Lost in all the international attention given to Turkmen President Sapamurat Niyazov's death in late December was an announcement that Russia and Uzbekistan had agreed on a deal giving Moscow access to the Uzbek airfield at Navoi. This development marks an important step forward in the Russian effort to lock up Uzbekistan as a loyal client state.
Policy analysts had long believed Russia was seeking a base in Uzbekistan, in particular the facility at Karshi-Khanabad, which was vacated in 2005 by US forces after the Uzbek government issued an eviction order. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A November 2005 treaty between Russia and Uzbekistan contained language enabling Moscow, if it so desired, to come with military means to the aid of Uzbekistan's government, language that only fueled the speculation that Moscow wanted permanent access to Karshi-Khanabad. But Russia, not wanting to be seen as an imperialistic power, denied that there were discussions about any base deal.
It's now clear that Moscow was indeed covetous of a military facility in Uzbekistan. But it's equally clear that there must have been hard bargaining, and the Russians did not get all they wanted. Certainly they did not get the more modern Karshi-Khanabad base, which has greater operational capacity than the facility at Navoi. Neither did they get full and unrestricted access to Navoi.
According to press reports, Russia will only be able to gain access to Navoi in case of emergencies, or what some reports called "force majeure" contingencies. In return Russia will provide Uzbekistan with modern navigation systems and air-defense weapons.
Russia mostly likely sought broader access to the base, given that Uzbekistan will probably emerge as the regional headquarters for a unified air defense command for Russia and several other Central Asian governments. This regional system will become a component of the CIS Unified Air Defense system, based upon pre-existing Soviet facilities and structures. Thus, to some degree, this deal represents what Russian military analyst Vladimir Mukhin called a "reanimation" of the Soviet defense structure. Meanwhile, Uzbek SU-27 and MiG-29s will be posted there as a regular peacetime deployment.
Mukhin also opined that Moscow wanted the Navoi base because one of its primary interests in Uzbekistan is uranium production and enrichment, which is now being done at the Navoi Mining and Smelting plant. Allegedly this new capability will help protect those works from security threats, such as a potential terrorist attack.
Access to an air base in Uzbekistan enhances Russia's ability to respond to a potential crisis in Central Asia, such as the type of civil unrest and clashes that occurred in Andijan in 2005, or upheaval triggered by a political succession crisis.
Both Moscow and Beijing showed considerable anxiety over the fact that they could not intervene in Kyrgyzstan in 2005's Tulip Revolution, and, since then, have both made conscious efforts to bolster their respective ability to project power in the region. Gaining access to the Navoi base offers another example of Russia's efforts to encompass all of Central Asia in a single defense organization that is, in essence, counterrevolutionary and/or anti-democratic.
The second objective is clearly tied to Russian concerns about American strategic intentions and capabilities in Central and South Asia. It would seem that the Russian military still regards US and NATO forces as its primary enemy. After the Soviet collapse in 1991, much of Russia's air defenses and early warning systems were disrupted to the point where Moscow was actually "blind" to potential attacks. The Kremlin is eager to close existing gaps in its defenses. A "reanimation" of the old Soviet air defense system is crucial to this end, as is exclusion of US forces from Central Asia to the greatest possible degree. Furthermore, Russia apparently is building an integrated land, sea and air force throughout the Caspian Basin. A unified air-defense is critical to the protection of all those forces.
Access to Navoi is a major, though not completely decisive, Russian step towards realizing several diverse objectives simultaneously. It is also indicative of a reversion to more overt forms of Russian imperialism, as well as an expression of apprehension of liberalization in Central Asia.
Perhaps Uzbekistan has begun to fully appreciate Moscow's aims, as Tashkent has made several recent small gestures to improve its ties to the European Union and the West in general. While Russia may have gained limited access to Navoi, it may turn out to have also overreached, stimulating Uzbek President Islam Karimov to reach out again to the West. Whatever the case, the Navoi basing agreement constitutes a significant development in Central Asia's geopolitical contest one that deserves ongoing scrutiny.
Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.