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US Presence in Central Asia Worries Moscow - 2002-05-06

For the first time, the United States has established military bases in Central Asia. Though the U.S. forces have arrived to fight terrorism, they have aroused anxiety in Moscow by intruding on its traditional area of influence.

While the military presence in Central Asia may not be permanent or even long term, the United States has put no time limit on its stay.

According to the Jamestown Report, U.S. forces will remain in the region as long as there is a terrorism threat. On a recent trip to Central Asia, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he is happy with the cooperation of the various countries. They, in turn, said they are pleased with the U.S. presence.

Moscow is not so happy. Top Russian officials say the U.S. deployment may lead to more terrorism in the region. It may also draw the United States closer to conflict with Iran or Iraq or even China.

Jamestown senior analyst Vladimir Socor says the Russians do have something to worry about. "We are witnessing a geopolitical revolution of world historical significance in Eurasia today," he said. "The theater of this revolution is the former Soviet Union. Its onetime components, now newly independent countries, are increasingly gaining the ability to forge their own alliance relationships with the United States, while the old metropolis Moscow is increasingly less able to influence these countries' decisions."

Russia has stepped up its pressure on Kyrgyzstan, which is hosting 3,000 U.S. and allied troops at its Ganci air force base. Mr. Socor says Moscow may soon be calling on groups loyal to it within the Kyrgyz political system and is indicating it may not reschedule Kyrgyzstan's debts as planned.

In post-Soviet times, says Mr. Socor, Moscow has followed a policy in Central Asia of conquering by dividing. "The whole Russian strategy of preserving a degree of domination in those areas has been predicated on the fostering of controlled instability," he said. "This pattern can be traced to almost every location in this vast region. In almost every place, Russian policy has fostered local conflicts in order to create openings for Russia to step in as arbiter and manipulate the parties to the conflict against each other."

The U.S. arrival has certainly changed conditions in Central Asia, says Robert Legvold, but not necessarily for the worse.

A professor of political science at Columbia University, Mr. Legvold thinks Russia, the United States and also China are aware of the danger and are engaging in quiet talks to prevent it. "More positively, this is also an opportunity now if all three sides, but particularly Russia and the United States, look upon this as an area where we indeed could cooperate, and if we actually begin talking about the way in which we can act together in order to promote stability in the region rather than tear apart our mutual relations," he said.

Professor Legvold says a peaceful outcome is possible if none of the major powers pushes too hard for advantage over the others.

He says the danger for the United States is taking a too narrow view of its presence in Central Asia. "We essentially backed in there because it was a necessary support for the effort in Afghanistan, and it continues to be a piece in the overall mosaic as we deal with global terrorism," said Robert Legvold. "But in the meanwhile, we have arrived in an area with its own potential troubles, and I think we have not yet thought through the strategic implications of being in Central Asia as such."

Professor Legvold says it is crucial for the United States to know where it is headed in Central Asia and what the possible consequences may be. In other words, a clear strategy is essential.