As a weak interim government in Kyrgyzstan struggles to hold on to power in the wake of deadly ethnic violence, Russia is pushing to reinstate plans for a second military base in the country’s south, according to several Russian media outlets.
State-owned news service RIA Novosti quoted Russian Federal Drug Control Service director Viktor Ivanov as saying the Russian and Kyrgyz defense ministries are discussing a new Russian base near the city of Osh, a gateway for drug smuggling and the epicenter of recent violence. Russia currently maintains Kant Airbase near Bishkek.
The Russians had plans to build a base in the south before the government of Kurmanbek Bakiyev was toppled by a violent uprising in April.
In the wake of the violence, interim president Roza Otunbayeva begged Russia to send peacekeepers to the country as Kyrgyzstan’s military appeared unwilling or unable to stop the bloodshed that sent an estimated 400,000 ethnic Uzbeks fleeing from the country.
On Thursday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said his country would offer Kyrgyzstan humanitarian and stabilization aid but would not commit to any military peacekeepers.
Martha Brill Olcott, senior associate for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Russia program, said move for a southern military base now may be simply a symbolic guesture of commitment, without any real strategic value.
“If they’re not ready commit troops there, it’s not at all clear how this enhances security for Russia or Kyrgyzstan,” she said. “I don’t know that you can view this as a threat [to U.S. interests], but I don’t know that you can view this as any real strategic advantage, either.”
Matthew Rojansky, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Project for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that while Russia certainly sees Kyrgyzstan as in their sphere of influence, he sees this more as Russia getting itself in place to prevent the next wave of ethnic violence.
He believes the Russian government was concerned that the uprising happened, given that Russia is the heavyweight in the region.
“This may be their way of signaling that they will be ther to prevent this next time,” Rojansky said.
The U.S. maintains the Manas Transit Center, an air base that serves as a logistical hub for the war in Afghanistan, near the capital, Bishkek. The future of Manas has been in question since the April uprising, the second violent overthrow of a Kyrgyz government since 2005.
Members of the interim government have made conflicting statements about the base and there is widespread anger for U.S. backing of Bakiyev, who many believe enriched himself and his family with shady deals to supply the base.
Kyrgyzstan is the only country in the world to host both a U.S. and Russian military base, and often finds itself in the middle of the tug of war the two powers play over influence in Central Asia, a region Russia sees as firmly in its backyard. Medvedev, quoted in a Wall Street Journal interview, warned against the U.S. making Manas a permanent base.
“This base ... should not exist forever, it should resolve specific tasks, in my opinion, and wrap up its work,” he said.
A White House spokesman would not say whether Obama and Medvedev discussed Russian plans for a new base during their meeting Thursday in Washington.Stars and Stripes reporter Leo Shane III contributed to this report.