On July 3, 2017, Colonel Yaroslav Roshchupkin, a spokesman for Russia’s central military district, announced that the Russian military plans to hold joint military exercises with Uzbekistan’s military in October. These joint drills will take place at Uzbekistan’s Forish training facility, and are aimed at strengthening Moscow-Tashkent cooperation on a host of regional security issues.
Even though Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has expressed greater interest in bilateral security cooperation with Moscow than his predecessor Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s acceptance of Russia’s request for joint military drills constitutes a striking shift in the dynamics of the bilateral relationship. Uzbekistan has not held joint military exercises with Russia since September 2005, and has confined its recent cooperation with Moscow to informal displays of military solidarity, like Tashkent’s participation in Russia’s recent counterterrorism campaign in Tajikistan.
Uzbekistan’s decision to hold joint military drills with Russia is a highly significant development, as it opens the door for Uzbekistan to eventually rejoin the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In addition, a palpable synergy has emerged between the perspectives of Russia and Uzbekistan on instability in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, strengthening the foundation for durable cooperation between the two countries.
Uzbekistan’s Prospects for Rejoining the CSTO
Since Karimov’s death in September 2016, Uzbekistan’s potential to rejoin the CSTO has been hotly debated by Central Asia experts and Eurasian security analysts. While most analysts agree that Uzbekistan is unlikely to rejoin the CSTO in the short-term, Tashkent’s long-term membership prospects are ambiguous due to contradictory statements from senior Russian and Uzbek officials.
Immediately after Uzbekistan agreed to hold joint military drills with Russia, the former head of the international cooperation section of Russia’s Ministry of Defense, Evgeniy Buzhinskiy, argued that Uzbekistan’s outreach to Russia since last September’s leadership transition is laying the foundation for eventual CSTO re-accession. Uzbekistan’s Foreign Minister, Abdulaziz Kamilov, swiftly dispelled this prediction in a public statement on July 6, by stating that the question of rejoining the CSTO is not on Uzbekistan’s foreign policy agenda.
Even though Uzbekistan has dismissed the prospect of imminent CSTO accession, historical experience suggests that Tashkent could reconsider its position on the CSTO. In February 2006, Secretary General of the CSTO Nikolai Bordyusha flatly denied that Uzbekistan was planning to rejoin the CSTO. Bordyusha justified this bold proclamation by arguing that Uzbekistan’s leadership did not appreciate the usefulness of the CSTO.
Despite this statement from the CSTO’s most senior official, Uzbekistan’s attitudes toward the CSTO changed markedly, after it became apparent that Western condemnations of the 2005 Andijan massacre were going to result in durable tensions between Washington and Tashkent. As a result of these strains, Uzbekistan pivoted strongly toward Russia over a shared desire to preserve authoritarian stability in Central Asia, and rejoined the CSTO from 2006-2012.
Uzbekistan’s current reluctance to convert security cooperation with Russia into a full-blown mutual defense agreement can be partially explained by an improvement in Tashkent-Washington relations under Donald Trump. As Columbia University Professor Alexander Cooley noted in our December 2016 interview, Uzbek officials reacted positively to Trump’s victory, as Trump’s campaign rhetoric suggested that human rights would be a less significant driver of U.S. foreign policy decision-making than in past administrations.
During the May 21 Riyadh Summit, Mirziyoyev spoke to Trump about Uzbekistan’s economic and political reforms. According to Uzbek state media sources, Trump was impressed with Uzbekistan’s progress. The Uzbek government responded to this positive meeting by announcing Mirziyoyev’s intention to visit the United States in September.
While the near-term prospects for Uzbekistan-U.S. cooperation remain sanguine, uncertainties about Washington’s reliability as a diplomatic partner could convince Uzbekistan to pivot toward Russia once again. As Uzbek political analyst Rafael Sattarov recently noted, the United States is unlikely to significantly increase its capital investments in Uzbekistan in the near future, due to the ongoing use of child labor in the Uzbek cotton industry and Washington’s assessment that Kazakhstan has a more profitable energy sector for investment than Uzbekistan.
