Foreign Policy Blogs

Moscow, Washington, and the Manas Air Base

Much of the Western media has portrayed Kyrgyzstan’s decision  to permit US troops to use Manas Air Base as a surprise turnaround, painting Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek S. Bayikev as a crafty little leader, capable of pandering to both Russia and the United States as it suits him. Although I have no wish to demean President Bayikev’s new self-determining street rep, it is difficult to imagine Kyrgyzstan as really being that far outside of Russia’s “sphere of influence”, especially considering how eerily close this decision is to Obama’s upcoming visit to Russia. As recently noted, Russia has been sending political advisors to Kyrgyzstan to advise its government over the past year. Furthermore, although crucial to  efforts in Afghanistan, the Manas Air Base deal may not result in a windfall for the United States. Despite the enormous sum of money paid for permission to use the  air base, Manas can now only be used as a transit route for nonmilitary goods and the deal is only to last for one year.

Perhaps the question to be asked in this case is if the recent reversal is a symptom of pragmatic negotiating on behalf of President Obama or whether it is the Kremlin dangling a carrot in front of Washington.  I am inclined to choose the  latter as it is generally Russia that is ready to engage in realpolitik, willing to swap that which ranks lower on its agenda in order to preserve its greater interests. However, there are some signs that the Obama administration is engaging in some bottom line decisionmaking of its own when it comes to keeping a base open in Kyrgyzstan. Journalists have made light of the fact that in keeping Manas Air Base open, the U.S. is effectively engaging in dealmaking with an authoritarian government accused of human rights abuses.

Obama’s visit with Putin and Medvedev should help clarify the trajectory of US-Russia relations over the course of the next year. Whether or not both countries are really willing to play a little game of give-and-take with each other remains to be seen. Whether an event such as the recent one in Kyrgyzstan was a move by Washington or Moscow is not entirely clear. One thing is certain, however, and that is that a chess game is in play.



Katya Fisher Yoffe

Katya Fisher Yoffe is recipient of the Howard M. Squadron Fellowship in Law, Media, and Society at the Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy, University of Oxford and a law student at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. She is editor of which is being developed in conjunction with the National Endowment for Democracy's Center for International Media Assistance and The Center for Global Communication Studies at the Annenberg School for Communication. Katya has worked as a legal intern at the Open Society Justice Initiative, the Art Loss Register, and the Art Law Department of Herrick, Feinstein LLP. Prior to attending law school Katya worked in communications in Moscow, Russia. On a lighter note, she is also the editor/writer of BlackBook Media's Guide to Moscow. Katya is a graduate of New York University.