Ex-Soviet States to Form Rapid Reaction Force

MOSCOW (AP)–Seven former Soviet nations including Russia will form a joint rapid reaction force, the Russian president said Wednesday — as the Kremlin seeks to squeeze the United States out of energy-rich Central Asia.

The announcement was made just a day after Kyrgyzstan said it would end its U.S. lease of a key air base that supports military operations in Afghanistan. Evicting U.S. troops from Kyrgyzstan would mark a victory for Moscow in its battle for influence in what it considers its historic backyard.

President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia, Armenia, Belarus and four Central Asian nations — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — had reached the agreement to form a new security force during a summit of the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization on Wednesday.

The force would add a military dimension to the alliance, which so far has served mostly as a forum for consultations.

"We all have agreed on the need" for the force, Medvedev said, but he did not give details of how the force would be composed. On Tuesday, he said Russia and Belarus would also be forming a joint military system to monitor and defend their air space.

Russia, the U.S. and China have been vying for influence in the Caspian and Central Asia region, which is believed to contain the world’s third-largest energy reserves. The rivalry has been compared to the 19th-century Great Game between the British Empire and Czarist Russia for dominance in the region.

When the U.S. launched the war in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Russia’s president at the time, Vladimir Putin, had welcomed U.S. troops in Central Asia. The move helped to temporarily improve U.S.-Russia relations, but as relations worsened again Moscow became impatient about the U.S. presence.

Moscow set up its own air base in Kyrgyzstan in 2003, and then scored another point in 2005, when Uzbekistan evicted U.S. troops from an air base near the Afghan border.

On Tuesday, Kyrgyzstan followed suit with President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announcing his intention to shut the U.S. base after Russia agreed to provide Kyrgyzstan with $2 billion in loans plus $150 million in aid.

The lease deal obliges Kyrgyzstan to give the U.S. 180 days notice to clear the base. The U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan said no formal notice had been delivered, and said talks on the issue would continue. But the Kyrgyz government later sent a bill to parliament calling for the base agreement to be ended.

Medvedev has said Russia welcomes the transit of non-lethal U.S. cargo for troops in Afghanistan through the region.

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