As Russia continues to pursue an aggressive diplomatic strategy (augmented by unacknowledged military support) towards former Soviet republic states Ukraine and Georgia, Western analysts, policymakers, and strategists have found themselves increasingly compelled to focus attention on the subtle but important changes in the security dynamic of Central Asia.

Central Asia: Contested

The eternal battle for resources and domination of Eurasia, immortalized in Halford Mackinder’s “Geographical Pivot of History,” entered a new phase with the dissolution of the Soviet empire. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and competing powers maneuvered for domination of key areas of the former empire, anxious to assert control over valuable sources of energy and terrain that would ensure a long-term dominance of what amounts to an essential piece of world geography: Central Asia.

As every agreement is codified by states such as the U.S., the European Union, Russia, and China, each player moves pieces along what Zbigniew Brzezinski called “The Grand Chessboard.” Each move inspires an effort by the others to balance or outmaneuver competing states. For Russian strategists, Central Asia is historically a buffer zone against invasion and a valuable source of energy. Accordingly, the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin has moved assertively in recent years to ensure Russian predominance over the former Soviet republics of the post-Soviet space. While Moscow pursued military solutions for conflicts in Chechnya and Ukraine, it has taken a different approach in Central Asia, preferring quiet diplomatic engagement of the autocratic and authoritarian regimes of states such as Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.

Perhaps signaling a willingness to work with Western governments and entice foreign investment or, alternatively, a possible game of brinkmanship with the Kremlin in order to elicit greater financial gain from Russia, Uzbekistan’s longtime President Islam Karimov announced in mid-January that Uzbekistan would not pursue membership in the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The EEU, which launched on January 1st, is comprised of Russia and former Soviet republics Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Armenia is also expected to accede to the organization later this year.

Increased United States and European Union interest in facilitating lasting trade relationships with the former Soviet republic states of Central Asia is likely to increase tension between the West and Russia. Over the course of my next few articles, I will examine how the changing security landscape in Eurasia (specifically in Central Asia) could impact the already high tensions between the West and Russia. I will also assess the likelihood that these changes could lead to war, how that war could materialize, and in what areas violent conflict is most likely to emerge. In this piece, I begin by exploring the changing relationship between the U.S. and Uzbekistan.

United States (public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

On February 14th, The Times of Central Asia reported statements by United States Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central Asia Daniel Rosenblum that signal a shift in U.S. policy toward the post-Soviet space of Central Asia. Tensions in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus continue to ratchet upward as interests of the U.S./European Union and Russia collide along unofficial lines of demarcation in the arc stretching from Ukraine and Moldova to the Caucasus. Even subtle hints at increased U.S. interest in developing relationships with former Soviet republics have consequential implications for the conflict between the West and Russia. While Rosenblum was careful to cloak his statement on U.S. policy shifts in the region in terms of the ongoing effort to combat the spread of Islamist terrorism into Central Asia, it was obvious that improved relations with the states of the post-Soviet space also contain economic and security issues unrelated to the so-called “war on terrorism”:

“We don’t want to see the Central Asian countries become safe havens for terrorist groups. So we want to expand our security cooperation to meet threats that we share, transnational threats, terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and we also talked about the emergence of ISIL, the organization of ISIL,” the Deputy Assistant Secretary said.   

He also said that the US wants to expand its economic engagement, to have more bilateral trade, more investment opportunities, and help build more connectivity within the region, and more connections between Central Asian countries. (TCA, The Times of Central Asia, February 14)

Interestingly, some of the more observable shifts in U.S. policy toward the former Soviet republics of Central Asia have centered around Uzbekistan. In the past 12 months, relations between the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan and the U.S. have reflected growing cooperation. Specifically, meetings between individuals and teams representing the U.S. have addressed cooperation and improved relations with the Tashkent government on a wide range of issues, to include military equipment sales and trade. Karimov has ruled Uzbekistan through an elaborate Soviet-style authoritarian regime, controlling the elites of the political and social networks of the country while ensuring the streamlining of national industrial profits toward the furthering of his base of power.

In the last 12 months, the U.S. has sent delegations to Uzbekistan in the area of commerce and trade on at least two occasions. On May 10, 2014, Karimov met with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and discussed matters on a variety of important topics:

The parties to talks said they appreciate the progressive dynamics in the bilateral interaction in political, economic, humanitarian and other spheres the two sides share interest.

