MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia has embarked on a risky political game with new U.S. President Barack Obama by forcing its ally Kyrgyzstan to close a U.S. military base while keeping up overtures to establish warmer relations with Washington.
The Manas air base near the capital of the Central Asian state is a key supply centre for U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan, a campaign that Obama has set as a key priority.
Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev standing alongside Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev at a news conference in Moscow, said on Tuesday he would close the base after securing a vital rescue package of over $2 billion from Russia.
The surprise move came in the middle of Medvedev’s overtures to Obama aimed at raising bilateral ties from post-Cold War lows where they have languished since the days of former U.S. President George W. Bush.
“One could not have chosen a worst moment for such move,” Alexei Malashenko of Carnegies Endowment for Peace think tank said.
Russian officials have said they received positive signals from Washington on key points of disagreement — U.S. plans to station parts of a missile defence system in Eastern Europe and the issue of NATO membership for ex-Soviet Ukraine and Georgia.
Russian pressure on Kyrgyzstan to close Manas sits oddly since analysts have seen the NATO effort to defeat the Taliban as one of the few areas in which the interests of Washington and Moscow largely coincide.
Russia, scared by the prospect of Islamic radicalism pouring from Afghanistan to neighbouring Central Asia, has backed the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan from its start in 2001.
And it has even suggested it could allow transit of non-military supplies for NATO troops in Afghanistan across its territory — sticking to the proposal despite a freeze in ties with NATO after its August war with Georgia.
Medvedev is expected to meet Obama in April on the sidelines of a London conference of 20 leading economies. Defence and foreign ministers of the two sides will meet before that and Afghanistan is expected to be a major item on the agenda.
“The departure from Manas is unlikely to affect Obama’s plans in Afghanistan, but it could cause problems at talks (with Russia),” Malashenko said. “If this is a matter of principle for Russia, it is stupid politics.”
However, other analysts think Russia may be pursuing a deeper strategy.
Medvedev was quick to say Russia and Kyrgyzstan would continue cooperating with Washington on Afghanistan.
“No-one is trying to evade responsibility,” he said. “But the forms of cooperation are to be agreed with partners.”
However, while backing the U.S.-led campaign, Moscow has lately become worried that the Western conduct of the operation has only increased instability in Afghanistan.
Medvedev has suggested that Russia, China and their Central Asian allies should have a stronger say in international efforts to restore peace in Afghanistan.
Russia has supported the idea of holding a summit on Afghanistan within the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation which includes China and the four ex-Soviet Central Asian of which Kyrgyzstan is one.
A decision to close Manas could be interpreted as Moscow’s offer to Obama to review the regional rules of the game, said independent analyst Arkady Dubnov.
“I have a feeling Russia wants to offer a new format for cooperation, in which Russia will speak on behalf of the region in contacts with the United States,” he said. “Bargaining could be conducted on this footing.”
Russia sees Central Asia as part of its traditional zone of influence and is concerned over the West’s growing presence there.
Regional leaders, buoyed by promises of closer political and trade ties from shuttling Western diplomats, are increasingly keen to end their dependence on Moscow.
Russia is making steps to consolidate its control over the region, which include lucrative energy contracts and enhanced military and security cooperation.
Later on Wednesday, Russia and its key allies including the Central Asian four were expected to set up a joint rapid deployment force, tasked to ensure regional security and certain to be dominated by Russia.
“An offer of aid for desperate Kyrgyzstan in exchange for Manas is the ideal opportunity for Moscow to establish full control over the country,” Malashenko said.
The initial U.S. reaction to Kyrgyzstan’s decision has been muted. The U.S. military said they were continuing talks with the Kyrgyz government on the sum of compensation for the use of the base leaving room for compromises.
Washington is now actively courting another Central Asian power, Uzbekistan, to regain access to Karshi air base, a more powerful Soviet-era facility it used at the start of the Afghan campaign. This could be compensation that would make losing Manas less painful.
Regional analysts say Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who expelled the U.S. military from Karshi following the Western denunciation of his bloody crackdown on opposition in Andizhan in 2005, may now revise his decision.
“Under the terms of the base lease, there is still six months to go to its final closure,” Dubnov said. “This a time for a trade-off.”
Writing by Oleg Shchedrov; Editing by Richard Balmforth