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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Kremlin Left Holding a Bag of Glass Beads

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At the end of last week, those who accuse Moscow of imperialism, or even neocolonialism, with regard to the former Soviet republics were brought to shame. It has been recorded in history that colonizers sometimes traded their worthless glass beads for gold and jewels from the locals because the natives valued the beads so highly. But in Russia’s dealings with Kyrgyzstan, we see the direct opposite: Moscow is ready to pay millions of dollars to its “colony” for the modern equivalent of glass beads.
Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov went on a secret mission to Bishkek last week. According to numerous sources, they secured an agreement from Kyrgyz President Kurmambek Bakiyev allowing Russia to build a second military base in that country. It will be located near Osh and will host both Air Force units — like Russia’s existing base near Kant — as well as paratrooper forces. The base will be used for rapid-response forces within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
What’s more, the same sources claim in all seriousness that by creating a base in Osh, Russia is outdoing the U.S. military efforts in Kyrgyzstan. Recall that Moscow spent four years attempting to make problems for Washington and finally succeeded in convincing Bakiyev to close the U.S. base at Manas.
Then-President Vladimir Putin first raised the possibility of closing that base in 2005, after the U.S. base in Uzbekistan was also closed. After Moscow allocated $2 billion in aid to Kyrgyzstan in February, Bakiyev had no option but to go along with the Kremlin’s wishes to kick the Americans out of the country.
Then in late June, when Washington upped the rental payments for its base, Bakiyev decided to ignore his prior commitment to Moscow. For diplomatic purposes, the U.S. base was officially declared “closed” to be replaced by a “transit center,” but the new facility will carry out same exact functions as the old one.
True, there are optimists who believe that the decision to create a transit center was the result of a secret U.S.-Russian agreement. According to that theory, once the Kremlin showed Washington who’s the boss is in the former Soviet republics by closing Manas, Moscow then allowed Washington to continue its transit operations for one reason: Russia is just as interested as the United States in seeing the Taliban defeated.
The official position taken by the Foreign Ministry in this case looks very much like an attempt to put a positive face on a nasty game. “Concluding such agreements is certainly the sovereign right of Kyrgyzstan,” the statement reads. “If we are speaking in terms of transporting nonmilitary NATO freight to meet the needs of counterterrorist operations in Afghanistan, Russia gave its consent, as did Kyrgyzstan.”
Because the original agreement between Moscow and Bishkek to close Manas in exchange for $2 billion in aid was a secret pact, the Kremlin cannot complain publicly that Kyrgyzstan did not uphold its end of the bargain.
I suspect that Sechin and Serdyukov were sent to meet with Bakiyev to squeeze something out of him in return for $500 million that was already released to Kyrgyzstan as part of the aid package. Bakiyev probably just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Let the Americans have one base in Kyrgyzstan. We can ease the Kremlin’s concerns by letting it have two bases.”
It is no surprise that the State Duma’s deputy chairman for CIS affairs, Konstantin Zatulin, told Kommersant, “The decision to open a second Russian base in Kyrgyzstan is politically motivated. Although Russia gave its consent to preserve the U.S. military presence in Manas, Moscow decided that it needed another base to demonstrate who is the boss in the region.”
Thus, Moscow fell into a trap. Does Moscow really gain anything by having two bases to counter Manas?
It appears that the Kremlin bought the same glass beads from Bakiyev. Once again, Russia’s leaders were duped into believing that Russia is the main player in Kyrgyzstan. Guided by 19th-century realpolitik, Moscow thought that it could purchase a military presence in Central Asia. Instead, it was left with a bunch of worthless glass beads.
You could argue on the other hand that Washington, too, spends a huge amount of money to maintain a military presence in Central Asia. But the difference is that the United States has a concrete military objective in the region: to increase the transit of freight into Afghanistan from the north as a result of the constant transit disruptions through Pakistan and to provide logistical support for its forces.
To be sure, Russia’s presence in Kyrgyzstan also serves a military objective. One of the greatest security threats to Russia currently stems from Central Asia. These countries are all authoritative regimes and hold a tight grip on power, but this masks the fundamental source of instability: Grave poverty throughout the region means that there is a real threat of social explosion at any moment.
In addition, the borders between Russia and the Central Asian republics exist only on paper. The point of creating a rapid-response force within the Collective Security Treaty Organization is to establish the infrastructure for Russia to stabilize conditions in any Central Asian country where a conflict might flare up.
The problem is that the existing base in Kant already fully meets all operational deployment requirements. It is located not far from the capital in a relatively conflict-free zone. It is the appropriate location to which troops should be transferred in a crisis situation. Of course, the base would need to be expanded and warehouses for heavy weaponry and barracks need to be built. What definitely should not be done is to put the second military base in the epicenter of a probable conflict zone.
It is well known that the Osh region — with its endemic poverty, drug trade and interethnic tensions — could become a catalyst for future conflicts. Under such conditions, a top priority for Kyrgyz extremists would be to storm the Russian military base and seize weapons. And they could conceivably do this before Russian rapid-response forces would be able to reach the base, even under the most rapid-response circumstances.
In short, the officers and soldiers stationed at the Osh base would become hostages. This is clearly not what the Kremlin bargained for, but what can you expect from a military theory that is based on buying cheap glass beads over and over again from its vassals?

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.