YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Russia Opens a New Base

The facility, located in Kyrgyzstan, will house military aircraft and is expected to enhance the Kremlin's influence and security in Central Asia.

October 24, 2003|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — The presidents of Russia and Kyrgyzstan on Thursday opened the first new Russian military base abroad since the collapse of the Soviet Union, marking Moscow's interest in restoring lost influence in Central Asia.

The air base in Kant "will provide security for Kyrgyzstan itself and the entire region where it is located," Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said at the opening festivities, which included demonstration flights of the Sukhoi-27 multi-role fighters and Sukhoi-25 strike aircraft deployed there.

The facility is not meant to compete with a U.S. base established just 20 miles away, at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, for use by the multinational coalition involved in Afghanistan, Putin said. "One base will complement the other," he said. "Russia is a member of the international anti-terrorist coalition and supports the international community's efforts in the operation in Afghanistan." The Manas base "is temporary" while the new Russian base "has been opened on a permanent basis," Kyrgyz President Askar A. Akayev said in remarks reported by the Russian news agency Interfax.

Putin described the new base as "a deterrent for terrorists and extremists of all kinds." It is expected to support Moscow's efforts to fight arms and drug smuggling in Central Asia and to curb Islamic radicalism.

Moscow has long seen a security threat to its southern borders in the challenge of Islamic fundamentalist opposition to the generally secular leadership of post-Soviet Muslim states in Central Asia. Putin cited events of 1999-2000 in southern Kyrgyzstan to press his point.

"Terrorists ... committed atrocities and killed people with impunity," he said. Had this base existed then, the events would have unfolded in a more favorable scenario."

Describing that same period, Akayev said in an interview with the news agency Itar-Tass that Kyrgyzstan had been "a target for attacks by international terrorists from Afghanistan."

"We shall always remember our Russian friends were the first to have extended a helping hand, and their support proved crucial in our struggle against terrorism," Akayev said.

Still, Moscow's decision to open such a base in Kyrgyzstan "is impossible to explain from purely military logic," Alexander Golts, defense analyst with Ye- zhenedelny Zhurnal, a liberal weekly magazine, said in an interview. "The planes deployed at the base can't really be used to fight against armed gangs of bandits or terrorists in the mountains." Political symbolism is more important than any military significance, Golts said.

"You can see quite easily that this decision was based on an odd mixture of rivalry and cooperation," he explained. "The Kremlin keeps talking about the growing cooperation with the United States but they can hardly conceal the fact that the presence of U.S. bases in Central Asia is not exactly to their liking. To balance this Russia must have its own bases there."

The base is intended to provide air protection for activities of a Collective Rapid Deployment Force established two years ago by six former Soviet republics linked in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. That institution, formed by Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Armenia, is one of the means by which Moscow still wields some military influence in other parts of the former Soviet Union.

Putin said joint exercises would be held in Kant next year, with "a large unit of Russian armed forces" flying in "to test the air base's capability of accommodating a large number of ground troops."

Despite Moscow's interest in jockeying for influence in the region and its uneasiness about the new U.S. role, the Kremlin also sees important benefits to Russia from the arrival of U.S. forces in Central Asia after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, Golts said.

"As recently as three years ago the General Staff agreed that the main military threat for Russia was coming from Afghanistan, and they were seriously considering the idea of deploying a 40,000-strong military contingent to somehow contain this threat," he said. "But the Americans came and resolved this issue for us. Reasonable minds within the military now see that the U.S. bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have indeed become a stabilizing factor."

Los Angeles Times Articles