Among the world’s many police states and dictatorships, the three most aggressive purveyors of tyranny and mass murder are Russia, China, and Iran. Russia is threatening to pull NATO into a war over Putin-imperialism. China is threatening the sanctity of international waters and airspace, while bombarding the U.S. with cyber attacks and slaughtering Tibetans, Christians, and Falun Gong. And Iran is threatening to annihilate 6 million Jews in Israel, and 300 million Americans in America, while supporting terrorist militias all over the Middle East. On the other side of Russia from Ukraine, on the other side of Iran from Syria, and on the other side of China from the Senkaku Islands and the South China Sea, the three countries converge on the former Soviet Central Asian republics. Since the Nineties, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan have fallen into the Russian, Chinese, or Persian spheres of influence. Quietly, though, one of them has come into play; and the U.S. has an opening to build an alliance with the ideally the placed Kyrgyz.
Straddling the mountains west of China’s northwestern desert, Kyrgyzstan is the freest of the -stans. It is the only Central Asian nation besides Mongolia to have a somewhat free press and measurable civil liberties; it’s the only Central Asian nation besides Kazakhstan to have, according the Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation, a “moderately free” economy. It’s far from perfect, but in a deeply unfree part of the world, Kyrgyzstan’s progress is deeply encouraging. That ought to be enough for the U.S. to take an interest: As with Ukraine, Tibet, and the Kurds — or for that matter, Taiwan and Israel — the United States should always support a nation’s effort to become free and stay free. But there are bonus parts of the Kyrgyz situation that make this a perfect time to lend a hand.
This wouldn’t be America’s first foray into Kyrgyzstan; in 2001, the Bush administration cannily negotiated the creation of a north-Kyrgyzstan air base. In 2014, the base was closed, after its lease was allowed to lapse. The lease wasn’t renewed, principally, because of pressure on, and financial incentives to, the Kyrgyz from Russia.
In a surprise to absolutely no one, Russia has started to renege on its commitments to the Kyrgyz — particularly its promise to revolutionize Kyrgyzstan’s energy infrastructure by building five hydropower dams. The largest of the five — a 900-foot-tall behemoth called Kambar-Ata 1 — was the key component in persuading the Kyrgyz not to re-up with the United States: a $1.7 billion investment to increase Kyrgyzstan’s energy output by 78 percent and combat its water-management problems. According to the Eurasianet news service, “Russia never delivered the $1.7 billion . . . Kambar-Ata 1 still appears to be in the dream stage.”
That was last summer; the odds of Russia’s living up to those promises have grown a lot longer in the two seasons since. In the last six months, the Chinese yuan has doubled in strength against the ruble, doubling the price of the cheap Chinese labor Russia might have used to execute its Kyrgyz plans. And Russia hasn’t exactly got money to spare: Its economy, which is dominated by energy exports, has collapsed along with the price of oil. Meanwhile, American and European sanctions persist, and most of the money left in the Kremlin is going to a military build-up and the undeclared war with Ukraine.
However, even if none of that were true, Russia would still have its promises to Kyrgyzstan on a back burner — because Russia has already got what it wanted. The U.S. has pulled out, and replaced its Kyrgyz air base with a base in Romania; mission accomplished. The French light philosopher François de La Rochefoucauld wrote that “gratitude is the lively expectation of favors yet to come” — and while Moscow may appreciate Bishkek’s giving D.C. the boot, Bishkek has nothing left to offer. And Moscow has moved on.
But Kyrgyzstan still needs energy, and technology, and foreign aid. And we could use something to keep Russia, China, and Iran on their toes. Moscow, in particular, will try to match or exceed any U.S. efforts to influence Kyrgyzstan. The United States won’t directly intervene in Ukraine, but forcing Russia to put money, which would otherwise be earmarked for Donetsk, into Central Asia, will help defend Ukraine’s sovereignty and rein in Russian imperialism.
And, as an extra perk, Kyrgyzstan — which is a Muslim country — is working hard to prevent the spread of radical Islam inside its borders; it recently arrested an imam who was recruiting for ISIS. That on its own should be enough reason to give it a hand.
The U.S. ought to fill Kyrgyzstan’s Russo-vacuum; it is at the crucial nexus of the new tyranny triangle, and at the forefront of Central Asian liberalization. We shouldn’t miss this opportunity. America needs to get cozy with Kyrgyzstan.