The United States's donation of over 300 armored vehicles to Uzbekistan represents the triumph of realpolitik over the promotion of American values, Russian analysts argue.
Last week U.S. officials announced that they were donating over 300 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles to Uzbekistan; it will be the biggest ever transfer of American military equipment to a Central Asian country. It was surprising in many ways: American military interest in Central Asia had appeared to be on the wane, and U.S. military aid to Uzbekistan -- one of the worst human rights violators on the planet -- was at a largely token level, with little apparent justification for Washington to change that.
In days since the deal was announced, the response from the region has been muted. No officials from Russia or Central Asia -- including Uzbekistan -- have commented on the deal. But among Russia's Central Asian analyst community, of course, the announcement was big news. Most saw it in terms of the U.S.'s desire to improve ties with Uzbekistan, turning the latter into an American foothold in the region.
Just because Russian officials haven't said anything publicly doesn't mean that they are indifferent, said Daniil Kislov, the Moscow-based editor of the Central Asia news website Fergana News. "The transfer of American equipment to Uzbekistan raised concern among officials in Moscow," he said in an interview with Svobodnaya Pressa; the headline of the piece was "The U.S. Will Encroach On Russia From the South."
"This is quite a significant milestone in the history of American-Uzbekistani relations," said analyst Arkady Dubnov in an interview with Fergana News. "And it's a serious material contribution to the strengthening of Uzbekistan's military capability, and still more a specific gesture underlining the U.S.'s desire to maintain a special relationship with Uzbekistan. I think this uniqueness separates Uzbekistan from all the other Central Asian countries, since in the last few years none of the other countries in the region have received such massive military-technical aid from the U.S."
Big supplies of military equipment like this are a good way to tie a country's hands long term, as the equipment always needs servicing and that is something Washington will always have now as a bargaining chip over Tashkent, noted analyst Azhdar Kurtov in the same piece.
"Uzbekistan's armed forces will use this equipment, it will need servicing and they will have to ask the U.S. for replacement parts or, more likely, for service, because this is complicated equipment," Kurtov said. "And they [the U.S.] can refuse, if Washington thinks that Islam Abdulganiyevich Karimov in Tashkent is somehow deviating from Washington's line. This is a very strong way to constrain another country's policy. In this way, the U.S.'s policy is smart with respect to their national interests."
The stated reason that the U.S. gave for the transfer -- that the MRAPs will help Uzbekistan fight terrorist groups and/or drug trafficking -- was given little credence. "These vehicles are intended for so-called asymmetric warfare, when one side is a regular, well-armed military, and the other is an insurgent army, which uses partisan methods, in particular mining roads on which the enemy moves. Uzbekistan has never fought that kind of war and it's unlikely that they will in the forseeable future," said analyst Alisher Ilhamov of the U.K.'s School for Oriental and African Studies. "From the military-strategic point of view, in Uzbekistan's circumstances they [the MRAPs] can be used for two purposes: 1. in military parades, to satisfy the vanity of the political elite of the country, and 2. against the population, in case of a new Andijan. And the likelihood of the latter is constantly growing, especially in light of the reverse wave of labor migrants from Russia."
Russian analysts also tended to downplay the notion that the MRAPs could disrupt the military balance in the region and increase tension between Uzbekistan and its neighbors. "The delivery of American equipment may cause a negative reaction from Uzbekistan's neighbors. But so far no such reports have been heard," Kislov said. "And Tashkent itself hasn't called attention to the future delivery. In the central Uzbek press there hasn't been a single report on the subject, only on a couple of sites that no one reads. I think that this shipment of equipment won't make relations any worse than they already are."
Dubnov, in a separate piece in Fergana News, tied the deal and the revival of realpolitik to the New Cold War resulting from the Ukraine crisis: "With the blitz annexation of Crimea to Russia, Putin got what he wanted: the rules of the game of world politics, the criteria of what is good and bad, have changed," he said. "The 'good guys' stopped being good, and the 'bad guys' turned out to be not so bad. Democratic values turned out to be not the most valuable commodity; social stability and government security are more important."
Meanwhile, Dubnov notes that Kyrgyzstan -- still by far the most democratic country in Central Asia -- remains in Russia's "zone of influence."
Interestingly, Dubnov thinks something may be in the works between the U.S. and Tajikistan, as well: "I don't exclude the thought that in the near future we'll see evidence of more loyal relations of the U.S. to Tajikistan's regime. A perceptive analyst in Dushanbe noticed a telling detail: in his recent address to parliament, President Emomali Rahmon did not once mention Russia and its integration initiatives. Coincidence? I think not."