Russia’s 'Shrewd' Central Asia Play
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Russia’s 'Shrewd' Central Asia Play

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Late last month, Moscow granted NATO access to a supply transit facility in the Russian city of Ulyanovsk. Although the move may seem ironic, given that Russia still identifies NATO as a major threat, Moscow’s readiness to help the alliance ship supplies from Afghanistan back to Europe is part of a shrewd strategy to maintain its grip on Central Asia and to check U.S. influence in a region that has an important role to play in the stability of Afghanistan.

Central Asia’s strategic value came to prominence after the September 11 terrorist attacks and the start of the Afghan war. Before then, the region was known for its considerable natural resources but otherwise rarely mentioned. Today, however, these countries are relevant beyond their oil and natural gas reserves. Both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have hosted—and the latter still does—U.S. military installations in support of Afghan combat operations. Moreover, the region has been a vital component of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which is used by NATO to transport almost all non-lethal and some lethal supplies to Afghanistan.

In this context, Russia’s sway over Central Asia matters and the Kremlin stands to benefit in a number of ways from the Ulyanovsk transit facility. First, cooperation with NATO in Ulyanovsk will be financially lucrative. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s former ambassador to NATO, was candid about this in a recent radio interview when he said, “We are opening the gates and earning money by doing this.” He also noted that, while Russia previously supported an international military presence in Afghanistan, Moscow now favors the speedy withdrawal of Western troops.

Second, if Rogozin’s claim that Russia wants to see Western forces leave Afghanistan is indeed true, then Moscow expedites this process by giving NATO access to Ulyanovsk. Whether Russia truly wants NATO out of Afghanistan is difficult to say. Although Rogozin was unequivocal, other Russian officials have expressed the opposite view. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said as recently as April that, “As long as Afghanistan is not able to ensure by itself the security in the country, artificial timelines of withdrawal are not correct and they should not be set.”

Of the two, Lavrov’s statement is far more logical. Russia remains deeply concerned about the continued spread of Islamic fundamentalism from Afghanistan to Central Asia, which will accelerate after the bulk of coalition troops are withdrawn in 2014. Moreover, even at the peak presence of international forces in Afghanistan, Moscow was highly critical of NATO for its inability to curb opium output—a significant portion of which flows across Central Asia’s porous borders into Russia. This, too, is bound to accelerate after 2014.

Therefore, Rogozin’s insistence that NATO depart Afghanistan clearly runs counter to Russian interests. In recent weeks, Moscow has most likely begun to shift its position in order to make the best out of a bad situation. If a substantial drawdown in coalition forces is inevitable, and the Kremlin seems to believe this no matter who wins the White House in November, then why not adopt a stance that conforms to reality and make some money in the process?

Finally, the Ulyanovsk facility may very well be a clever attempt to reduce U.S. interaction with Central Asian countries and to reverse a recent downward trend in the Kremlin’s regional influence. On June 25, a few days before Moscow formally made the Ulyanovsk announcement, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev amended the decree that outlines Russia’s cooperation with NATO over Afghan supply routes. Notably, the new version replaces “ground transit” with “ground and combined transit.” The latter would involve the initial delivery of supplies to Ulyanovsk by air and then transfer to either rail or truck.

This provision has significance beyond its face value. If the Kremlin insists on the “combined transit” approach, then it will force NATO to bypass Central Asian countries in order to use Ulyanovsk, which will diminish their role in the withdrawal of supplies from Afghanistan and, more broadly, their level of cooperation with NATO.

At its June summit in Chicago, NATO revealed bilateral ground transit agreements with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. Russia hasn’t criticized the deals publicly—which would be too hypocritical even for the Kremlin—but Moscow’s broader resistance to U.S. involvement in Central Asia would suggest that Russia isn’t exactly enthusiastic about an arrangement that could result in closer ties between the West and a region that Moscow considers to be in its “sphere of privileged interests.”

Where Russia has expressed concern, however, is in the transfer of U.S. and NATO military equipment to Central Asian countries after the end of combat operations in Afghanistan. From NATO’s perspective, the rationale to hand over surplus arms would be twofold: shipping them back to the U.S. or Europe is expensive; and Central Asian governments will need these weapons to protect their borders if, as many anticipate, Afghanistan is engulfed in turmoil after 2014.

Given its fear that Islamic fundamentalism will proliferate in Central Asia, Russia shouldn’t be opposed to the fortification of regional defenses. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Moscow does want these countries to have the capacity to safeguard themselves—and Russia—from such threats. At the same time, the Kremlin wants them to remain dependent on Russia for their security and to ensure that Russia will continue to play the role of Central Asia’s dominant power.

Russia is particularly sensitive to its regional status after a series of setbacks this year. In February, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev, while on an official visit to Moscow, said that a Russian airbase in his country exists only to “flatter the vanity of Russian generals” and complained about Moscow’s “measly” rent payment. Kyrgyzstan’s defense minister confirmed earlier this month that Bishkek plans to raise the fees on three of Russia’s four bases. Moreover, even though the country’s parliament ordered that the U.S.-operated Manas transit center in Kyrgyzstan be closed in 2014, Atambayev now seems prepared to retain the facility and its U.S. presence as a “civilian transport hub,” despite Russian objections.

Similar issues plague relations between Russia and Tajikistan. In September 2011, the two sides established in principle that they would extend Russia’s use of Tajik bases—where it deploys at least 6,000 troops—by forty nine years. That treaty, however, has yet to be signed. Tajikistan reportedly demanded an exorbitant $300 million in annual rent payments and a reduction in the duration of the treaty, which has stalled negotiations. Russia blames NATO for the deadlock.

In Uzbekistan, the Kremlin’s decline in clout is even more apparent. Although Moscow’s relationship with Tashkent has a history of turbulence, ties between the two countries today are as strained as ever. For the second time since 1999, and less than a month after Vladimir Putin’s June 4 visit to Tashkent, Uzbekistan formally suspended its membership in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which is a military alliance composed of most Central Asian countries, Russia, Belarus, and Armenia.

Uzbekistan’s traditionally capricious leadership was vague about the reasons for its sudden withdrawal. But Tashkent is evidently unhappy about two Russian initiatives: plans to deploy a CSTO rapid reaction force; and a recent stipulation that foreign military bases on the territory of any member state must be approved by the remainder of the alliance. This has raised speculation that Uzbekistan’s departure may foreshadow its intention to invite the U.S. to—once again—open a military base in the country.

In short, Russia’s decision to give NATO access to a transit facility in Ulyanovsk is founded on both financial and geopolitical factors. Much like NDN as a whole, the Ulyanovsk supply hub will be extremely lucrative for the Russian companies involved. And, whether Russia truly wants to accelerate NATO’s departure from Afghanistan or to simply exhibit a position that conforms to NATO’s inevitable withdrawal, the Ulyanovsk initiative is consistent with Moscow’s broader objectives.

Finally, typical of its zero-sum modus operandi, the Kremlin’s cooperation with NATO in Ulyanovsk may, above all, be an attempt to limit NATO’s interaction with Central Asian countries and to prevent a further deterioration in Russia’s regional influence.

Daniel Vajdic is a researcher in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI)

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