START-1 treaty forms to this day the cornerstone of the prevailing nuclear arms control regime. The treaty will expire at the end of the current year. It needs to be reviewed and updated. Renegotiating START-1 was not a priority for the previous US administration; an attitude that bothered Moscow. The Kremlin shows a greater interest in negotiating cuts as both its launchers and the nuclear warheads carried are considered as becoming obsolete. Nevertheless, Russia continues to be a nuclear superpower equipped with a global capacity of launching nuclear weapons from multiple locations.
The Quest for Bases
To be sure, the controversy over the deployment of the US missile defence systems in Poland and the Czech Republic epitomizes a much more real than perceived Russian aversion to Western infiltration in the former Soviet space of the last decade or so. In actual fact, Moscow reasserts itself in the former Soviet space with an accelerating pace. The latest manifestation of Russian resurgence took the form of a generous aid package offered to the Kyrgyz. The huge financial package – $2bn in discounted loans and another $150m in aid – came at a time when Washington showed lack of understanding to Bishkek’s financial requests. Moscow also agreed toKyrgyzstan’s $180 million debt. write off
Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the Kyrgyz President, while paying a two-day visit to the Kremlin (2-3 February 2009) explained to international reporters that Washington failed to heed Bishkek’s pleas for increased compensation with regard to the use of the Manas base. He also criticized Washington for reluctance to address the 2006 killing by a U.S. officer of a
Kyrgyz man in an incident at the base. “If we fail to ensure our citizens’ security, unresolved problems will cause legitimate public discontent,” Bakiyev argued.
The Manas base in Kyrgyzstan was set up in 2001 to assist the US military operation against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. It was originally meant to be open for two years at the most. New U.S. President Barack Obama has announced plans to considerably increase troops in Afghanistan. Bishkek’s government submission of a decree to parliament providing for the closure of the key US air base in the Central Asian state as a direct reaction to the failure to reach an understanding on the financial compensation, will no doubt put a strain on Obama’s designs. However, US officials pled ignorance, dismissing Bakiyev’s threat to close the base as ‘political posturing’.
To be sure, Moscow supports Washington in its efforts to defeat the Taliban and stabilize Afghanistan. In the hope of the Obama administration being more receptive to its concerns, Russia considers offering military aircraft to help supply NATO soldiers in the Asian country, in a gesture of goodwill extended to the new US administration. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister stated that Moscow was ready for close co-operation in Afghanistan. “Non-military transit has already been granted as part of our agreements … for delivery of their cargoes for the needs of the international forces’ said Lavrov at a news briefing with EU foreign policy chiefs in Moscow (Reuters, 11 Feb 2009).
Moscow is in the position to live up to its offer of logistical support to NATO. Russia also has an airbase with over 20 aircraft and 700 personnel in Kant, outside the capital Bishkek, under a post-Soviet security pact. In 2003, the base was renovated at an estimated cost of $2 million. In fact, Russian fighter aircraft stationed at Kant form the nucleus of an anti-terrorism force under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty (CST). Kant’s strategic purpose is to provide air support for a CST rapid reaction force, which is projected to comprise more than 5,000 troops from Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. At that time, Kant’s refurbishment reflected Moscow’s first significant move to project strategic power beyond Russia’s borders since the Soviet collapse in 1991.
In sharp contrast to Moscow’s good will in coming to NATO’s aid in Central Asia, Russia’s plan to build military bases in the two breakaway regions of Georgia raised tensions during the EU-Russia discussions between Jose Manuel Barroso, Head of the European Commission and Vladimir Putin, the Russian Premier. Moreover, Barroso spoke of the European Union’s concern over the murder of journalists and human rights activists in Russia. Naturally, Vladimir Putin countered that the EU should better look into putting its own house in order, accusing Brussels of hypocrisy with reference to the treatment accorded to immigrants and prisoners as well as the lot of the Russian minorities in the Baltic States.
Apparently, the Russian side endeavours to put the political dialogue including the issue of rule of law and human rights abuses on an equal footing. Vladimir Putin claimed that both parties “need to discuss the full range of problems – both in Russia and in Europe – in order to be able to solve them”. The BBC correspondent commented that Barroso’s visit to Moscow seemed to have highlighted ‘tensions rather than built bridges’.