- The Washington Times - Friday, February 6, 2009

The Obama administration signaled Thursday that it could engage in a bidding war with Russia to retain access to a key base in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan that supports U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan.

U.S. officials warned the Kyrgyzstanis that they may be hoodwinked by a Russian offer of more than $2 billion that Washington has linked to Kyrgyzstan’s threat to close the Manas air base, which is a major hub for U.S. troops and cargo.

The United States pays the Kyrgyzstanis about $150 million a year for access to the base, which houses about 1,000 Americans and serves about 15,000 U.S. personnel on their way in and out of Afghanistan every month. French and Spanish military units also are stationed at the base.

U.S. officials suggested that the closure threat may be a move to drive up the price, and they did not rule out an agreement to pay more.

The Russian offer also suggests that Moscow is making a bid to increase its influence in Central Asia, perhaps in part to have leverage over U.S. decisions regarding NATO expansion.

The government of Kyrgyzstan will want the U.S. to “make a more attractive deal in order for us to keep the base,” said a Defense Department official who spoke on the condition that he not be named because of the sensitivity of the topic. “We’re going to have to look at a number of economic incentives as far as grants, loans, money and infrastructure.”

The White House called the base “vital” to the U.S. mission and said it hoped to maintain a relationship with Kyrgyzstan even if Manas is closed.

“As far as we know, the negotiations for maintaining operations at Manas air base is continuing,” said Lt. Col. Mark Wright, a Defense Department spokesman. “It’s an important logistics hub and we make great use of it in our efforts to move supplies and manpower to and from Afghanistan. However, we do have multiple supply routes throughout the region that we use to support our troops in Afghanistan.”

“It is regrettable that this is under consideration,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters. “But we will proceed in a very effective manner, no matter what the outcome of the Kyrgyzstan government’s deliberations might be.”

U.S. officials said they are making the case to the Kyrgyzstanis that keeping the base open would be more beneficial to them than the Russian aid package, which includes loans and grants.

“The Russians have put forth some kind of offer, much of which we just don’t believe they would ever come through with,” said a senior State Department official who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

He described Mrs. Clinton as “very engaged on this issue.”

State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the U.S. had not received formal notice from Kyrgyzstan. Other officials said that leasing a base in Uzbekistan, which was used until the Americans were forced out in 2005, may be an alternative.

Although the Kyrgyzstani government sent its recommendation to end the base’s lease to the parliament, lawmakers postponed a vote on the measure until next week.

Kyrgyzstani Prime Minister Igor Chudinov said his Cabinet wants to shut down the base because it disagrees with U.S. war-fighting methods in Afghanistan. He insisted, however, that the transit of nonmilitary cargo bound for landlocked Afghanistan would not be affected.

Diplomats and analysts said Kyrgyzstan likely is using the Russian offer as a bargaining chip, while Russia has its own motivations.

“There are a number of things at work here,” the Defense Department official said. “You also have to take into consideration strategic and economic considerations for Russia.”

“It was not lost on us” that Kyrgyzstani President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced his government’s intention to oust the Americans after a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, in Moscow on Tuesday, the State Department official said.

Russian Embassy spokesman Yevgeniy Khorishko said that Moscow had nothing to do with the Kyrgyzstani move, and that the aid package had been under discussion for months.

“There is not any kind of link between this financial assistance and the sovereign decision of the Kyrgyz government,” he said. “We have confirmed many times our readiness to cooperate with NATO in Afghanistan.”

At the Pentagon, spokesman Bryan Whitman said: “It certainly doesn’t make any sense for Russia or any other country in the region to try to undermine the international effort to bring stability to Central Asia. … They have been very consistent in their public statements in the past about supporting the international effort to bring stability in Afghanistan as well as the region.”

However, the Russian leadership may be thinking beyond Afghanistan to show its clout as it begins a relationship with a new U.S. president.

“It may be the first step in a longer game,” said Cory Welt, associate director of Georgetown University’s Eurasian Strategy Project. “You’d think the Russians have no interest to see Afghanistan implode. Maybe they have a plan to offer NATO closer cooperation [there] in exchange for certain guarantees on NATO enlargement.”

Russia opposes the membership aspirations to the Western alliance of former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia.

Mr. Khorishko said that Moscow is interested in “discussing the Afghanistan issue in different formats.”

Mr. Welt said it will not be easy for Washington to get back the Uzbek base, because the government there has close relations with Russia, too. Such a move also would present an early test for President Obama’s foreign policy in terms of balancing strategic interests with human rights concerns.

The U.S. has criticized Uzbekistan repeatedly in the past several years as an abuser of human rights.

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