Washington seems interested in using Russian military bases in Central Asia to oversee terrorist threats, particularly the ones emerging from Afghanistan.
Russia and the US have been longtime enemies for decades from the Cold War up until now with disagreements ranging from nuclear arms race to their own respective spheres of influences across different regions from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.
Washington’s overseas army bases, which maintains the largest global presence in human history, have had a number of tasks including monitoring Russian (previously Soviet Union) activities. Americans have supposedly not thought much that the world’s super power could ever need Russian help to check anti-American activities in Central Asia.
But a recent conversation between top American and Russian military commanders in Helsinki suggested that after the disastrous US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington seeks to use Moscow’s Central Asia military bases to monitor terror threats emerging from Afghanistan.
The extraordinary idea of hosting American soldiers in Russian bases was first floated by President Vladimir Putin during his summit with US President Joe Biden back in July in Geneva. There is no precedent of the US using Russian military bases since WWII, when Washington, allied with Moscow, used Soviet military bases against the Nazi Germany.
“The fact that the US military leaders want to follow up on this idea after almost three months shows that the US is still facing many uncertainties in a new era which started with such important events like the Afghanistan exit or AUKUS,” says Ikboljon Qoraboyev, associate professor of International Relations at M. Narikbayev KAZGUU University, in Nur-sultan, Kazakhstan.
AUKUS refers to a new trilateral security agreement between Australia, the UK and the US to deepen their military cooperation in the Pacific region, mainly against China.
“The US is obliged to search for new ways and approaches to deal with old and new challenges in this era,” Qoraboyev tells TRT World.
But Matthew Bryza, the former US ambassador to Azerbaijan, who had been the day-to-day leader of US policy regarding Central Asia during the 2001-2005 period on the National Security Council Staff at the White House, approaches the news more cautiously.
Bryza calls Biden-Putin discussions over using Russian bases by American forces ”rumours”.
“I do not see that proposal went anywhere, instead, the real focus is the US wants to use military bases of Central Asia countries, most notably Uzbekistan,” Bryza tells TRT World.
“It’s too early to tell what the outcome of those discussions is going to be. But it’s notable that back in 2001 after the September 11 attacks President Putin did not object to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan basing US and other NATO allies in their territory,” Bryza says.
“It was reported that the US coordinated with Russia when they used Central Asian air space in 2001 for its operations in Afghanistan,” says Qoraboyev. “Major powers do sometimes cooperate even if their major differences persist. Notable case is Iran with which the US had to cooperate in the post-2001 era in Afghanistan (Iran helped Americans to refine their strikes against Taliban) and in Iraq (US sought opinion of Iran on composition of Iraqi government).”
Since 2001, there have been interesting moments of cooperation between the US and Russia regarding Afghanistan, which both states invaded and were forced to leave in catastrophic ways. With the recent chaotic US exit from Afghanistan, the Taliban came back to power the second time, bringing the country back to square one. It might also pave the way for more Russia-US cooperation in Central Asia.
“Russia and the United States have a shared strategic interest in combatting the spread of terrorism in Central Asia,” says Edward Erickson, a former US army officer and a retired professor of Military History from the Department of War Studies at the Marine Corps University.
“So, it seems very probable to me that the Russians would encourage the basing of US aircraft and special operations forces at Russian air bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan,” Erickson tells TRT World. Like Bryza, Erickson reminds the previous US presence in the two Central Asian states. From both countries, the US was forced to leave later under Russian pressure, according to Bryza and other experts.
But Gregory Simons, an associate professor at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University, is “sceptical” that Russians would host American forces in Central Asia. “While we can not be absolutely sure, it’s unlikely to happen given the current geopolitical state of the world,” Simons tells TRT World.
Any rapprochement or more competition?
Bryza draws attention to the fact that after two decades following 9/11, there is now “a much more confrontational environment” between Russia and the US. As a result, he thinks that Americans using Russian bases could only be possible “if US-Russia relations had changed dramatically from what they have been until now.”
Citing competing military interests in different political arenas from Libya to Syria and Central Asia, Bryza sees any rapprochement as a difficult political scenario.
Any political rapprochement between the two powers would still be a very difficult political scenario, even if the US were really allowed to use Russian military bases in Central Asia, according to Qoraboyev. “Sporadic cooperations between major powers don’t necessarily lead to rapprochement between them,” the professor says.
Simons also does not believe that possible Russian hosting of American forces will lead to “anything substantial” between the two powers. International politics gradually transforms from the unipolar world order to a multipolar system, where the US can’t play the same role it has played in the past decades, he says.
A prominent Russia-US rapprochement should be based on a multipolar world order, however, the US refuses to recognise that kind of system in order to preserve its global stature, “targeting countries like China, Russia and periodically Turkey and Iran”, the professor views.
Discussions over Russian hosting of American forces do not exactly show that the US global power is diminishing, says Qoraboyev, the Uzbek professor, showing its focus is shifting toward the Asia-Pacific region. But it also means that “the US is slowly acquiescing to the idea that post-Soviet Central Asia still remains under the sphere of influence of Russia.”
Russian ‘hybrid warfare’
The idea of Russian hosting of US forces in Central Asia was discussed during a meeting between US Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley and his Russian counterpart Gen. Valery Gerasimov last week.
Gerasimov wrote a book on hybrid or non-linear warfare. “General Gerasimov, like Putin, looks at the US as a primary adversary. If Russia were to allow the US to use its military bases, my initial instinct would be that permission is part of the Russian hybrid war effort,” Bryza says.
That hybrid warfare will aim to “sow doubts in the minds of Ukrainians and Georgians” whether the US is really “a reliable ally” or not, according to the former American diplomat. Bryza cites a recent statement coming from a senior Russian official, who advised Ukrainians not “to depend on” Americans because they will “drop you just like they dropped Afghanistan”.
“I would guess that if Russia really did offer such a permission to the US, it would be an attempt by Russia to drive separation to a large extent between the US and Ukraine on the one hand and to a lesser extent between the US and Georgia on the other hand,” Bryza sees. Russians also aim for separation between NATO and some of its key allies like Baltic states and Poland, he adds.
“Russia is very good at trying to sow doubts in the minds of those NATO allies that the US will really stand on their side and honour Article 5 commitment to the collective defense if Russia threatens these important countries in NATO’s Eastern flank.”