Recently, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Moscow would be sending a substantial package of military aid to the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan by the end of this year. According to Igor Korotchenko, head of the Kremlin-affiliated Center for Analysis of Global Arms Trade, the aid would include “tanks, armored vehicles and personnel carriers, as well as rocket launchers, artillery, small arms, and surveillance and communication systems.”
The aid appears to be part of a massive new aid package, quietly announced last year, for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The aid was projected to total $1.1 billion for Kyrgyzstan and $200 million for Tajikistan. Russian officials framed the aid package in terms of two objectives: countering the potential resurgence of Islamist militants as the U.S. military moves out of Afghanistan, and countering U.S. influence in the region.
“Helping Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan modernize their military, Moscow expects to strengthen the potential of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in the light of the forthcoming American withdrawal from Afghanistan,” said a source within the government of Russia, Kommersant reported. “Moreover, Moscow hopes to prevent the Americans from strengthening their positions in Central Asia… It was only recently after all that Bishkek and Dushanbe flirted with Washington in the hope to lay hands on the weapons and military hardware withdrawn from Afghanistan. It would have meant American instructors and technicians. American influence with the region would have grown.”
The U.S. still has not provided many details about its plans to give over excess military equipment to its partner nations, so it’s not clear what Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan might be in line to receive from the U.S. But what has become even clearer since the news of Russia’s aid package came out is that Kyrgyzstan is the strongest focus of Russia’s current attention in Central Asia.
Moscow plans to expand its air base at Kant in Kyrgyzstan and appears interested in using it as a base for the yet-to-be-created joint CSTO forces. At the end of last year Russia reached a deal with Kyrgyzstan to consolidate all of the small military facilities that it operates there under one agreement, which was likely intended to make it easier for Russia to maintain its presence there.
Moscow has agreed to help fund a hydropower project in Kyrgyzstan, as well as forgive $500 million in debt from the country, moves that analyst Erica Marat interpreted as efforts to influence Kyrgyzstan’s government to evict the U.S. from the air base that it operates at the Manas airport, near the capital of Bishkek.
All of this points to what regional scholars Alex Cooley and Marlene Laruelle say is an intention by Moscow to make Kyrgyzstan into a “client state.” In a newly released paper (PDF) they detail how Russia’s strategy has recently shifted from viewing all of Central Asia as its sphere of influence, to picking particular countries – Kyrgyzstan, and to a lesser degree Tajikistan – and trying to use them to counter other countries’ influence in the region. “[A] new Russian strategy of ‘divide and rule’ seems to be accelerating,” they write. “Rather than trying to maximize and balance relations with the Central Asian states, Russia is now aggressively entering into a classical client-state relationship with Kyrgyzstan.”
If this process continues, it will have uncertain results for Kyrgyzstan’s political future. While Kyrgyzstan’s political system has been chronically unstable, and has suffered from terrible ethnic violence (PDF), it still has by far the freest political system in Central Asia, with genuine elections and a parliament that isn’t a rubber stamp. However, Russia has not been shy about getting involved in Kyrgyzstan’s internal politics before. In 2010, when Kyrgyzstan president Kurmanbek Bakiyev displeased Russia, Russian media began what appeared to be a concerted campaign to discredit him; he was overthrown amid street protests shortly after. Many in Kyrgyzstan no doubt are wondering: With even greater military ties at stake, will that sort of interference grow?