Russia unfazed by US plan

Posted in Russia | 23-Aug-04 | Author: Sergei Blagov| Source: Asia Times

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, left, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov seen at a news conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, Saturday, Aug. 14, 2004.
MOSCOW - Following President George W Bush's troop shift announcement in the US this week, it was expected that Russia's encirclement fears would revive, given that US forces are to be moved closer to the Middle East and Central Asia. But although the Kremlin's official reaction was relatively calm, it's push for Central Asian influence continues.

"I do not see anything worrying in these plans," Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov stated, adding, "No grandiose movements are expected."

Although the plan involves US withdrawal of 70,000 troops from Europe and Asia and major shifts would not begin before 2006, some of the troops from Germany and South Korea reportedly could be moved to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion countries in Eastern Europe and possibly in Uzbekistan. Notably, Romania has air bases within striking distance of Iraq and Central Asia. Russia has previously expressed unease over the US making inroads into Central Asia.

But Washington has been careful not to antagonize Moscow. At the Defense Department background briefing on Monday, it was stated that the realignment was not aimed at Russia. The US would make greater use of training and logistics bases on the soil of new allies like Uzbekistan and Romania, said Pentagon officials who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.

A senior military official went on to say that the kind of cooperation that develops further with Uzbekistan and others in Central Asia depended on those countries and to what extent they wanted to work with the US. "But we're not looking to take forces that are otherwise in Europe today and station them either in Eastern Europe or in Central Asia. That's not part of our plan," the official said.

Regardless, Moscow rarely lets its guard down. Not enemies, but not yet allies was how Ivanov characterized relations between Russia and the US following two days of talks over the weekend in St Petersburg with US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Ivanov described his attitude toward NATO's eastward enlargement as "calmly negative", and criticized NATO's expansion into three former Soviet states on the Baltic Sea and warned that NATO warplanes flying patrols over those countries create the risk of accidental incidents.

The patrols are flown by four NATO fighter jets because the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have no air forces of their own. Ivanov, speaking at a news conference with Rumsfeld, questioned the need for the patrols. "We cannot understand how these four planes can intercept al-Qaeda, the Taliban or anything else," Ivanov said. "The only thing they can intercept is a mythical Soviet threat."

Yet despite the US's official pronouncements that the troop realignment is not aimed at Russia, Moscow will likely remain keen to secure Central Asia. As the heads of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a six-member group that includes Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, met at a summit meeting in Tashkent last June, Russian President Vladimir Putin made no secret that Moscow has been pushing to use a variety of groupings so as to exert its influence across the region. "The voice of Russia will be heard here," Putin told reporters after the summit.

Subsequently, Russia has recently moved to push its agenda in Central Asia through security arrangements. Notably, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) held a large-scale military exercise on August 2-6. The Collective Rapid Reaction Force, including troops from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, held anti-rebel war-games in the Kyrgyz mountains.

The exercise, code named "Frontier-2004", involved more than 2,000 soldiers from Russia and the three Central Asian members. The maneuvers took place at the Kyrgyz Defense Ministry's Edelweiss mountainous training center near the town of Balykchi on the shores of Lake Issykul. Jets and helicopters from the new Russian air base in Kant struck targets in northern Kyrgyzstan for the first time.

The war-games scenario, approved by the CSTO, involved the deployment of Russian elite troops. According to Russian media reports, units of the Ulyanovsk-based 31st Paratrooper Brigade as well as the Samara-based 3rd Special Force Brigade, as well as the 12th Special Force Brigade of Russia's military intelligence (GRU) were brought from Ulyanovsk and Yekaterinburg to Russia's Kant base in Kyrgyzstan by Il-76MD military cargo planes.

Politicians insisted the war-games were largely anti-terrorist. Following the exercise, Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev said the CSTO also is considering pre-emptive operations in Afghanistan, but gave no details. "We don't have to wait for militants from Afghanistan to cross the Afghan-Tajik border, but we should take preventive measures rather than allow them to come to the region," Akayev said.

"The situation in Central Asia is stable, but we don't rule out terrorist attacks in Afghanistan or any other countries in the region," Ivanov said earlier this month in the wake of the war games. Moscow also indicated plans to double the number of troops stationed at the Kant based by the end of this year.

Furthermore, Kyrgyzstan may become Russia's major military and political ally in Central Asia, the country's foreign minister, Askar Aitmatov, indicated last week. "Russia remains a true friend and the principal strategic partner of Kyrgyzstan. Long-term relations with Russia are the priority of our foreign policy," Aitmatov said in a speech at the Russian Kant air base during Russian Air Force Day celebrations. "The opening of the Russian air base in October last year became an indication that Russian-Kyrgyz relations are relations between allies," he said.

Moscow has also been keen to boost military ties with Uzbekistan. For instance, Russia and Uzbekistan agreed to hold major joint war games in southern Uzbekistan later this year, Ivanov announced last June.

The Kremlin has recently come up with a series of overtures towards Uzbekistan, once seen as the US's staunchest ally in Central Asia. It was hardly a coincidence that on Tuesday, Russia announced it had apprehended three men suspected of helping to organize a series of bombings in Uzbekistan earlier this year and may extradite them to their homeland for trial. The three suspects are reportedly linked to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

In the meantime, regardless of Washington's assurances that its troop redeployment is not aimed at Russia, Moscow's perceived strategic purpose remains to strengthen its influence in Central Asia. However, the new security arrangements are yet to prove their viability as vehicles of Moscow's clout in the strategic region.

Sergei Blagov covers Russia and post-Soviet states, with special attention to Asia-related issues. He has contributed to Asia Times Online since 1996. Between 1983 and 1997, he was based in Southeast Asia. In 2001 and 2002, Nova Science Publishers, NY, published two of his books on Vietnamese history.

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