Most Americans have forgotten the fact, but the first government to offer assistance to America after 9/11 was not Britain or France or Germany or even kindly Sweden. It was Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Indeed, it was Russia’s willingness to tolerate extensive U.S. use of Central Asian bases and airspace that greatly aided our war in Afghanistan.
Moscow’s reward for this support has been to see its interests ignored at every turn. Slowly over the last seven years, we have seen our room to maneuver in this region shrink as relations with Moscow have been poisoned with a new push for NATO expansion, recognition of Kosovo’s independence, and the plan to deploy missile defense installations in central Europe. To the extent that Moscow is now engaging in Great Gamesmanship with Washington over influence in Central Asia, it is a function of a needless rivalry that Washington has stoked.
Part of that rivalry has involved Washington’s promotion of the “freedom agenda” in post-Soviet space, backing local elites hostile to Moscow in ostensibly popular revolutions against “pro-Moscow” authoritarian rulers. Some cases were more credible as democratic movements than others, but this model fell apart completely when it was applied to Kyrgyzstan. The recent flair-up over Kyrgyzstan’s decision to close a U.S. base—an important supply route for U.S. forces in Afghanistan—needs to be understood in this context.
The closing of the Bishkek base was widely interpreted in Western media outlets simply as Kyrgyzstan’s response to a Russian offer of $2.15 billion in aid, prompting accusations from pundits that the base closure was a “brazen provocation” or “punch in the nose” from Moscow. But this view fails to take account of the deep Kyrgyz discontent with the presence of the base and the undesirable results from the so-called “Tulip Revolution” of 2005, which brought the current Kyrgyz government to power amid misguided Western cheerleading.
As a result of that “revolution,” the current Kyrgyz president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, replaced Askar Akayev. Akayev at one point was seen as the post-Soviet Central Asian leader most inclined toward democratic government and economic reform, but he soon began concentrating power in his own hands. There was little reason to think Bakiyev would be any different, though, and in fact, he has used increasingly authoritarian methods to benefit the tribal factions who backed him. His was no Western-style opposition movement, and it was always misguided of the West to imagine otherwise.
In accepting and embracing Akayev’s overthrow, Washington ensured that the one Kyrgyz leader who had tried to balance both Russian and American ties would be removed from the scene. As Kyrgyz attitudes towards the presence of the U.S. base soured in the wake of high-profile incidents resulting in civilian deaths, it is no great wonder that Bakiyev responded to public pressure and Russian blandishments by ending the lease on the base. The quality of the U.S.-Kyrgyz relationship had already worsened considerably long before the Russian offer of aid, and it was the base that was a major cause of the deterioration. As Kyrgyzstan’s former Ambassador to the U.S. Baktybek Abdrisaev explained in a recent Washington Post op-ed, U.S. interest in Kyrgyzstan became narrowly focused on the base to the detriment of all other issues, including human rights—which meant that the entire bilateral relationship was sure to suffer disproportionately once the base became a flashpoint of controversy.
What is needed now is a new approach to both Moscow and the Central Asian states that recognizes Moscow’s desire for influence in post-Soviet space and builds relations with Central Asian states beyond basing rights and military cooperation. Washington should strive to rebuild the relationship with Russia at least to the level it had reached in late 2001, as Russian cooperation in our resupply efforts for Afghanistan will only become more important as supply routes through Pakistan become more insecure.
If Moscow sees Central Asian U.S. bases not as a permanent means of encroaching on their traditional sphere of influence, but as temporary installations used for prosecuting the war in Afghanistan, it may be willing to tolerate the re-opening of some bases in Central Asia. However, all of that will be for naught if Washington neglects cultivating good relations with the Central Asian states themselves or treats allies as heavy-handedly as the Kyrgyz believe they were treated.
The base closure was the result of a combination of failed Russia policy, foolish “freedom agenda” preoccupations, and disdainful treatment of an ally over the course of many years. So the last thing Washington should do in response is continue the approach that created the current predicament. Blaming Russia, as some senior administration officials seem intent on doing, is the wrong response—particularly when it is an easy way of ignoring our own role in alienating the government and people of Kyrgyzstan.