Uzbekistan has agreed to buy Russian attack helicopters, the latest sign that the new leadership in Tashkent is committed to reversing the country's previous policy of shunning Moscow's military advances.
The purchase of the 12 Mi-35 helicopters wasn't formally announced, but reported by Russian news agency TASS, citing a “diplomatic source.” The source said the deal was reached after “prolonged negotiations” during the visit of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev to Tashkent in November.
The deal appears to be the first significant arms purchase made under the leadership of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who assumed power last year after the death of longtime president Islam Karimov. Mirziyoyev has been opening up the country in a variety of directions, including in the military sphere.
And he seems to be opening up to no one as much as Russia. In October the two countries held their first joint military exercises since 2005. Uzbekistan also took part, albeit in a limited fashion, in Russia-led exercises in Tajikistan earlier this year, which would not have happened under Karimov
Karimov had distrusted Russia, and many of Uzbekistan's most noteworthy arms acquisitions under him came from Europe, the United States, or China.
Given the apparent new pro-Russian mood in Tashkent, Moscow's arms manufacturers have high hopes.
Viktor Murakhovskiy, editor of the Russian military magazine Arsenal Otechestva, said Uzbekistan has a large shopping list from Moscow, from small arms to Su-30SM fighter aircraft. “They have out-of-date armored vehicles, out-of-date air defense systems, out-of-date aviation, strike aircraft,” Murakhovskiy said in an interview with Pravda. In the interview, published before the Mi-35 deal became public, he also called attention to their out-of-date helicopters: “In terms of quantity they have quite a few helicopters, but we have to remember that a large part of them are not flightworthy.”
He also said that Tashkent was seeking loans from Moscow for the purchases, “taking into account the need to renovate or modernize all their weapons systems.”
The repairing of defense ties with Moscow actually began in the twilight of the Karimov administration. In 2014 Karimov managed to settle Uzbekistan's old debts with Russia, which was portrayed as a way of opening up new lines of credit for new weapons sales. And Karimov in April 2016 also managed to negotiate Uzbekistan's right to buy Russian weapons at the discounted rates that Russia generally reserves for its partners in the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
These gestures may in fact be aimed at getting Uzbekistan to rejoin the CSTO, as well as its sister economic organization, the Eurasian Economic Union, argued analyst Fozil Mashrab in a recent piece in Eurasia Daily Monitor. Uzbekistan dropped out of the CSTO in 2012 and Russia, understanding that any serious integration project in Central Asia has to include Uzbekistan, has barely hidden its desire to lure Tashkent back.
“Russia is undoubtedly facilitating trade, investment, and military relations with Uzbekistan in this way in order to demonstrate to the new leadership in Tashkent the practical benefits of close cooperation with Moscow,” Mashrab wrote. “As such, this situation could easily turn out to have been a temporary 'free trial' session, susceptible to unilateral changes by the Kremlin, rather than a permanent arrangement, if Uzbekistan continues to stay out of the Russian-led integrationist organizations.”
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.