How Russia Plays the Great Game (Page 3 of 3)

But this won’t stop Russian officials focusing on the Iranian threat, not least because they want to distract Central Asian states from their own gripes with Moscow. It’s important to recall, for example, that before visiting Moscow, Atambayev had focused his remarks on Russia’s failure to provide sufficient compensation to Kyrgyzstan for hosting Russian military facilities, including an air base at Kant, Russia’s largest military facility in Central Asia. In an interview with Kommersant, Atambayev said that the base should be closed since it doesn’t enhance regional security and does nothing except “flatter the vanity of Russian generals.” 

Of course, as well as seeking to secure more payments for Kyrgyzstan, Atambayev may also be seeking to demonstrate to Kyrgyz his tough nationalist stance and his ability to stand up to, and even manipulate, the great powers. (Kyrgyzstan has the most democratic political system in Central Asia, and politicians need to pay more attention to their popularity to secure reelection than in other Central Asian states).

The Russian Defense Ministry for its part says that its lease terms don’t require rent for Kant, which Moscow has defined as coming under the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization rather than as a Russian base. (It did, though, acknowledge to Kommersant that Russia hadn’t paid rent due on its three other military facilities, and that it had ceased fulfilling its 1993 contract to provide Kyrgyzstan with military training and weapons in exchange for the base).

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But while Russia’s maneuverings with Kyrgyzstan have generally bubbled under the surface of international headlines, another of Moscow’s relationships has been very much in the news – ties with Tehran.

Russia and Iran share important interests in Central Asia, including promoting the region’s energy and economic development as an alternative to Western markets, countering Sunni-inspired terrorism, and balancing American influence in the region. Russia therefore supports the Iranian objective of limiting the U.S. military presence in Central Asia and neighboring regions, including territory, airspace, or military facilities in Central Asia that could be used to attack Iran.

And traditionally, Tehran has respected Moscow’s primacy when dealing with Central Asia. For example, Iran endorsed Russia’s military intervention during the Tajikistan civil war – Iran’s bilateral ties with Russia remain more important than its still limited relations with the Central Asian states. Also, since Iran hopes to expand its commercial relations with Central Asia, and because it fears the advent of another burdensome civil war such as that in Afghanistan, which flooded Iran with millions of refugees, Tehran views Russia’s stabilizing military presence with favor. 

So, does this mean that the West is contending with a Moscow-Tehran alliance? Not necessarily – despite some shared interests, it’s important not to exaggerate the degree of alignment between Russia and Iran. Tehran’s links with international terrorism movements, its support for anti-government groups in Lebanon and other countries, and above all its controversial nuclear energy program, have all made Moscow keep its distance from Tehran.

Ultimately, the reality is that Moscow’s support for Tehran’s goals in Central Asia, like those of Washington and its NATO’s allies, is about advancing Russia’s own goals.

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