Russia is flexing its muscle in central Asia, and the Obama administration had better pay attention.
Today’s Wall Street Journal headlines: “Moscow Moves to Counter U.S. Power in Central Asia.” It cites as evidence, quite correctly, two major steps by Russia:
Russia is reasserting its role in Central Asia with a Kremlin push to eject the U.S. from a vital air base and a Moscow-led pact to form an international military force to rival NATO — two moves that potentially complicate the new U.S. war strategy in Afghanistan.
Together with Russia’s war against Georgia last summer, and the more recent Russian muscle-flexing over gas pipelines that transit Ukraine, the Russian actions in central Asia reflect a no-nonsense message to President Obama that Moscow expects major changes in US policy toward Russia — and that Moscow is prepared to play hardball to make sure it happens. In addition, in another corner of the former Soviet world, Russia and Belarus are creating a joint air defense system, too.
The central Asia base is the US air base at in Kyrgyzstan, established at the start of the Afghan war in 2001, when the Bush administration bullied its way into central Asia on the pretext of fighting the War on Terror. The Manas air base has been crucially important as part of the US air war in Afghanistan, and losing it could severely weaken the US effort there. To persuade Kyrgyzstan to oust the Americans, the Russians agreed to provide the country with a $2 billion loan, $150 million in direct aid, write off $180 million in debt, and build a $1.7 billion power plant for the electricity-starved nation.
Notes the Journal:
The loss of the Manas base would be a major blow to the escalating U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. In 2008, 170,000 American personnel passed through Manas on their way in or out of Afghanistan, along with 5,000 tons of equipment.
“We have contingencies, and it’s not fatal, but there’s no way around the fact that this would be a real blow,” said a senior Pentagon official. “It could also leave us more dependent on Russia, which is not a place we’d like to be.”
The Russians have offered to support the US war effort by allowing NATO to ship fuel and supplies over land from Europe to Afghanistan. That’s become more important as the Taliban shuts down supply lines through Pakistan and over the mountainous border into Afghanistan. But it also would give Russia great leverage over the US-NATO war in Afghanistan.