Central Asia: October 23, 2003


The Russian airbase at Kant, Kyrgyzstan is now open, with four Mig-29 and four Su-27 fighters, along with two Mi-8 helicopters supporting Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) operations. Kyrgyzstan will assign four L-39 airplanes to the base. The CSTO involves Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. This deployment can be seen as one of the most significant outside Russias borders, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991. 

According to a Russian-Kyrgyz agreement signed in September, the Kant airbase is part of the Collective Rapid Reaction Forces. From 500 to 700 Russian servicemen are expected to be deployed at the base and there is room for additional aircraft, which the Russian military claims can be flown in within a few hours (five Su-25s and an Mi-26 had been specifically mentioned in the past). 

The Russians feel that they need to man the base as a counterbalance to the NATO base at Manas. The Chinese are also particularly interested in Kyrgyzstan, since by conservative estimates there is more than 150 billion barrels of oil there and in the Caspian Sea region. So the Kant air base will show the locals that the Russians haven't abandoned Central Asia's skies. Officially, there is no rivalry and the air assets at Kant are there to perform anti-terrorist missions just like their western counterparts.

However, the old Soviet-era landing strip was built for training pilots from Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa to fly the light Czechoslovak-made L-39 trainers and MiG-21s. Therefore, the concrete slabs are only 6.7 inches thick and the Coalition forces refused to use the strip for anti-Taliban operations in Afghanistan (which is why they're based at the Manas civilian airport outside Bishkek, where the slabs are an acceptable 12 inches thick.)

It's not going to be cheap. Russia has already invested $20 to 30 million on modernization and repairs to the infrastructure and air traffic control systems that had been plundered since the Soviet years. There are whispers that the total outlay might reach $200 million, while annual maintenance costs are expected to run around $50 million. 

The potential return on Moscow's investment might be worth the effort. Kazakhstan sits on much of the Caspian oil (where US and Israeli influence has been growing), and indicated on September 25 that it may join Russia, Greece and Bulgaria in building a $700-million oil pipeline from the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Burgas to Greeces Mediterranean coast port of Alexandropolis. This would rival the Baku to Ceyhan Caspian oil pipeline, on which construction started earlier in 2002. 

The Russians also plans to deploy combat air units in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstans southern neighbor, in the near future. Tajik President Rakhmonov was reportedly offered $1 billion in US aid in exchange for refusing to let the Russians set up a military base there. - Adam Geibel


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