Are the U.S. and Russia Fueling Tension Between Uzbekistan and Its Neighbors?
The U.S.'s growing military ties with Uzbekistan may be a strategic necessity, given the importance of the Central Asian country in the U.S.'s war effort in Afghanistan. But it is forcing the U.S. to confront an important, if little-discussed, complication: Uzbekistan is the least-trusted, most-feared country in the region. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have well-known border and water conflicts with Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan sees Uzbekistan as a regional rival. So is the U.S.'s military aid to Uzbekistan raising regional tensions?
U.S. military aid, after being suspended for several years because of human rights concerns, is steadily being ramped up. That the U.S. is giving small surveillance drones to Uzbekistan is the worst-kept secret in Washington (OK, in the narrow slice of Washington that The Bug Pit inhabits). It's also giving Uzbekistan's armed forces night-vision goggles, body armor, and GPS systems, and there are credible rumors in Washington of heavier military equipment being considered for Uzbekistan to either buy or be given. (And it's not just the U.S.: Uzbekistan has pledged to work more closely with NATO on training, and the U.K. is also planning to make some donations to Uzbekistan as well.)
The U.S. (and NATO partners) have also signaled their intention to donate excess military equipment to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, as well. And the U.S., of course, operates an air base in Kyrgyzstan. So it's hardly like the U.S. military is exclusively cooperating with Uzbekistan. Yet, perhaps because more concrete information has come out regarding donations to Uzbekistan, and perhaps because the U.S.-Uzbekistan military relationship is growing quickly (having started from almost zero after the sanctions imposed in the early 2000s), there seems to be a perception growing that the U.S. is favoring Uzbekistan.
A report in Kazakhstan's Tengrinews argues that "close relations between Uzbekistan and the U.S. can lead to conflict in Central Asia." It quotes Russian political analyst Alexander Sobyanin saying that "Uzbekistan is ambitiously becoming the economic and military giant of the region, and that means that for Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, 'peaceful life has ended.'" Kazakhstani analyst Marat Shibutov adds that "Uzbekistan's land forces are already one and a half times greater than ours. With the receipt of arms, it's possible that the advantage will be double." (He noted, though, that conflict between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan was much less likely than it would be between Uzbekistan and either Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan.)
In another piece on CentrAsia.ru, analyst Andrei Grozin says that Tashkent's aims vis-a-vis American military aid is less about gaining means of repression against the population of Uzbekistan and more about regional hegemony," and that "arming the regimes of Central Asia, the US is laying a landmine which could blow up the entire region." (In a nice poetic -- if not necessarily militarily relevant -- touch, Grozin ends by quoting the famous Chekhov line: "If a gun is hanging on the wall in the first act, it has to be fired in the last act.")
What to make of all this? It's worth noting that while the U.S. is being fairly careful to not give Uzbekistan tools with which it can repress its population -- the standard concern in the West -- exacerbating regional tension has seemed less of a worry. Tactical drones, night vision, GPS and body armor would be of limited utility in putting down another Andijan-style protest. But they would be very useful in a border conflict with a neighbor.
It also should be noted that all of the above analysis of increasing regional tension dovetails with Russia's perception of U.S. policy in the region. The Kremlin is alarmed at Uzbekistan's attempts to remove itself from Russia's sphere of influence, notably by withdrawing from Russia's key security project in the region, the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Russian officials have framed their huge military aid packages to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in terms of the need to counter the U.S-Uzbekistan axis. So it can't be excluded that Russia may be intentionally fanning this threat of tension. Still, the mistrust of Uzbekistan by its neighbors is very real and doesn't necessarily need any encouragement from the Kremlin. And conversely, Uzbekistan's mistrust of Russia is a large part of why it feels that it needs closer military ties with the U.S. and NATO -- a situation which certainly isn't helped by a massive Russian rearmament of its unfriendly neighbors. So all of this is creating a vicious circle of mistrust and tension. What may result, no one knows.
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.
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