Will Russia be Cast as “Peacekeeper” in Kyrgyzstan?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 115

Kyrgyzstan’s interim leader, Roza Otunbayeva, has taken the desperate step of requesting Russian military intervention to quell the violent civil conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan. She presented that request to Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, by telephone and letter on June 11, to Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, by telephone also in June 11, and repeated the request in a follow-up call to Medvedev on June 13 (Interfax, June 12–14). The official communiqués cite Otunbayeva as using the term “third-party force,” implying either Russian or Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) “peacekeeping” troops.

Otunbayeva, a US-friendly politician, had appealed to Washington on June 10 for urgent dispatch of crowd-control equipment. Washington, however, side-stepped the request as “unofficial,” announcing instead that it would work with Russia to deal with the situation (Foreign Policy, June 14). Washington’s all-but-exclusive concern in Kyrgyzstan is the retention of the Manas air base, which Moscow uses as a bargaining chip in Russia-US relations.

Moscow’s initial response to the request for troops was cautious. Kazakhstan has already signaled that it opposes military intervention. Uzbekistan and Belarus can also be expected to oppose it within the CSTO, citing the organization’s founding documents which only authorize a response to external attacks. Russia would have to act without a multilateral cover, should it decide to intervene. The provisional government in Bishkek, lacking formal legitimacy, is not authorized to solicit any external military intervention. Such political complications, on top of the operational challenges, discourage a Russian military intervention in Kyrgyzstan.

In the West, meanwhile, one major editorial page became the first to recommend Russian military intervention in Kyrgyzstan, under a CSTO flag and with a UN mandate (Financial Times, June 15).

Russia airlifted a paratroop battalion drawn from the 31st Air Assault Brigade to the Russian air base at Kant in Kyrgyzstan’s north on June 13 –the second reinforcement after the airlifting of two extra paratroop companies in April to Kant. The paratroopers are drawn from the Ulyanovsk-based division, which Russia had earlier this year allocated specifically to CSTO “peacekeeping troops.”

On June 14 those Russian troops were on standby at Kant for possible deployment to Kyrgyzstan’s south. That same day in Moscow, however, a high-level “emergency consultative session” of the CSTO adopted a set of more restrained measures, essentially sending logistical equipment for Kyrgyz troops, but reserving the option of military intervention. Medvedev approved these decisions in his capacity as CSTO chairman. Characterizing the situation in Kyrgyzstan “intolerable,” he urged the Kyrgyz interim authorities to act “severely [zhestko] but legally” (Interfax, June 15).

All those circumstances favor US-led political steps at this stage, to forestall a possible Russian “peacekeeping” intervention in Kyrgyzstan. Approval or tolerance of such an operation would cement a Russian monopoly on “peacekeeping” and, generally, on order-keeping in the former Soviet territories. A Russian-led operation in Kyrgyzstan would consecrate that Russian monopoly with some finality.

In terms of the post-Soviet Eurasia, a peacekeeping monopoly is one key ingredient to Russian sphere-of-influence building. Russia has exercised this monopoly de facto in Moldova, Georgia, and Tajikistan, and claims to extend it potentially CIS-wide through the CSTO. From 1992 to date, Russia has acted in that role with tacit Western consent, at times with implicit Western approval. But Moscow never received valid international mandates for those operations; and it acted as a rule in a national capacity, unaccompanied by CIS “multilateral” contingents.

Long before the August 2008 war, Russian “peacekeeping” troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia were acting as occupying troops, and were used as initiators of hostilities in that war against Georgia. They only lost their “peacekeeping” status when Russia ended those two conflicts through unilateral “recognition” of the two territories.

Should Russia, in the wake of those events, nevertheless be cast once again in the peacekeeper’s role, this time in Kyrgyzstan, it would almost explicitly signify Western acceptance of a Russian sphere of order and influence. US retention of the Manas base, following consent to a Russian intervention, would strengthen the perception of a trade-off, reflecting the absolute US priority at this stage. Manas, however, is a temporary phenomenon for the duration of the Afghanistan operation; whereas granting Russia a title to enforcement action and a sphere to go with it would entail long-term consequences.

The European Union and NATO are not expected to play direct roles in pacifying Kyrgyzstan. The EU is poorly organized in Brussels for such a role, its special representative for Central Asia serving simultaneously as special representative for the South Caucasus, and not residing in either. France imposed this dysfunctional arrangement for its representative in 2008 “temporarily,” but it continues. NATO has for several years recued itself from the role of a security actor in ex-Soviet territories eastward of the Black Sea.

Beyond Western institutions, Kazakhstan is influential in its dual role as the Chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and a directly interested neighbor to Kyrgyzstan. On June 14, Yermurat Yertysbayev, the Foreign Policy Advisor to President Nursultan Nazarbayev, publicly opposed Otunbayeva’s proposal for Russian-led intervention. Reflecting Nazarbayev’s position, Yertysbayev urged the Kyrgyz authorities and contending groups to resolve the country’s problems internally, without involving any external forces. Astana would reconsider the issue in two weeks’ time and only approve a pacification operation if the Kyrgyz state ceases to exist as a sovereign state (Interfax, June 14).