Geopolitically, the dust is settling in Central Asia in the wake of the noisy Arab Spring. Part of the outcome is likely to be Uzbekistan's policy swing that would place it solidly in the camp of the US military allies as the next leap after the republic put on hold its membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. In the meantime, Washington is making vigorous efforts to reset to zero the Russian influence over Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the two Central Asian republics where Russia currently maintains military bases.
US Undersecretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs R. Blake toured the region on August 15-17. Initially, his itinerary included stays in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. In Astana, he was supposed to be selling the New Silk Road project propped up by the US and clearly aimed to exclude Russia from the Eurasian transit web. In the last-moment adjustment, Blake's priorities tilted towards Tashkent – on August 15, he met with Uzbek president I. Karimov and on August 16 Uzbekistan's foreign ministry hosted a third round of talks with the US coupled to a US-Uzbek business forum. The official account of the negotiations mentioned a wide range of political, economic, and security issues being touched upon, with no specific deals previously unheard of, but, in fact, those have likely been sealed under wraps.
In Blake's visit, the intrigue revolved around the hypothetic US plan, recently cited by Kazakh Liter newspaper, to plant a military base in Uzbekistan. The point set forth in Liter was that the arrangement would fit neatly with Uzbekistan's foreign-policy logic, considering that the republic only briefly flirted with Russia after coming under fiery criticism in the West over the handling of the 2005 Andijan drama. By signaling the green light to a US military base on its territory, Uzbekistan would earn the status of Washington's key regional partner, generous economic and military aid, important guarantees, and a fresh sense of confidence vis-a-vis its neighbors with whom Tashkent occasionally gets locked in bitter resources-related disputes. For the US, the benefit of the partnership would be to have a foothold in Uzbekistan with an eye to muscling Russia and China in and beyond Central Asia.
By all means, the paper in Liter, an outlet of Kazakhstan's ruling Nur Otan party, saw the light of day for serious reasons. On August 23, Russia's Kommersant business daily quoted sources with connections within the Uzbek foreign ministry as saying that Washington and Tashkent opened talks on the creation of an Operative Reaction Center in Uzbekistan charged with the mission of tight coordination to be launched if trouble starts to spill upon the 2014 US withdrawal from Afghanistan. According to Kommersant, the facility would be the biggest one to be run by the US in Central Asia. That, among other things, explains how and why the US plans to distribute much of the army stuff pulled out of Afghanistan among the central Asian republics: some would be supplied for free to Uzbekistan on a permanent basis to reinforce the Center and some – passed to the republic temporarily.
The US has a record of deploying military infrastructures in Uzbekistan. There used to be one – the Karshi-Khanabad base – in 2001-2005 at the Khanabad military aerodrome sited at a distance of 10 km from Karshi in the Qashqadaryo province. Its status was defined by an accord signed in October, 2001, and the US had to rebuild the facility from scratch to later keep there a fleet comprising a group of S-130 transports, a dozen of Black Hawks, and around 1,500 servicemen. The Karshi-Khanabad base was used to support the US operations in Afghanistan, but the US-Uzbek honeymoon came to an end as, under public pressure, Washington urged a fair probe into the 2005 Andijan unrest. In response, Tashkent stated in July, 2005 that the US forces were to leave Karshi-Khanabad within the term of six months, which they did by November the same year, with the homeless aircrafts relocating to Bagram airfield in Afghanistan or the Manas airbase leased to the US by Kyrgyzstan.
The plan for an Operative Reaction Center described by Kommersant implies a US military presence of more impressive proportions as much of the US power would be shifted to the post-Soviet space. If the US get a go-ahead in Uzbekistan, the new base would be packed with aircrafts, armored vehicles, and support infrastructures like arsenals and food depots, while the US forces on premises would far outnumber those that formerly inhabited Karshi-Khanabad. Washington evidently hopes to engage with Uzbekistan as Central Asia's top-populous republic and second-biggest economy strategically positioned in the region. Uzbekistan shares borders with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan and sits fairly close to Iran and China, all of the countries potentially falling within reach for the US forces to be dispatched to the new base.
Under the circumstances, Moscow simply must take steps to dig into Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. A two-day negotiating marathon between Kyrgyz leader Almazbek Atambayev and Russia's deputy premier I. Shuvalov took place in Bishkek this month, and at the moment a package of three agreements – on the military, economic, and energy cooperation – wait to be inked next fall. Chances are that the deals on the construction of the Kambarata-1 hydropower plant and the Upper Naryn hydropower cascade – both of key importance to Bishkek – will go through earlier than by September 15. Above all, Kyrgyzstan said OK to a Russian military base on its soil (the lease term making 15 years). Against the background, it does remain unclear whether the US airbase in Manas is there to stay or will be closed in line with Atambayev's campaign pledge.
A question mark also hangs over the role of Tajikistan in the disposition now taking shape. Talks between Moscow and Dushanbe meant to hammer out an agreement on the lease term for Russia's 201th base in the republic are deadlocked, and at the moment unofficial reports indicate that the Tajik administration offers to renew the existing contract till 2016 instead of having it replaced and promises greater flexibility later on. The problem, though, is that Tajikistan is to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in 2013-2014, the incumbent E. Rahmon is being challenged by a cohort of rivals, some of them – US-backed, and, given the prospects for regime change in Tajikistan, Moscow might raise strong objections to the delay.
No doubt, Moscow would be confronted with a situation calling for a tougher than ever strategy if the Operative Reaction Center – a US military base to stay indefinitely in the post-Soviet space regarding which Russia has serious ambitions – pops up in Uzbekistan. Picking up after several makeshift bases narrowly geared to supply the Western coalition in Afghanistan, the facility would come as a slap in the face to Moscow, a humiliation comparable to what Washington would have experienced seeing Russia install a military base in Mexico, Nicaragua, or Cuba…