As Kyrgyzstan braced for nationwide voting on Sunday, that country's authorities appealed for Russia to send international peacekeepers. Russian talk about its special sphere interests in the former Soviet Union may be just that - talk.
Two summers ago, Russian soldiers drove tanks into Georgia, and Russian power seemed ascendant in the lands of the former Soviet Union. In recent days, the leaders of Kyrgyzstan have begged Moscow to send armed peacekeepers to restore calm after inter-ethnic riots killed 2,000 and left 400,000 homeless. Facing the gravest humanitarian crisis in almost a generation in former Soviet Central Asia, the Kremlin sent blankets and cans of fish.
For almost a decade, Moscow has trumpeted the Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, as Russia's counterweight to NATO. Composed of Russia and six former Soviet republics, the CSTO gave muscle to Russia's argument that it enjoyed a privileged sphere of influence over areas first ruled by the Moscow in the 19th century. Russia's state controlled media faithfully covered CSTO meetings and its plans to create a rapid deployment force to handle emergencies around the region.
On Sunday, Kyrgzstan is to hold a nationwide referendum on a new constitution. Kyrgyzstan's civilian leaders have shaky control over their military. They believe that Russian peacekeepers could head off a repeat of the inter-ethnic rioting that bloodied the nation's south two weeks ago.
Bakyt Beshimov, a Kyrgyz member of parliament visiting Washington this week, said he now thinks that Russia's security organization is all talk and no action. "In a time of crisis, CSTO was incapable to resolve the tension or play the positive role in Kygyzstan," he said.
On Thursday, Russia's President Dmitri Medvedev met President Barack Obama at the White House. Buried in a long list of communiqués was a joint statement on Kyrgyzstan, expressing support for coordinated multilateral response to this crisis.
Across town, at the Carnegie Endowment, Martha Olcott, a Central Asia expert, said that a lot of Kremlin rhetoric about policing the lands of the former Soviet Union is for domestic consumption. "We overestimate Russia's capacity. A lot of what Russia says it wants to do in former Soviet space is for its own domestic audience, to create a sense that you have to think of us as a great power, meaning the Russian people, you have to think of us as a domestic power, to create political goods for the regime," he said.
To other foreign analysts, like Alexandros Petersen of the Atlantic Council, Russian inaction in Kyrgyzstan has popped an illusion of Russian power projection. "Their bluff has been called," he said.
For three years, Russia talked about forming a rapid deployment brigade capable of responding to regional emergencies such as Kyrgyzstan. The brigade does not exist. Now, Petersen said, the world may look differently at Russia's claim to play a special security role in lands once ruled by Moscow. "Clear demonstration that the claims that Russia is making about a privileged sphere of influence in the greater Black Sea region and in Central Asia is much more rhetoric than it is in practice and it may in the long run engender a shift in the way that Russia speaks about the region in security terms," he said.
Inside Russia, there is little popular support for a military action in an impoverished, former colony, 600 miles south of Russia's border. The number of military age Russia men is shrinking, and the Kremlin carefully rations military actions.
Humanitarian and peacekeeping actions are not specialties of Russia's army, said Ghia Nodia, a strategic studies expert in Georgia, a nation that lost a war to Russian troops who poured across the Russian-Georgian border in August 2008. "Russia power is most negative in the sense that Russia, as I said, can punish for not following Russia, for betraying Russia, or for being with somebody else," he said.
Russia first occupied Kyrgyzstan and much of Central Asia in the 1870s, a time when China was weak and the Czars had what they saw as an endless supply of draft age peasant men. The Soviet Union inherited much of the czarist empire.
But, much has changed in the two decades since the Soviet collapse, Martha Olcott says. "I think we have always exaggerated the degree to which Russia intended to be, to invest anything in being a strategic leader in Central Asia. Influence that you can cheaply obtain, they were happy to obtain. Commercial influence they very much want. But I think we completely exaggerated their interest in expending any resources in achieve strategic domination in Central Asia," she said.
Blocking China is a big incentive for the Kremlin, says Ariel Cohen, Eurasia expert for the Heritage Foundation. "People in Moscow, the decision makers do not want China to become a net exporter of security to Central Asia, because that will raise a huge question mark over 150 years of Russian presence in that region," she said.
In key meetings in recent years, Chinese envoys have stiffened the spines of Central Asian leaders to stand up to Moscow, says Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington. "The real struggle here is between Russia and China. China is winning. Russia overplayed its hand, and the United States and the West are looking for a role on this still. The myth of Russian privileged relationship in Central Asia is dying in practice. It turned out to be a lot of words and not much reality," he said.
As Kyrgyzstan leaders brace for what could be a weekend of conflicts, they have made another plea for international peacekeepers, their fourth, this time to Europe. Envoys from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are to review the request - next week, after Sunday's constitutional referendum voting.