Depending on who one asks, Russia has either sunken its claws further yet into Central Asia, or it has had to settle with an embarrassing compromise in its strategic designs over the region.

On Aug. 1, Russia appeared to seal a double whammy by getting Kyrgyzstan to allow it to drastically increase the number of troops it deploys in the country, while also all but being assured a new base. The former achievement would imply the latter, but that issue was cunningly hidden in the bilateral for reasons I shall explore below.

Specifically, the Russians will get to send down an additional battalion – which could mean something in the area of around 300 or so troops, plus hundreds of other service employees – and will create a joint anti-terrorism training center.

That agreement will only be officially confirmed by Nov. 1, before which time anything could happen, knowing the Kyrgyz government capricious ways. In the meantime, Moscow and Bishkek will trash out some finer points, all clearly very much sought after by the Russians.

First, “the status of personnel at the joint military bases (Ed: note the plural) and their family members will be equal to that of administrative and technical staff at the Russian Embassy in Kyrgyzstan”. This means that while the Americans at Manas base are theoretically _ and only theoretically _ subject to prosecution, the Russians will be able to raise hell with impunity. This is not necessarily such an important point in reality, but it does make a mockery of Kyrgyz claims of wanting to be able to have the scope to apply criminal sanctions to miscreant foreign military staff.

"I swear I will never double-cross anyone ever again. Probably."

"I swear I will never double-cross anyone ever again. Probably."

Second, Russian soldiers will work to protect the sovereignty and security of Kyrgyzstan, as well as the safety of Russian military facilities, against attacks by international terrorist groups. Kyrgyzstan’s government has in effect tendered out its national security, which is a deeply humiliating admission of its own wretched inability to enforce its writ and defend its borders. Since any group or any person seem prone to being assigned with terrorist designs in Kyrgyzstan these days, Moscow may very literally be finding itself militarily propping up President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s banana republic (without the bananas). Bakiyev is evidently highly paranoid, not just about Islamic bogeymen, but also the malign elite schemers that he keeps closest to himself. Increased Russian military presence sends a clear signal that Bakiyev is Moscow’s man; until they tire of his double-faced chicanery, that is.

Another all but settled issue is the term of the increased Russian deployment. Under the memorandum signed by Bakiyev and President Dimitry Medvedev in Cholpon-Ata, the Russian will be able to stay for a whopping 49 years, with the option of an additional 25-year extension. All in all, that could end up being almost as long as Kyrgyzstan’s existence as a Soviet republic, which seems appropriate.

No matter how you look at it, this has to be a good deal for Russia, although heavens only knows what it is that Moscow actually wants all those troops knocking about Central Asia for anyway. Unlike the United States, there is no actual war that Russia can usefully be engaged in around this part of the world. It is for this reason that some of the media coverage has been fairly misleading about the significance of the Cholpon-Ata Accord, as it shall henceforth be known.

Reuters went rather speciously with the headline: “Russia trumps U.S. with new Central Asia army base,” which misses the point altogether. Washington may have long-term concerns about this kind of Muscovite military hegemony in the region, but as long as it has its own base, it really does not care. On a recent visit to Bishkek, U.S. Under Secretary of State William Burns spoke in terms very similar to the Cholpon-Ata accord when answering a question about the possibility of a second Russian base:

“Our view is that any step that strengthens the sovereignty and independence and security of Kyrgyzstan is a sensible one.”

That is weasel opt-out response that suggests either that a Russian base either (a) strengthens Kyrgyz security (b) weakens Kyrgyz independence or (c) all the above. What it really means, though, is that the United States has its base and all the rest, including democratic standards in Kyrgyzstan, can go to hell.

On a less positive note for Russia, supposedly, would be the failure to achieve a consensus among Collective Security Treaty Organisation members on the creation of the NATO-style rapid reaction forces.

The Moscow Times suggests this was down to intransigence from the Belarusians, who must still be crying over Russia’s milk export ban. President Alexander Lukashenko reportedly “refused to sign an agreement Saturday that would create [the] rapid-reaction security force.”

That claim is factually erroneous as the only full session of the CSTO was in any event held on Friday, a day that I am reliably informed Lukashenko mostly spent cycling with his son on the shores of Issyk-Kul Lake.

Most likely, the fly in the ointment is perennial party-pooper, Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov. If the notion of rapid-reaction force irks Uzbekistan, the suggestion they should be camped just minutes drive away from the borders of its volatile Ferghana Valley will be enough to send it into conniption fits. Hence, the Cholpon-Ata Accord makes no mention of the locations in which extra Russian troops will be dislocated.

Sure enough, Karimov flew out Kyrgyzstan around midday on Saturday, leaving Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev to laze by the beach, apparently.

Reports of the Uzbek digging trenches around its Ferghana border, which recently emerged to much hilarity, may indeed have been a sharp diplomatic reminder to dispel any Russian schemes of deploying CSTO rapid-reaction forces in their general direction.

Of course, Russia would never think of doing that, unless the unthinkable happens; Karimov dies unexpectedly and the country descends into violent civil war. But it could happen, and that is the idea that disturbs neurotic Tashkent so intensely.

Wanting to be less cynical, one could give Kyrgyzstan and Russia the benefit of the doubt, and surmise that the anti-terrorism training center will be purely engaged in maintaining domestic security and ensuring that militants take over the whole region. But this scenario has always seemed fanciful, even in southern Kyrgyzstan, where a politicized brand of radical Islam has long enjoyed a robust following.

As is often the case, it is wisest in these apparently global strategic tussles to try and adopt a smaller domestic viewpoint. Instead of seeing this as the latest chapter in the tiresome fabled Great Game, it would be more instructive to understand Russian activity in Central Asia as the inevitable outcome of Kyrgyz political weakness and the result of petty regional rivalries.

For largely sentimental, revanchist reasons, Moscow is enamoured with its image as a benevolent father figure that sows, or rather imposes, harmony among its fractious offspring. By achieving what it has, Russia has turned itself into a stakeholder in future Central Asian developments, a role that the United States should keep at a safe distance.

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