THE small central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan put NATO and the United States in a tight spot by announcing last week that it intends to close Manas air base there.
That base is key to U.S. and NATO military operations in Afghanistan. It is used as a hub for transit and refueling. It would be even more critical if the administration of President Obama proceeds with its plan to increase U.S. forces in Afghanistan by 30,000 to a new level of 78,000.
Since Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's announcement was made in Moscow - during a visit that included Russia heralding a new $2 billion loan, $150 million in new aid, and forgiveness of $180 million in debt for Kyrgyzstan - there is plenty of reason to believe that the small former Soviet republic is closing the base at Russian instigation.
What that means is that Russia, instead of waiting for the Obama Administration to begin a more stately initiation of what presumably will be a new relationship between the two countries, has opened the game with a power play. This is likely calculated to make clear to America's new leaders that Russia has an area, including Central Asia, Ukraine, Georgia, and the rest of the Caucasus, that it considers its sphere of influence.
Issues between the United States and Russia include the future of former President George W. Bush's missile-defense program with proposed installations in the Czech Republic and Poland, the negotiation of a new arms treaty, and whether NATO will be expanded to include Ukraine and Georgia.
Pursuit of the war in Afghanistan requires a reliable supply route. Pakistan is presenting a growing problem, as the Taliban ramps up its activities there.
Uzbekistan kicked the United States out in 2005. Kyrgyzstan might respond if Washington increased its aid, which stands at $150 million a year, although the United States would be likely to lose in a bidding war with Russia, which put $2.3 billion on the table last Tuesday. Tajikistan has expressed interest in being helpful, but it, too, is close to Russia and would ask for serious money.
The United States has several options that can be pursued simultaneously. One is to stage more U.S. and NATO military activities inside Afghanistan, at Bagram Air Base or elsewhere, in cooperation with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
With respect to Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. position could be, "We didn't want the Manas base anymore anyway." A second possibility would be to explore other opportunities with the neighboring "stan" countries, including Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
A third move, which will be necessary in the long run in any case, would be to accelerate consideration within the Obama Administration of overall U.S. policy toward Russia, including the relationship in Central Asia, and move quickly to address that agenda, perhaps sending Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Moscow on an urgent basis.
In a sense, the Kyrgyz decision to close the Manas base provides an opportunity for a fresh look at the U.S. role in Afghanistan and the surrounding region and America's relations with Russia. That's not a bad development.