Following the death of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov, in September 2016, his successor, Shavkat Mirziyaev, has begun cautiously reversing many of his predecessor’s nationalist policies. Among the most striking turnarounds to date is the joint five-day Russian-Uzbekistani military exercise, which began on October 3, at the Forish mountain training range, in Uzbekistan’s Dzhizak region (TASS, October 3). It is the first joint military exercise between the two countries in 12 years and marks a significant policy change from those of Karimov, who in the interests of nationalism deliberately kept relations with Moscow at a low level.
After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, its successor states embraced a variety of military options: from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to Turkmenistan’s internationally recognized neutrality. Uzbekistan’s isolationist nationalism, meanwhile, fell somewhere in between these two extremes.
The agreement to conduct the above-mentioned joint exercise was concluded in July, during a working meeting in Tashkent between the commander of the troops of Russia’s Central Military District in Tuva, Colonel General Vladimir Zarudnitsky, and Uzbekistan’s minister of defense, Colonel General Kobul Berdiev (TV Zvezda, September 15). Central Military District spokesperson Colonel Yaroslav Roshupkin noted that during their talks, Zarudnitsky and Berdiev, beyond agreeing to the joint anti-terrorist exercise, discussed security issues in Central Asia and confirmed their interest in developing cooperation. They further decided that their respective military organization headquarters would hold talks on regional security issues, joint tactical exercises and other events by the end of the year (RIA Novosti, July 3).
The choice of the Forish mountain training range is significant. In 2005, it was the site of the sole previous Russian-Uzbekistani joint anti-terrorist exercise. The Forish range was built in 2000, on the northern slope of Mount Khaiatbashi (7,116 feet above sea level), the highest peak of the Nuratau mountain range and located 155 miles west of Tashkent (Sputnik News, September 15). According to the exercise scenario, Uzbekistani and Russian soldiers will collaborate in dismantling armed militias operating in mountainous terrain (Sputnik News, September 15).
The first post-Soviet joint Russian-Uzbekistani military exercises were held soon after the tragic events in Andijan, where, on May 13, 2005, Uzbekistan’s security forces opened fire on militants gathered in the town’s central square, killing several hundred people and provoking harsh international criticism of the Karimov government. Unlike Western governments, which demanded explanations from Karimov, Moscow immediately supported the actions of Uzbekistan’s authorities to resolve the problem by force. And after the West imposed sanctions on Uzbekistan, Tashkent sought to counter its growing international isolation by intensifying its participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as well as by setting up the joint military exercise with Russia, its former colonial overlord.
At the end of the 2005 exercise, then–Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said that “the first Russian-Uzbek exercises should not be the last. Such joint activities should be carried out regularly, making them an integral part of our military-technical cooperation” (Fergananews.com, July 3, 2017). But despite Ivanov’s optimism, the next decade would not see any further bilateral exercises, with the two countries’ troops collaborating only in the SCO “Peace Mission 2007” multinational exercise, held in August 2007, at the Chebarkul military training ground, in Russia’s Chelyabinsk region. The maneuvers involved roughly 6,000 troops from SCO member states Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, China and Uzbekistan (RIA Novosti, August 16, 2007).
While “Peace Mission” maneuvers are regularly held to strengthen coordination among the SCO countries in countering the “three forces of evil”—terrorism, extremism and separatism—the 2007 exercise was the first and only instance in which all SCO members participated; Uzbekistan did not send troops to any subsequent exercises. Reverting again to its isolationism, in 2012 Uzbekistan withdrew from membership in the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) (Cabar.asia, September 29, 2016).
Since then, however, the intensifying turmoil in Afghanistan, combined with the uncertainty in Washington and NATO on how best to quell the ongoing insurgency, has undoubtedly played a significant role in Mirziyaev’s recent conciliatory outreach to Moscow. Of particular concern to Uzbekistan is that Afghanistan is home to a significant contingent of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) jihadists militants. Further heightening Tashkent’s anxiety was the Taliban’s September 2015 capture of Kunduz (northern Afghanistan), one of its greatest field victories since 2001. The Taliban held the provincial capital for nearly two weeks before being dislodged (see Terrorism Monitor, January 7, 2016).
Immediately after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, Karimov offered the US assistance in its Afghanistan campaign, including access to the Karshi-Khanabad airbase, 90 miles from the Afghan border. The US retained use of this facility until after the 2005 Andijan events, when US criticism pushed Karimov, who had led the country since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, to cancel the lease agreement. Another US military option involving Uzbekistan was the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) of railway lines, which began operations in 2009. The NDN’s closure in 2015 further downgraded the US military’s interest in Uzbekistan, even as violence in Afghanistan was rising.
The overriding security concern for post-Soviet Central Asia remains Afghanistan, which in the past two years has seen the rise of Islamic State militants there as a further destabilizing factor (see Terrorism Monitor, March 20, 2015; December 15, 2016). While the new US administration along with NATO remain uncertain about how to cope with the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, the country’s neighbors have been forced to reassess their security concerns. For Uzbekistan, which previously shared a close relationship with the US military, the option of training troops in anti-terrorism operations with the Russian military seems a prudent measure given the rising chaos in its southern neighbor and Washington’s ongoing disinterest in restoring bilateral military ties.