Continuing protests in southern Kyrgyzstan are giving rise to speculation that Russia might intervene militarily. Democracy Guy and Registan.net both correctly say, however, that the Russian military isn’t capable of an unwanted intervention (read: invasion), and the geo-political ramifications would be immense – certainly far more than the Kremlin wants to deal with right now.
A peacekeeping mission, probably at the invitation of President Akayev, seems to be the only remaining option open to Russia if it wants to find some way of directly intervening in Kyrgyzstan, but that too is an option fraught with problems. Problems which I believe would prevent any peacekeeping mission from getting off the ground, no matter how dire the situation in Kyrgyzstan might become.
A peacekeeping mission certainly isn’t under serious discussion today – President Akayev probably doesn’t see himself as directly under threat while the opposition is contained in the south of the country. But it could be if tensions escalate further and – crucially – if an ethnic conflict develops. The protests right now are centered in the south of Kyrgyzstan, which has a predominately Uzbek population. Although the ethnic dimensions of these protests are pretty largely under-reported at the moment they are there, and they could explode to the forefront if events do begin to spiral out of control.
So, what form would a peacekeeping mission take? Well, if Akayev were to invite peacekeepers into Kyrgyzstan, he would turn to Russia first. Russia strongly backs his rule, and he could be fairly confident that Russian peacekeepers would continue to back him over any opposition groups. Russia wouldn’t be able to just go in by itself, of course. Although this would be the Kremlin’s preferred solution it would also invite howls of protest from the international community, not to mention inflame the Kyrgyz opposition still further.
Russia’s President Putin would have to cover any peacekeeping mission in at least a veil of legitimacy, which means going in under the aegis of an international body. Three candidates spring immediately to mind, each with major drawbacks: the Commonwealth of Independent States, the United Nations, and the little known Shanghai Co-operation Organisation.
The CIS route is the most obvious choice, but it does not assure success for Putin. Ukraine and Georgia are both members of the CIS, and would have strong concerns about a CIS intervention. At the very least, they would refuse to join a peacekeeping mission. Although Russia could technically launch a CIS peacekeeping mission without the participation of many CIS members – indeed, most CIS missions are made up primarily of Russian troops – the mission would again lack legitimacy in the eyes of the world, and the eyes of many in Kyrgyzstan.
The UN route is obviously a non-stater for Putin. There is (a) no way he would accept a UN mission without substantial Russian involvement and control, and (b) no way that the US, UK and France would approve a Russian-led UN mission. China would also probably have concerns about such a mission, as Kyrgyzstan is on China’s Northwestern border. A UN mission led by the US, or the EU is similarly a non-starter as the Kremlin would have kittens at the thought of such a large ‘enemy’ force actually within the CIS.
The Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) is a Central Asian security body made up of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It’s major advantage is that it is the local security body and has a certain legitimacy within the region, although little legitimacy beyond that. It also brings China into the equation, which would act as a balance to Russian power. Its disadvantages, however, are numerous. Firstly, the SCO has never launched a military operation before, and certainly nothing of the level of complexity of a peacekeeping mission. Secondly, bringing Chinese troops into the region is likely to make the United States more than a little jittery. Thirdly, China could probably work either well with the current Kyrgyz government or the opposition if it gains power. Is it really in China’s interests to get directly involved? Finally, from Russia’s perspective, working within the SCO framework would mean ceding substantial autonomy. Russia would have great difficulty in keeping a puppet Akayev regime in place if Chinese troops were also on the scene.
The bottom line for the key protagonists in Kyrgyzstan is that they really had better sort this mess out between themselves. The politics of launching a peacekeeping mission are such that, if they do manage to drag themselves into a civil war – and thankfully they are a way off from doing that just yet – nobody is going to be able to come in and rescue them from it any time soon.
(This article is also posted at Publius Pundit).