Of Bases and Transit Centers

by Nathan Hamm on 7/13/2009 · 4 comments

Russia wants a new CSTO base in Kyrgyzstan near Osh, and it is hard not to interpret its desire as having something to do with the decision to keep the airbase transit center at Manas open to US and NATO forces. It is probably a mistake to interpret this desire as a response to Russia’s “failure” to keep the US out of Kyrgyzstan — Russia has, after all, agreed to allow the US to transit goods bound for Afghanistan and shares NATO’s desire to keep the Taliban from returning to power. It is far more likely that Russia is exploiting the perception that it was beat and/or had to make concessions to the West to quiet any potential objections from the US or EU to its attempt for a new base in Kyrgyzstan. And Russia got what it wants. The US say that any new Russian base is entirely Kyrgyzstan’s business.

Uzbekistan, however, is far less interested in Russia setting up a base so close to its border. Analysts interviewed in EurasiaNet’s story say that Uzbekistan is concerned that a larger Russian presence so close to Kyrgyzstan’s border with Uzbekistan limits its ability to intimidate and influence the Kyrgyz government. While many may be wary about increased Russian influence in Central Asia, the presence of Russian soldiers near Osh may have the very positive effect of keeping the Uzbek government from launching operations across the border and asserting control over contested territory.

US Under Secretary of State William Burns, meanwhile, told the Uzbek government that the US wants better ties with Uzbekistan, a message President Islom Karimov welcomed.

“We view your visit as a confirmation of the United States’ readiness to develop relations with Uzbekistan on a constructive and pragmatic basis taking into account the long-term interests of both countries,” Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.

Central Asia policy is something that has proven difficult enough for US administrations in the past. Reengagement with Uzbekistan ups the difficulty plenty, especially with the wrinkle a new Russian base provides. Over at Danger Room, Nathan Hodge gives the unexamined conventional wisdom caution against engagement with Uzbekistan while discussing US transit agreements in Central Asia. (Well, to be fair, he’s summarizing Deirdre Tynan’s report on the subject.)

With Manas now back in play, it may not be worth cozying up too much to Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov.

There is a mention of current events and an attempted material explanation of why closer ties are unnecessary, but it’s still just a rehash of the “Don’t have relations with dictators; dictators are bad mmmmmm’kay?” argument. As my derisive description indicates, I think that’s a silly argument. You can’t draw a straight line from Gwadar north to the Arctic without hitting a country run by unsavory types, and the US can’t write off dealing with the entire region.

However, there is a very real danger lurking in the shadows for the United States if a closer relationship is built. In the 2001-2005 round of US-Uzbekistan relations, each party had different expectations of the other and seemed not to communicate these expectations clearly. The Uzbek government’s primary concern is regime survival, its and its second is becoming the most powerful actor in Central Asia. Its disillusion with the United States from 2003 to 2005 had a great deal to do with the perception that the US did not support the Uzbek government 100% against threats to the regime. The Uzbek government was able for a time though to manipulate Western partners, and this is the danger that the Obama administration needs to watch out for if it wants closer ties to Tashkent.

Stabilizing Afghanistan trumps all other US interests in Central Asia at the moment. US-Uzbek relations are an important component in this. Goods can be transported over land via Uzbekistan, and Uzbek electricity powers parts of northern Afghanistan. The big danger in US-Uzbek relations is that the Uzbek government will use the importance of the Afghanistan mission to pull the US into enhancing the regime’s repressive capabilities and enhancing its strength in Central Asia. Especially iff Russia is intent on increasing its presence in the region, closer US-Uzbek ties only raise the stakes. Rather than worrying about vague psychic harm resulting from warmer US-Uzbek relations, we should be watching out for the very real pitfalls into which we have fallen in the past.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Laurence Jarvik July 13, 2009 at 7:24 pm

Nathan, I’m in favor of better US relations with all the Central Asian states, Russia and China, too. One thing at a time. If and when the US is able to prevail in Afghanistan, against the common enemies of the US, Russia and China, only then might it be time for a new policy in other regards. Until that time, better to focus like a laser beam on the problem at hand, as Bill Clinton said about the economy, and not get distracted by anything else. IMHO Burns’ visit is a good thing. Time to put the “Great Game” on hold until this war is over, because to the other side it is not a game…Gordon Hahn makes this same case in a Century Foundation (a liberal Democratic New York-based foundation) report titled: “US-Russian Relations and the Islamist Challenge.”

It may be downloaded here: http://www.tcf.org/list.asp?type=PB&pubid=688

Nathan July 13, 2009 at 8:25 pm

I think that we can put competition on hold on our end, but our actions will be interpreted through the lens of other actors’ goals and beliefs. And other actors will not necessarily put their own competition for influence in the region on hold. We need to be wary of local states in particular trying to instrumentalize relationships with the United States in their own competition with other actors in the region.

I think we’re basically saying the same thing. I’m concerned though that we stay mindful of what are the biggest potential pitfalls for us in the region.

David M July 14, 2009 at 9:03 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 07/14/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Laurence Jarvik July 14, 2009 at 3:13 pm

Yevgeny Golts has an interesting op-ed about the Kyrgyz bases in the Moscow Times, here: http://www.moscowtimes.ru/article/1016/42/379490.htm.

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