The established systemic dialogue across diverse areas, including regular contacts at the level of legislatures and foreign affairs agencies of our two nations, has allowed the two sides to build relations of fruitful and constructive cooperation.

A particular significance has been attached at the meeting to the current state and prospects in the enhancement of trade-economic and investment interaction.

190 enterprises with the engagement of American companies, including 53 with a hundred percent foreign capital, operate currently in the Uzbek market, while 40 leading corporations of the United States have their offices accredited in this country.

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During the thorough-going conversation, Uzbekistan’s leader and the high-ranking US diplomat discussed also issues pertaining to regional and international affairs and exchanged views on the developments in Afghanistan in the context of regional security and stability. (Embassy of Uzbekistan to the United States, May 10, 2014)

On November 12th, Chairperson Carolyn Lamm of the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce (AUCC) met with Karimov. The Uzbek embassy’s official statement regarding the meeting noted:

The current visit by an impressive mission of US companies and firms is suggestive of a growing interest of the American business to this country and an aspiration for the further enhancement of the bilateral trade-economic and investment cooperation.

Greeting the guest, the head of our state noted that the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce has been facilitating the development of bilateral ties between Uzbekistan and the United States for as long as twenty years.

To date, the membership of this nongovernmental nonprofit organization includes seventeen leading American corporations like Boeing, General Motors, General Electric, Honeywell, Rio Tinto, Zeppelin, Lockheed Martin, Merck, White & Case, Solar Turbines, FMN International.

The close cooperation with General Motors has been evolving dynamically, highlighted by three major projects across the nation, covering automotive production in Andijan Region, new-generation engine manufacture in Tashkent Region, and the full-cycle automobile production in Khorezm Region. (Embassy of Uzbekistan to the United States, November 12, 2014)

Military Modernization and Security Threats

Security threats in the post-Soviet state revolve predominately around Islamist groups. Additionally, the security forces of the Karimov regime have applied military power repeatedly to suppress popular uprisings and opposition movements against the national government. Specifically, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an al-Qaeda-allied Islamist group that has been a mainstay of the war in Afghanistan, is considered a significant threat by the Karimov regime.

Though the IMU’s current status as a fighting group is debated among many analysts, the group has largely been integrated to the operational structures of al-Qaeda, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and the Afghan Taliban insurgency throughout the war in Afghanistan. Many Uzbek members of the insurgency groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been living in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) for over a decade. Most recently, Uzbeks suspected of being affiliated with the IMU took part in the attack on the Peshawar school in Pakistan that resulted in over 140 deaths on December 16.

For its part, the Tashkent government is largely preoccupied with ensuring that the IMU cannot return to Uzbekistan to challenge the regime. The longstanding threat that the IMU has posed to Karimov and his government traces back to the years following Uzbekistan independence and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Andrew Korybko, writing for World Policy Blog, notes the recent declaration of the IMU that it has pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State, formulating what ostensibly could comprise the foundation for a wider jihadist threat against the governments of the Central Asian states:

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is a terrorist organization that has been actively fighting for an extreme Islamist state in Central Asia since the 1990s. The group was almost completely wiped out by the US in the beginning of the Afghanistan War, only to flee into Pakistan and reconstitute itself with foreign fighters. In this manner, it is a precursor to the Islamic State (IS), in that it is fighting for a radical Islamist state in its home region by means of foreign jihadists. IMU resurfaced in July of 2014 when it carried out the deadly Karachi airport terrorist attack and demonstrated its grandiose terror plans and their effectiveness in action. It has declared its allegiance to IS, thus raising the prospect that it may return to Central Asia after the NATO drawdown. (Andrew Korybko, World Policy Blog, February 13)

While much of the most recent information regarding the presence of Central Asians from states such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan is clouded by a lack of quantitative and qualitative study, the threat of ISIS to the regimes in Central Asia is being cynically used by the Russian government as an excuse for increased pressure on the states of the post-Soviet space in Central Asia to toe the line on Kremlin policy. I’ll explore that with specific focus on Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in future articles.

