By M K Bhadrakumar
A period of intense high-level exchange is commencing this week between Russia and its Central Asian allies – and Pakistan. What characterizes the Russian strategy is a robust attempt to develop comprehensive partnerships with these countries in preparation of the post-2014 scenario in Afghanistan with the expected withdrawal of the troops of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The Russian focus is, not surprisingly, on the three countries to the north and south of Afghanistan – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Pakistan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forthcoming visit to Bishkek on Thursday promises to be a turning point in Moscow’s strategy. He is following it up in early October with visits to Islamabad and Dushanbe.
A raft of Russian-Kyrgyz agreements has been negotiated, to be signed during Putin’s visit to Bishkek. The indications are that Russia may write off two-fifths of the debt owed it by Kyrgyzstan (converting some of it for acquiring assets in Kyrgyzstan) and is committing itself to deeper involvement in the Kyrgyz economy, including renewed assistance in the construction of the Kamarata-1 hydroelectric dam project (despite objections by Uzbekistan).
The agreements include a strategic accord on the extension of the lease for Russia’s military facilities in the Central Asian country reportedly for a further 15-year period from 2017. These agreements taken together are expected to restore the mutual trust in the Russian-Kyrgyz relations, which had eroded in recent years leading to the ouster of Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev in a violent popular upsurge in April last year.
Bakiyev had reneged on his earlier plan to evict US forces from Manas Air Base, and Russian-Kyrgyz ties suffered a serious jolt.
The current leadership of Kyrgyzstan has also expressed its intention to join the Customs Union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus – although attaining full membership is going to be a long haul, given the weakness of the Kyrgyz economy in relation to the other three prospective partner countries.
The recent change of the Kyrgyz government led by Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov has not affected the momentum in the recent strengthening of Russian-Kyrgyz ties. The political changes in Bishkek may even work to Moscow’s advantage insofar as the presidency gains the upper hand and Moscow enjoys warm equations with President Almazbek Atambayev (although Russian influence with Kyrgyz politicians is fairly widespread).
Atambayev has openly called for the termination of the US base in Manas when the lease expires in 2014. He has spoken about converting the military base into a civilian facility (which the US can also make use of). But Washington has not accepted that this could be Atambayev’s final word on the subject.
Therefore, Putin’s visit to Bishkek this week will be keenly watched in Washington, especially whether Moscow proposes to strengthen its military presence in the volatile southern region bordering Fergana Valley. Manas is vital for the US as a transit hub for supplying the troops in Afghanistan, especially for their rotation. The hectic US efforts in recent months to tie up alternative basing facilities in Central Asia (in the event of eviction from Manas) have not borne fruit so far.
If anything, these efforts suffered a setback recently with Uzbekistan passing legislation banning foreign military bases on its soil. Moscow is carefully calibrating its relations with Kyrgyzstan with a view to influencing Uzbek policies vis-a-vis the US.
Engine of integration
Both Moscow and Tashkent are adept at fine-tuning this sort of delicate diplomatic waltz in their “time-tested” relationship. Arguably, there are signs of new thinking in the Uzbek policies in the most recent weeks in deference to the Russian interests. On the whole, September has turned out to be a good month for the Moscow-led integration processes in the Central Asian region. Uzbekistan has once again stated its intention to join the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) Free Trade Zone Treaty before the end of this year.
Uzbekistan and Russia had signed a memorandum of understanding on the FTZ issue during Putin’s stopover in Tashkent in June, but since then, Uzbek policies have become increasingly unpredictable. Thus President Islam Karimov’s affirmation of the Uzbek decision in a joint statement with Kazakh President Nurusultan Nazarbayev after their talks in Astana last week will be duly noted in Moscow.
At present, Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are signatories of the FTZ Treaty. Uzbekistan’s accession will provide a shot in the arm for the CIS integration process, given the size of its market and its diverse economy.
Equally, last week, the three countries belonging to the Customs Union (which is slated to evolve in due course into the Eurasian Economic Community) have taken a significant step toward forming a Eurasian Parliament. A working group to study the modalities of setting up the parliament met in Moscow last Thursday.
Evidently, the expectation is to create a broad-based political platform that brings together the political elites on a regular basis on the pattern of the European Parliament for harmonizing various national interests and formulating common positions and policies. Russia has thoughtfully mooted Astana as the seat of the proposed Eurasian Parliament.
The Speaker of Russia’s Federation Council of the Federal Assembly, Valentina Matviyenko, described Kazakhstan in this context as the “engine of Eurasian integration”. It is a revealing statement pointing toward the key role as “facilitator” that is increasingly played by Astana by helping out with the removal of wrinkles that appear from time to time on the Moscow-led integration processes.
However, what is of tangible significance to regional security in the near term is the report that appeared last week to the effect that Russia and Tajikistan have agreed on the terms of the continued presence of Russia’s 201 Motorized Division for another 30-year period. This issue has been hanging fire for some time, and there have been protracted negotiations, which often erupted into public statements by both sides.
Tajikistan has been the focus of intense great-power rivalries lately. The US was hoping to secure basing facilities in Tajikistan. As per earlier indications, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is due to visit Dushanbe in the third week of October. A visit by Putin to Dushanbe in October also seems to be in the cards. At the eleventh hour, Moscow seems to have ensured that it will not be squeezed out by the Pentagon in Tajikistan.
