Little noticed by most observers, who often treat the country as a footnote when noting it at all, Kyrgyzstan has played what might be called one of the cannier games of Realpolitik around. Or perhaps everyone else has played very, very badly. While the latter is very possible with Bishkek’s somewhat bumbling history, the result has been the same: Every great power in the region is courting the landlocked little crossroads within an inch of its life.
We have noted before Russia’s attempts to re-establish its hegemony in the region, most especially through small-arms transfers and attempts to drive the waning US presence to nothing. Not to be outdone, as the US leaves its last airbase in the country behind and abandons its gains in Afghanistan, Washington is … stratospherically increasing its direct training of Bishkek’s State Committee of National Security, which one may think of as an armored FBI that is used for domestic repression at least as much as for killing external bad guys. China, interested in having a friendly client state of its own on the edge of its troublesome Xinjiang province, is also increasing trade, development opportunities and … more military training and transfers.
Given the US’s recently attention-deficit disorder-riddled foreign policy, the likelihood that it will continue to pour materiel and expertise into a country about which and with which it has no interests in common is honestly about even. However, little Kyrgyzstan is fast becoming a quiet battleground for influence between its historic poles — China and Russia — who hate each other in a very professional way and who want control or at least dominance of the little nation as part of their own dyspeptic policies.
Vladimir Putin is one of the canniest statesmen in the world, but his key weakness isn’t his taste for selfies and vodka, but instead an unstinting desire to reconstruct the Russian Empire to its farthest limit. This makes him a dangerous and unyielding opponent in Kiev and his near background, and prone to giving a dysfunctional kleptocracy one step removed from his borders lots and lots of guns to fight wars against its own people and other countries he is trying to drive back into Moscow’s fold.
China’s current leadership is also stumbling, working to expand its hegemonic status (and to destroy the ability of Uighur separatists to retreat from state security) and risking conflicts in its near backyard in the process. For this is the truth of this little, landlocked country: It is fast becoming an arms dump, it has no great desire for control by Moscow or Beijing, and most importantly, neither Moscow nor Beijing can effectively control it nor cede control of it.
A dangerous game is being incompetently played in Central Asia. Perhaps nothing will come of it. But flash points, as the world learned 100 years ago, often come from small, seemingly irrelevant places.
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