By Ryskeldi Satke
The government of Russia is wrapping up the technical details of a transit deal with the U.S. and NATO that is going to ease the Western coalition’s efforts to withdraw equipment from Afghanistan by 2014, according to the Ulyanovskaya Pravda newspaper.  The news came at a time when the Obama administration is promoting a reduction in the number of American troops in war zones outside the country. The opening of the NATO transit hub in the city of Ulyanovsk became possible after several meetings between Russia’s foreign affairs officials and NATO representatives in Riga, Latvia. The Russian newspaper also highlighted the projected amount of cargo containers (60,000-70,000) that are going to be shipped through Ulyanovsk from 2012 to 2014. The first twelve shipments of cargo from Afghanistan are planned to be destined to the United Kingdom, says Ulyanovskaya Pravda.
The Kremlin’s move drifts across the board of Russia’s regional strategy of containing NATO cooperation with the ex-Soviet republics in the CIS. It has not been a secret that Moscow was extensively involved in controversy with the U.S. and NATO base at Manas in the Kyrgyz Republic. According to ex-President Bakiyev of Kyrgyzstan, who was ousted from power as a result of the violent uprising (coup d’etat) in April 2010, “Russian anger at his decision to extend the lease on a US air base was a factor in his overthrow.”  A similar opinion has circulated in the hallways of the Obama administration as well, as Simon Shuster writes in the article for Time magazine.  Confidential sources in the government of the Kyrgyz Republic say that the Kremlin is behind crucial announcements related to the U.S. and NATO transit hub at Manas near Bishkek, including recent statements from the newly-elected President Atambayev. 
As the cat is out of the bag, it is unclear how soon President-elect of Russia Vladimir Putin will deal with the future arrangements over the prolonged stay of the U.S. and NATO personnel in Bishkek, since President Atambayev has been expressing displeasure with the Manas airbase lease extension. But local experts familiar with the “hidden drives” of Kyrgyz politics in Bishkek say that Moscow most likely will push for a re-adjustment of rhetoric regarding the base in Kyrgyzstan as Russia’s leadership is currently doing. The Obama administration is aware of the tricks that come with negotiations on the lease of the airbase in the Kyrgyz Republic. The key to successful savoir-faire regarding the Manas transit hub’s prospects after the 2014 deadline could be achieved through diplomatic channels between Washington and Moscow. Besides having geopolitical dominance in Kyrgyzstan, the Kremlin allows the Kyrgyz political establishment to have commercial opportunities in the Russian domestic market.
The Kremlin’s “carrot and stick” policy toward the corrupt regimes of Central Asia played well with the rulers of Kyrgyzstan. There is no exception with the current authorities in Bishkek either. Moscow evidently takes care of the Kyrgyz officials loyal to the leadership of Russia, as it did with the Kyrgyz ex-Minister of Defense Esen Topoyev who was awarded the position of adviser to the director of Russia’s state arms corporation Rosoboronexport after a significant boost to the Kremlin’s military interests in Kyrgyzstan. Mr. Topoyev was one of the major supporters of the Russian airbase (Kant) on the outskirts of Bishkek. Kant airfield is within a twenty-mile proximity to the U.S. and NATO transit hub Manas.
However, a withdrawal of the Western coalition troops from Afghanistan creates an unavoidable security dilemma for the leadership of Russia in the near future. Prior to the U.S. and NATO intervention in Afghanistan, the Kremlin along with Tehran was involved in arming the United Front of Afghanistan, then led by Ahmad Shah Massoud.  The twist with the case of the world-renowned arms dealer from Russia, Victor Bout, highlights another angle of the squabble regarding the Kremlin’s realpolitik approach. The Los Angeles Times newspaper’s investigative report into Mr. Bout’s arms-dealing activity revealed quite appalling information about his clandestine work in Afghanistan with Taliban commanders in the late 1990s. According to the LA Times article from 2002, Mr. Bout was “sheltered by a Russian government” while American and British officials had been investigating his questionable business.  Despite the obstacles, Victor Bout was arrested after a sting operation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2008 and extradited from Thailand to the United States in 2010. In April 2012, Mr. Bout was sentenced to 25 years in prison by a federal judge in New York. 
Meanwhile, the mainstream media in Bishkek accused Moscow of applying double standards in Kyrgyzstan by playing Manas airbase against the interests of the sovereign Kyrgyz Republic. Russia’s foreign affairs ministry responded to the Kyrgyz media allegations by pointing at the international treaties between Russia and NATO member states enabling the transportation of non-lethal goods via Russian territory. Foreign affairs officials also reminded Bishkek that a decision by Kyrgyz President Atambayev on closing the U.S. and NATO air operations in Bishkek after 2014 was welcomed by the government of Russia. 
Ryskeldi Satke is a freelance contributor to research institutions and news organizations in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Turkey. His contact e-mail: [email protected]
1.Технически всё готово к «афганскому» транзиту http://ulpravda.ru/paper/article/11800.html
2. Bakiyev blames Russia for overthrow http://www.aljazeera.com/news/asia/2010/04/20104239494248838.html
3. Kyrgyzstan: Did Moscow Subvert a U.S. Ally?http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1978590,00.html
4. Manas air base to close by 2014 – Atambayev http://english.ruvr.ru/2012_02_25/66867751/
5. Астана и Москва сотрудничают в области экспорта продукции военного назначения http://www.kaspex.kz/index.php?option=com_content&view=articleid=73%3A25102010&catid=1%3Alatest-news&lang=en
6. Afghanistan. CRISIS OF IMPUNITY. The Role of Pakistan, Russia, and Iran in Fueling the Civil War http://www.hrw.org/legacy/reports/2001/afghan2/Afghan0701-03.htm#P686_215739
7. On the Trail of a Man Behind Taliban’s Air Fleet http://articles.latimes.com/2002/may/19/new/ad-bout
8. Russia Seeks Return of Convicted Arms Dealer Bout From U.S. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-04-12/russia-seeks-return-of-arms-dealer-bout-from-u-s-lavrov-says.html
9. Information and Press Department of MFA of Russia Comments upon Kyrgyz Mass Media Publications on Procedure of NATO Cargo Transit from Afghanistan Through Ulyanovsk Airport http://www.mid.ru/bdomp/brp_4.nsf/e78a48070f128a7b43256999005bcbb3/8ae1c52cbdca1df8442579ce0034e55b!OpenDocument
About the author: JTW
JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).