Russia Tries To Control Former Soviet Central Asia Just two weeks into President Obama's administration, Russia is moving to reassert its influence over former Soviet republics in Central Asia. Moscow is pushing military cooperation and offering financial aid in what some say is reminiscent of the Kremlin's client-state relationships during the Cold War.
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Russia Tries To Control Former Soviet Central Asia

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Russia Tries To Control Former Soviet Central Asia

Russia Tries To Control Former Soviet Central Asia

Russia Tries To Control Former Soviet Central Asia

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Just two weeks into President Obama's administration, Russia is moving to reassert its influence over former Soviet republics in Central Asia. Moscow is pushing military cooperation and offering financial aid in what some say is reminiscent of the Kremlin's client-state relationships during the Cold War.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Russia is taking steps to reassert its influence in former Soviet republics in Central Asia, and in the process, it's posing a challenge to American interests there. Moscow is pushing for military cooperation and offering financial aid, moves that are reminiscent of the Kremlin's client-state relationships during the Cold War. NPR's Moscow correspondent Gregory Feifer reports.

GREGORY FEIFER: One of the top priorities of Mr. Obama's presidency will be to dramatically increase American troop levels in Afghanistan. Those forces rely heavily on an air base in neighboring Kyrgyzstan for their supplies. So Washington wasn't pleased by Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announcement on Tuesday.

President KURMANBEK BAKIYEV (Kyrgyzstan): (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: Bakiyev said the former Soviet Republic would close the Manas Air Base to U.S. forces. U.S. officials insist negotiations are continuing, and the Kyrgyz parliament has delayed a vote for at least a week. But Bakiyev indicated Washington wasn't willing to pay Kyrgyzstan enough. As much as his threat, it was where Bakiyev made his announcement that raised eyebrows: in Moscow, sitting next to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

President DMITRY MEDVEDEV (Russia): (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: Afterward, Medvedev announced Russia was giving Kyrgyzstan $150 million in aid on top of a $2 billion loan. Russia has portrayed itself as an ally in the war on terror. Moscow agreed to U.S. bases in Central Asia after September 11th, but says it always expected they would be temporary. Now the Kremlin is moving to reestablish control over what it sees as its sphere of influence in former Soviet Central Asia. Yesterday, at a summit of an organization that includes Central Asian countries, as well as Belarus and Armenia, Medvedev announced the establishment of a military rapid reaction force.

Pres. MEDVEDEV: (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: Medvedev said the force would be equipped as well as NATO troops. The same day, Medvedev said Russia would finance a $10 billion financial crisis fund for five former Soviet republics. The Kremlin's largesse stands in stark contrast to its treatment of two other former Soviet republics: pro-Western Ukraine and Georgia, which Russia invaded last summer, plunging relations with the West to Cold War levels.

Political analyst Kirill Rogov says Russia's latest moves in Central Asia are an attempt to stake out its position to an administration in Washington that's barely taken office.

Mr. KIRILL ROGOV (Political Analyst): (Through Translator) Moscow is stating its principles that the former Soviet republics are Russia's sphere of influence. The Kremlin failed to give the Bush administration to agree to that, and relations turned sour. Now it's trying with Mr. Obama.

FEIFER: For those who had hoped U.S.-Russia relations would improve under Mr. Obama, Moscow's actions couldn't have come at a worse time. Analysts say it also contradicts Russia's own deep interest in seeing U.S. forces succeed against the Taliban, which could pose a serious threat to Russia's south. But Rogov says it's far from clear how successful Russia will be in a region that tries to play Washington and Moscow off against each other.

Mr. ROGOV: (Through Translator) Central Asian countries want to diversify their relations. They know the dangers of relying too heavily on Russia.

FEIFER: Now neighboring Uzbekistan has indicated it may receptive to reopening a U.S. base there.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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Russia Role Seen In Kyrgyz Plan To Close U.S. Base

Russia Role Seen In Kyrgyz Plan To Close U.S. Base

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The U.S. is in talks with the government of Kyrgyzstan over the use of a military air base in the Central Asian nation, White House and Pentagon officials say.

Kyrgyzstan said Tuesday it was evicting the U.S. from the Manas air base, which is critical to U.S. military operations in neighboring Afghanistan. Many analysts see the hand of Russia behind Kyrgyzstan's decision.

Background

The U.S. military began running operations out of the Manas air base shortly after invading Afghanistan in late 2001. The site has evolved into a key staging point for U.S. and NATO troops and some supplies heading into Afghanistan. It is also where the U.S. bases its air-to-air refueling tankers used in the region.

Manas became the last remaining U.S. air base in central Asia when Uzbekistan evicted the American military from its soil in 2005. Using that as leverage, Kyrgyzstan has, in the past, threatened to close down Manas, says George Friedman, the CEO of the global intelligence company Stratfor and the author of The Next 100 Years.

"It's happened a number of times in the past where the issue is simply money," Friedman says. "The question we don't know the answer to is whether or not that's the primary issue right now."

Russia's Role

Friedman says the timing of Kyrgyzstan's announcement is important: It came just hours after Russia offered the former Soviet republic $2 billion in aid. He says this puts the U.S. in an interesting position.

"The Russians have offered them money to close it; we're offering them money to keep it open," he says.

Friedman says the Russians have levers aside from money, including influence inside Kyrgyzstan and many old connections.

"So unlike previous times when the essential issue was the Kyrgyzstan government trying to shake down the United States for more cash," Friedman says, "this time it's more of a bidding war."

Many analysts say they believe Kyrgyzstan could carry through with its threat this time. Already, the government sent a decree to parliament on closing the U.S. air base.

Conflict In Afghanistan

Alexander Cooley, an associate professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University, says one factor in Kyrgyzstan's action most likely has to do with President Obama's decision to make Afghanistan a priority.

Cooley says both Kyrgyzstan and Russia want to test the importance of that — for different reasons.

"The Kyrgyz see the importance of Afghanistan as only elevating the importance of their asset, which is in essence hosting the U.S. base," says Cooley, who wrote Base Politics, which examines U.S. bases overseas, including the one at Manas.

"Russia sees this as an opportunity to send a shot across the bow: 'We can influence the region; we can make life unpleasant for you,'" he says.

Moscow, for its part, says it is ready to cooperate with its former republics and the U.S. in fighting terrorism in the region, and has denied any connection between its $2 billion loan and Kyrgyzstan's decision to close Manas. Russian Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin indicated its former allies can make their own decisions about dealing with the U.S.

"We should always keep in mind that even the five Central Asian states can give their own ideas on how they see the system of their own security and stability," Karasin says.

Search For Alternate Supply Routes

U.S. officials say they haven't received any confirmation that the base will be closed. They say they have other options, but gave no details.

Kyrgyzstan's decision comes at time when the U.S. is trying to find alternative supply routes to Afghanistan that bypass Pakistan, where convoys are coming under increasing attack, Cooley says.

"They could potentially go back to the Uzbeks and get a deal done there. An old Soviet airfield in Turkmenistan is now being expanded as part of NATO operations, it could potentially do a deal with the Turkmens," Cooley says.

But, he says, in the short term, Kyrgyzstan's decision is certainly going to be a blow to the U.S. at a time when it is trying to expand operations in Afghanistan.