Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Russia has reasons to stay its hand

Russia has reasons to stay its hand
By Yong Kwon

As the dust settles over the Fergana Valley, Russian foreign policy analysts in Western Europe and the United States are wallowing in a state of bewilderment. Despite then-acting President Roza Otunbayeva's call for Russian involvement during the ethnic riots in southern Kyrgyzstan, Moscow rejected any plans to deploy troops into the fray.

The Kremlin's reluctance to increase Russia's military presence in the former Soviet republic has thus been interpreted by several analysts as a sign of weakness. However, this rushed conclusion is based on flawed presumptions on Russia that should have been retired long before the end of the Cold War.

The Russian Federation is more than capable of defending its interests in the former Soviet space (or its "near abroad"), but it
will not act beyond what is absolutely necessary to preserve its dominance. It is this strategic decision to lie quiet that many analysts have confused with frailty.

Even the Economist of London on June 24 declared that Russia's "neo-imperial ambitions" had succumbed to the "rock of reality", and that the largest country in the world (by area) was an "empty empire". The Economist's position reflects two questionable premises that many analysts have taken for granted about Russian foreign policy: first, that Russia actively seeks an imperial dominion over the former Soviet space withstanding its real interests; and second, that Russia extends its political influence solely through military coercion.

When Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted from power on April 15, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko questioned the raison d'etre of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) if it were unable to prevent "anti-constitutional coup d'etats" in member states. (The members are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan.)

This criticism was undoubtedly directed at the Russian Federation which, as a key member of the CSTO, maintains a military presence at Kant air base not far from the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.
However, it seems as though Lukashenko has forgotten the original purpose of the CSTO. The Tashkent Treaty that led to the foundation of the CSTO in October 2002 never obligated the signatory states to become involved in the internal affairs of other member states. In of itself, the CSTO simply ensures non-aggression among participating states through the prevention of aggressive military alliances outside the treaty.

Nonetheless, the opinion of Minsk captured the preconceptions of many analysts who expected Russia to act paternalistically during the ethnic riots in the Fergana Valley.

However, the non-intervention of the Russian Federation in the months-long political and ethnic crisis in Kyrgyzstan is an indicator that the Kremlin does not see the CSTO or the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as a vehicle for re-dominating the region. (The CIS is a regional organization whose participating countries are former Soviet Republics, formed during the breakup of the Soviet Union. Its current members are Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine.)

During the Tajik civil war (1992-1997) the Boris Yeltsin administration experienced the heavy cost of intervention in an ethnically-charged domestic conflict and only managed to cease the violence when former foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov met with his Iranian counterpart to establish what eventually became the "General Agreement on the Establishment of Peace and National Accord in Tajikistan".

For the crisis in Kyrgyzstan, there were no suitable countries to fill the role of Russia's partner; the United States was unwilling to divest from Afghanistan and China was equally unwilling to engage anything beyond its western province of Xinjiang.

Furthermore, recognizing Uzbekistan's discomfort over a Russian proposal to establish a CSTO Collective Rapid Reaction Force base in southern Kyrgyzstan last year, Russia is unlikely to spend political capital to serve the interests of a state that has been unreliable with its promises, especially regarding the American air base in Manas.

What may seem puzzling to outside observers is why President Dmitry Medvedev (or rather Prime Minister Vladimir Putin) did not utilize Russian assistance as a bargaining chip to ensure the eviction of the American air force from the Manas base. It was definitely an option when the ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan were at their peak.

While some interpret the extension of the American lease of the Manas Transit Center (air base) as a decisive failure on the part of the Kremlin, re-monopolizing its military presence in Central Asia may not have been a crucial priority for the Russian Federation.

The continuation of operations in Afghanistan is in some part dependent on Manas as it remains one of the most crucial entry points for coalition troops going to Afghanistan. Considering the cordial relationship between the Taliban and Chechen separatists (along with other radical militant groups in the Caucasus), Russia still has much to gain from the continued American military presence in Afghanistan.

Russia also has additional reasons why it is not too concerned about its political influence in the Central Asian republics. Russia's geographic position makes it a vital transit territory for republics that are dependent on the export of natural resources. While exercising monopsony in some Central Asian natural gas and oil markets, Russia is also the dominant provider of electricity and remains the most crucial financier for hydroelectricity development in the region.

Recognizing Kyrgyzstan's heavy dependence on hydroelectricity and Russian investment, Bakiyev attempted to attract investment from other countries. However, despite inroads by energy hungry China, Russian electricity companies like Transneft will undoubtedly play a major role in the economy of Kyrgyzstan for years to come. [1]

Otunbayeva's new government, regardless of its intentions, will find itself heavily dependent on the export of hydroelectricity to Russia and thus having to work with Moscow extensively to secure economic stability in the aftermath of the civil disorder. Russia is well entrenched as the dominant regional power, whether or not it chooses to maintain a military presence in Kyrgyzstan or to help Bishkek re-establish domestic order. It does not need to act like an imperial power to retain that privileged position in the region.

This is certainly not to suggest that Russia does not retain a notable military force. Despite the annually diminishing number of healthy conscripts in the army, the Russian armed forces still maintain their edge on the frontiers of missile technology.

Particularly worrying to the American navy is the "Sizzler" variant of the Klub missile (3M-54E). In March this year the Pentagon officially admitted to having no adequate defense plan against this new Russian anti-ship and anti-submarine missile, admittedly a difficult feat against a weapon that can curve around islands and accelerate from the speed of sound to three times that speed while fragmenting into several deadly projectiles. Dan McNamara, a program manager for the US Navy, estimated that the US may produce something capable of countering the "Sizzler" only by 2014.

Other worries for the American fleet include high-speed "cavitating" torpedoes that travel two to three times faster than regular torpedoes, which makes them difficult to detect. The most widely distributed "cavitating" torpedo is the Shkval type produced by the Russian navy.

This challenge to the US's supremacy of the seas holds serious ramifications. What happened to the South Korean frigate Cheonan, allegedly sunk in March by North Korea, is an example of how modern warships are still extremely vulnerable to torpedo attacks. In times of rapid arms development, the Russian Federation has gained significant political leverage by being capable of supplying and transforming disgruntled technology-poor nations into sizeable naval powers.

Furthermore, having successfully flown its first prototype fifth-generation jet fighter, the Sukhoi T-50, in January this year, the Russian air force, in conjunction with the Indian military, may soon be producing warplanes that rival the F-22 Raptor. The Russian military maintains an incredible array of firepower that makes it an indispensable political and military player in every region along its vast borders.

Accepting the premise that Russia is an imperial power whose only foreign policy tool is its military would naturally result in the notion that Russia must have become significantly weak not to have taken advantage of Kyrgyzstan's plight.

However, to get a more accurate sense of Russia's position, one must shed these preconceptions in the face of Russia's neo-realist approach to Central Asia and its diverse socio-economic means of securing its interests abroad. Russia is a realist world power administered by rational foreign policy makers in the Kremlin; this is a basic "rock of reality".

1. Sabonis-Helf, Theresa, Power and Influence: Russian Energy Behavior in Central Asia Competition and Change Volume 11, Number 2 (June 2007): 199-219,

Yong Kwon is a Washington-based analyst of international affairs.