How Russia Outmaneuvered America

The fascinating power politics behind an overlooked coup in Central Asia
 

This tiny Central Asian state had witnessed street protests before. Discontent and restlessness were widespread: The president had promised political freedom, democratic reform and transparency—but he turned out to be even more despotic and corrupt than the man he replaced in a revolution five years earlier. Public demonstrations against his regime, however, had always fizzled.

This time was different. Very different. Within a blur of 24 hours, Kyrgyzstan was transformed. On April 7, the capital erupted in bloody riots, the president fled, the deputy prime minister was taken hostage, the interior minister was killed, and the government fell. A new chief executive assumed power and quickly appointed defense, finance and interior ministers. Within days, it appeared the nation’s security services were firmly under the control of the new interim government.

Apart from some 79 deaths, several hundred injuries and some property damage, it was remarkably seamless for a revolution.

In fact, there is little reason to believe it erupted spontaneously. All the evidence points to a well-orchestrated, well-planned and -executed operation—and much of that evidence points to Russia.

While a stunned United States and Europe were scrambling to formulate a diplomatic response to the coup, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin enthusiastically became the first world leader to recognize the new government—within hours of it taking power. Russian Federal Security Service agents were reportedly present during the riots. Asia Times reported on rumors that emissaries from Russia’s foreign and military intelligence “played a significant covert role in neutralizing Bakiyev’s military and security power base by persuading senior Kyrgyz officers to keep most of their forces off the streets” (April 13). Immediately after the takeover, Russia had 150 more paratroopers on the ground, joining the forces it already had on its five military bases in the country. Russian offers of political and financial support soon followed. And Russian agents had apparently persuaded the Kyrgyz High Command to back the new government.

What this means is that, by all appearances, Kyrgyzstan is just Russia’s most recent conquest in its near abroad, after having secured Ukraine just months ago by influencing elections there, and practically taking Georgia by force in 2008.

It also means that America’s foothold in strategically crucial Central Asia has been significantly pried loose.

Central Asia is a strategic battleground—particularly for Russia, China, Europe, Iran and America. Its location as a crossroads between Asia and the Middle East—combined with its energy wealth—make it central in the region’s balance of power.

While Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have the resources that other Central Asian countries do, it is extremely valuable real estate. Russia views it as an important buffer against Islam’s northward push. Radical Islamists exploit it as a transit route. China has commercial interests there, and eyes it as posing a potential threat to its own missile sites, situated near the two nations’ shared border. nato considers it pivotal to its designs on expanding its presence into Central Asia. As Stratfor wrote on April 9, “The country lies in a key geographic location nestled against China and Kazakhstan, and surrounds the most critical piece of territory in all of Central Asia: the Fergana Valley. Whoever controls Kyrgyzstan has the ability to pressure a number of states, including Kazakhstan, China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.”

Kyrgyzstan has also grown in significance because it hosts America’s only remaining military base in Central Asia. Manas air base, just outside the country’s capital, is now the main supply base for U.S. troops in what has become America’s chief theater of war, Afghanistan. Each month, 50,000 American troops pass through there.

So crucial is this base, that Washington has gotten its hands filthy in order to hang on to it, propping up and enriching a patently crooked government. Amid the series of “color revolutions” in the former Soviet and Balkan states in the early 2000s, the U.S. encouraged and celebrated the apparent surge in democracy. In Kyrgyzstan, it backed Kurmanbek Bakiyev in ousting the nation’s president in the “Tulip Revolution” of 2005. But Bakiyev has proven himself a tyrant—and Kyrgyzstan has suffered terribly for it. In five short years, the nation has gone from relative stability to basket case, a nearly failed state plagued by cronyism and economic mismanagement. A U.S. State Department report last year accused Bakiyev’s government of pervasive corruption, judicial abuses, bullying of media, arbitrary arrest and detention, child abuse and child labor, trafficking in persons, killing and torture. Yet Washington—supposed defender of democracy, human rights and the rule of law—stood by him, paying millions (which many say he personally pocketed) to continue leasing Manas. In 2006, Bakiyev threatened to evict the U.S. if Washington didn’t pay more rent. The U.S. subsequently upped its annual payment from $80 million to $150 million.

Russia has always hated America’s presence in its backyard. All the Central Asian countries besides Afghanistan were once a part of the old Soviet Union; for years now, Russia has been on a mission to haul those states and its other Soviet-era satellites back under its umbrella of influence. Along with China, it has worked hard to dislodge America’s presence from the region entirely. In 2005, it successfully pressured Uzbekistan to evict the United States from its air base in the country, leaving Kyrgyzstan with Central Asia’s last remaining U.S. military base.

“America’s presence in Moscow’s and Beijing’s backyard has gone a long way in keeping these two nations in check—even curbing their efforts to dominate the surrounding regions,” we wrote at the time. “The eviction of America from Central Asia will constitute a severe geopolitical defeat for the U.S. and significant win for Russia and China. … We can expect Russia and China to succeed in evicting America from Central Asia” (theTrumpet.com, Aug. 8, 2005).

In February of last year, Russia focused on finishing the job. It offered several lollipops including over $2 billion in aid to President Bakiyev, who—in a display of the shallowness of his loyalty to anything other than himself—promptly announced plans to close Manas. The U.S. responded by offering this scoundrel more than triple the original rent, and Bakiyev flip-flopped again, agreeing to keep the air base open. The Kremlin, which had already supplied over $400 million of its pledge, was furious.

Washington’s policy of trying to secure a place in Central Asia by purchasing a self-interested despot was always flimsy stuff. Now, we see Russia’s cagey, and deadly effective, countermove. Analysts can connect a series of dots showing how the Kremlin stirred up the Kyrgyz public’s agitation with Bakiyev—and prepared pro-Russian, virtual puppet leadership to replace him.

How long do you suppose it will be now before the U.S. gets bounced?

Kyrgyzstan’s new interim leader, Roza Otunbayeva, has said America can stay in Manas, but Russian officials reveal they’re going to urge her to shut the base down; the current lease expires in June. The U.S. says it can find other ways to supply its war effort, but reality is that the alternatives would all depend even more on Russia.

Bottom line: Russia successfully schemed to overthrow a U.S.-supported government. Through canny manipulation, it fortified its power position over the U.S. considerably and could now seek to tighten the screws on America’s supply lines to Afghanistan. Washington got badly outmaneuvered. (And, heightening the humiliation, this is the nation with which President Obama just signed a new nuclear disarmament treaty that will save the Russians hundreds of billions of dollars.)

Watch. This summer, we may see Russia allow the U.S. to continue using Manas to fight the Taliban (one of its own enemies, after all) in order to extract even-more-precious concessions from a weak-willed White House, such as in Eastern Europe. Whichever way it chooses to do so, expect Moscow to exercise its increased leverage against America to accelerate its former archenemy’s already rapid loss of influence in the world.

GoogleFollow Joel Hilliker on Twitter or e-mail him. You can read his past articles here.
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