If the United States fails to increase its investments in Uzbekistan or expand Tashkent’s role as a security partner, Uzbekistan might expand its security cooperation with Russia to balance against China’s rising economic influence. Uzbek membership in the CSTO would help increase trust between Moscow and Tashkent. Increased trust between the two countries could result in an expansion of Russian investment in the Uzbek economy, and allow Russia to forge a stable counterterrorism partnership with Uzbekistan.
Rejoining the CSTO could also help Mirziyoyev strengthen Uzbekistan’s relationships with its Central Asian neighbors. If Tashkent rejoins the CSTO, Uzbekistan’s aspirations for greater engagement with Central Asia will be gratified without taking on the economic and border security risks that are associated with Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) membership.
As Russia has been reluctant to use the CSTO’s military capabilities in regional conflicts, Uzbek policymakers might eventually conclude that the benefits of CSTO membership outweigh the sovereignty risks associated with being subsumed into the Kremlin’s security umbrella. As these strategic calculations are compelling, recent displays of enhanced military cooperation with Russia should be evaluated seriously and placed into the broader context of Uzbekistan’s foreign policy objectives.
Moscow-Tashkent Cooperation on Tajikistan and Afghanistan
In addition to the expansion of bilateral security cooperation between Russia and Uzbekistan, Mirziyoyev’s ascension to the presidency has been accompanied by an expansion of Moscow-Tashkent cooperation on reducing instability in Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Mirziyoyev’s attempts to thaw relations with Dushanbe contrast markedly with Karimov’s belligerent attitude toward Tajikistan. Uzbekistan’s willingness to diplomatically engage with the Tajik government will also help improve Moscow-Tashkent relations, as Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon is a staunch Kremlin ally.
Kremlin officials have responded favorably to Uzbekistan’s increased counterterrorism cooperation with Russia in Tajikistan. In December 2016, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu praised Mirziyoyev’s willingness to cooperate with Russia against regional terrorism threats. Shoigu also urged Tashkent to collaborate with Russia within the auspices of the CSTO and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
The Uzbek Defense Ministry responded with a similarly optimistic message, by highlighting Uzbekistan’s plans to double its number of military collaborations with Russia to 36 in 2017. On April 19, Uzbekistan participated in a Russian-led counterterrorism staff exercise in Tajikistan. As Russia has been willing to conduct counterterrorism missions in Tajikistan with regional allies outside the CSTO framework, Uzbekistan’s expansion of military collaboration with Russia could increase Tashkent’s importance as a counterterrorism partner in Tajikistan.
While Russia-Uzbekistan cooperation in Afghanistan has been much more indirect than in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan has expressed solidarity with Moscow’s counterterrorism ambitions in Afghanistan. In April 2016, then-President Karimov endorsed Russia’s participation in peace negotiations in Afghanistan and argued that the diplomatic engagement with the Taliban was critical to prevent instability in Afghanistan from diffusing to Central Asia.
Karimov’s alignment with Russia’s approach to peacekeeping in Afghanistan provided a foundation for deeper Moscow-Tashkent cooperation on Afghanistan under Mirziyoyev. Following his April 4-5 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mirziyoyev publicly praised Russia’s “national reconciliation” ambitions in Afghanistan and announced that Uzbekistan would work with Russia under the umbrella of international institutions to address Afghanistan’s security challenges.
Even though Uzbek policymakers remain skeptical of Russia’s hegemonic ambitions in Central Asia and are reluctant to commit to a formal alliance with Moscow, Mirziyoyev’s rise to the presidency has been accompanied with a marked uptick in Russia-Uzbekistan security cooperation. As Uzbekistan’s proximity to the security crises in Tajikistan and Afghanistan increases its international profile as a counterterrorism partner, Mirziyoyev has a unique opportunity to forge a tighter partnership with Russia without jeopardizing its economic interests and links to China and the United States.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Huffington Post and Washington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.