Russian commentary eyes impact of possible NATO use of Central Asian territory

Text of report by Russian political commentary website Politkom.ru on 8 June

[Article by Georgiy Kovalev and Oleg Gorbunov: "NATO moving north"]

On Tuesday 5 June NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated that the Alliance has concluded agreements with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan on the use of their territories for the removal of hardware and military equipment from Afghanistan. This step could greatly change the distribution of forces in Central Asia and become a basis for conflicts between Russia, the United States, and China.

It is obvious that this decision by the Alliance has been brewing for quite a long time. After the member countries, at the prompting of the United States, agreed on the gradual withdrawal of troops by 2014, the question of how to preserve relative stability in Afghanistan arose. In recent years that state’s official government has turned into the "Kabul governorship." Afghanistan is divided. Its southern territories are under the control of the Pashtuns and Taleban, and the northern territories [are under the control] of Tajik groups. For US President Barack Obama, whose envoys last year tried unsuccessfully to reach an agreement on a prolonged cease-firewith the Taleban, it is of critical importance to mark off the withdrawal of troops with the appropriate "tick" in time for the presidential election in November this year. In reality, however, the level of readiness of the Afghan (or rather, Kabul) military, police, and special services, who are supposed to take over the peacekeeping mission in the country from NATO, is extremely unsatisfactory. Poor financing, the clan system, corruption – the official Kabul state apparatus is infected with these vices from top to bottom.

So the United States must control the situation from neighbouring regions. Because of the deteriorating relations with Pakistan, whose territory is being constantly subjected to attacks by American drones and helicopters, the NATO allies found themselves facing a serious problem – in effect, the main supply route for the troops in Afghanistan was closed. The agreement with Russia, which grants the use of its airspace and also, now, a transshipment point for freight on the way to the "hot spots," alleviated the situation somewhat but did not remove the problem, because the main flow still had to pass through the south. Neither China nor – still less – Iran could give the United States this kind of help. One possibility remained – to work to resolve relations with Pakistan and at the same time widen cooperation on the northern route, which has now been done with this NATO agreement with the Central Asian countries.

Apart from actual supplies, the question existed (and continues to exist) of where to put several tens of thousands of American soldiers and their equipment after the withdrawal of the troops. Obviously the United States does not intend to ditch the equipment, following the example of the USSR. So it must be withdrawn to neighbouring territories. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and (to a much lesser extent) Kyrgyzstan are willing to accept this "package" in exchange, for instance, for the expansion of economic aid and various political safeguards against the waves of the "Arab spring." In short – military or even military-strategic cooperation in exchange for money and political stability. Which, in general terms, was let slip during the visit to those countries by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the end of the previous year. NATO’s latest steps are in effect a development of the theme formulated and "approved" by Mrs Clinton.

However, one thing is not yet clear – the extent to which this will be active cooperation and whether permanent or temporary bases will be set up under the auspices of the United States or NATO (Rasmussen’s 5 June statement does not mention this). If that is the case, then Russia, in effect handing over to the States the functions of maintaining its defence capability on the southern borders, is very vulnerable. First, military-political cooperation with the United States, as we can see from the example of a number of post-Soviet countries (Ukraine in particular), often takes the form of recycling the arsenal received from the USSR, training military specialists at American training centres across the ocean and in Europe, and also gradually transferring the armed forces of America’s new partner to NATO standards. And that means that those countries will no longer need Russian equipment or its servicing and the relevant cadres. In the wake of the reduction in sales of Russian weapons in the world in general, we will see a fall in demand from the most loyal buyers – the former fraternal republics.

Second, the United States is interested in the deployment by 2015 of its Prompt Global Strike system for the destruction of, among others, nuclear targets by means of tactical nonnuclear weapons. This, in conjunction with the development of the missile defence system, will greatly change the global strategic balance in the world and in Russian-US relations in particular. The Central Asian countries could be used as partners in these programmes, just as, for instance, NATO officials are now trying to involve Moldova and Ukraine in this (or more specifically, in cooperation within the framework of individual missile defence elements).

Third, in the event that the United States gets bogged down in Central Asia, the relevance of structures like the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and even the Customs Union will largely disappear. The CSTO was created as a guarantor of security in Central Asia. Even now it is not coping with that function, and in the event of the strengthening of US influence in the region the need for it will disappear completely, which will knock out of Moscow’s hands the last trump card offering hope of some kind of systemic counterweight to NATO.

The SCO is structured around Russia and China as well as their interests (or rather, the sharing out of those interests) in Central Asia. In the new situation it will either be necessary to involve the United States in the work of this organization (but there are the G8 and the G20 for that) or else to cut still further the already modest role of the SCO in Russian foreign policy.

That leaves the Customs Union. Consideration of the membership of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in the Union is on the agenda. If these two countries are "bought off" by US economic aid, the Customs Union will suffer a severe negative blow that, in conjunction with the doubtful prospect of Ukraine’s membership, could put an end to the organization’s prospects.

Nor should one forget the turbulence on the international financial markets, which in the future will sharply reduce liquidity in the Russian economy and hit Russian international projects. However, at the same time the question of the reduction of US military expenditures arises, since the crisis will also hit the American economy. In the end it will all depend on the stability of world economies and the outcome of the US presidential election. If the crisis phenomena grow, the Americans could well confine themselves to saving and extending Manas in Kyrgyzstan and creating equivalents in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which, even so, will squeeze Russia out of the south of the region in military terms. However, Russian diplomacy still has levers for forestalling steps by NATO to site its own bases in the region. For instance, the sponsorship of these republics through the Customs Union and the provision of military and police support to them in the event of attempts at "Orange revolutions." Admittedly the pursuit of this diplomatic line requires the will of the Kremlin.

So passions around Central Asia are only just beginning really to heat up. The main reason is the gigantic reserves of oil (the biggest prospected oilfield in the world is Kashagan in Kazakhstan) and gas (particularly in Turkmenistan), plus the unstable political situation, which external players could "moderate" on the basis of their own interests.

Source: Politkom.ru website, Moscow, in Russian 8 Jun 12

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