As is the case with many of the authoritarian regimes that control the governments in Central Asia, the Karimov government has used perceived threats to boost support for the legitimacy of its iron-fisted security policies. The recent surge in reporting on Central Asians fighting in Syria on behalf of ISIS has been a boon of sorts to the capacity of the regime to legitimize its approach to clamping down on dissent. Joanna Lillis, writing for EurasiaNet, questions the validity of the reports while highlighting the Karimov regime’s use of the alleged attack plans to continue modernization of the Uzbekistan military:

The Central Asia Online report has been widely picked up by Russian and Central Asian media, including outlets accessible in Uzbekistan (and hence condoned by the government) like the news agency and the Kremlin-controlled RIA Novosti.
The actual threat posed by Islamic State to Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states is disputed, but skeptics believe the administration of Islam Karimov has an interest in hyping the dangers—especially just after it benefited from US military largess in the form of the donation of 300 armored vehicles to counter terrorism.
Likewise, the Kremlin has appeared keen to talk up the risks from Islamic State to Central Asia, which would appear to serve the purpose of highlighting the need for the Russian military (which operates bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) to maintain a presence on Russia’s southern flank as a deterrent to terrorists. (Joanna Lillis, EurasiaNet, February 3)

For now, Uzbeks fighting on behalf of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, TTP, and the Islamic State have inspired a modicum of fear in the governments throughout Central Asia, catalyzing responses which could evoke Soviet-era policies of harsh crackdowns on freedom of speech and dissent. Stories of the Uzbeks fighting with Islamist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, specifically, have haunted some analysts attempting to grasp the true depth of the problem in Central Asia. Again, Korybko notes:

Seeing as how the IMU now gains its inspiration from its newfound partners in the Middle East, it may even choose to emulate their hybrid fighting style, implementing both conventional and unconventional methods of waging war. Should the group use its alliance with the Pakistani Taliban to team up with its Afghan counterparts, Uzbekistan could see a Central Asian terrorist army sweeping into Turkmenistan (the “sitting duck” of the region) and then flanking the country from its scarcely protected western desert regions. The worst-case scenario would be if this occurs in the midst of a successionist crisis in Tashkent, where the central government would be near-paralyzed in responding to this threat, and the terrorist hordes would overrun large swaths of territory and capture key settlements. (Andrew Korybko, World Policy Blog, February 13)

Uzbekistan’s value as a partner in U.S. policy has been largely based on the latter’s fight against international terrorism in the Middle East and Afghanistan since the attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. in 2001. The U.S. initially partnered with the Karimov regime and Uzbekistan for strategic purposes. The U.S. used the Karshi Khanabad base in the Central Asia country as a vital staging area for launching counterattacks against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

In 2005, an uprising similar to what had catalyzed “color revolutions” in former Soviet republics such as Georgia (Rose Revolution, 2003) and Ukraine (2004) led to a dramatic crackdown by the Karimov regime. While the number of civilians killed in the government response to the protests are difficult to verify, upwards of 180 people are believed to have been massacred by the regime. The result was a condemnation by the administration of then-U.S. President George W. Bush and a pivot from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan in staging operations for U.S. military and government personnel heading into and out of Afghanistan.

Last month, reports of a U.S. military hardware sale to Uzbekistan surfaced, highlighting the new relationship between Washington and the former Soviet republic. Previously, Uzbekistan had been impeded from such agreements due to sanctions levied against the Karimov regime over issues of human rights abuses. In a dramatic shift from the previous relationship between Washington and Tashkent, reports emerged in January of a large-scale donation of U.S. military hardware, comprised of more than 300 MRAP vehicles, to Uzbekistan:

The United States is donating over 300 armored vehicles to Uzbekistan’s military, American officials have announced. The deal, the largest ever transfer of military hardware from the U.S. to an ex-Soviet Central Asian states, comes just three years after Washington lifted a ban on weapons exports to Uzbekistan because of the country’s poor record on human rights.

