Russia has announced the creation of a rapid reaction military force comprised of seven former Soviet states.
President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia, Armenia, Belarus and four Central Asian nations — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — had reached the agreement to form a new security force during a summit of the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization on Wednesday.
The force would add a military dimension to the Moscow-dominated alliance, which so far has served mostly as a forum for consultations. “We all have agreed on the need” for the force, Medvedev said, but he did not give details of how the force would be composed. On Tuesday, he said Russia and Belarus would also be forming a joint military system to monitor and defend their air space.
Russia, the U.S. and China have been vying for influence in the Caspian and Central Asia region, which is believed to contain the world’s third-largest energy reserves. The rivalry has been compared to the 19th-century Great Game between the British Empire and Czarist Russia for dominance in the region.
When the U.S. launched the war in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Russia’s president at the time, Vladimir Putin, had welcomed U.S. troops in Central Asia. The move helped to temporarily improve U.S.-Russia relations, but as relations worsened again Moscow became impatient about the U.S. presence. Moscow set up its own air base in Kyrgyzstan in 2003, and then scored another point in 2005, when Uzbekistan evicted U.S. troops from an air base near the Afghan border. On Tuesday, Kyrgyzstan followed suit with President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announcing his intention to shut the U.S. base after Russia agreed to provide Kyrgyzstan with $2 billion in loans plus $150 million in aid.
This is hardly the re-emergence of the Soviet Union or even a serious ratcheting up of the “New Cold War” many predicted last August when Russia invaded Georgia to seize control of the disputed territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The addition of six military non-entities to Russia’s sizable force is almost purely symbolic from an operational standpoint. It’s worth noting, too, that, as AP’s Vladimir Isachenkov alludes to in the above report, this is at least as much about Russia-China relations as it is about Russia-US or Russia-NATO relations.
Still, it’s a powerful signal that Russia demands to be taken seriously as a regional power.