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WHY DID RUMSFELD RUSH TO AZERBAIJAN AND KYRGYZSTAN?

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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Pyotr Goncharov) - Why did Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld make his surprise visits to Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan? And what could be the results of these visits for Russia?

These questions are particularly relevant if one remembers that the U.S. has included the Transcaucasus and Central Asia in the zone of its interests and it was Rumsfeld's third visit to Baku since December 2003, while the current Bishkek government will be effective only until the July presidential election.

Rumsfeld went to Baku on the sly: the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan, the U.S. departments of state and defense did not make an official statement on the agenda of the visit, and Rumsfeld's talks with Defense Minister Safar Abiyev and Prime Minister Artur Rasizade were held behind closed doors. But the next day the local press published a statement by General Johns, commander of the NATO forces in Europe, which said that the U.S. planned to deploy military bases in the Caspian region to ensure regional security.

This is not a coincidence. The U.S. administration has labeled the Transcaucasus a region where U.S. interests may be threatened. The U.S. is drafting a 10-year Caspian defense program, allegedly to prevent unfavorable developments, where Azerbaijan is given a special place. The program provides for establishing special task groups that could promptly react to terrorist attacks on oil pipelines and any other emergencies in the Caspian countries. The command center of the program equipped with the latest radars will be located in Baku and its sphere of responsibility will embrace the whole of the Caspian region.

The U.S. also regards Azerbaijan as a suitable area for its rapid deployment forces necessary for settling U.S. foreign policy problems in the region, above all in relations with Iran.

Local analysts claim that the Baku authorities have given an agreement of principle to the deployment of mobile groups in Azerbaijan, and only minor details remain to be coordinated. The Pentagon chief visited Baku only to ask when the program can be launched. Baku analysts say the answer can be given in mid-April and will be most probably positive.

Will these Pentagon plans create one more headache for Moscow? The bases can be used directly against Iran, with which Russia maintains a strategic partnership. Secondly, Moscow views the Caspian region as a traditional zone of its influence and is against its militarisation and the appearance of the armed forces of third (non-regional) countries there. However, Iran is the only Caspian country that supports Moscow's view.

And lastly, the latest radars in the Baku headquarters of the new group will be able to cover Russia's industrial regions in the south of the Urals, which have a special role to play in Russia's defenses.

Rumsfeld's visit to Kyrgyzstan was somewhat different. The U.S. has an air force base in the capital's airport Manas, where 800 American men and officers are deployed. The Pentagon chief most probably wanted to ask about Bishkek's position on relations with the U.S. following the change of power in the republic and about the possible expansion of the base and the deployment of other military facilities at it.

So far, Bishkek's stand meets U.S. interests only to a degree. Acting President Kurmanbek Bakiyev said that Bishkek did not see any reason to deploy additional forces in the republic. He also said that his talks with Rumsfeld did not cover the deployment of U.S. AWACS planes at the Manas base.

This does not answer another crucial question for Russia: Will Washington and Bishkek synchronize the deployment of the U.S. air force base in Kyrgyzstan with the actions of the counter-terrorist coalition in Afghanistan? It was on this condition that Moscow and Washington discussed the deployment of U.S. bases in Central Asia. Moscow's stand on the issue has not changed, but Bishkek now prefers linking the issue to the general threat of international terrorism, which suits the U.S.

Given this condition, U.S. forces can remain in Kyrgyzstan for as long as the struggle against terrorism goes on in the world. It appears that Rumsfeld got an agreement of principle in Bishkek too.

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