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In Kyrgyz crisis, opportunity knocks

An ethnic Uzbek stands beside the wreckage of his burned-out home in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, on Monday.
An ethnic Uzbek stands beside the wreckage of his burned-out home in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, on Monday. (Victor Drachev - Afp/getty Images)
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By David Ignatius
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Watching the deteriorating security situation in Kyrgyzstan, we have a Cold War reflex to forecast a new flash point between the United States and Russia. In reality, it's the opposite -- this remote and feeble Central Asian country is offering a new opportunity for Moscow and Washington to work as partners.

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"We are not in any way framing this as a zero-sum game," a senior Obama administration official explained Tuesday. "On the contrary, we are very closely coordinating our actions with Moscow."

The death toll this week rose into the hundreds, but violence appeared to decline on Tuesday and the Kyrgyz defense minister said the government would withdraw its request for an international peacekeeping force. But U.S. officials said that it was hard to predict how soon stability would return. The Kyrgyz government had initially sought Russian intervention, but Moscow had signaled that it wouldn't send troops alone.

Here's the surprise: U.S. officials argue that if the violence continues, the right intervention force would be one that included Russia and other regional partners. It might be drawn from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, an alliance of former Soviet republics. Or it could be a "coalition of the willing" that included troops from Turkey, say, as well as those from Russia, Kazakhstan and other neighboring states.

The United States and Russia have stayed in close touch since the crisis exploded late last week. The two countries cooperated on a presentation to United Nations officials Monday night that laid the groundwork for collective action, if it becomes necessary.

America is already providing humanitarian help, with more on the way. More than $1 million in emergency relief and medical supplies were delivered Monday and Tuesday, and a bigger package totaling more than $10 million from a new U.S. "complex crisis fund" will be announced late this week. Though the United States hasn't received any request for military help, it would consider providing overhead surveillance and the use of U.S. military planes to airlift troops or supplies.

What's refreshing about this joint U.S.-Russian approach to security is that it gets away from the reflexive -- and misconceived -- idea that the two countries are locked in a "great game" for influence in Central Asia. That 19th-century notion of inevitable competition was prevalent among many U.S. analysts during the 1990s, and it led to some half-baked strategies to expand U.S. sway and combat the Russians.

A more coherent view is that Russia and America should be natural partners in Central Asia. Certainly, they share the same enemies -- the militant Islamic groups and criminal gangs that threaten stability in the region. President Obama has been pushing that line since he took office, and U.S. officials say he has discussed Kyrgyzstan, and the need to avoid confrontation there, in nearly every meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

The explosion of violence over the past week is a toxic brew common to many developing nations -- mixing economic inequality, regional political rivalry and ethnic hatred. With subtle backing from Moscow, a new interim government staged a coup in April that empowered the Kyrgyz majority, which dominates the northern part of the country. To the surprise of both Moscow and Washington (which condoned the coup afterward), this new government couldn't stop bloody attacks by Kyrgyz mobs against the Uzbek minority in the south, which is resented because it holds much of the economic power there.

As this "ethnic cleansing" spread in Osh and Jalal-Abad last weekend, as many as 80,000 terrified Uzbeks are said to have fled across the border into Uzbekistan.

Kyrgyzstan matters to the United States because it provides an air base at Manas that has become the main transit point for the surge of troops and supplies into Afghanistan. Currently, this "northern distribution network," as it is known, accounts for about 70 percent of shipments into the war zone, a U.S. official said, with about 1,300 U.S. personnel operating the Manas hub.

The Russians once regarded the Manas base as a thorn in their side. But in the new spirit of "pragmatic partnership," as it has been dubbed by Gen. David Petraeus, the Centcom commander who pushed to open the northern supply route, Russia has concluded that it has a stake in America's success in Afghanistan. Certainly, the Russians don't want the Islamic insurgency to spread north.

Substituting cooperation for Great Gamesmanship in Central Asia is a welcome change from a few years ago. Now if this model of Russian-American collaboration could just be expanded to deal firmly with Iran, we might have the beginnings of a system that deserved to be called "collective security."

davidignatius@washpost.com


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