Putin Succeeds in Getting Kyrgyzstan to Close a Key U.S. Airbase

By Patrick Goodenough | June 27, 2013 | 4:23am EDT

U.S. Air Force KC-135 tankers at the Manas air base in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. (AP Photo/Azamat Imanaliev, File)

(CNSNews.com) – The president of Kyrgyzstan on Wednesday signed a bill finalizing the closure next July of a U.S. airbase that has been a key hub for troops and supplies moving to and from Afghanistan since shortly after 9/11.

One day earlier, visiting Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu assured President Almazbek Atambayev that plans to provide the Central Asian country with Russian weaponry and military equipment next year were being speeded up, and that the supplies would now begin to flow later this year.

The timing of the two developments reflected, yet again, the role Moscow has been playing for years in trying to expel the Americans from the Manas Transit Center, a base some 15 miles north of the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.

The Kremlin has long resented the presence of the U.S. military in resource-rich former Soviet areas it considers “zones of privileged interests.”

Russia itself operates an air base at Kant, just 20 miles from Manas, and last August signed an agreement to extend its stay for another 15 years. Russian officials said late last year that plans to overhaul runways at the airbase in Kant could make it possible to accommodate strategic bombers there in the future.

The bill signed by Atambayev, which was passed by parliament last week by a 91-5 vote, followed a presidential decree on ending the U.S. presence at Manas.

Early last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law ratifying an earlier decision to write off nearly $500 million of debt Kyrgyzstan owed Russia, and later in the month paid a visit to Bishkek for an informal regional security summit and bilateral talks with Atambayev.

The decision to end the U.S. use of Manas is a victory for Putin, who was outmaneuvered during an earlier attempt when the U.S. managed to negotiate a new lease.

On that occasion, Russia in 2009 offered a $2.15 billion aid package to Atambayev’s predecessor, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who just hours later announced an end to the U.S. military presence at Manas.

The Kyrgyz parliament then voted in favor of evicting the Americans, but the U.S. managed to negotiate a new agreement – including a rent hike from $17 million to $60 million a year – and Bakiyev backed down, drawing strong criticism for the country’s pro-Moscow Russian media outlets.

Less than a year later Bakiyev was toppled by the Kyrgyz opposition – Moscow denied allegations it was supporting the uprising – and when he took office later in 2010 Atambayev said he hoped to end the U.S. use of Manas when the current lease expires.

Almost three years later, Atambayev’s government is far from secure, and frequent protests rock the country – in one case late last month prompting the president to declare a state of emergency in a northern region.

Erica Marat, a research fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program, said in an analysis Wednesday that Atambayev sees the U.S. presence at Manas as a destabilizing factor

“For the president, the decision to expel the U.S. military seems to provide a political shield from another political uprising during his tenure,” she said.

Some 1,500 U.S. military personnel and contractors work at Manas, together with about 700 local employees. The U.S. pays $60 million in annual rent and, according to Marat, the Kyrgyzstan economy stands to lose a further $200 million in spending associated with the base.

Although International Security Assistance Force troops are due to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, U.S. officials have spoken about the need for a “bridging force” beyond that date, to help Afghan troops face ongoing security challenges.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in Brussels earlier this month the U.S. would be the largest contributor to a post-2012 mission and intended “to be there for the long haul.”

As part of Operation Enduring Freedom, launched after al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. in September 2001, the U.S. established the base at Manas along with another in the region, Karshi-Kanabad air base in Uzbekistan.

Both served as crucial staging points for the Afghanistan mission but in 2005 Uzbekistan evicted the U.S. from Karshi-Kanabad, amid a dispute with Washington over human rights abuses there.

Moscow was also suspected to have had a hand in that decision, which occurred during Putin’s earlier tenure as president and came just months after the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – a regional security organization including Uzbekistan and dominated by Russia – called for U.S. to set a deadline for withdrawing troops from Central Asia.

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