Before Kyrgyzstan turned to Russia, it informally asked Washington for military assistance including a supply of rubber bullets to quell ethnic bloodletting in the south of the country, but was turned down, I am told by people privy to the situation. Russia says it may deploy troops if it's a collective regional decision.
Kyrgyz President Rosa Otunbayeva made the request of Washington for troops and rubber bullets after Kyrgyz and Uzbeks living in the city of Osh began to fight on Friday. She formally asked for Russian help yesterday, putting the timing of the request to the U.S. sometime in between.
A senior Obama administration official, speaking to me on condition of anonymity, denied that the U.S. has received any formal Kyrgyz request for military assistance.
To the degree that the fighting -- at least 100 people have already died and more than 1,000 have been injured in the fighting -- destabilizes the fragile Kyrgyz government, it's a security concern for the U.S., which maintains an important Air Force base near the capital of Bishkek that serves Afghanistan. In addition, Kazakhstan -- with its enormous oil, uranium, copper and other natural resources -- is right next door.
So in deferring to Russia for the security of its traditional backyard, Washington puts further distance between itself and Kyrgyzstan. It's another signal of Washington's policy reversal, known as "reset," in which the Obama administration is attempting to have a more cooperative relationship with Moscow than did the Bush administration.
Here's what the Obama administration official told me:
Unlike other scenarios, in terms of U.S.-Russian and U.S.-Soviet behavior in times of crisis, so far one is struck by the incredible amount of cooperation between our government and the government in Moscow. Because so far, we have the strong feeling that our interest and the Russian interest are aligned.
We hear privately that if we get to the moment that unavoidably there has to be troops, we will be doing it in a cooperative way, not a zero-sum way. We'd like the international community to be fully invested and supportive if military intervention happens.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has called a meeting tomorrow of the defense chiefs of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a regional body that in addition to Russia and Kyrgyzstan includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
Steve LeVine is the author of The Oil and the Glory and a longtime foreign correspondent.