United States-Uzbekistan: a Rising Partnership Beyond the Horizon?

In early February US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a historic visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan as part of a wider Eurasian trip which also brought him to Ukraine and Belarus. Pompeo’s week-long trip was officially aimed at countering China’s presence in those countries but he took a public stand against Russia as well, flirting with the -stans by resorting to dollar diplomacy.

A month later, the solidity of the partnership between Russia and Belarus is challenged by an energy-linked escalation which the US is smartly trying to exploit, and Uzbekistan is being increasingly courted by the White House as well.

Military Exercises and Covid-19

Between February 24 and March 2, the American and Uzbek armed forces have been involved in a joint military exercise called “Invincible Sentry 20” (IS20). The exercise took place near Tashkent, the country’s capital city, and has seen the participation of the US Special Operations Forces, the Uzbekistan National Guard and other Uzbek security forces.

IS20 has been designed as a crisis management-focused military training useful to evaluate the degree of coordination and readiness of both parts to an eventual terrorism-linked critical situation and it has been sponsored by the Uzbek government and the new US Ambassador in Tashkent Daniel Rosenblum as an opportunity to foster bilateral cooperation and to show “the depth and breadth of the [American] security partnership with Uzbekistan”.

At the outbreak of the Covid-19 epidemic in the country, which has claimed 23 cases up to now, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) sent two cargo-loads of personal protective equipment via the US Embassy to be donated to the Agency for Sanitary and Epidemiological Wellbeing in the nation. But the American engagement didn’t end with the two donations, because the USAID is also ready to assist Tashkent financially in the forthcoming fight against Covid-19.

The donations consisted of 10,000 examination gloves, 10,200 protective masks, 1,400 isolation gowns, and 200 protective goggles, and have been distributed countrywide at the beginning of the week. The government has quickly responded to the donations, expressing deep gratitude for the gesture.

Tashkent: the -stan’s Soft Underbelly

It is no surprise that Pompeo’s most important stop in the -stans was in Tashkent, where he attended a meeting with his five -stan’s counterparts and met the country’s President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev. In fact, Uzbekistan is among the most vulnerable players in the region and Washington is fully aware of that.

The US Secretary of State urged the Uzbek ruling elite not to enter the Moscow-backed Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in exchange for billion-dollar investments. As a symbolic gesture, Pompeo announced the allocation of $1 million to strengthen the border with Kabul and he promised more money to come in the form of investments from American corporations.

Pompeo’s offer was clearly too weak to break through Moscow’s backyard, but what that matters is the message delivered to the Kremlin. In any case the US isn’t alone and is likely to delegate their -stans agenda to two allies: Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Turkey’s Game-Changing Role

The US is aware of the ever-increasing Turkish protagonism in Central Asia via pan-Turkic and pan-Islamic organizations and entities, and the prospects for success are considerable. Indeed, Turkey and the -stans are tied by their common Turkic identity and modern-day Anatolian-living Turkish people come from this region. Ankara, which is a natural-born hegemony-seeker, has always tried to exert a kind of influence over the Turkic world and it has restored its expansionist agenda by taking advantage of the Soviet collapse.

As of today, Ankara is promoting its pan-Turkic, pan-Islamic and neo-Ottoman agenda in Central Asia by means of a series of powerful organizations, including the Turkic Council and the International Organization of Turkic Culture, and it has closely monitored the opening of mosques, cultural centers and Quranic schools and universities. In addition to cultural influence, Turkey is also an increasingly important trade partner for every -stan country.

To understand why the Turkey factor matters let’s just focus on one fact: the Uzbek government didn’t think twice about applying to join the Turkic Council as a full member. It sent the request in September, 2019 and entered the following month. But as regards the EEU, Tashkent hasn’t took a final stand yet and at the beginning of March, after four years of enervating talks, it announced the will to join it only as an observer member because of doubts related to the effective gains that can be achieved.

Riyadh’s Shadow in Tashkent

Saudi Arabia entered the -stans during the 1980s with an anti-Soviet function  it played a key-role in financing the mujaheddin and recruiting foreign fighters from all over the Muslim world. Riyadh later broadened its presence to counter Tehran. Just like Ankara, Riyadh is involved in trade as well as in religious affairs and they have indisputably contributed to feeding the -stans’ Islamic revival.

Riyadh is deepening its penetration within Uzbek society and economy and very recently, on March 5, the two governments finalized three agreements on energy cooperation with a value of over $2 billion. The agreements represent a watershed for the Saudi-Uzbek partnership due to their value and for the mere fact that Tashkent opted to partner with Riyadh. The Uzbek energy minister himself, Alisher Sultanov, praised the agreements saying “[they] represent a historic milestone for Uzbekistan [because] they support our mission to strengthen the energy security through self-sufficient energy sources”.

Turkey has the soft power and Saudi Arabia has the money card: both of them are Washington’s allies and have proved their loyalty several times over. The former is currently at “war” with Russia in every geopolitical theater where they share interests from Syria to Moldova, while the latter is a natural competitor for energy reasons. If the US decides to use Turkey and Saudi Arabia against the Kremlin and against Beijing which Pompeo’s visit and Ankara’s agenda seems to indicate, then the focus of future geopolitical attentions will be likely continue to be Tashkent.