Absent Armenia will remain the elephant in the room as Vladimir Putin on October 13 completes his two-day visit to Kyrgyzstan with the main event on the agenda, a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the grouping of former Soviet republics.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan—who has questioned Russia’s worth as his country’s strategic ally and security guarantor since Moscow did nothing to stand in the way of the September military operation of Azerbaijan to retake the entirety of the Nagorno-Karabakh breakaway enclave—has refused to participate in the summit. He has also kept Armenia’s armed forces away from military drills currently taking place in Kyrgyzstan conducted by the Kremlin-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) defence bloc.
The operational name of those drills happens to be “Indestructible Brotherhood”. To Putin’s discomfort, the no-show of Armenian troops indicates the CSTO might be all too destructible.
Kyrgyzstan is a safe bet on the itinerary of Russia’s strongman, given that it’s not a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which since March has been seeking Putin’s arrest for the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia amid the Ukraine war. Armenia, on the other hand, has just ratified the Rome Statute of the ICC, meaning Yerevan would be obliged to arrest Putin should he set foot on Armenian soil. The trip to Kyrgyzstan is Putin's first known journey abroad since the ICC issued its international warrant for his arrest.
The first day of Putin’s trip to Kyrgyzstan brought talks with Kyrgyz counterpart Sadyr Japarov, lately accused by civil society leaders of building a highly authoritarian state that in some ways apes Putin’s Russia.
Putin also attended a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the founding of Russia's Kant military airbase outside Bishkek.
"This military outpost significantly contributes to boosting Kyrgyzstan's defensive power and ensuring security and stability in the whole region of Central Asia," said Putin, adding that he expected Moscow to expand its military and defence ties with Kyrgyzstan.
Putin, who will travel to China next week for the third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, puts in a considerable amount of effort reaffirming relations in Russia’s Central Asian “backyard”. He's no doubt well-informed on the renewed competition for influence in the region mounted by Russia, China and the Western powers since the Ukraine invasion shifted the geopolitical tectonic plates. Turkey also is looking to step up its presence in Central Asia.
At a meeting with Japarov, Putin underscored Russia's importance as the biggest investor in the Kyrgyz economy.
"Our country is the main supplier of oil products to Kyrgyzstan, we fully supply Kyrgyz consumers with gasoline [petrol] and diesel," Putin told a briefing, as reported by Reuters.
"Russia is one of the leading trade partners of Kyrgyzstan. Our trade turnover grew 37% last year to a record of nearly $3.5bn. In the first half of this year it grew a further 17.9%," Putin added.
"We very highly value the Kyrgyz-Russian strategic partnership and our relationship as allies," Japarov remarked.
Putin, in his comments, again returned to the fast growth in Russian-Kyrgyz trade. The difficulty with that, as far as the West is concerned, is the suspicion that much of it is based on Kyrgyz intermediaries providing sanctions-busting windows for Russian businesses, including, indirectly, defence contractors.