Russia Military Ally Ditched U.S. Base After Missile Strike Threat

Putin and Atambayev
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev arrive for a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on June 20. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin/Reuters

Kyrgyzstan faced threats from foreign powers to remove a U.S. military facility on its territory or potentially face a missile strike against it, the country's President Almazbek Atambayev said Monday.

"I will not hide that some countries warned us that they are ready, should it be the case that it is necessary, to conduct a missile strike on the U.S. air base deployed on our territory," Atambayev said at a press conference in his country's north.

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Atambayev did not say which countries were behind the threat to the former Soviet republic which borders China and Kazakhstan. A Russian military ally since the 1990s, Kyrgyzstan is a member of Russia's Collective Security Treaty Organization—Moscow's analog to NATO.

The U.S. facility was opened in 2001 with the aim of supporting NATO operations in nearby Afghanistan; Kyrgyzstan closed it in 2014.

"Our people were under serious danger until [it was closed]," Atambayev said Monday, Russian state news agency Itar-Tass reports. Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan has one Russian air base on its territory—the Kant base—and recently Atambayev told Russian President Vladimir Putin that he would endorse another such base on his nation's territory, in an apparent swipe at neighbors Tajikistan and Uzbekistan's ability to halt the Taliban.

"I would not be afraid if Russia deployed a second base in Kyrgyzstan on the Tajikistan border," he added. "Russia is not readying to take our territory. It has enough of its own. We risk nothing, and in this way we would defend ourselves, but the decision will have to be taken by Russia, taking into account its own abilities."

The Kyrgyz leader voiced skepticism that Moscow would spare the funds for another air base in his country, having received a cold response when he raised the issue with Putin last month. He also said that the most recent agreement about the Kant base will see a reduction in the deployment period of Russian troops in Kyrgyzstan, from 74 years to 15.

Compared to most of the countries in its region, where strongmen leaders have repeatedly held onto power until their death, political protests in Kyrgyzstan have toppled two presidents. Atambayev has been the first president to begin his tenure with a peaceful transfer of power, and he has vowed not to seek political office when his term expires at the end of this year.