Last week Russia's Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov and his Kyrgyz counterpart, Colonel-General Esen Topoyev, met in the Kremlin to sign an agreement on the creation of a Russian air force base at the Kant airfield in Kyrgyzstan, 20 km outside Bishkek, and an agreement on the status of Russian servicemen in Kyrgyzstan. The air force base is to be officially opened in late October 2003.
Discussions of the issue began long ago. Russia needed the base to provide air protection to the Collective Rapid Deployment Force set up within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty (Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Armenia). The official decision on the creation of the base was made during the visit of President Vladimir Putin to Bishkek in early December last year. Two Su-25 assault planes and two Il-76 military transports were dispatched to Kant airfield from the Lipetsk Air Force training centre to demonstrate the possibilities of deployment of Russian aircraft there.
The old landing strip of the former Soviet centre for training pilots from Eastern Europe and the developing countries of Asia and Africa was built to service light L-39 Czechoslovak-made training planes (5 tons) and MiG-21s (10 tons). But it easily accommodated the 19-ton Su assault planes and the 170-ton Il transports. That "trial" of the Kant landing strip was not a mere formality, as the US F-18s, British Hornets and French Mirage-2000s, dispatched to support the anti-Taliban coalition in Afghanistan, had refused to use it. According to Western standards, the landing strip's concrete plates should be at least 30 cm thick, while the plates of the Kant landing strip were only 17 cm thick. This is why NATO decided to deploy its aircraft at the Manas civilian airport outside Bishkek, where the landing strip is 30 cm thick.
It has been estimated that Russia has invested 2 to 30 million dollars into the ongoing modernisation and repairs of the Kant airfield, flight/landing and air traffic control systems and other navigation and controlling equipment, which had been plundered during the idle years, as well as into the technical exploitation systems, housing for pilots, engineers and technicians and their families, and other infrastructure facilities. And nobody can say how much more money will be needed though experts say the outlays will run into 200 million dollars. The only indisputable thing now is that the annual maintenance of the air force base with about 700 military and civilian personnel will cost Moscow 50 million dollars.
This is not an exorbitant sum, especially since Bishkek is to pay for the public utilities (electricity, central heating, water, and sewage purification). Citizens of Kyrgyzstan, in particular former engineers and technicians who had worked at the Kant training centre, will make up the bulk of the personnel, which means that Moscow will not need to pay their travel expenses. The crews of two squadrons of Su-25 assault planes and Su-27 interceptor fighters (four or five planes in each), two or three Il-76 transports, a couple of An-26 transports, and as many Mi-8 helicopter gunships will work in Kant in three-month shifts. All commissioned and warrant officers will b granted diplomatic immunity, which means that their property cannot be arrested or detained or subjected to customs inspection. Besides, they will not have to pay local taxes, just as their NATO colleagues deployed in Manas airport.
It is apparent why Bishkek needs a Russian military base. On the one hand, it will serve as a counterbalance to its relations with NATO countries, stress the country's policy of all-round political, economic, cultural and military rapprochement with Moscow, and show to the neighbouring countries (first and foremost to Uzbekistan, which claims a special role in Central Asia) that Kyrgyzstan has "special," allied relations with Russia. Taken together, this will increase its prestige and weight on the international scene. On the other hand, it will create additional jobs, reduce the flight of highly educated Russian speaking citizens, and offers a chance to resist national and religious extremism, which is a threat to Kyrgyzstan though a smaller one than that facing its neighbours. President Askar Akayev spoke about these threats in Moscow when he pointed out that "the base will become the bulwark of struggle against them and ensure stable development of our countries."
One can also understand Russia's desire to create one more military base in Central Asia. We should "formalise our military presence in Kyrgyzstan," Putin said, as well as provide air coverage to the southern CIS borders across which drugs, extremist religious literature and Moslem terrorists move, and support Russian border guards and the 201st Motorised Division deployed in Tajikistan. At the same time, Russia needs the Kant base to reinforce its role and place in Central Asia as the most influential and respected state in this part of the world, an active member of the Collective Security Treaty and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. However, it has not been decided yet how Russian planes, which formally are part of the Collective Rapid Deployment Force, will deal with border violators and other threats.
Though the agreement on the Kant base says that the presence of Russian combat aircraft in Kyrgyzstan "has defensive purpose and is not spearheaded at other states," military analysts are pondering the possible use of interceptor fighters and assault planes in the skies of Central Asia. The thing is that the Su-27s have no practical targets within their effective range of 2,000 kilometres.
Afghanistan has five MiG-21 fighters but they will hardly fly to the border with Tajikistan. They don't need to do this and besides, the NATO planes that are monitoring the Afghan skies will not allow them to do this. And fighting the drug traffic with the help of Su-25 assault planes would be like using heavy guns against sparrows, meaning costly and ineffective. Pakistan and India do not threaten the southern CIS borders either. Maybe strategists envisage future problems in relations between Central Asian states and Uzbekistan? Butt it is difficult to imagine that they would approach the dangerous edge of a military conflict.
Russian combat aircraft were most probably dispatched to the Kant base to "demonstrate flag." The base will be a kind of counterbalance to the NATO base at Manas and show which is the boss in the Central Asian skies. Moscow has already requested its partners in the counter-terror coalition in Afghanistan "to coordiante flight plans and schedules with Russia in the interests of security." Indeed, this goal is worth the annual spending of 50 million dollars.
One way or another, but the Russian air force base at Kant in Kyrgyzstan clearly shows that Moscow has come back to Central Asia to stay. And its friends and partners will have to take this fact into account.
Viktor Litovkin, RIAN