India's strategic ambitions in Central Asia are in flux after Russia reversed an earlier stance, and now opposes the deployment of Indian military jets to an air base in Tajikistan. Russian displeasure over India's strategic drift toward the United States appears to be the primary reason for the Kremlin's policy shift.
India and Russia have traditionally had cordial relations, underpinned by New Delhi's status as a prime buyer of Russian-made arms and military equipment. These strong ties enabled the Kremlin to sanction India's efforts to establish a strategic beachhead in Central Asia, specifically at a Tajik air base at Ayni, about 15 kilometers outside the capital Dushanbe, and at a medical facility in Farkhor, near the Tajik-Afghan border. India has maintained a presence at the Ayni base since 2002, spending an estimated $1.77 million on upgrading the facility.
From New Delhi's standpoint, seeking a permanent presence in Central Asia makes both economic and strategic sense. It would improve India's response capability to a crisis in either Afghanistan or Pakistan, as well as potentially help India's efforts to secure wider access to Central Asian energy supplies.
As recently as mid-2006, reports were circulating that New Delhi was on the verge of deploying as many as 12 MiG fighter-bombers at Ayni -- a development that would mark the establishment of India's first military base beyond its borders. The deployment was initially delayed due to problems with India's ability to upgrade Ayni. The base was not capable of accommodating the jets until mid 2007, when renovations were finally completed about two years behind schedule.
At about the same time in 2006 that India was contemplating MiG deployment, Russian and Indian diplomats opened discussions on the possibility of enlarging the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and on India's possible role within the group. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. By engaging India, Moscow seemed clearly interested in trying to check rising Chinese influence in Central Asia, especially given China's own efforts to establish a military presence in the region, and for Beijing's refusal to turn the Shanghai Cooperation Organization into a military alliance.
When India was finally ready to proceed with making Ayni fully operational, Russia was having second thoughts. And during the latter half of 2007, Moscow let it be known that it not only opposed Indian deployment, but it also began pressuring President Imomali Rahmon's administration in Dushanbe to revoke Indian access to the base. About 150 Indian military personnel, mainly engineers and support staff, have been stationed at Ayni.
Russia's policy change, according to analysts, is connected to possible shifts in the international arms market. Available sources in India strongly suggest that Moscow is concerned that New Delhi is becoming too close to the United States in general, and, in particular, too close to US defense firms. Over the next few years India is scheduled to buy $40 billion in weapons systems from foreign providers, and already it has released a tender for 126 fighter jets. Military aircraft manufacturers, including the US giants Boeing, General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin, have until late February to submit bids. The American firms are competing against Russia's Mikoyan Design Bureau, maker of the "MiG" line of combat aircraft.
Indian sources believe that Moscow's pressure on Dushanbe reflects its anger and apprehension that a valued and long-standing client, namely India, might well turn to Russia's main rival in the weapons business. This would be a significant loss to Russia's defense industry since India has been the Russian defense industry's largest client and longest-serving customer.
Difficulties with recent arms purchases and negotiations have helped spur speculation that India might look elsewhere for weapons. With Moscow's coffers filled with oil money, the Russian military is in the process of giving itself a total make-over after falling into a state of decay following the Soviet collapse in 1991. Russian defense manufacturers are presently having a tough time keeping up with domestic demand, and this is causing serious delays in the meeting of its export obligations to countries like India and China. In addition to delays, Indian officials have reportedly been miffed by the shoddy quality of some recent deliveries, and Russian efforts to drag out ongoing negotiations in order to extract a higher price.
Given the pattern established by Moscow in its energy dealings, the Ayni base matter may well be Russia's not-so-subtle way of threatening New Delhi: Either give Mikoyan the military jet contract, or else kiss the base goodbye.
Beyond attempting to pressure both local governments and third parties outside Central Asia by squeezing their interests there, Moscow's stance toward India betrays growing apprehension about the Kremlin's geopolitical influence in Central Asia. It is clear that Moscow wishes to have controlling influence over the region's political and economic affairs. But after experiencing a rapid rise in its influence in 2005-2006, Russian influence may again be on the ebb, as the region's wealth of energy resources is providing political leaders, especially those in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, with leverage to resist Russian pressure.
As recent energy deals with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan show, it is costing Russia ever more money to obtain energy form Central Asia. Central Asian governments are all increasingly able to conduct a "multi-vector" foreign policy, playing off regional powers -- including Russia, China, the United States, and even India -- for the maximum political and economic benefit.
In Tajikistan's case, Dushanbe does not enjoy anywhere near the same level of foreign policy latitude as has been achieved by some of its bigger neighbors, namely Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Even so, Rahmon's administration has grown more confident in itself over the past few years, as it has managed to establish a tight grip over domestic political life. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Thus, Moscow's efforts to bully India, and by extension Tajikistan, could easily emerge as a source of irritation in Russian-Tajik relations.
Ultimately, the Ayni base issue highlights the fact that Russia may be caught up in a vicious diplomatic cycle, in which it must rely increasingly on coercion in order to get erstwhile loyal friends and neighbors to go along with the Kremlin's economic and strategic wishes. Such a cycle can spin for only so long before it experiences a breakdown.
Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.