Thus, all things taken into account, we are witnessing a “big bang” in Moscow’s Central Asia policy. Most certainly, it needs to seen against the backdrop of the sustained efforts by the United States in the recent months to create “lily pads” in Central Asia and the lengthening shadows of Chinese presence in the region. From the Russian viewpoint, NATO’s drawdown in Afghanistan and the uncertainties of the post-2014 regional security scenario demand proactivism in its regional policies.
Again, there is also the big picture – Putin’s Eurasia Union project. Another round of summits of the Eurasian bodies, including the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), is being scheduled for the third week of December in Moscow, which will be the second such enterprise after Putin’s return to the Kremlin in May.
How Moscow and Tashkent propose to follow up on the latter’s recent decision to “suspend” its CSTO membership will be a key salient of the Moscow conclave. Moscow’s reaction so far has been one of reticence, which would suggest that it expected some sort of rethink on the part of Tashkent.
The heart of the matter is that the CSTO, without Uzbekistan in it, cannot hope to gain traction as a vehicle of collective security in Central Asia. In a manner of speaking, therefore, the Russian moves in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have a much broader regional reach than their bilateral content would suggest.
The sort of role that Moscow chooses to play in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would have great bearing on Tashkent’s policies. Having said that, the alchemy of Russian-Uzbek relations is a critical vector of Moscow’s Central Asia strategy; this was so even during the Soviet era.
Congruence of interests
Clearly, Putin’s visit to Pakistan, which is now expected to take place in October, has been scheduled at a most critical juncture in Russia’s Central Asia strategy. The visit was slated originally for August but Moscow evidently sought first to consolidate its strategic understanding with its Central Asian allies (especially Tajikistan) before hopping over to the south of the Pamirs and the Hindu Kush.
Most certainly, Russia’s acute concerns over the stabilization of Afghanistan provide the raison d’etre of the steady normalization of ties with Pakistan, but the geopolitical situation in the Central Asian region and the overall impasse in the US-Russia reset also need to be factored in. To be sure, Russia and Pakistan are eager to put behind them their past indifference toward each other and are showing interest in approaching the issues of regional security and stability as stakeholders.
The announcement in Islamabad that the Pakistani army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani, will visit Russia this month at the invitation of the chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General Nikolai Makarov, is a dramatic indicator of the stirrings in the air.
That the visit by Kiani to Russia is being scheduled just ahead of Putin’s arrival in Islamabad on October 2 on a two-day visit merits attention. Moscow would take a good look at Kiani’s reputation as a staunch exponent of Pakistan’s strategic autonomy. His visit underscores that Russia is open to military-to-military cooperation with Pakistan.
On October 3, Pakistan will host a session of its quadrilateral summit of the heads of state from Russia, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The key agenda item for the summit will be the struggle against terrorism in the Central Asian region.
The emergent geopolitical reality is that Russia and Pakistan have realized that they have a congruence of interests in the post-2014 scenario of regional security and they simply cannot afford to remain indifferent toward each other anymore.
The tensions and the fracture in the US-Pakistan relationship have compelled Islamabad to seek out Russia and mend bridges with it, while Moscow is gearing up for an expansion of its strategic profile not only in Central Asia and South Asia but in the Greater Middle East as a whole, where Pakistan has a looming presence by virtue of being a nuclear power and a major Sunni Muslim country.
The ground reality is that while the US might keep the Soviet-era military bases in Afghanistan, the transit routes that ferry supplies for those bases happen to be under the control of Russia or Pakistan. And if Russia and Pakistan coordinate their approach, it will be to mutual advantage.
The administration of US President Barack Obama is maintaining an air of strategic ambiguity in its regional policies in Pakistan and Central Asia. A clearer picture of the US intentions may be available only after the November election. But Moscow has begun posing taunting questions.
Addressing a regional audience last week in Astana, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov termed NATO’s plans to keep permanent military bases in Afghanistan as “controversial”. He demanded, “We need clarity here: If the anti-terrorist mission is complete (and this is still in doubt), then are the bases being kept for some other purpose?”
The Russian angst will find resonance in Islamabad. There is no sign of any let-up in the US pressure on Pakistan. Islamabad counted on the Taliban as its “strategic asset” in the Afghan end-game, but there is no visible urgency on Washington’s part to engage the Taliban in substantive talks.
The latest decision by Washington to brand the Haqqani Network a terrorist group grates on Pakistani policy and puts added pressure on the Pakistani military to commence operations against the group’s sanctuaries in North Waziristan. Meanwhile, the United States’ drone attacks continue relentlessly despite Pakistani protests.
Through the Russian connection, Pakistan hopes to create more negotiating space vis-a-vis the US by the time Obama revisits the Afghan problem after the November election is out of the way.
However, Moscow cannot but be mindful of the imperatives of its “special and privileged strategic partnership” with India. Equally, the Pakistani elites cannot easily jettison their choice of the United States as the preferred partner. Which would probably make the Russian-Pakistani waltz appear in US and Indian eyes as a mere spectacle while the music lasts.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.