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Moscow Indicates It Won't Be Ignored in the 'Near Abroad'

Interviewee: S. Frederick Starr, Research Professor and Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Johns Hopkins University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
February 12, 2009

On a recent visit to Moscow, the president of Kyrgyzstan announced that he was canceling the U.S. right to use the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan, which has served as a transit point for U.S. and NATO shipments to Afghanistan since December 2001. S. Frederick Starr, a long-time expert on the Caucasus and Central Asia, says Russia is using a "carrot and stick" approach to attempt to force the United States out of the air base. He says this shows Moscow's determination to reclaim its traditional influence in the so-called near abroad and its determination "to establish a sphere of influence, and they mean an exclusive sphere of influence, in the former Soviet territories, including the Caucasus and Central Asia." 

Seemingly out of the blue, the president of Kyrgyzstan announced that he was canceling the U.S. rights to use the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan. Since then most people have interpreted this as a further sign of the Russians' determination, as they showed in Georgia last summer, to demonstrate they don't like the United States infringing on their influence in the former Soviet republics. What's your take on all of this?

Moscow means "to establish a sphere of influence, and they mean an exclusive sphere of influence, in the former Soviet territories, including the Caucasus and Central Asia."

That's essentially correct, but this should not have been a surprise or a shock. There was a lot of talk about this beforehand. More so because it's part of the pre-election debate within Kyrgyzstan [presidential elections are due in 2010]. Back in January, there was a cyberstrike on Kyrgyzstan launched from Russia, which effectively knocked out that country's Internet suppliers. There's a startling resemblance to earlier cyberstrikes on Estonia, and then on Georgia. The cyberstrikes seemed to be the stick, if you will, and then the carrot was offered when [President Kurmanbek] Bakiyev went to Moscow. It's an interesting fact that the Russians, at a time when their own economy is in serious trouble, and when there are fundamental social needs at home, found $2 billion to offer to Kyrgyzstan.

Now the Kyrgyzstan parliament hasn't yet ratified this.  There's no question they'll do that, is there?

The internal debates in Kyrgyzstan are infinitely complex. There are strong and capable political leaders who strongly oppose Bakiyev's action. A notable among them is Bakyt Beshimov, who is head of the Social Democratic Party, and a very competent and intelligent person. He served as vice president of the American University of Central Asia, which is located in the capital of Kyrgyzstan, and vehemently defends the continuation of the American base there. So it becomes a struggle within the Kyrgyz political elite, unfortunately fueled on one side by $2 billion, and I should add, a generous number of impressive bribes.

Does this leave the United States in a very desperate situation? How do U.S. and European materiel get into Afghanistan?

That's the key issue in this case. The plan immediately after 9/11 was to have a base in Uzbekistan, which the government of Uzbekistan was quick to offer at Khanabad, and which functioned well and had all the appearances of being a long-term arrangement. Unfortunately, the Uzbeks addressed six letters to the Department of State asking to clarify the long-term arrangement, "Do you want two years, five years, ten years?" They were pretty open on that. And none of these letters were answered, and in the end, their pride was at issue, and they terminated the arrangement [in 2005]. That's when the United States expanded operations at Manas in Kyrgyzstan.

There's been a lot written about the problems of shipping goods by land through Pakistan to Afghanistan. Could you talk about that?

The Pentagon has relied on shipping goods to the port of Karachi and trucking them through the Khyber Pass, the border point between Pakistan and Afghanistan. There's reason to be concerned that the United States may be seriously considering a land route across Russia that would eventually come down through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and so forth. Why is this problematic? Because it gives to Russia exactly the same type of control over our war materiel pipeline as it has over the natural gas pipelines to Europe. And we have seen evidence that they're willing to interrupt deliveries for political ends, so it seems to me a rather imprudent plan.

It's interesting because President Obama has made Afghanistan a major foreign policy priority.

And rightly so.

And the Russians know that. And here he's only in office for a couple of weeks, and they stick it to him over the Manas air base. [Russia, meanwhile, has denied any link between the base closure and the Kyrgyzstan loan].

"The worrisome thing that we have seen in the past month is clear evidence that Russia would like to expand this sphere of influence concept to include Afghanistan. And this is an obvious step in that direction."

They do, because their objective has been--and they have been perfectly candid about it--to establish a sphere of influence, and they mean an exclusive sphere of influence, in the former Soviet territories, including the Caucasus and Central Asia. Of course, this seems to be directed against the United States , but in the long run, it is as much a threat to China, which has yet to respond. But the worrisome thing that we have seen in the past month is clear evidence that Russia would like to expand this sphere of influence concept to include Afghanistan. And this is an obvious step in that direction.

