Tashkent’s now-official switch of alliances completes the reversal of a cycle that had begun with Uzbekistan’s attendance at NATO’s 1999 Washington summit, its abandonment of the CIS Collective Security Treaty that same year, and accession to the U.S.-supported GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova) group. Uzbekistan became America’s de facto ally promptly after 9/11 when Karimov, defying Moscow, made arrangements with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for American use of the Karshi-Khanabad air base, and signed the security partnership agreement with the United States in 2002.
The relationship began unraveling in 2004 when political Washington allowed itself to be caught in a dilemma, strategic security versus democracy, regarding Uzbekistan, and began to single out that country for a one-sided resolution of that false dilemma. Tashkent’s counterproductive reaction was the signing of a “strategic partnership” treaty with Moscow in June 2004, as well as changing its official discourse to characterize the United States and Russia equally as Uzbekistan’s strategic partners.
Washington’s mishandling of a “color-revolution” experiment in Kyrgyzstan earlier this year further damaged relations with Tashkent. Finally, the bloodshed in Andijan in May exacerbated the lack of balance in U.S. political assessments, which strongly emphasized the authorities’ crackdown while downplaying the well-organized, surprise terrorist assault that triggered those brutal reprisals. Instead of offering professional intelligence assistance to elucidate this third major terrorist assault on Uzbekistan in the space of five years and help prevent recurrences, the State Department called for a purely political exercise in the form of an international investigation (over the Pentagon’s objections), and made it a non-negotiable demand. Yet it was only in late July – early August that Tashkent asked the United States to vacate the K-2 base, after Washington had pressured a reluctant Kyrgyzstan to allow hundreds of Andijan refugees, including escaped convicts and suspect rebels, to be flown to third-country destinations.
A last possible chance to retrieve K-2 was missed when a U.S. delegation visited Tashkent in October, three months before the expiry of the base evacuation deadline. The base can be crucial to U.S. anti-terrorist, anti-WMD missions in a wide range of contingencies in Eurasia. Yet strategic security interests and democracy-promotion had fallen out of proper correlation in U.S. policy. The United States has forfeited an irreplaceable long-term military presence, and Russia gained the promise of one.
It was probably in September or October that Tashkent and Moscow decided to draw up the alliance treaty just signed. At the signing ceremony, Putin (by way of praising the staff work) remarked that the new treaty was drawn up in a very short time. If so, it is a further indication of missed U.S. opportunities between June and October.
Events have now come full circle with their lessons: Exit America, enter Russia, Putin is no ally, and presuming an end to zero-sum strategic contests in Eurasia post-9/11 is as unrealistic as the post-1991 presumption of the end of history.