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.
At the same time, as the Journal notes, Moscow announced the formation of a rapid reaction force, jointly with former Soviet states:
Russian paratroopers are to form the core of the new military force, which is planned to be about 10,000 men. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the force will be ready "to rebuff military aggression," fight terrorism, drug trafficking and organized crime, and handle natural and technological disasters.
"These are going to be quite formidable units," Mr. Medvedev said. "According to their combat potential, they must be no weaker than similar forces of the North Atlantic alliance."
The AP reports what happened at the meeting of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization:
Russia sought to strengthen its security alliance with six other former Soviet nations Wednesday by forming a joint rapid reaction force in a continuing effort to curb U.S. influence in energy-rich Central Asia.
The summit of the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization came a day after Kyrgyzstan said it would end the U.S. lease of an air base that supports military operations in Afghanistan. The eviction of U.S. troops would mark a victory for Moscow in what it considers its historical backyard.
Russia, Armenia, Belarus and four Central Asian nations - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - agreed Wednesday to set up a joint rapid reaction force. The force is expected to have about 10,000 members and function under a central command, replacing the existing force, which has 3,000. It is not under unified command.
The move would strengthen the military dimension of the alliance, which has served mostly as a forum for security consultations. A Kremlin adviser said Russian paratroopers would form the core of the force.
Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said Wednesday that Kyrgyzstan may host some of the newly formed rapid reaction forces at the base now leased by the U.S.
The Russia-Belarus deal is also reported by AP:
Russia and Belarus will create a new military system to monitor and defend their airspace, the Kremlin said Tuesday - strengthening cooperation between the two uneasy allies who are deeply suspicious of U.S. plans to put a missile defense shield in Europe.
The deal reflects the former Soviet neighbors' mistrust of Western intentions. It also reflects their shared opposition to NATO's expansion into former Soviet turf and U.S. efforts to build missile defense sites in Belarus' neighbor Poland and the Czech Republic.
Obama ought to be paying attention not only because Russia can make or break US efforts to negotiate a deal in Afghanistan, but also because Obama needs Russia to help persuade Iran to find a solution to the conflict over Tehran's nuclear program.