That's fascinating. You'd think that the Russians have had enough of Afghanistan, having been forced into an ignominious retreat in 1989.

We must remember that there is a whole generation of Russian military people who were in their teens and twenties at the time of the Afghan War who are now in command. And they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing, I'm afraid. They are bitter. They blame their fate on the United States [which supplied the anti-Soviet forces in that period] and they are operating out of this deep resentment.

Is there an alternative supply route that is not dependent on Russia?

There has been for eight years, and that is through the new Pakistani port of Gwadar, the first phase of which was built with Chinese assistance and is now being developed further with help from Singapore. This port connects, by good roads, ultimately to a road that goes over the mountains to Kandahar, Afghanistan. Had this route been explored from the very beginning, and expanded and developed and the political impediments removed at the border, it could be serving as well today. But we ignored it in favor of a better known, but in the end, more vulnerable route.

Is the Pentagon aware of this port?

Surely. The other alternative, by the way, is not acceptable yet, and that would be through the Iranian port of Chabahar, which was developed with Russian help, and which connects into the Afghan Ring Road by a new highway that the Indians have built. So you have a kind of competing port.

This is what some European, NATO countries want to use, right?

They aren't sure which they want to use. Some are saying "Yes, use that," and others are [saying], "But the Gwadar prospect should also be explored."

What about Uzbekistan or Azerbaijan or any of those countries? Could we go back there?

What astonishes me as an observer is the apparent passivity of the United States under now both Republican and Democratic administrations regarding events in the Caucasus. The Russian attack on Georgia fundamentally challenges the sovereignty of not just Georgia but of Azerbaijan. Now, you cannot fly a transport plane to Afghanistan from the west without going over Azerbaijan. The alternative is going through Russian territory or going through Iranian territory. It's a natural transit route. Yet we've done next to nothing to, if you will, step up to the ball on Azerbaijan's security needs. So we're in a sense taking them for granted.

The relationship with Uzbekistan has certainly improved in the last two years, and there are prospects there independent of the transport issues that are very important. We should engage all these countries, which are very close at hand, in reconstruction projects in Afghanistan. We should have brought in Kazakh, or Uzbek, or Azeri, or Kyrgyz, or Tajik construction crews to build roads, or simple construction projects in Afghanistan. Instead of doing that, we've brought in very expensive firms from Turkey at a very, very high premium, and in a sense we've told these neighboring people, "We don't want to work with you." We could have tied them into our projects and given them an interest in their successes. It's not too late to do so, and one good thing that may come of all this is that the procurement people in the Pentagon will understand the political wisdom as well as the economic good sense of sourcing in Central Asia and Azerbaijan.

Would it help to really sit down with Moscow and talk about this too?

It seems to me we have to sit down with ourselves. The problem is that in 2004-2005, the entire effort in Afghanistan was coordinated by one person, who was a presidential envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad.  Khalilzad, who was appointed by President Bush, had the power to administer U.S. policy of all agencies without people trying to micromanage from various offices in Washington by email. He had the power to do this on the ground, to coordinate.

That has not existed since. Richard Holbrooke's appointment as special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan has to do with external matters; it's not the internal management of Afghanistan. And to do the kind of things that we're discussing requires a much more active and empowered representation in Kabul than we now have.

Now I read that Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, who used to command U.S. forces in Afghanistan, is going to be the new envoy there.

Yes, but the question is, will he have the power that Khalilzad had to coordinate the activities of different agencies? And that's what we're talking about: Procurement and so on has a strong diplomatic side. It's not just a military calculus. The question is, will those factors be brought to bear? They will find not just a willingness and eagerness in all the Central Asian countries and Azerbaijan to partner with us. Kyrgyzstan has construction companies, it has cement companies that are really quite competent. And if the United States had contracted with them anytime over the last seven or eight years for projects in Afghanistan, I don't think the government could have been bribed so easily by the Russians today. We failed to do that. Obviously our embassy in Kyrgyzstan failed to champion that idea. And no one else was championing it effectively. It seems to me that sitting down with Russia is not what's needed. We have to sit down with ourselves. Then we have to sit down with those who are willing to make a real commitment to the Afghan project. We need to sit down with those countries that are willing to make a serious commitment.

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