Governments with foreign military bases tend to shy away from publicity about their colonial outposts, and recent events in the post-Soviet space shine an unwelcome spotlight on US and Russian military establishments
The US Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan and Russia’s lease extension on Ukraine’s historic port of Sevastopol are presently earning much unwanted attention, which is serving to agitate the local populations in both countries.
Furthermore, Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenko, who provided sanctuary to ousted Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, has used the opportunity to berate Russia for failing to pay for its early warning missile base near Baranavichy and a Russian navy communication base near Vileyka.
While the Manas facility remains the sole US military base in Central Asia outside of Afghanistan, Russia in fact has a number of facilities scattered across the former USSR. In an era of rising nationalism, Russia and the US will pay a high political price to maintain these bases.
Manas, asset or liability?
Resentment against the Manas Transit Center and Washington’s cozy leasing arrangements with Bakiyev’s corrupt regime was a substantial element in the popular unrest that eventually deposed him.
Pentagon concern about maintaining its access to Manas at any cost has already produced congressional inquiries in Washington centering on shady fuel deals the US Department of Defense (DoD) signed for the facility.
On 12 April, House of Representatives Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs Chairman John Tierney requested documents related to fuel supply contracts for Manas and the Bagram air base in Afghanistan from the DoD, the Department of State, the FBI, Red Star Enterprises, Ltd., and the Mina Corporation.
Opening hearings 10 days later, Tierney observed, “We are left with the fact that both [former Kyrgyz president] Akayev and President Bakiyev were forcefully ousted from office amid widespread public perception that the U.S. had supported the regimes' repression had fueled - no pun intended - their corrosive corruption.”
The Pentagon's Defense Logistics Agency has acknowledged awarding $1.4 billion in no-bid contracts to Red Star Enterprises, Ltd., and Mina Corporation, beginning with the Akayev administration.
The Manas air base was established in December 2001, and companies controlled by Akayev’s family were soon awarded contracts to provide fuel for US military aircraft using the facility even as the rent remained a relatively low $2 million annually.
After Akayev was ousted by the March 2005 ‘Tulip Revolution,’ the Pentagon reached a similar fuelling arrangement with companies connected to his successor’s inner circle, while last year the rent was increased to $67 million. In July 2009, Mina Corporation signed an annual agreement with the DoD to provide up to $239 million in fuel.
During a 22 April congressional subcommittee hearing on the issue, Professor Eugene Huskey, a political science professor and director of Russian studies at Stetson University in Florida, said, “Difficult decisions have to be made in wartime, but our embrace of the Bakiyev regime in Kyrgyzstan was far tighter than it needed to be in order to retain our basing rights in the country.
“The Manas air base granted President Bakiyev a kind of 'get-out-of-jail free card' with the US. Not only did the United States help to enrich his family with lucrative contracts from the base, but in most cases we were willing to overlook the brutality that had driven the opposition and the broader population to the point of desperation,” he said.
It is estimated that companies headed by Bakiyev’s son Maksim were skimming as much as $8 million per month from the fuel deliveries. While the new Kyrgyz provisional government under Rosa Otunbaeva has indicated that the lease for Manas will be extended another year, the furor over the DoD’s fueling contracts is certain to roil both Bishkek and Washington for some time.
Johns Hopkins Central Asia-Caucasus institute scholar Erica Marat told ISN Security Watch: “Manas turned into a central issue shortly after the 7 April events when Russia showed its support of the provisional government and the US was slow to react. Even the strongest supporters of cooperation with the US inside the provisional government, including Otunbaeva and Defense Minister Ismail Isakov, shied away from expressing their pro-US and pro-western views as Manas and the US [appeared to be] sources of strength for Bakiyev, who tried to instigate more chaos in the days following his ouster.”
For now, Marat said, the issue is on hold, and “the provisional government prefers not to make any major decisions until it gains legitimacy.”
The future of Manas will depend on who comes to power following October presidential and parliamentary elections.
Most political leaders realize that without a US presence in the country, Russia interest may also decline, Marat said. But they also see “anti-US rhetoric as a source for easy popularity among the local population […] it is very difficult to de-link the US and Manas from Bakyiev and corruption among local public, with good reason.”
Less spotlight on Russian bases
Largely overlooked in the international media is the fact that Russia also had an airbase in Kyrgyzstan. The Kant airbase was established in 2003 and was Russia’s first foreign military base established since the 1991 collapse of the USSR.
Unlike Manas, Russia pays no rent for the facility. While the Kant facility is about one-quarter the size of Manas, it is still highly useful to the Kremlin. During the recent disturbances in Kyrgyzstan, the base allowed Russia to sent 150 paratroopers to protect its citizens.
Even further out of the Kyrgyz spotlight is the Russian navy’s telecommunications station in Kara-Balta, much less its Karakol anti-submarine weapons testing base on Lake Issyk-Kul.
If Russia gloated over Washington’s Manas discomfort, its own post-Soviet basing arrangements came under scrutiny during the chaotic 27 April vote in the Ukrainian Parliament to extend for another 25 years the Russian navy Black Sea Fleet’s lease on the deepwater port of Sevastopol, due to expire in 2017. In return, energy-starved Ukraine would get discounted natural gas from Russia.
The session erupted in fistfights and smoke bombs on the parliament floor. Thrown on the defensive, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that Russia would pay a high price for Sevastopol, noting that the rent and gas discounts over a decade would total $40 billion, enough to build several military bases.
In Belarus, Lukashenko used Putin’s remarks and the opportunity of providing sanctuary to Bakiyev to draw attention to the Kremlin’s miserly approach to Baranavichy and Vileyka, complaining that Minsk is paid “zero rubles, zero kopecks and zero dollars.”
Besides its facilities in Kyrgyzstan and Belarus, Russia also maintains a missile tracking radar station in Qabala, Azerbaijan; the 102st military base in Gyumri, Armenia; peacekeeping forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia; space radar facilities in Gulshad, Kazakhstan; the 171st aviation command in Karaganda, Kazakhstan; the Operational Group of Russian troops in Transnistria, Moldova; the 201st Motorized Rifle Division in Kulyab and Kurgan-Tube, Tajikistan; and a space radar station in Nurek, Tajikistan.
Redrawing the Eurasian map
Speaking to ISN Security Watch about Russia’s ongoing military presence across post-Soviet space, University of Kent Senior Fellow Roger McDermott said: “Russian basing strategy is based upon two essential factors. First, there are clear geostrategic plans, aimed at prolonging the Russian ‘footprint’ in the former Soviet space, which denies the more obvious long-term rise of China. Additionally, there is a calculation in Moscow that Obama is weak, or at best ‘idealistic,’ and while he makes declarations that seem fantastic to Russian policymakers, this provides ample opportunity for Moscow to redraw the Eurasian map. Obama, in Moscow's view, is playing into the long-term aspirations of the Kremlin. America, if this is correct, must expect policy problems ahead."
Kyrgyzstan proves the exception to the rule of Russia seeking new bases; in all other cases the facilities date back to Soviet times and the Russians never left. The biggest single difference between the US and Russian military presence is that Washington is much more willing to be financially generous.
While the Pentagon will remain fixated on Manas as long as Afghanistan remains a high US priority, as the brief August 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict proved, Russia’s legacy of post-Soviet military bases can come in very handy.
While there are few certainties in the post-Soviet space, it is obvious that Washington will have to develop a new paradigm if it is to maintain its presence in Central Asia, while for Russia, with the notable exception of Ukraine, it is business as usual.
That, and Lukashenko’s check is most likely not in the mail.
By. John C.K. Daly of OilPrice.com