Uzbekistan is the Key to Russia’s Counterterrorism Strategy in Central Asia
The Russian Defense Minister’s visit to Uzbekistan yielded a landmark agreement that allows each of their military aircraft to use the other’s airspace, which will in practice enable Russia to more speedily supply its forces in Tajikistan in the event of an anti-terrorist emergency there and thus prevent the actualization of any worst-case scenarios stemming from the potential spread of Afghan-originating terrorist threats throughout the region.
Central Asia In A Strategic Context
Russia and Uzbekistan have been in the midst of a fast-moving rapprochement with one another ever since the death of former long-serving leader Islam Karimov in 2016 and his replacement by the relatively progressive Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who broke with his predecessor’s domestic and international policies in many respects and presided over his country’s reconciliation with Russia. The two countries became very close after the US-backed proto-Hybrid War events in the Fergana Valley town of Andijan in 2005 but strategically parted ways following Uzbekistan’s decision to leave the Russian-led CSTO mutual defense organization in 2012. This dramatic move saw Uzbekistan strengthening its relations with the US at the expense of Russia, though it now appears to be more intent on balancing between the two Great Powers instead of pivoting too closely to one or the other. It’s with this backdrop in mind that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s trip to Uzbekistan should be understood.
The most important outcome of his visit was that a landmark agreement was promulgated allowing each country’s military aircraft to use the other’s airspace, which also saw their top defense representatives affirming that their nations are once again strategic partners, especially in the sphere of security. The significance of these developments can’t be overstated because they single-handedly led to a revolution in Central Asia’s strategic affairs, particularly in the context of the region preparing itself to deal with the possible scenario of Daesh spreading out of Afghanistan and into the former Soviet Republics. Russia’s military base in CSTO-member Tajikistan and its high-quality training of the host country’s troops has always been a guarantor of security for most of these states given that it’s long been predicted that any spillover effect will probably affect it first, though Uzbekistan’s hitherto reluctance since 2012 to participate in Russian-led multilateral security initiatives meant that regional stability wasn’t assured.
Uzbekistan’s “Balancing” Act
Not only had Uzbekistan pulled out of the CSTO and appeared ready for a full-fledged pivot towards the US during Karimov’s last years, but it was also engaged in a tense Cold War with Russian-ally Tajikistan over a variety of issues that included historical disagreements and water resources. Relations between the two countries have stabilized since Mirziyoyev assumed office, but Uzbekistan’s previous withdrawal from the CSTO continued to create a questionable security environment in Central Asia because it couldn’t be known for certain whether it would coordinate its anti-terrorist efforts with Russia or not. That’s why the agreement that was just clinched allowing Russian military aircraft to transit through Uzbekistani airspace is so important because Moscow could now speedily supply its military forces in Tajikistan in the event of an anti-terrorist emergency there. It also proves just how successful the Russian-Uzbekistani rapprochement has been.
It’s unlikely, however, that Uzbekistan will reapply to join the CSTO because it considers itself “too good, big, powerful, ambitious, and proud” to – as it sees it – “subordinate” itself to Russia like it believes that the comparatively smaller and weaker states of this organization do. Instead, Tashkent has finally achieved what it’s always wanted from Moscow, and that’s being treated with respect as an equal partner through their newfound bilateral strategic partnership, something that it’s privileged to enjoy by dint of its geostrategic location abutting all former Soviet Republics in Central Asia (and Afghanistan) and its much larger population. Moreover, Uzbekistan appears to appreciate Tajikistan’s role as a “firewall” protecting it and the rest of the region from Afghan-emanating terrorist threats, hence its willingness to allow Russian military aircraft to pass through its airspace en route to its neighbor in order to prevent its rapid collapse during a sudden crisis.
Tajikistan At The Top Of The Terrorist Threat List
Tajikistan is the ultimate frontline anti-terrorist state out of all of the post-Soviet ones because it shares the largest border with Afghanistan (from where more terrorist threats could be exported than any of the other former USSR’s neighbors) and also happens to be the weakest, poorest, and most fragile of them too. Its 1990s civil war was the bloodiest conflict to break out in the former Soviet Union and was influenced by what happened in Afghanistan, where Islamist rebels overthrew the secular government just like they then tried to do in Tajikistan. Old resentments from that period still linger, and elderly President Rahmon’s inevitable passing will herald the country’s first political transition since the end of that conflict. Furthermore, the region’s only Islamist opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) of Tajikistan, was banned three years ago after being implicated in a failed coup attempt.
