Russian media outlets continue to publish articles claiming that the United States may establish a military base in Turkmenistan. The circumstances surrounding the media reports suggest that Russia is carrying out a disinformation campaign designed to exert pressure on Turkmenistan to adhere to Moscow's geopolitical line in Central Asia.
The Russian media reports about the possible US base in Turkmenistan began to surface in late August, following Turkmenistan's decision to de-emphasize its membership in the Commonwealth of Independent States. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Helping to stoke the base rumors was an August 23 visit by US Gen. John Abizaid, chief of the US Central Command (CENTCOM), to Ashgabat.
The Russian reports have persisted in September. On September 6, for example, a RIA Novosti news agency report alleged that "the United States may soon transfer a military base from Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan." The same day, Pravda's web site reported that "several construction companies from the United Arab Emirates have repaired the Mary-2 airbase" so that it can accommodate US military personnel and aircraft.
Pentagon officials have consistently and vociferously denied the reports. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. And on September 7, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry issued a statement characterizing the reports of a possible base deal as "mere fiction."
"Turkmenistan values its status of permanent neutrality," the Turkmen Foreign Ministry statement said, reiterating President Saparmurat Niyazov's desire "not to place on its territory the military bases of foreign states."
Beyond the official denials, there are factors that suggest the establishment of an American base in Turkmenistan is unlikely in the near future, if ever. First of all, there is no record of any kind that the requisite site investigation for a base has occurred. Without such an investigation, the establishment of an air base would seem a remote possibility. In addition, Mary, the alleged location for the US base, sits in a seismically active area a condition that would discourage the placement of US military personnel and equipment there.
Russian reports have alleged that Gen. Abizaid's visit to Ashgabat concentrated on finalizing details of a basing agreement. It is more likely that General Abizaid's visit was what the US Embassy communiqué issued afterwards said it was -- a meeting to discuss common security concerns and to thank Niyazov for Turkmenistan's help in facilitating humanitarian relief to Afghanistan. Moreover, it is a regular occurrence for a CENTCOM commander to hold talks with heads of state in his area of responsibility.
Moscow's media campaign ignores the fact that any attempt by the Pentagon to establish a base in Turkmenistan would meet stiff political resistance in Washington. US officials responsible for shaping foreign policy believe that the espousal of democratization and human rights should guide American international strategy. Indeed, they argue that it is because Washington champions such policies that it was evicted from Uzbekistan's Karshi-Khanabad base. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Turkmenistan is widely viewed as having the most draconian political system in Central Asia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Uzbekistan, an authoritarian state in its own right, looks like a Jeffersonian paradise when compared to Niyazov's cult of personality in Turkmenistan. Given this reality, it is virtually impossible to visualize the US foreign policy community endorsing the idea of a new air base outside of Mary.
Sober analysis suggests that there is little, if any, basis for thinking that an American air base will soon appear in Turkmenistan. Why, then, did these reports start emerging? The answer may be relatively straightforward: Moscow is likely upset over Niyazov's decision to downgrade Turkmenistan's CIS status, and Russian officials are orchestrating a media and diplomatic campaign aimed at compelling the Turkmenbashi to reconsider.
For years Russian media have fabricated similar reports about Azerbaijan to pressure Baku into not accepting US military assistance, and to avoid entering into a base agreement. The Turkmen base rumors are likely another example of the same tactic. It is quite probable that Russia's disinformation campaign will persist as long as Turkmenistan remains outside the CIS.
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.