Russia and Kyrgyzstan are discussing the possible establishment of another Russian military base in Kyrgyzstan, amid a renewed Russian emphasis on the security environment in Central Asia. The Russian military currently operates a military air base at Kant, near the capital, Bishkek, and the two sides are considering a second that would be located in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Speaking to Sputnik International in early October, the prime minister of Kyrgyzstan, Sapar Isakov, noted that talks continue on the subject of a second base. He said:
Consultations on this issue were held at the level of relevant ministries. The Kyrgyz Republic believes that a military base should be established in the south, not only to ensure security in Kyrgyzstan, but also in the region as a whole. We do not have a final decision from both sides yet. Talks on this topic are still underway.[i]
Isakov did not specify where, precisely, the new military base would be located, but it likely would be based near Osh or in Batken Region, in the Ferghana Valley. The two sides have discussed the potential for a new Russian base there for well over a decade; in May 2005, the governor of Osh Region, Anvar Artykov, told reporters, “There has been preliminary talk about a military base in Osh, about a Russian anti-terror unit here.”[ii]
The ostensible point of the second military base has not changed since 2005. Russia views Central Asia as a bulwark against extremists based in Afghanistan, and thus has emphasized its security commitment to its neighbors in the region. Renewed Taliban, and to a lesser extent Islamic State, pressure on the Afghan government has spurred concerns in Central Asia over the possibility of the conflict spilling over borders northward. A pair of terrorist attacks in 2016 in Kazakhstan and a prison break in 2015 in Kyrgyzstan – the latter under uncertain circumstances though officially blamed by Kyrgyz authorities on Islamist extremists[iii] – underscore that violence perpetrated by Islamists, even if relatively infrequent in the region, can have a significant effect on the perception of stability.
It is unlikely that terrorism is the only consideration in Moscow, which views Central Asia as an important site of competition with other world powers, namely China. China does not operate any military bases in Central Asia, compared to Russia’s base in Kyrgyzstan as well as a deployment to Tajikistan, though it does on occasion hold bilateral or multilateral military exercises with its neighbors to the west. Where China does actively compete in Central Asia, however, is in its economic heft. China’s Belt and Road economic development plan envisions billions of dollars in investment in many foreign countries, including some in Central Asia, implying long-term Chinese engagement with the region should the plans come to fruition. Russia cannot match China in foreign investment, but it can underpin the region’s security through its military, helping to maintain Russian political influence in Central Asia.
Also in Russia’s considerations is the continued presence of American troops in Afghanistan. The United States’ engagement with Central Asia has withered from its peak in the immediate years after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when the U.S. operated multiple air bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and may well have utilized nominally neutral Turkmenistan as a transit hub.[iv] The U.S. State Department has continued the “C5+1” platform begun under former Secretary of State John Kerry, though it is unclear how much the U.S. is currently emphasizing Central Asia given that it did not feature in a major foreign policy speech on Afghanistan delivered by President Donald Trump in August.[v] Nevertheless, the new deployment of American troops to Afghanistan as well as President Trump’s “shift from a time-based approach” in the country ensures an American security commitment to the area for the foreseeable future, which could well spur renewed dialogue between the U.S. and the countries of Central Asia.
Lost in the speculation on geopolitical ambition is the response of Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors to the proposed new military base, which, if based in Osh or Batken, would sit close to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The latter hosts a Russian military base already, but, as Bruce Pannier noted for RFE/RL, is unlikely to take kindly to the fact that Kyrgyzstan “has contemplated a scenario where Tajik authorities are unable to prevent problems spreading from the Afghan border to the Kyrgyz border hundreds of kilometers to the north.”[vi]
Under the late Uzbek president Islam Karimov, Tashkent vocally opposed the plans for a Russian base in Osh. The country’s foreign ministry said in August 2009 that the possible base could “reinforce militarization processes” and “seriously destabilize the situation in the vast region.”[vii] In contrast, Uzbekistan has been largely silent over the new reports of continued Russian-Kyrgyz negotiations. While tensions between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were strained during Karimov’s tenure, new Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has made positive relations with Uzbekistan’s neighbors a central piece of his foreign policy. Bishkek and Tashkent have explored dialogue over issues that have longed plagued the two countries, such as border demarcation and resource use. In a positive sign, on October 2 the two sides reached an agreement on delineating much of their shared border.[viii]
Although the proposed Russian base has the potential to sour the tentative improvements made so far between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, President Mirziyoyev enjoys a much better relationship with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin than his predecessor Karimov did. He made a state visit to Russia in April and, three months later, Russia announced that joint Uzbek-Russian military exercises, the first since 2005, would be held in October of this year.[ix] It is thus unclear whether President Mirziyoyev views the proposed Russian base in the same negative context – that it is destabilizing militarization of the Ferghana Valley – as Karimov. The base, should it be agreed to and established, therefore serves as a key test of the degree to which Uzbek foreign policy has changed with respect to relations with Russia and Kyrgyzstan following Uzbekistan’s first post-Soviet leadership transition.
There is no guarantee that the base will be established in the near future, however. Kyrgyzstan and Russia have discussed the topic for well over a decade with little more than public statements to show for it. Bishkek has certainly identified the new base as important and Russia has multiple security interests in following through, but some analysts have assessed that, financially, Russia “simply cannot afford taking that step now.”[x] Russia is currently seeking to finance the continued modernization of its forces, while also carrying out military operations in Syria in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the country’s current defense budget anticipates a cut of 7 to 8 percent in 2017 compared to the 2016 budget. The creation of a new base, therefore, may well not be high on Russia’s priority list, at least for the time being.