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  Does Russia seek control of Central Asia by joint military forces?

Ainis Razma, VDU PMDI doktorantas
2009 10 19

During B.Yeltsin’s presidency, Russia had no opportunity or will to sustain its influence in Central Asia (CA) as during the USSR times. The United States and China took the advantage of this situation. When V.Putin was elected president, Russia tried to regain the lost positions in this strategically important region.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the security vacuum in the region made the CA states look for the allies elsewhere, first of all in the West. This trend has become especially apparent after the events on 11 September 2001. Upon the commencement of the military operation in Afghanistan, military bases of the West emerged in Central Asia. The U.S. military base was established near Chanabad (Uzbekistan), and the German military base in Termez. In Kirgizia the United States set the military aviation base close to the international airport of Bishkek.

However, „westernization“ of CA was not final and irreversible. Russia managed to maintain relations with the region‘s states: the majority of them are members of the international and regional structures (initiated and dominated by Russia). One of them is the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Since CSTO activities are mostly directed toward Central Asia, Russia might be establishing a military structure in CA.

First of all the above thoughts come to mind referring to CSTO intentions (announced in September 2008) to set up an 11,000-strong regional army in Central Asia.CSTO Secretary-General Nikolay Bordyuzha said that the organization's plan to establish a joint army comes mainly in response to the growing insurgency in Afghanistan. Although most likely this was Moscow’s reaction to the increasing talk of Georgia and Ukraine entering NATO, and to the U.S. plans to deploy the anti-missile defense systems in Central Europe. According to the CSTO press-officer, the agreement concerning establishment of joint forces has already been reached with Kazakhstan,Uzbekistan, Kirgizia and Tajikistan, however, he did not mention that it was going to be mainly Russia’s responsibility to finance it.

Experts also reminded that Russia‘s former attempts to establish joint armed forces in the post-soviet space were unsuccessful. N.Bordyuzha made similar statements in 2005, but the plan was never implemented. This time Russia did not succeed again.

In December 2008, N.Makarov, the chief of Russia‘s general staff, said that the United States intends to set the military base in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.  Diplomats of the United States denied the news, but the fact that the U.S. responded and Kazakhstan with Uzbekistan kept silent, means that N.Makarov’s words were not without reason. Besides, president of Uzbekistan I.Karimov refused to attend the informal meeting of CSTO leaders in Astana on 19-20 December.  Besides, according to the last news, Uzbekistan(the strongest state in CA from the military point of view) might withdraw from CSTO.  Then such an Uzbekistan‘s step seemed very realistic, since the country has just withdrawn from EurAsEC dominated by Russia.

But Uzbekistan did not withdraw from CSTO.  On 4 February 2009, the summit of CSTO was held in Moscow where the agreement on the establishment of the rapid reaction force aimed at “responding to a variety of threats” was signed. CSTO countries – Armenia,Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kirgizia,Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – agreed to establish at least one army battalion for the formation of joint forces. However, as is usually the case with the Central Asian policy, every country interprets „various threats and challenges“ differently. It turned out that Uzbekistan does not want to contribute troops to the rapid reaction force. I. Karimov said that Uzbekistan was ready to join only the operations to combat drug smuggling and „resolution of other global problems“.

During the CSTO  summit in June 2009, Uzbekistan refused to contribute troops to the joint rapid reaction force.  Belarus followed its example. Even Armenia, a traditionally pro-Russian state, was in a state of uncertainty and required additional terms. Russia agreed that countries could join the force later. However, even if this is the case with Uzbekistan and Belarus, sustainability and tactical efficiency of this structure would be very doubtful.

Russia could hardly establish an efficient military structure in CA. First of all CA states balance between the influence of the West, Russia and China.Russia cannot consider them as reliable allies, since any integration with Russia in CA countries would be treated through the point of view of the West and China. Secondly, because of the inconsistent international policy, Russia could hardly evaluate consequences of own policy and their projection toward future.

The idea of joint military forces in CA was heard one month after Russia‘s aggression against Georgia. The military operation made CA states shrink, since Georgia is not the only one to irritate Russia, and this irritation might provoke another invasion. For instance, Uzbekistan is concerned about introduction of the collective rapid reaction force in any CA state without their consent (for instance, in case of a conflict between the states).

Although Russia’s military influence in CA increased, it feels alone. China (and Russia) is irritated by the U.S.efforts to settle in CA, it gives priority to the economic influence and avoids talks about the military impact.

Although Russia‘s attempts to establish a military structure in CA are doubtful, it would continue increasing its military influence in the region. Opposite strategies would be in contradiction with Russia‘s geopolitical trends.

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