U.S. officials scoff at the notion that Central Asian bases represent anything more than a steppingstone to Afghanistan. "In strategic terms, a base in Kyrgyzstan is a dagger in the heart of nowhere," said a diplomat in the region. "What are we going to use it to attack, if not Afghanistan?"
Kyrgyzstan's deputy defense minister, Col. Zamir Suerkulov, said the Russian base would provide air support to a multinational force to protect against regional Islamic insurgencies.
But some in the country also feel caught between forces beyond their control.
"When the U.S. base came, many people immediately began to accuse Kyrgyzstan of having betrayed Russia and its allies," said Orozbek Moldaliev, head of the SEDEP Research Center, a political think tank in Bishkek. "Then when the Russian base came in as well, some began to fear that a conflict between the Americans and Russians on the territory of Kyrgyzstan was inevitable."
But, he said, "In truth, it's not just a small profit, it's a huge benefit for us. Kyrgyzstan is milking not only two cows, it is also deriving a profit from China. So for most of us, the Cold War has gone from being 'either-or,' to 'and-and.' "
Earlier this year, thousands of miles to the west, NATO expanded into the three former Soviet Baltic republics -- Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia -- but said it did not intend to open bases there. Russian hard-liners are skeptical.
"NATO keeps talking about 'no intentions, no plans.' But we frankly view NATO as an aggressive organization, which is constantly building up its military capabilities and expanding its sphere of operation towards Russia," said Leonid D. Ivashov, a retired Russian general who formerly oversaw his nation's international military cooperation directorate.
The Caucasus, the Baltics, and Ukraine -- arenas of rivalry between East and West for centuries -- are also regions of economic competition in which Russia is wielding its main weapon: energy.
Governments that don't toe the Kremlin line risk steep price increases or having the tap turned off entirely -- as happened to Belarus this year after a tiff with Russia.
Supplies were abruptly halted to much of Azerbaijan and Lithuania as well. Moscow reportedly was concerned over Azerbaijan's increased military cooperation with the U.S.
Russia's state-owned gas company, Gazprom, has bought into several Lithuanian gas companies. In 2003, the state-controlled electricity monopoly, Unified Energy Systems, bought a controlling stake in the utility in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. The firm already has expanded its stakes in half of Ukraine's local electricity providers and has its eye on the market throughout Eastern Europe.
UES chief Anatoly B. Chubais has said he dreams of a "liberal Russian empire" stretching across the territory of the former Soviet Union.
Russia canceled much of Armenia's $90-million-plus debt last year in exchange for the transfer of assets in several key factories, scientific research institutes and power facilities that produce the majority of the former Soviet republic's electricity.
The Russian steel giant, Severstal, has bought a controlling stake in Estonia's major oil terminal. And in Latvia, Russia abruptly cut off oil shipments to the port of Ventspils last year in what some Latvian officials complained was an attempt to starve the Baltic nation into selling the facility at a bargain-basement price.
Putin made it clear how important the energy lever was to Russia when he announced last year that it regarded the Soviet-era pipelines that carry its petroleum products to market to be its responsibility -- "even those parts of the system that are beyond Russia's borders."
"This is a huge claim, and frankly a colonial claim -- 'Even though the assets are on your soil, they belong to us,' " said Jackson, the former Pentagon official.
The political turmoil in Ukraine is the latest and largest example of the competition for political influence in the former Soviet republics.
In Georgia, the U.S. is supporting President Mikheil Saakashvili's attempts to regain control over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- territories that Russia has used to maintain a foothold in the southern Caucasus and destabilize a key new transit route for Caspian Sea oil to the West. Russia has gone so far as to offer citizenship to residents of the two regions.