse suspicion in the West or to exaggerate their importance (www.24.kg, May 30).
In his statements about the current level of bilateral military cooperation, the Russian Admiral suggested that possible changes may be required at a later date as the naval component grows in its scope. There were predictable comments from Kyrgyz officials. Boris Yugay noted that “The visit to Kyrgyzstan by the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy will produce positive results because these are relations between two states’ fraternal armies.” Nevertheless, Yugay also suggested that some media were attempting to drive a wedge between Bishkek and Moscow in their defense relations by misrepresenting the nature of the relationship or somehow trying to break up this cooperation. The comment was unrealistic in the extreme but was simply a clumsy way of telling Moscow that Russia could rely on the Kyrgyz government to stand up to Russia’s enemies (AKI Press, May 30). Perhaps of more interest was the complete absence of any comment from Kyrgyz officials about exactly how the arrangement with the Russian Navy would benefit Bishkek, other than promoting some business for Dastan, which will decline anyway if Moscow succeeds in gaining control of the company. In reality, only the Russian Navy can assess and understand the role of its research centers in Kyrgyzstan, and the lack of understanding of these sensitive issues in Bishkek reflects its client status.
The diplomacy and conduct of Russian naval interests within Central Asia stands in stark contrast to the engagement of Western countries, including the United States, Turkey and the U.K. Clearly the focus will remain on Kazakhstan, as these powers explore ways of practically assisting the Kazakh Navy to develop its Caspian capabilities. Yet, with NATO reportedly offering to help protect Kazakhstan’s energy infrastructure, the development of naval capabilities in the Caspian will be a source of continuing geopolitical controversy. What must be understood in the West is that while it may be farfetched for Russia to pursue the ambition of a Navy that can compete with the United States in the “world oceans,” the talk of achieving this helps create an illusion of power. Such illusions are a common within the defense ministries of Central Asian states, which like to dream of unrealistic plans. In this part of the world, illusions will always be an endemic feature in the pursuit of power.