Dushanbe Risks Losing Russian Protection While Haggling Over Base
There have been numerous news reports of late claiming that Tajikistan is considering charging Russia for the use of its 201st military base. Even a specific price – $300 million a year – was mentioned, citing a Foreign Ministry official in Tajikistan.
Clearly, if this number is not a joke or just an opening bid, it could result in the complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Tajikistan, since Moscow will obviously refuse to pay this price.
Apparently, someone in this impoverished and extremely corrupt country is hell-bent on making a quick buck, and it could come either from Moscow or Washington, depending on who pays more for the right to have a military base in Tajikistan.
Like many other developing countries, Central Asian nations continue to believe in the unlimited power of the U.S. military, and perhaps hope that they will protect them from the Taliban better than Russia. (The Taliban will almost certainly return to power after the U.S. and NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014). However, this belief is totally unfounded.
For purely geographic reasons, after the United States withdraws most of its troops from Afghanistan, it will not be able to gain a foothold either in Afghanistan or Central Asia for that matter. As is known, this is a land-locked region, so the Americans will depend on the countries surrounding Afghanistan to provide ground access and/or air corridors to deliver supplies to American troops stationed in Afghanistan.
The countries in question include Russia, China, Central Asian states, Pakistan and Iran. The Americans will have to go through at least one of these countries. Iran is an open enemy of the United States, while the rest will eagerly seek the most profitable terms for providing the U.S. access to Afghanistan.
This may come as a double blow to the United States, because Afghanistan is on the other side of the globe. Thus, the problem of supplies becomes even more complicated even in the absence of any opposing forces.
Moreover, Pakistan could become a second Iran, only worse, because Islamabad has nuclear weapons and sufficiently reliable means of delivery.
If the Taliban launch a large-scale offensive against Kabul, it will undoubtedly have the support of the Pakistani army (perhaps, with the direct involvement of some units). Of course, in this case, Islamabad and Washington will find themselves in direct military confrontation. Then, supplies to U.S. bases will be completely dependent on the Central Asian countries, as well as (at least indirectly) on Russia and China, who have a great influence in Central Asia.
Recently, China has established itself as the main geopolitical ally and protector of Islamabad and, to top it off, has very serious plans with regard to Afghanistan’s natural resources. Accordingly, it will do everything to create as many problems for the United States as it can.
It is difficult to say what Moscow will do in such a situation, but it is clear that complete dependence on Russia in such a critical situation is totally unacceptable for Washington.
At the slightest aggravation of the situation in any country in the region, the U.S. “limited contingent” will become a liability – not a military force, but a hostage of the surrounding countries in the region.
In addition, the latest version of U.S. military doctrine clearly states that the United States will no longer engage in protracted large-scale counterinsurgency wars. So, hopes for American protection make no sense whatsoever. In general, it is absurd to presume that the Americans will ever go as far as spilling the blood of their soldiers to help out Karimov or Rakhmon.
It is therefore clear that if Russian troops withdraw from Tajikistan, it will actually create a problem for Tajikistan, not Russia. Even if Taliban’s terrorist sabotage groups arriving in Tajikistan from Afghanistan fail to win mass support among the locals, the security forces in Uzbekistan and especially Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan will find it difficult to counter them effectively. That’s where they may find themselves in need of Russia’s help.
If the Taliban manage to provoke a mass Islamic uprising in the Fergana Valley, this will be a real disaster. Russia’s help is no guarantee that the regimes in Tashkent, Bishkek or Dushanbe will survive, but without Russia’s help they are doomed.
It is appropriate to draw a comparison between Tajikistan and Armenia. The latter is well aware that the Russian 102nd military base on its territory acts as the guarantor of the country’s independence. Accordingly, Armenia needs Russian troops much more than Russia.
Therefore, not only is Yerevan not trying to make Russia pay for its base, but instead is paying for it in full. The Tajik army is much weaker than the Armenian one, but for some reason Dushanbe believes that Russia needs the base more than Dushanbe does. Delusions run deep.
In fact, withdrawal from Tajikistan will make things easier for Russia. It won’t have to shoulder the cost of maintaining a force so far away, freeing up resources to support Kazakhstan, which, for geopolitical reasons, Russia may need to defend like its own territory.
Stepping back a few hundred kilometers to the north, Russia will reduce its potential losses, both in manpower and materiel. And the Rakhmon regime will have signed its own delayed death warrant.
Uzbekistan does not want Russia’s help in the first place, so defense is its own responsibility. Kyrgyzstan thus becomes the front line of defense in the south. Russia and Kazakhstan will find it easier to defend this line due to shorter lines of communication. Of course, Kyrgyzstan will find itself in a fairly bad situation. Although, saving only one country will be easier for Moscow and Astana than saving three states at a time.
Unfortunately, Moscow will no doubt try to keep Dushanbe from making this illogical step, and will perhaps even go as far as making certain concessions and using its own money to pay for the security of Tajikistan, which the Tajik leadership doesn’t seem to care about. In the 1990s, Russia saved the Tajik people from self-destruction and helped preserve Tajikistan statehood. Apparently, now they want to relieve Russia of the need to do so again.
However, we cannot rule out the possibility that the Tajik leadership has opted for the protection of Beijing, not Washington. That would signal a whole new ball game and a new geopolitical reality.
The Chinese political scientist Wu Sezhi said two years ago that “the creation of the SCO meets the political and economic interests of China in Central Asia and increases its influence over the former socialist republics. Their role as objects of geopolitical strategy for the United States and Russia is diminishing, and they are showing growing confidence in China.”
Clearly, the rivalry between Russia and China in Central Asia is not just inevitable, it has already begun.
*Alexander Khramchikhin, Deputy Director, Institute for Political and Military Analysis, for RIA Novosti.