The U.S. Air Force base in Kyrgyzstan is packing up for closure after more than 12 years of flying troops and cargo in and out of Afghanistan, as Moscow boosts its military clout in the strategic region. Against the backdrop of the Russian actions in Ukraine, experts say Russia’s increasing economic and military influence in the impoverished former Soviet state can be a big strategic gain for Moscow.
Russian-Kyrgyz economic and defense relations are strengthening at a steady pace. Last month, Russia announced that Kyrgyzstan would receive modern Russian weaponry.
Kyrgyzstan is a mainly Muslim country with volatile politics. Leonid Bondarets, a defense analyst based in the Kyrgyz capital city, Bishkek, said good relations between Moscow and Bishkek may mean fewer worries for Moscow about religious extremism. He said when Russia has a friendly government next door, it will not have to worry about seeing the extremism being exported to its territory.
Modernizing the military
Russia is helping Kyrgyzstan modernize its armed forces and last year gave Bishkek a $1.2 billion military package. Russia also operates four military installations in Kyrgyzstan. They include the Kant Air Base near Bishkek and a naval test site in the Tien Shan mountains.
Bondarets, however, said Russia’s close military ties with Kyrgyzstan should not be seen as an attempt to bring the former Soviet state under the umbrella of the Russian security forces. He said the former Soviet states will have to maintain their independence and be responsible for their own security.
Bondarets said Russia is not the Soviet Union anymore in a military sense. That won’t happen anytime soon. He said, therefore, it is in Russia's interests that the Central Asian states take care of their own security.
Russia also provides substantial economic assistance to Kyrgyzstan by helping build its infrastructure. Alisher Yusupov is an expert on economic affairs based in Osh, the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan. He said Russia is helping the country build hydropower stations, assisting it with gas supplies and helping develop its transportation and banking sectors.
Yusupov said Kyrgyzstan accepts Russia as a large economic, military and political partner. This also plays to Russia’s own geopolitical interest in the region, because Kyrgyzstan has a unique location. It is right in the center of Central Asia and it neighbors China.
As Kyrgyzstan seeks closer ties with Russia, the national parliament last year gave Washington until this coming July to close its base at Manas. Yusupov is among the regional experts who say Bishkek will look to fill a revenue gap after the Americans leave.
He said Kyrgyzstan annually earned $140 million from air base lease, taxes and other payments. Now as the U.S. leaves the base, Bishkek may be looking to receive similar compensation from Russia.
And, experts say, it's likely that Moscow may consider it for the sake of its national interests.