by Vladimir Socor

The Jamestown Foundation
Eurasia Daily Monitor
November 17, 2005The alliance treaty of Russia and Uzbekistan, signed on November 14 in Moscow, painfully illustrates Washington’s declining plausibility as a buttress of security and stability in Central Asian perceptions, particularly that of the region’s strategic linchpin country Uzbekistan. Those perceptions are traceable to U.S. policy incoherence not only in Uzbekistan, but in Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan as well.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s remarks during his treaty-signing visit in Moscow demonstrate the significance and consequences of that shift in perceptions. Even as he is evicting U.S. forces from the country, Karimov averred in Moscow that Uzbekistan “needs cooperation with a powerful country that would ensure its protection…. [With] this treaty, any evil deeds against Uzbekistan, any attempts to attack our country will mean raising a hand against Russia as well…. Russia was and remains for us the most reliable bulwark and ally.”

By the same token, Karimov underscored the gains accruing to Russia from Uzbekistan’s switch of alliances: “This [treaty] strengthens Russia’s positions in Central Asia, it is a reliable guarantee of peace and stability in the region.” Terming Central Asia “Russia’s soft underbelly,” Karimov expressed confidence that “no-one will ever be able to dispute Russia’s presence in this region.” He cast the treaty as a long-term strategic choice by Uzbekistan: “It demonstrates with whose interests our interests converge and with whom we intend to build our future.”

Playing up to Russian anxieties about security threats from Central Asia (e.g., through the soft-underbelly theory, a favorite reference to Churchill by Russian analysts until very recently) no longer seems to bring the political returns it formerly did. In his public remarks during Karimov’s visit, Russian President Vladimir Putin barely acknowledged threats to Russia emanating from Central Asia. Instead, Putin singled out Afghanistan, urging joint Russian-Uzbek measures to “combat the drug trafficking and terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan” as well as to “support peace in Afghanistan and that country’s independence.” Such remarks allude to unsuccessful U.S. policies in that country and seem to signal a Russian intent to reenter Afghanistan politically at the head of a Central Asian alliance.

Moscow and Tashkent describe this new stage in their relations as an “alliance-type relationship” (soyuznicheskiye otnosheniya), a designation one step short of an outright alliance. However, the treaty itself contains hallmarks of a classical alliance treaty, as well as language familiar from Moscow’s erstwhile treaties with its former satellites.

Thus, “An act of aggression by any state or group of states against one of the parties will be viewed as an act of aggression against both parties. … The other party will render the necessary assistance, including military assistance and will also support it by other means at its disposal.” Furthermore, “In the event of a situation arising that, in view of one of the parties, could pose a threat to peace, break the peace, or affect that party’s security interests, and also in the event of a threat of aggression against one of the parties, the parties will immediately activate consultation procedures with a view to coordinating practical measures to resolve the situation.”

Those provisions would seem to cover Uzbekistan against threats from both state and non-state actors; and they also seem worded so as to allow invoking the treaty for preventive and even preemptive actions as well.

Uzbekistan is opening the door to the stationing of Russian forces: “In order to maintain security, peace, and stability, the sides shall grant each other the right to use military installations on their territory, should the need arise, on the basis of additional agreements.” Furthermore, the treaty envisions Russian assistance to Uzbekistan for “modernization of the armed forces, providing them with up-to-date armaments and technical equipment, and raising their combat readiness.” In this area as well, Russia is stepping into a niche unnecessarily forfeited by the United States.

The official agenda of Karimov’s visit did not include specific discussions on creating a Russian military base in Uzbekistan. However, discussions on that subject are under way unofficially in Moscow. The Kremlin-connected analyst Sergei Karaganov predicts, “It will be a small base to symbolize Russia’s military presence and Russia’s willingness to stabilize the situation.…For now, the decision to deploy a base and the prospect of rendering mutual assistance in the event of conflict is [in itself] a deterrent” (Ekho Moskvy, November 14). Statements by some senior Duma members similarly seem to reflect a political decision by the Kremlin to create a Russian base in Uzbekistan.

In parallel with the military track, Moscow is reentering Uzbekistan massively on the economic track as well. During Karimov’s visit, the sides noted recent advances in exploration and development of Uzbekistan’s oil and gas deposits by Lukoil and Gazprom, respectively. The joint communiqué also suggested that Tashkent expects Russian investments in Uzbekistan’s manufacturing industries. (Interfax, Russian Television Channel One, Uzbek Television Channel One, November 13-15)

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. Uzbekistan went on to ask NATO for an Individual Partnership Action Plan.

The relationship began unraveling in 2004 when political Washington allowed itself to be caught in a false 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.

Ultimately, 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. In September, Uzbekistan hosted for the first time since 1991 a military exercise with Russian troops, rehearsing a joint anti-terrorist actions.

A last possible chance to retrieve K-2 was missed when a State Department-led delegation visited Tashkent in late September, three months before the expiry of the base evacuation deadline. The K-2 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 now forfeited an irreplaceable long-term military presence, and Russia gained the promise of one.

It was probably in early 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 to retrieve K-2 between June and October.

Events have now come full circle with their lessons: Exit America, enter Russia, Putin is no ally, and U.S. policy must not be turned into a clash of priorities in a zero-sum equation of priorities. By the same token, to presume an end to zero-sum strategic contests among great powers in Eurasia post-9/11 is as unrealistic as — and indeed a remnant of — the post-1991 presumption of the end of history.

(See EDM, July 29, August 2, 4, 5, September 23, 27, 28, 29)