Monday, February 9, 2009

Russia Tries to Squeeze US out of Kyrgyzstan

BOULDER, Colorado -- This morning National Public Radio reported on the decision of the government of Kyrgyzstan to close an important American air base. NPR managed to mention all the various carrots the Russians had extended to the Kyrgyz to expel their American tenants, but none of the sticks.

The announcement came February 3, soon after Russia signed a bilateral agreement promising $150 million in aid and $2 billion in loans to Kyrgyzstan. While that certainly sweetened the deal for Bishkek, they were likely also influenced by the relentless assault the country was subjected to the previous two weeks. This was not a military strike, but rather a fearsome wave of cyber-attacks that crippled Kyrgyzstan's internet capabilities. The attacks began on January 18 and effectively knocked 80% of the country's users offline by targeting its two largest internet service providers. Though less than a fifth of the country's population is online, the message seems to have gotten through: get the Americans out of Central Asia.

The attacks all originated in Russia, and it is widely believed that they were launched by so-called "cyber-militias" - groups that operate at the very least with Kremlin complicity, and they may receive tacit orders from the government to engage in online terrorism. Several countries that have run afoul of Russian designs have been subjected to these attacks, most notably Estonia in 2007. That assault came after the government decided to move a Soviet-era war monument out of the Tallinn city center, sparking major protests and riots in both Estonia and Russia; it had a devastating effect on that small country, which has a much higher rate of internet usage. During last summer's war in Georgia, the hackers launched their own offensive to complement the Russian army, disabling Georgian government websites and those of organizations that were critical of the Russian invasion.

Some people disagree with this assessment of the Kyrgyzstan situation, such as blogger Jeffrey Carr, who believes the cyber-attacks may have originated inside Kyrgyzstan as part of a plan by the government to suppress opposition voices. His blog includes some excellent analysis of the base closing, while the New York Times provides a good summary of the various theories about these attacks.

Nonetheless, Kyrgyzstan holds a special place in the Kremlin's geopolitical vision, alongside Georgia and Ukraine, as the site of another supposedly US-backed "color revolution" that deposed a reliable client and replaced them with a regime less pliable to Moscow's demands. The "Tulip Revolution" did not receive the fanfare of its counterparts in Europe, in part because it hardly signaled a dramatic shift in the country's politics. Russia was nonetheless miffed, and Kyrgyzstan's response to the Andijan massacre in neighboring Uzbekistan in 2005 did indicate movement closer to the US, which condemned the actions of the Uzbek government, while Moscow applauded the bloody crackdown. Since then, Kyrgyzstan has struggled to balance its committments to its new ally and its former master; it has, however, fared better than Ukraine, which is involved in incessant political and economic disputes with Russia, and Georgia, which was invaded and dismembered.

Kyrgyzstan's Manas Air Base is the last remaining American installation in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, and the US began leasing it at the beginning of its operations in Afghanistan. While the base (and the one in Uzbekistan, which closed in 2005) was opened with Moscow's blessing, the Russians have been applying pressure to Kyrgyzstan and its neighbors not to become too friendly with the US. Russia's new security club, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which also includes China and the various "-stans" wedged between the two, has been trying to squeeze the Americans out of their backyard, with little success.

The US had recently increased its rent more than twofold, to $150 million per year, but the Kyrgyz government liked the Russians' offer better. The base has become especially important as the security situation along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border has deteriorated, making the Khyber Pass supply route particularly treacherous. With several thousand more troops slated to arrive in Afghanistan, the US will need to find additional routes. But regardless of what happens to Manas, the US and NATO will remain in Afghanistan; this will just be one more headache to add to the ever-growing list.

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