Russia edgy at spread of US bases in its backyard
o Buzz up
* Ian Traynor in Moscow
* The Guardian, Thursday 10 January 2002 02.40 GMT
* Article history
The US military build-up in the former Soviet republics of central Asia is raising fears in Moscow that Washington is exploiting the Afghan war to establish a permanent, armed foothold in the region.
The swift construction of US military bases is also likely to ring alarm bells in Beijing, although the central Asian states appear to be embracing the Americans to dilute Russian influence in what Moscow views as its strategic backyard.
In the latest sign of the US build-up, Galaxy transport aircraft landed at the Manas airfield outside Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, yesterday to prepare for the arrival of at least 3,000 American troops.
The Americans have already stationed about 1,500 troops in Uzbekistan, struck agreements to use airfields in Tajikistan, set up bases in Afghanistan, and have secured Pakistani permission for US forces to pursue al-Qaida suspects on Pakistani territory.
Of the five ex-Soviet states of central Asia, Turkmenistan alone is resisting pressure to allow the deployment of US or other western forces on its soil, although it is allowing overflights of military aircraft.
In Kazakhstan yesterday, the speaker of the Russian parliament, Gennady Seleznev, effectively claimed the power of veto for Moscow on US deployments in central Asia.
He pointed out that Russia has a collective security pact with the central Asian states, except Uzbekistan, and added: "They [central Asians] must not take any decisions without joint consultations in the framework of the treaty.
"Russia would not approve of the appearance of permanent US military bases in central Asia."
Russia's armed forces newspaper, Krasnaya Zvezda, complained yesterday of "the inexorable growth" of the US military presence in central Asia, even although the Afghan war was winding down. Washington now has 13 bases in nine countries ringing Afghanistan and in the Gulf.
An American officer at the Manas base being built in Kyrgyzstan told the Interfax news agency yesterday that up to four aircraft were landing daily, that 17 US planes had arrived since December, and that the base would hold 3,000 troops living in 10-man tents.
This base is 250 miles from the western Chinese border. With US bases to the east in Japan, to the south in South Korea, and Washington's military support for Taiwan, China may feel encircled. At a meeting in Beijing this week of Chinese, Russian, and central Asian officials, aimed at dovetailing their "counter-terrorism" strategies, Russia and China urged an end to outside interference in Afghanistan.
But the central Asians, par ticularly the Uzbeks, appear happy to welcome the US as a foil to the big regional powers.
The American troops moving to Kyrgyzstan will enjoy diplomatic status, as they do in Tajikistan, under deals negotiated with the host countries. The US is also allowed to control a three-mile security cordon around Manas base.
In addition to weakening traditional Russian domination, the central Asian states - all of them authoritarian regimes regularly criticised by the US state department on human rights grounds until September 11 - are being rewarded by US aid and trade concessions and security and military cooperation deals.
Scores of French troops were flown to Kabul from Tajikistan yesterday. In an agreement reached last week between the French and Tajik defence ministries, Paris obtained permission to use Tajik airfields for operations in Afghanistan.
Last September, the Russians pooh-poohed the possibility of the US deploying to central Asia. Then President Vladimir Putin gave the green light, enraging many in his security and military elites.