The IRP was also accused of being behind a terrorist attack earlier this year that the authorities initially said was linked to Iran, though Dushanbe and Tehran have since seemed to patch up whatever (Saudi-instigated) “misunderstandings” they had. Even so, there are some fears that the IRP could return to terrorism (or resort to it, depending on whether one believes that it was genuinely engaged in this in the first place) during the aforementioned political transition that will eventually happen in Tajikistan, which might also coincide or be coordinated with an increase in Afghan-emanating Daesh terrorist threats at that very sensitive time. The worst-case scenario would be if a sudden terrorist-driven jolt undermines Tajikistan’s stability and returns the country to civil war, which could pose catastrophic security consequences for Uzbekistan, further explaining why it’s to the benefit of Tashkent’s own interests to facilitate Russian military flights to its neighbor via its airspace.
“One Hand Washes The Other”
Uzbekistan is the key to Russia’s counterterrorism policy in Central Asia because none of Moscow’s stabilization measures in Tajikistan can be maintained without Tashkent’s active support as the regional leader (as it envisions itself, though credibly so it may be added). Ensuring Central Asia’s security is so important for Russia because the country fears being swamped by a tidal wave of “Weapons of Mass Migration” if Afghan-originating terrorism sparks a regional Migrant Crisis, as there’s no way that Russia can protect its more than 4000-mile-long unguarded and geographically indefensible border with Kazakhstan from large-scale population influxes of this kind without employing “draconian” and possibly even deadly measures that could be abused by identity demagogues to stir up civilizational tensions among its diverse population. That said, “hard security” policies of the sort that Russia is promoting through its own variation of America’s “Lead From Behind” stratagem aren’t sufficient for fully combating this threat.
Therein lays the relevancy of China’s quietly expanding role in Central Asia, which could theoretically see the People’s Republic assist in the economic development of the region that could in turn serve as a deterrent to terrorist recruitment, understanding that people sometimes join these said movements for simple “pragmatic” reasons prior to becoming fully indoctrinated later on. In this model, Russian and Chinese “hard” and “soft” security approaches, respectively, complement one another in comprehensively ensuring Central Asia’s stability in the face of Afghan-originating terrorist threats, which thus strengthens the geostrategic underpinnings of the Russian-Chinese Strategic Partnership in the sense of showing that both Great Powers need one another in order to retain order in the shared space between them. Assessed through this prism, then Central Asia increasingly looks to become a joint Russian-Chinese “condominium” that functions as the centerpiece of what the pre-expansion SCO (before India and Pakistan’s admissions) is capable of achieving.
Russia and its Chinese Great Power partner both have pressing security concerns in Central Asia, albeit of a different nature dealing with “Weapons of Mass Migration” and Uighur terrorist camps, respectively. As such, they jointly have an interest in ensuring the region’s stability, though this can’t be done without Uzbekistan signing on to the necessary “hard security” component of this strategy, which had hitherto remained elusive following its post-2012 reorientation towards the US (which at one time appeared to be on the cusp of a full-on pivot). Tashkent’s calculations changed after President Karimov’s passing and his replacement by Mirziyoyev, who swiftly entered into a fast-moving rapprochement with Russia that seems to have brought bilateral relations to their best-ever state since then.
Uzbekistan’s bilateral security partnership with Russia and its approval of Moscow’s military planes passing through its airspace en route to supplying Tajikistan is a game-changing development that revolutionizes Central Asia’s strategic affairs and bolsters the region’s holistic capabilities of thwarting Afghan-emanating terrorist threats, especially those which could lead to Tajikistan’s collapse and return to civil war in the worst-case scenario during its inevitable political transition in the coming future. The latest agreement that was just clinched during Shoigu’s visit to the country should therefore be regarded as a milestone in the region’s New Cold War history and a masterstroke of military genius by Moscow as it seeks to protect its so-called “soft underbelly” from next-generation asymmetrical threats.