In an interview with the Voice of America’s Uzbek service, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia Daniel Rosenblum said that the U.S. is giving Uzbekistan 308 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, along with an additional 20 support vehicles. (Joshua Kucera, EurasiaNet, January 22)

The transfer of the equipment is similar to deals with other countries, to include Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and NATO member Croatia:

The possibility of the U.S. donating MRAPs has been discussed for some time now, but it’s usually been framed in terms of getting equipment the U.S. discards as it pulls out from Afghanistan. That won’t be the case with these vehicles, however, they are instead being delivered from the U.S. and other American military bases abroad under the Excess Defense Articles program, the standard way that the U.S. military gives leftover equipment to allies. Uzbekistan’s government is paying the cost to ship them to Uzbekistan, Rosenblum said.

The U.S. has given Central Asian states some used gear under the EDA program in the past, notably patrol ships to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and utility helicopters to Kazakhstan. But this dwarfs any of those transfers. It’s not yet clear what variant of the MRAP Uzbekistan will be getting, but the DoD has valued most of the MRAPs it’s given away lately at about $100,000 each, which would make this deal worth over $30 million. (Kucera, EurasiaNet, January 22)

For the U.S., the transfer of the equipment is an opportunity to gain closer relations with a state regime that has been, for the most part, behind a closed door since the dissolution of the Soviet empire more than two decades ago. Concerns over human-rights abuses consistently occupy the forefront of any discussion on changing U.S. policy with regard to Uzbekistan, largely due to fears over any U.S. policy or action which could be seen as supporting an authoritarian regime known for brutal crackdowns on dissent and opposition groups. In the wake of reports that Uzbekistan’s government will receive military hardware directly from the U.S., the statements of Rosenblum reflect that concern:

“They will all be provided to the Ministry of Defense and can only be used by the Ministry of Defense,” said Rosenblum. “These are definitely defensive vehicles, they are inherently defensive. Also, we consider them to be non-lethal. They are intended to protect personnel, crews and passengers in areas that there might be explosive devices, mines, so on. (Navbahor Imamova, January 22, Voice of America)

Earlier this week, EurasiaNet reported news of a possible agreement (as yet unconfirmed) between China and Uzbekistan (along with Turkmenistan) to provide the regime in Tashkent the first pieces of what could comprise a capable missile defense system. This has raised concerns among observers that an arms race could be in the early stages of manifestation in Central Asia. Part of the deal appears to be tied to the sale of natural gas to the rising Asian power. EurasiaNet’s Kucera reported that the deal revolves around the sale of the HQ-9 air defense system:

Reportedly, China has provided one battalion each to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan of the HQ-9 air defense system, as partial payment for natural gas that it imports from Central Asia. (Each battalion consists of eight launchers.)

The information on the deal is spotty: it comes from Chinese-language Canadian defense journal Kanwa Defense Review, and cites an anonymous Chinese defense industry source. “It is possible, even likely, but it is still unclear at which stage the deals are,” Vasily Kashin, a Russian military expert at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies told The Bug Pit. “Both countries need long range [surface-to-air missile] systems to replace their S-200s which are becoming physically old and unsustainable. Both countries are well known for their careful balancing between Russia, China and the West, they are both fiercely independent from Russia. Besides, Chinese currently can provide very good financial terms for such a deal.” (Kucera, EurasiaNet, February 6)

The deal with China, specifically, could potentially be the catalyst for a grand shift in the security landscape of Central Asia. Russian concerns about the encroachment and encirclement of Western powers such as the U.S. and the European Union are reflected in Moscow’s decision to continue arming insurgents and rebels in Eastern Ukraine while also continuing to exacerbate tensions between Georgia and the Russian-supported separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. With the provisioning and establishment of air defense systems and the possibility that states in Central Asia could potentially begin to substantially improve their individual state capacity to defend themselves against attack, the Kremlin’s leverage over the states could be effectively reduced.

In June 2012, Uzbekistan officially suspended its membership in the Collective Security Organization (CSTO), a Russia-dominated international organization created in 1992. The membership of the CSTO is now comprised of former Soviet republics Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. While not considered a competitor to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the CSTO nonetheless is largely modeled on its Western counterpart. Uzbekistan’s pursuit of a security strategy outside of the parameters of membership in the CSTO represented an attempt to distance itself from the direct influence of Moscow.

