Russia to boost military presence in Central Asia

BISHKEK (Reuters) - Russia announced plans on Monday to increase the number of military aircraft at its air base in Kyrgyzstan, reinforcing its position in Central Asia, which it sees as part of its traditional sphere of interest.

The announcement follows a decision by Kyrgyzstan to shut down a U.S.-operated air base on its soil this year -- a move widely seen as a strategic win for Russia.

Lying just 30 km (19 miles) apart, the two air bases have come to symbolize rivalry between Russia and the United States in their struggle for influence in Central Asia.

Nikolai Bordyuzha, secretary general of the Moscow-based Collective Security Treaty Organization (ODKB), said Russia had decided to reinforce its air forces in the region.

ODKB is often billed as a counterweight to NATO and groups a host of post-Soviet republics including Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Kazakhstan and others.

“Russia’s leadership plans to increase the number of military aircraft at Kant (air base),” Bordyuzha told reporters during a visit to Kyrgyzstan. “It is in line with the situation in Central Asia and Afghanistan.”

The Kant base, home to about 500 servicemen and a handful of military aircraft, is significantly smaller than the U.S. Manas facility, which hosts more than 1,000 personnel.

Bordyuzha did not say how many planes Russia planned to station at Kant, and gave no other details.

In February, Kyrgyzstan gave the United States six months to shut down operations at Manas, which has played an important role in supplying U.S.-led troops in nearby Afghanistan.

Kyrgyzstan’s president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, announced the decision while on a trip to Moscow where he secured a $2 billion financial package from Russia.

Russia denies that it had any say in the decision.

However, Moscow has continued to flex its muscles in the region, taking part in war games in Tajikistan last weekend alongside China and other Central Asian countries.

Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Kevin Liffey