Uzbekistan's eviction of the U.S. military must have brought a smile to Russian President Vladimir Putin's face.
While Washington has treated Putin as an ally and granted him a free pass to consolidate power through a systematic assault on his country's democratic institutions, the administration has paid little attention to Putin's ambitions beyond Russia's borders. Now those ambitions have become clear and there are harmful implications for the United States. President Putin now seems bound and determined to undermine embryonic democracies in countries that, together, were once called the Soviet Union, and to limit American influence in the region.
Russia's footsteps were visible first when Presidents Putin and Hu Jintao of China joined the leaders of Central Asia at a summit in the Kazakh capital of Astana on July 5. The gathering was billed as a regular meeting of the innocuously named Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a group formed in 1995 that is now an increasingly powerful economic and political alliance devoted to maintaining a "multipolar" world (namely, Russian and Chinese dominant influence in Central Asia).
There was nothing subtle about either the timing of the meeting (the day before the leading industrial countries gathered at the G8 summit) or the group's public demand that the United States set a deadline for removal of U.S. troops and bases in the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The summit statement drafted in Moscow sent a simple message to Washington: back off.
Days later, Russia's handprints were all over the first statement issued by newly elected Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Following the script, Bakiyev announced his intention to reevaluate the need for the U.S. to maintain its airbase in his country. Not coincidentally, the Russian ambassador in that country noted that the U.S. base "is losing its relevance," while the Russian base would remain.
President Putin's desire to drive a wedge between the new Kyrgyz government and the United States is clear. Washington scrambled and dispatched Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to Kyrgyzstan for talks last week. Rumsfeld came back with vague assurances from the Kyrgyz defense minister that "the deployment of American forces in the Kyrgyz Republic fully depends on the situation in Afghanistan." If Kyrgyz authorities decide – with Russian prodding – that security in Afghanistan has improved, another U.S. base in the region would be in danger of receiving an eviction notice.
The third event was a unanimous vote in the Russian Duma to "ask" President Putin's cabinet to raise the price of gas and oil that Russia exports to Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic states. Here, Moscow has two goals: first, to provoke economic crises that would shatter domestic and international confidence in the leaders of the Rose and Orange revolutions, and second, to send a signal to Central Asian states that the path to democracy will not be smooth.
None of these maneuvers should come as a great surprise. Russia's frustration with U.S. involvement in Central Asia has been growing much greater and more bitter with each successive revolution in the "near abroad," as Russian officials prefer to call the former Soviet republics. Moscow continues to believe that these events were largely orchestrated by the West – and it is doing its best to convince the leaders of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan that they could fall under attack by Islamist extremists if they follow this path.
In response to these developments, the United States must abandon its "anything goes" Russia policy, increase long-term support for democratic institutions, and make it clear to Putin that the restoration of an empire in any shape or form will not be tolerated.
First, the Bush administration must reach a deal that helps the Kyrgyz leadership assert control over their own territory while meeting the U.S. need to maintain bases for military operations. The situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated to a point where losing another base could have a markedly negative effect on stability and reconstruction.
Second, the United States should also increase its assistance for projects that will help the newly elected leaders of the former Soviet republics develop and implement sound economic policies, reform institutions, attract international investment and cooperate with neighbors. There is plenty of room for finding common ground – such as the Kyrgyz president's top priority of fighting corruption – and increased American assistance will buy both stability and goodwill.
Third, now that the Bush administration's hands are no longer tied, the administration should increase the pressure on Uzbekistan to improve its dismal human rights record.
Fourth, and perhaps most important, the administration should recognize that the geopolitical structures of Central Asia are shifting and take seriously Moscow's growing interest in curbing U.S. influence. One can hope that President Putin's strategic ambitions might finally spur the Bush administration to action where the Russian's assault on democracy has not.
Robert Boorstin is the senior vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress. Vlad Galushko is a research associate at the Center for American Progress.