The CSTO, an organization dominated by Russian military strategists and policymakers, is comprised of states that are theoretically bound by a charter which mandates collective security action based on collective agreement. If the states of Central Asia pursue a path to individual state military modernization and advanced systems capable of defending each state from external attack, the political leverage Moscow holds over the heads of many state leaders is effectively reduced. These changes hold great potential impact for the landscape of the Eurasian security environment and the dynamic of cooperation and competition from Ukraine to Tajikistan. They also would invite an entirely new set of problems, comprised of new threats and questions about legitimacy for military action.

As the militaries of the Central Asian states modernize, the stability of the environment could clash head-on with authoritarian regimes, exacerbating tensions inside and between the states. Border conflicts such as the Uzbekistan/Kyrgyzstan dispute, ethnic tensions such as those which have intensified in Osh, Kyrgyzstan over the past decade, and attempts by the authoritarian leaders to ensure control over populations could re-ignite dormant conflicts and manifest in all-out war.

While public statements by both governments protest to the contrary, Uzbekistan’s suspension of its membership in the security organization nonetheless represents a divergence of Tashkent’s security interests from those of Moscow. News of U.S. efforts to solidify cooperation and improve relations with Uzbekistan no doubt rattled Russian strategists when they began to emerge in recent years. In analyzing Uzbekistan’s shifting allegiances, many observers pondered the idea that Karimov was playing both ends against the middle. In 2013, Joshua Kucera wondered whether Karimov was simply delaying the inevitable and signaling an improvement in relations with the U.S. simply to elicit gains from Moscow:

Russia’s reaction to Karimov’s growing ties with the U.S. generally oscillates between two poles: alarmism that Uzbekistan is falling into the Western geopolitical camp, and confidence that Karimov — who has repeatedly and dramatically shifted his superpower allegiances — will eventually return to Moscow’s fold. (Joshua Kucera, EurasiaNet, April 25, 2013)

In 2012, Kucera had already addressed the topic of U.S. military hardware being provided to the Tashkent government. At the time, Kucera noted that the expectation was for non-lethal military equipment (vehicles) to be provided to the Karimov regime as the U.S. drew down in Afghanistan following more than a decade of war. At the time, Kucera also highlighted the centralized issue of a potential U.S. military base in Uzbekistan, the legalities for that base under the framework of the CSTO, and the remarks of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake in addressing the issue:

…in June, Uzbekistan suspended its membership in the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. Many observers interpreted the move as motivated by Uzbekistan’s intention to allow the U.S. to set up some sort of military base in the country. The CSTO requires members to get permission from other members before allowing foreign military bases; i.e., Russia gets a veto. Leaving the CSTO could free Uzbekistan up to allow a U.S. base. But then, earlier this month, Uzbekistan’s parliament passed a new law forbidding foreign military bases.

That didn’t stop many from continuing to speculate that the purpose of Blake’s visit to Uzbekistan was to set up a military base. Most notably, the Kazakhstan newspaper Liter, an organ of the ruling Nur Otan party, reported that “We can dare to suggest that Robert Blake’s visit will result in signing an agreement on deploying US troops on Uzbek soil.” Blake, of course, denied that was on the agenda. And at a press conference in Almaty just before his trip to Tashkent, he said that while the U.S. will be leaving Uzbekistan some lefover military equipment after it leaves Afghanistan, that equipment likely won’t include lethal weapons:

‘With respect to Uzbekistan, I do not think there will be any lethal weapons of any kind that will be offered. I think most of the kind of things that will be on offer will be military vehicles, Humvees, those kind of things.’ (Kucera, EurasiaNet, August 20, 2012)

Part Two: Human Rights, Line of Succession, and Geopolitical Consequences

The Karimov regime has been the subject of rumors in recent months, largely centering on the health of longtime leader Karimov. Should Karimov be unable to continue serving as president (even after his anticipated reelection in the upcoming March elections), questions about the anticipated line of succession and how the political elites of Uzbekistan will maintain their grip on power will begin to reverberate from Moscow to Washington. Anticipating an opportunity to create rifts or exploit existing fissures in relationships between Uzbekistan and its partners in Russia and the U.S., many observers will find that the cloistered nature of the country’s governing structure inhibits a thorough analysis of the potential outcomes.

There are serious geopolitical consequences for the shifting allegiances and alliances of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Human rights abuses, the likely line of succession, and an outline of the geopolitical ramifications and the aforementioned line of succession in Tashkent will be the focus of part two of this series.

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