Russia To Double Presence At Kyrgyzstan Air Base
Following quickly on the announcement of the U.S.'s departure from its air base in Kyrgyzstan, Russia has promised that it will double the number of aircraft at its base in the country, Kant. Over the weekend, during tenth-anniversary celebrations the Kant base, a senior Russian air force official said that the number of aircraft at Kant would "at least double" by December, and that the number of personnel would increase as well.
It's not clear what exactly Russia has at Kant now. While AFP and RT both report that Kant hosts "10 Sukhoi fighters, two Mi-8 helicopters and about a dozen other transport and training airplanes." But this more detailed Russian report says that there are only five Su-25s (along with the two Mi-8s).
Anyway, the symbolic import of Kant has always been greater than its operational significance. It was set up just after the U.S. established Manas, in what seemed an obvious attempt by Russia to respond to the Americans' gaining a foothold on "their" terrain. And according to a short history of the base just published by the Russian military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, over its ten-year history it has served primarily as a base for exercises involving other Central Asian countries. (This is a sort of continuation of the base's Soviet history as a place to train air force pilots from friendly Third World countries, including Hafez al-Assad and Hosni Mubarak, before they became presidents of Syria and Egypt, respectively.)
And during the celebration, there was no mention of the practical role that the base plays, the emphasis being put on its role in Russia-Kyrgyzstan ties. "The location of the Russian base at Kant carries out an important political role," said Russia's acting charge d'affaires in Kyrgyzstan, Yevgeny Terekhin. "This speaks to the high level of relations between Russia and the Kyrgyz Republic, characterized as a strategic partnership and alliance." And RT laid it out pretty bluntly: "The Kant base is seen as a vital tool to increase Russian influence in the region after the US lease at its Manas base expires in July 2014."
However, Kant could soon be taking on a bigger operational mission. It's been designated as a base for the Collective Security Treaty Organization's new Collective Air Forces, assuming that structure in fact gets built (a big "if"). And Russia just signed a deal to keep control of Kant (and all its other military facilities in Kyrgyzstan) through 2032. So it's a big, quick reversal in fortunes for the base that just last year Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev complained served no purpose. "As far as the Russian base is concerned, we will think it over because a base that does not comply with any of the terms of the agreement, that does not pay even the lease for more than four years, while Kyrgyzstan has to pay all utility bills – do we need such a base?” he asked then. The hard feelings were no doubt smoothed over by the promise of a Russian military aid package worth more than $1 billion.
It's interesting, though, that at least according to the news reports neither Atambayev nor any other senior Kyrgyzstani government official was at the Kant celebration.
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.
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