U.S. military involvement in a peacekeeping exercise in Central Asia in mid-September is the latest indication of a shift in the balance of power in a region long dominated by Moscow. Each of the five countries in the region, both the three that are participating with the U.S. and the two that are not, enjoy unprecedented freedom of action as a result. But because a single exercise will, in itself, not be enough to institutionalize that change, the maneuvers will almost certainly carefully watched by Russia, which retains important assets both within and around the region.

Brigadier General Martin Berndt, the U.S. Atlantic Command's director for joint exercises and training, recently announced that U.S. military forces will participate in a joint military exercise known as Centrasbat 97 from 15 to 21 September. He said some 500 paratroopers from the army's 82nd Airborne Division, along with 40 Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Uzbeks, will fly non-stop from the U.S. to Kazakhstan and then parachute into the exercise area. Joining them in that jump will be 40 soldiers from Turkey, 40 from Russia, and Marine Corps General John J. Sheehan, who is the commander of the U.S. Atlantic Command. Following their arrival, troops from Latvia and Georgia will join the peacekeeping and humanitarian aid training sessions to take place in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Berndt stressed that the 13,000 kilometer airlift of paratroopers is a remarkable "first" by virtue of its distance: "a strategic airlift of airborne troops that has not been seen before." He said the exercises were intended to promote regional military cooperation, to reinforce the sovereignty of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan whose soldiers make up the Central Asian battalion under the Partnership for Peace program, and to help those countries upgrade their ability to participate in international peacekeeping activities.

He hastened to add that the U.S. is not trying to send any message to the nations not involved (including the two Central Asian non-participants, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan) or to anyone else. Regardless of Washington's intentions, however, U.S. military involvement in the high-profile exercise will send some very powerful messages not only to Turkmenistan and Tajikistan but also to the three countries of the region whose soldiers are taking part and to Russia .

To the Turkmens and Tajiks, this high-visibility operation will serve notice that the U.S. intends to be a serious player in the Central Asian region and that they thus have a strong incentive to modify their policies in ways that will allow them to cooperate both with their neighbors, who did not invite them to participate in the exercise, and with the U.S. To the three Central Asian states that are participating, the exercise provides the clearest indication yet that the U.S. is prepared to work with them on much the same basis that it is cooperating with the Baltic States and Ukraine. It will provide yet another impulse toward greater cooperation throughout region as a whole. And it will signal that the U.S. is not prepared to accept Russian pretensions to a continuing sphere of influence in that region, which will allow those countries to adopt increasingly independent foreign policies and sometimes even directly challenge Moscow's positions.

But if the exercise sends such messages to the Central Asian countries, it also sends them to Russia. At least some in Moscow may react to what they are likely to see as a direct and intentional U.S. challenge to what many Russians believe is properly their sphere of influence. If the Russian government follows their lead--and recent statements by President Boris Yeltsin about U.S. involvement in the Caucasus suggest that it might--Moscow may decide to react in some way. And if it does, it has some significant assets that it can bring into play.

Russia has a variety of means of exacerbating the situation in Tajikistan, including the threat of pulling out Russian peacekeeping forces, which could weaken the Dushanbe regime and lead to instability in Uzbekistan. It could also put in place new obstacles to the export of oil and gas from the countries of Central Asia. In such cases, the U.S. and the West more generally may be forced to provide even more political assistance to its Central Asian partners lest its paratroop drop into Kazakhstan on 15 September prove a jump too far.

UKRAINIAN LAWMAKERS CALL FOR UNION WITH RUSSIA, BELARUS. Eighty-six legislators in the 450-seat parliament on 10 September called for creating a union with Russia and Belarus, Interfax reported. The deputies issued a statement stressing the need to tighten ties between "brotherly Slavic peoples." They vowed to work for closer political and economic ties. In May, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a longawaited friendship and cooperation treaty, but Ukraine has steered clear of agreements linking Russia and Belarus in a loose union.

AUSTRIAN FOREIGN MINISTER IN UKRAINE. Wolfgang Schuessel on 10 September told journalists in Kyiv he appreciates Ukraine's role in Europe as a stabilizing factor. During his one-day visit to the Ukrainian capital, he met with Prime Minister Valery Pustovoitenko and Foreign Minister Hennady Udovenko. The two sides discussed bilateral relations and Ukraine's cooperation with the EU. Schuessel and Udovenko exchanged documents about the mutual protection of investments in both countries. The Austrian minister also met with President Leonid Kuchma.