The United States’ administration’s deference to the Kremlin in resolving Kyrgyzstan’s current ethnic cleansing ignores reality. Russia is seeking to dilute and diminish US influence in Eurasia despite much ballyhooed “reset” between the Kremlin and President Obama’s White House. Whatever the Administration wants to believe, Russia continues views geopolitics of Eurasia as a perennial “Great Game”.
Ethnic strife is, unfortunately, a part of this game. Anti-Uzbek ethnic riots broke out in southern Kyrgyzstan last Thursday, and the official death toll has risen to well over a hundred, with the International Red Cross estimating a final figure as much as 700 killed and thousands injured.
Tens of thousands of Uzbeks are running to the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, trying to escape the violence, with the Red Cross some sources estimating the number of refugees to be 80,000 people. The violence so far did not directly affect the US air base in Manas.
The base, outside Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, is critical for the campaign in Afghanistan. It is used as a logistics hub and for refueling of air operations in Afghanistan’s skies.
Last week, the Obama Administration, despite the explosion of violence in the Fergana Valley and a potential threat to American military assets in Kyrgyzstan, refused to provide immediate non-lethal support despite a call for help from the provisional Kyrgyz government. That government was assembled after an April coup against the previous Bakiyev administration. Next, Kyrgyzstan officially requested Russian military aid on Saturday, quite possibly in response to America’s passivity.
To all accounts, the lack of military support from the US implies that the Obama administration is welcoming Russian intervention in the resolution of the massacres. Today, President Obama prefers to work in tandem with the Russia-dominated Commonwealth Security Treaty Organization, giving over to Russia the right of first refusal to send its soldiers into post-Soviet Central Asia. America’s acquiescence of the Russian hegemonic role in the post-Soviet space raises serious questions.
The Russians so far did not move soldiers into Kyrgyzstan, in recognition of their own military personnel shortages. They did rush two battalions of air assault troops to the Russian air base in Kant (Northern Kyrgyzstan).
In his op-ed in the Washington Post, David Ignatius remarks that the United States and Russia could use the anti-Uzbek ethnic cleansing of Kyrgyzstan to strengthen their bilateral relations. This is far fetched. Ignatius finds it “refreshing” that Russia and America are willing to cooperate instead of compete over influence in the region.
Indeed, if we were only able to work together with Russia in dealing with the Iran, then we would be on the way to “collective security”, Igantius says, possibly quoting senior Administration position.
The Kremlin, however, perceives Central Asia as a part of a “near abroad” over which Russia has “exclusive interests”, as President Medvedev called it in his 20008 speech. The “near abroad” includes all of the former Soviet Union, with the exception of the Baltic states.
The Kremlin quietly supported the most recent coup, and with Kyrgyz leader Roza Otunbayeva officially requesting Russian intervention, the Kremlin may have a way to regain control over Kyrgyzstan.
Russia’s foreign policy is not becoming more cooperative. Just recently President Medvedev said that he “spits” if the U.S. opposes Russia’s expansion in Latin America. Russia is continuing to proliferate civilian nuclear technology as it announced plans to sell nuclear power stations to Turkey and Syria. The latter, of course, is a terrorism-sponsoring state according to the US State Department.
Ignatius’ optimism does not fit reality. The Obama Administration may try and build a “pragmatic partnership” with Russia, but the administration should not recognize a Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet area, nor should it sacrifice freedom and sovereignty of countries like Georgia and Ukraine.
In the short term, Russian pressure might cause the US to move the center of logistics from Manas to another air base. In the long term, nothing can replace development of US bilateral ties with independent states of Eurasia, promoting security, prosperity and good governance.