Despite a harsh economic downturn, Moscow is continuing down the road of solidifying its positions in the post-Soviet space and crowding the United States and NATO out of the regions it deems its sphere of influence. The past week saw an array of developments along this same track. Clearly under Moscow’s pressure, Kyrgyzstan passed a decision to evict the U.S. air base in Manas from its territory. In return, Bishkek is set to receive unprecedented benefits from Russia – an easy-term loan to the tune of $2 billion, a $450-million financial aid and writing off a $180-mil debt. Although the sides are denying any links between the financial aid and shutting down the U.S. base, Moscow has clearly purchased Bishkek’s decision on Manas.
The summits of the post-Soviet states held in Moscow last week in the framework of Eurasian Economic Cooperation Organization (EAEC) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) highlighted the Kremlin’s efforts to consolidate its positions on the post-Soviet space. The EAEC summit participants decided to establish a $10 billion mutual rescue fund with Moscow’s contribution of around 75 percent of the amount.
The decision to form a joint collective reaction force (JCRF) the CSTO summit has arrived at is another expensive project. Russia will have to provide the better part of the personnel – an airborne division and an air assault brigade (8 thousand strong). The other nations’ contribution to JCRF (with the exception of Kazakhstan) is just one battalion. President Dmitry Medvedev claimed the new command will be commensurable in power with NATO forces. It is nothing but wishful thinking, though. JCRF creation is going to be a lengthy process, while their effectiveness and combat capacity remain questionable. Nevertheless, the decision to form JCRF is an unequivocal proof of Moscow’s plans to establish a kind of a counterbalance to the US and NATO on the post-Soviet space. A Russia-Belarus agreement to create a joint air defense system is along the same lines. Moscow too has paid for this accord, with President Lukashenko receiving a $2-billion loan from Russia and about to get another $3-billion tranche.
Admittedly, the drafting of these agreements predated the economic crisis and was based on Russia’s windfall revenues from energy sales. Today, their implementation because of momentum could seriously hurt Russia. Now that the economic crisis has hit hard, Moscow lacks its former financial resources to assert itself. Creating new armed forces and paying for their upkeep out of its own pocket will entangle Moscow in a costly and futile spending. Growing expenses of supporting the EAEC and CSTO members’ loyalty are becoming an increasingly heavy burden for Russia’s economy.
Clearly, the Kremlin realizes only too well that without backing up NATO’s operations in Afghanistan Russia’s security could be facing a serious Moslem fundamentalist threat. Thus, Moscow seems to have agreed to reinstate transit routes through Russia of US nonmilitary shipments intended for Afghanistan. The idea is to closely control all NATO’s deliveries to Afghanistan and get the maximum financial benefits. Moscow could well miscalculate, though, should Kyrgyzstan, despite receiving Russia’s financial aid, actually reach agreement with Washington to extend the term of the U.S. base in Manas.
Pointedly, Moscow has assumed a wait-and-see attitude in regard to the West and it adjusting its policy to the volatile situation. Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov’s address at the Munich security conference was marked by no fireworks of the kind of Putin’s anti-Western speech of two years back at the same place, and was largely conciliatory.
Meeting with the European Commission leaders in Moscow last week, both Medvedev and Putin also refrained from exchanging barbs and pretended to take kindly to criticisms by the European Union regarding Russia’s protectionist measures and repression of civil society. However, the practical results of its rapprochement with the West have yet to appear.