- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 5, 2009

MOSCOW | Russia sought to strengthen its security alliance with six other former Soviet nations Wednesday by forming a joint rapid reaction force in a continuing effort to curb U.S. influence in energy-rich Central Asia.

The summit of the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization came a day after Kyrgyzstan said it would end the U.S. lease of an air base that supports military operations in Afghanistan. The eviction of U.S. troops would mark a victory for Moscow in what it considers its historical backyard.

Russia, Armenia, Belarus and four Central Asian nations - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - agreed Wednesday to set up a joint rapid reaction force. The force is expected to have about 10,000 members and function under a central command, replacing the existing force, which has 3,000. It is not under unified command.

The move would strengthen the military dimension of the alliance, which has served mostly as a forum for security consultations. A Kremlin adviser said Russian paratroopers would form the core of the force.

Russia’s envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said Wednesday that Kyrgyzstan may host some of the newly formed rapid reaction forces at the base now leased by the U.S.

Russia and several neighbors also agreed to create a crisis fund of about $10 billion to help countries reeling from the global economic downturn. Russia would provide most of the money - $7.7 billion.

Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced his intention to end U.S. use of the Manas base after Russia agreed to provide Kyrgyzstan $2 billion in loans and $150 million in financial aid. The lease obliges Kyrgyzstan to give the U.S. 180 days notice to leave.

U.S. officials say no eviction notice has been received and the U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan said talks would continue.

But the Kyrgyz government sent draft eviction legislation to parliament Wednesday. Kyrgyz National Security Council chief Adakhan Madumarov said the decision would not be reconsidered and “there is no way back.”

Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, visited Kyrgyzstan just weeks ago, voicing confidence that the base would continue to operate. Gen. Petraeus said the U.S. pumps $150 million into Kyrgyzstan’s economy annually, including $63 million in rent for the base.

Moscow set up its own air base in Kyrgyzstan in 2003. In 2005, Uzbekistan evicted U.S. troops from an air base near the Afghan border in anger over Western criticism of a crackdown on an uprising in eastern Uzbekistan. But Uzbekistan recently has indicated a desire to end the rift with the West, again welcoming the United States to use the base.

The importance of Central Asia as a supply route to Afghanistan has grown as the United States prepares to double its troop numbers in Afghanistan and the main route through Pakistan has become increasingly unsafe because of attacks by militants.



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