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Can Russian Giveaways Of Old Weapons Keep U.S. Shut Out Of Central Asia

Russian helicopters flying over Kazakhstan
Russian helicopters flying over Kazakhstan
Ivan Safronov, Elena Chernenko and Kabai Karbekov

BISHKEK — Russia has reached a deal with the leaders of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to provide military aid to the two Central Asian nations. Though the details are still being hammered out, Moscow appears to have netted a deal with potentially major geopolitical implications.

“We have agreed with our colleagues regarding the delivery of weapons, which will be provided at the expense of the Russian Ministry of Defense,” Valery Gerasimov, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Russian Army, told Kommersant matter-of-factly late last week.

In the aid agreement, Russia has pledged to give $1.1 billion in military aid to Kyrgyzstan and $200 million to Tajikistan. Moscow’s plans to bankroll a modernization in both countries’ armed forces was first reported last November, but the details of the military aid are only being worked out now.

According to Russia officials briefed in the negotiations, delays occurred because both the central Asian countries were dragging their feet in completing some of Moscow's key prerequisites for granting the aid. One key issue for Moscow was that the Kyrgyz government finally officially announce that U.S. troops would be leaving the country, and a closing date of June 2014 was given for the American base at Manas. Meanwhile in Tajikistan, the Lower House of Parliament at last ratified an agreement allowing the Russian army to open a 201st military base in Tajik territory this past week.

After the ratification of the agreement allowing the Russian base, Sherali Khairulloev, the Tajik Defense Minister, said that "in exchange, we will get help in terms of aviation, communications equipment, artillery, missiles and infantry weapons.” He added that there are also plans to possibly expand the program that allows free tuition for Tajik students studying in military universities in Russia (there are around 500 such students now). In conjunction with the military help, Russia has also promised to give migrants from Tajikistan special benefits, and to abolish tariffs on petroleum and lubricants between Russia and Tajikistan. An official agreement on those points is expected soon.

According to sources at the Russian Joint Chiefs of Staff, Kyrgyzstan will be receiving helicopters, armored transport and armored cars, mobile multiple rocket launchers, artillery machinery as well as communications equipment. “Bishkek the Kyrgyz capital is primarily interested in dry-land military transportation, due to its geographic characteristics,” our source explained.

Sources in the Kyrgyz Defense Ministry said that the full accounting of the military aid was not yet complete. “Right now, our specialists in military management and administration of the Ministry of Defense are visiting military factories in Russia,” one source explained. He said that Kyrgyzstan could get both brand new machines as well as used machines. “The thing Kyrgyzstan needs most is helicopters. Our military doesn’t have any attack helicopters that are suitable for military action,” he explained.

Regional influence

According to experts, two central objectives were driving Moscow's seemingly generous aid to its Central Asian neighbors. One is to provide security to the south in advance of NATO’s planned withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. But the most important motivation behind Russia’s military aid is to prevent the United States from gaining a stronger foothold in the region.

“The important question right now is, who will provide the security structure in Central Asia post-2014,” explained Vadim Koyulin, an expert from the Russian Center for Policy Studies. “The U.S. has not yet made its plans clear, but it is not out of the question that the U.S. would want to have military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.” By announcing military aid to both countries very quickly, Russia has managed to “take the initiative away from the United States and become the main actor in Central Asia, at least in terms of security.”

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan had both expressed interest in receiving the American military supplies that are being removed from Afghanistan. “If American engineers and instructors had accompanied the supplies, a growth in U.S. influence in the region would have been unavoidable,” explained a source in the Russian government. “Now there is a barrier for the U.S.”

In Kyrgyzstan, Alik Karimbekov, a representative of the Defense Council, confirmed that "there are currently no discussions with the Pentagon regarding Kyrgyzstan getting used American military equipment.”

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