Russia's positions in Central Asia are increasingly coming under pressure as the deadline for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is drawing closer. Uzbekistan was the first to subject its relations with Russia in the security sphere to a serious overhaul, and in no time the trend has proved contagious. So far, the defiance of other Central Asian republics is limited to demands of higher compensations for hosting Russian military bases: recently, Tajikistan rolled out an unprecedented cost of lease for Russia's 201st military base, and Kyrgyzstan indicated three sites on its soil would come at a higher charge for Moscow…
In fact, talks over the lease of the base in Tajikistan have long grown into a permanent process. The facility, with around 6,000 servicemen stationed in Dushanbe, Kulob, and Kurganteppa, is the biggest one Russia maintains abroad and is central to the security arrangements made by Russia and its Collective Security Treaty partners vis-a-vis Afghanistan. It appeared when former Russian president D. Medvedev visited Dushanbe in September, 2011 that a deal was finally cut with Tajik president Emomalii Rahmon to have the lease of the 201st base renewed for a term of 49 years early in 2012, but no document on the issue has been inked up to date.
In line with the 2004 agreement, Russia almost did not have to compensate Tajikistan for the stay of the 201st base. Instead, Moscow pledged to invest heavily in Tajik hydroelectric generating capacities, but a chill between Russia and Dushanbe made prospects for the plan dim. Russia did help Tajikistan finalize the Sangtuda Hydroelectric Power Plant, but a question mark currently hangs over the top-ambitious project of constructing the Rogun Dam. Recently the view started to pop up in the Tajik media that the 201st base, an extensive infrastructure obviously critical to Russia's security, need not be rented out for a token price. Moreover, the cost occasionally suggested – $300m annually – sounded completely outrageous, considering that the US pays Kyrgyzstan $60m for the Manas aerodrome, and Russia pays Ukraine $89m for the naval base in Sevastopol.
Furthermore, no agreement is in place at the moment on the basing of a Russian air force group at the Aini airport near Dushanbe. The facility has been upgraded, with India covering the costs, to reinforce the 201st base and to come into play in case an escalation occurs at the Tajik-Afghan border. Dushanbe, however, keeps its intentions concerning the lease of the Aini base to Russia under wraps, and the Tajik media claim that the US is bidding for the site as one of the potential bases in a security network it is going to build in Central Asia while pulling out of Afghanistan. Watchers suspect that the Tajik administration would rather be happy to start hosting a US military base, but the charter of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, of which Tajikistan is a member, requires peer approval for admitting the armed forces of countries not involved in the alliance, plus the reaction of Moscow which would hate to see a US base in a sensitive region so close to Russia's borders, still has to be taken into account.
Tensions over the 201st base surfaced late last June, practically at the time Uzbekistan staged a walkout of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Russian ground forces commander Col. Gen. V. Chirkin complained on June 27 that talks over the lease stalled, Tajikistan's demands were completely unrealistic, and chances were the problem would stay unresolved. Russia being keenly interested in keeping a contingent in the region, Gen. Chirkin said that it was unclear whether the Russian forces would eventually be deployed to the site on any terms whatsoever and that Russia's defense ministry was withholding investments into the infrastructures as those could end up being a waste of money.
Chirkin's statement prompted an angry response from Tajikistan. The defense ministry of the republic decried it as “politically incorrect” and the concerns he voiced over the possibility of an armed conflict spanning the territory of the republic – as “groundless”. The Tajik military officials released no details of the talks with Russia and only announced that efforts to clarify the positions of the parties were in progress and expressed hope that, given the good will and mutual understanding, the work would be complete by the proper deadline. Commentators in Tajikistan concluded from the above exchange that Moscow was trying to arm-twist Dushanbe into a deal over the base.
Russian general staff chief Army Gen. N. Makarov confirmed on July 3 that the talks over the 201st base were in dire straits and that no money would be poured into the infrastructure until full clarity is reached. According to Gen. Chirkin, Tajikistan confronted Moscow with a fluid list of over 20 mostly unacceptable demands, suggested a lease first for 10, then for 20 or at most 29 years, asked to be given weapons and supplies for free, and churned out incongruous financial requirements. Gen. Chirkin therefore said the negotiating mode was unsavory and no light could be seen at the end of the tunnel. Russia's Kommersant wrote on July 12 with a reference to a well-informed source in Tajikistan that Dushanbe asked for $250m annually and that the Tajik draft of the agreement still was not on the table, meaning that Dushanbe was sounding out Moscow and playing for time.
Kyrgyzstan's defense minister Taalaybek Omuraliev told on July 11 that Bishkek would start charging Russia more for the lease of the Karakol underwater weapons testing base, a military communications center in Kara-Balta and radio-seismic laboratory Maily-Suu. The facilities – three of the four Moscow runs in the republic – are critical to Russia's security. For example, the Kara-Balta one is the hub used to connect to the Russian fleet of strategic submarines. Moscow pays Kyrgyzstan around $4.5 annually for all of the above and trains Kyrgyz officers in Russian military schools, but Omuraliev explains that the cost should rise due to inflation. Kyrgyzstan has no plan to up the rent for the Kant base employed in the interests of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, says Omuraliev.
Clearly, it is more than just coincidence that Russia encountered problems in the military cooperation with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan almost simultaneously. The three Central Asian republics are known to be on Washington's list of destinations for a significant portion of the armaments waiting to be lifted out of Afghanistan. Russia's unyielding position on Syria could further motivate Washington to respond indirectly by causing difficulties for Moscow in Central Asia. Anyhow, Russia has at its disposal an impressive arsenal of means to influence its southern neighbors, and as of today only few of them have been put to work.