Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov has prioritized procuring Russian armaments, not only to further the reform and modernization of the Uzbek armed forces, but also to strengthen Tashkent’s security response to the threat of terrorism. Karimov is using the new sense of cooperation in bilateral relations with Russia and re-entry into the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to exact preferential arms sales from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Examining the nature of these arms requirements and the focus on the domestic anti-terrorist agenda reveals that Karimov is acting out of necessity, since he can more easily access arms agreements from Russia than the West; Moscow is not overly concerned with the potential misuse of these weapons by Uzbek security forces, which is the most sensitive consideration for planners in Washington and London assessing future restoration of military security assistance (Uzreport.com, September 21).
On September 19, an apparently routine five-day anti-terrorist exercise in Krasnodar, Russia witnessed the arrival of a total of 130 servicemen from Uzbek special operations units. “The aim of the maneuvers is to devise a common mechanism of actions for control bodies in charge of planning joint anti-terrorist operations of units of the armed forces of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Uzbekistan,” confirmed Andrei Bobrun, spokesman for the North Caucasus Military District.
These exercises were designed to explore and develop preparations for joint Russian-Uzbek efforts in the fight against terrorism. Unfortunately, it is difficult to envisage circumstances in which Uzbek servicemen would be deployed operationally inside Russia to assist in an anti-terrorist operation. Equally, the prospect of Russian servicemen being sent to participate in a potentially controversial “anti-terrorist” operation in Uzbekistan entails a degree of political risk that the Kremlin may choose to avoid. So, apart for a show of solidarity in the face of the terrorist threat, the question is what both sides are gaining at a geopolitical level. Russia evidently is pursuing cost-effective means through which it can drive a wedge between the United States and Central Asian countries.
On the other hand, Uzbekistan’s agenda may be more complex. At the moment, its most urgent problem in reforming the Uzbek army is rearmament. Tashkent benefits from its CSTO membership and allied relations with Russia, allowing rearmament with the help of Russia’s military-industrial complex on privileged terms. “Starting from last year, Uzbek armed forces servicemen have been studying at our higher education establishments, being trained under our programs, work is under way,” according to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. He also spoke of information sharing on regional issues and highly appraised this development. “This cooperation is not just diplomatic in the general sense of the word. It is very specific,” in Ivanov’s view (Itar-Tass, September 20).
The very specific nature of military cooperation, from Tashkent’s perspective, relates to the damage suffered from the downturn in defense cooperation with the West. Such training and military exercises are restricted to the specialist sub-units that would be deployed against terrorists. It is now becoming clear that these units are being re-educated in Russian theory, tactics, training, and operational methods; distinct from the Western input from U.S. Special Forces A teams, which had been stepped up since 9/11. Of course, Tashkent sees other countries within the region receiving U.S. military equipment through security assistance programs, and it is sending out the political message to neighbors that this is unnecessary. Karimov is determined to demonstrate that his security forces can be just as effective using Russian training, methods, and equipment; the latter being a less costly option and entailing little outlay for maintenance (Interfax, September 20).
On September 26-28 Uzbekistan will host the “Defense and Salvation” international fair. This event will display technical equipment for ensuring security within Uzbekistan, including anti-terrorism equipment and facilities for information security, and will involve the participation of 25 countries. Much of that equipment will be Russian. It will serve as another opportunity to display Moscow’s reliability as a security partner (Uzreport.com, September 19).
Karimov has not come to terms with how quickly his relationship with Washington became untenable in the aftermath of the Andijan massacre. It lies at the heart of his appreciation of Washington’s untrustworthiness as a possible security partner. Were the fractured relations to heal to the point where Washington returned to pre-Andijan levels of defense cooperation with Tashkent, questions could be raised about which parts of the Uzbek armed forces should receive priority help and which Uzbek elements would be deployed in a crisis. In reality, it is a near impossible task to avoid the criticism that Karimov could misuse U.S. taxpayer money in an Andijan-style crackdown on dissent. Tashkent has often criticized London’s allegedly harsh stance, but the May 2005 event still plays a role in calculating the possible risks: how can Tashkent justify killing so many civilians in Andijan?
Tashkent’s sympathizers in Western capitals will watch in dismay as Uzbekistan’s military cooperation with Russia deepens; however, it will be less clear what is to be gained by returning to a pre-Andijan approach with the regime. Karimov, in a crisis situation, only wants his Special Forces personnel to be under the influence of one foreign power, and it is most evidently Russia.