Eurasia: A year in review

Central Eurasia

2013 was an eventful year in the Caucasus and Central Asia, as the United States and NATO prepared to pull their military forces out of Afghanistan, Russia strengthened its military presence in the region, and tensions mounted on various fronts in the Caucasus.

The Eviction from Manas. Probably the biggest story from the region in 2013, especially from a United States-centric perspective, was the Kyrgyzstan government's eviction of the U.S. from its air base at Manas, just outside the capital of Bishkek. The base was set up shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks and had been used to support U.S. operations in Afghanistan, in particular processing troops entering and exiting the country and refueling aircraft flying missions in Afghanistan. The base's presence had been dogged by controversy almost since its establishment, and in the past the U.S. had to conduct some serious bargaining to keep the base open. In June, however, Kyrgyzstan's president, Almazbek Atambayev, and the country's parliament passed a law requiring the U.S. to vacate Manas when the current leasing agreement expires, in July 2014. After some behind-the-scenes last-ditch efforts, the U.S. announced in October that it would accede to Bishkek's wishes and that it would move part of the operations from Manas to Romania. The departure from Manas will mark the end of the most significant U.S. military presence in Central Asia, and underscores the declining U.S. military role in the region in general as the withdrawal from Afghanistan approaches.

The Decline of the NDN. The U.S. began setting up its transportation routes through the former Soviet states to Afghanistan, known as the Northern Distribution Network, at the end of the last decade. The NDN played a crucial role in supplying American and NATO troops in Afghanistan, especially after Pakistan closed its border to Afghanistan in retaliation for a NATO air strike that killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers. But with the Pakistan border reopening and the direction of transit shifting from into Afghanistan to out of Afghanistan, the NDN has become little more than a strategic reserve option. Over the last several months, less than one percent of U.S. military traffic leaving Afghanistan has taken the northern route, U.S. Transportation Command has said. Part of the reason is that the northern route is longer and involves more bureaucracy, and another part is that Uzbekistan, the key node on the northern route, has proven to be skittish about cargo from Afghanistan entering its territory.

The Expansion of the CSTO. Parallel to the U.S.'s declining military presence in the region, Russia became{C} more assertive, making a number of moves in 2013 to strengthen its influence. Many of those had to do with Moscow's nascent political-military bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization. (In addition to Russia, the organization includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.) In April, the CSTO announced that it would be creating joint air forces to be based in Kyrgyzstan and in Armenia. The CSTO also announced that it would be expanding its aid to Tajikistan's border forces in anticipation of the potential of spillover of instability from Afghanistan after the U.S. and NATO withdrawal. It held joint drills in Russia that were much larger than previous iterations. And independent of the CSTO, Russia also completed the process of ratifying a new agreement with Tajikistan to keep a military base there until 2042 and reportedly began negotiating to gain control over another base in the country.

Turkey's Chinese Missiles. Turkey shocked its NATO allies in September by announcing that it had chosen a Chinese air and missile defense system over American, European, and Russian competitors. Turkey's government argued that China had offered both a better price and a more generous offer to share the technology with Turkey than had the Western bidders. But American and European officials reacted strongly against the decision, saying that it would make integration with NATO air defense systems impossible. More broadly, it fueled concerns that Turkey was moving away from its Western strategic orientation. (The fact that Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has sought membership in the Chinese-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization also contributed to those worries.) After the negative reaction, however, Turkey appeared to be giving signs that they may be looking to back out of the Chinese deal.

Elsewhere... The commander of the Russian military base in Armenia said that Russia may fight Azerbaijan in the case of renewed conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh. However, Russia also seemed to flirt with Azerbaijan, including by announcing a large weapons sale. While Uzbekistan started the year with an ambitious wish list of American weaponry that it hoped to get in exchange for its cooperation in Afghanistan, over the year those hopes appeared to dwindle. Border tensions between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan festered over the year (and the new year brought only renewed conflict). In spite of a change in government and a promise to repair relations with Russia, Georgia continued to aggressively pursue NATO membership. Tension between Iran and Azerbaijan mounted, from border skirmishes to "terror" plots to Caspian Sea militarization. Georgian officials said that a botched operation against Chechen militants in the country may have been the result of the previous government's attempt to train and host Chechens to carry out operations against Russia.