Russia is seeking to expand its military presence in Tajikistan by renting the Ayni airbase, Moscow's ambassador to Dushanbe has said.
Tajikistan already hosts the 201st military base, Russia's largest base outside its borders, but the base "needs an air component," said Igor Lyakin-Frolov at a December 27 news conference in Dushanbe. Russia is currently in talks with Tajikistan about the base, which lies on the outskirts of Dushanbe, Lyakin-Frolov added.
Russian media reported in 2013 that Moscow had started negotiations with Dushanbe over the base. "Signing of an additional agreement on the Ayni air force base, which Moscow also intends to rent and to consider part of the 201st military base, is expected," Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported at the time, citing unnamed officials, though that apparently went nowhere. That Lyakin-Frolov said this on the record gives it a bit more credibility, but the recent history of Ayni has featured a lot of disappointed expectations.
In the 2000s India renovated the base at a cost of $70 million, obviously intending to use it themselves, but that never came to pass, as by 2010 Russia had apparently thwarted India's designs. The Indian press still consistently promotes Ayni as India's military foothold in Central Asia, though Delhi officially seems to have given up.
“As and when any such proposal comes to us for helping them out and making [Ayni] functional, we would be more than happy to do that, but I don’t think that we are going in the direction which you are suggesting,” Indian Ministry of External Affairs Joint Secretary (Eurasia) G Srinivas said in a newspaper interview on the occasion of Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon's visit to India in December. "Our engagement with Tajikistan is more in terms of training, as I just pointed out to you, and of course not to also miss out on that whole creation of infrastructure, bringing back that airfield of Ayni to such a position that it is one of the best airfields now in the region, so that is the engagement with that country."
Russia's own intentions for Ayni have never quite been clear, to say nothing of Tajikistan's. (Dushanbe has yet to comment publicly on Lyakin-Frolov's comments.)
If Russia is in fact making a serious play for the base, the big question is likely cost. "Knowing Tajiks, I expect them to demand money, and not a small sum," said Andrey Merzlikin, a former commander of Russian border guards in Tajikistan, in an interview with Gazeta.ru. "Whether this makes economic sense is difficult to say." The two countries extended their agreement over the 201st base in 2012 for an additional 30 years, and while the specific terms have not been made public, they reportedly include over a billion dollars in (unspecified) military aid.
It's perhaps worth noting that just a month ago Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu promised that Moscow would provide Tajikistan with "a large quantity" of military aircraft.
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.