The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Uzbekistan pushing back against Russia

Sergei Bobylev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on Sept. 16, 2022.

A growing number of countries in Russia’s sphere of influence are pushing back against Moscow in the wake of the Kremlin’s weakening in the Ukraine war. This shift is an opportunity for the United States to expand its presence in regions that long have been deep inside the Russian orbit. Key among Central Asian countries is Uzbekistan, which is also undergoing a significant domestic transformation and reform. The United States is the only one that can help Tashkent — and by extension the region — navigate its way to security and stability, and offset Russia’s and China’s aspirations to become dominant powers in the heart of Eurasia.   

On Dec. 8, Uzbekistan rejected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Nov. 28 proposal of creating a “natural gas union” with Russia and Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan’s Energy Minister Jorabek Mirzamahmudov said that his country would not give up its national interests in exchange for natural gas. He said: “Even if a gas agreement is concluded with Russia, this does not mean a union.”

Countries like Uzbekistan are taking risks against Russia, but the United States is only focused on the crisis at hand in Ukraine and not strategically viewing the broader Russian and Chinese spheres of influence.

After having failed to even mention Central Asia in its Interim National Security Guidance document issued in March 2021, the Biden White House, in its October 2022 National Security Strategy document, devoted just a few sentences to the most strategic region when it comes to countering both Russia and China. At a time when the heart of Eurasia is in the throes of pressures building from all sides, the Biden administration will need to do a lot more to formulate policies and allocate resources to Central Asia.

Washington will need to focus particularly on Uzbekistan, which borders all the other four Central Asian “Stans” as well as Afghanistan. Ensuring the region’s security at a time when each Central Asian country is in the midst of historic domestic transformation will depend on the stability of this most populous nation in the center of the region.

The Biden administration’s National Security Strategy document in its section on Russia notes that Central Asian nations are the target of Moscow’s “blatant attempts to undermine internal democratic processes.” The region — sandwiched between our two principal adversaries — gets a couple more sentences as follows: “We will continue to support the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Central Asia [and] foster efforts to enhance resilience and democratic development in the five countries in this region. We will continue to work through the C5+1 diplomatic platform to advance climate adaptation, improve regional energy and food security, enhance integration within the region, and build greater connectivity to global markets.” 

This generic treatment shows that our strategic thinking remains behind the curve on the one region where historically U.S. influence remains the weakest and behind that of both Russia and China. Certainly, the Russians and the Chinese, with lengthy borders with Central Asia, have a geographic advantage; however, overall U.S. global influence demonstrates that geography has not been much of a constraint. Neither the Russians nor the Chinese are about to pose a major maritime challenge to the U.S. in the foreseeable future. But they pose serious challenges on the Eurasian landmass, which behooves us to up our game in Central Asia.

As an initial high-level step towards engaging Central Asia, the C5+1 is a good multilateral framework, but it’s now seven years old. Washington now needs to drop altitude and robustly deal with the region in a more granular manner. Given its double landlocked location, demographic size, and domestic transformation, Uzbekistan’s future trajectory will decide the extent to which the United States will succeed. 

Uzbekistan is in the process of shedding its Soviet/Russian legacy and re-embracing its Turkic and Islamic heritage. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is leading a process of cautious political reforms — allowing ethnic and religious identities greater space in civil society. A key domestic fault-line involves the arid northwestern resource-rich Karakalpakstan region, which earlier this year saw violent protests that forced the government to reverse its decision to end the area’s autonomous status. As it pursues economic development, Tashkent will need help with education, democratic reform, and strengthening of the rule of law, especially with 60 percent of the country’s 35 million people under the age of 30

These efforts must be undertaken in a context where China has had a significant head start. Though Uzbekistan does not border China, it represents a key junction in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), especially in the form of the major China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railroad project. The Uzbekistanis don’t have a whole lot of choice but are trying to chart a path through the tortuous terrain of great power competition.

Meanwhile, the 2021 U.S. withdrawal from neighboring Afghanistan that returned the Taliban to power adds to Uzbekistan’s worries on its southeastern flank. Tashkent’s dealings with a re-Talibanized Afghanistan helps the U.S. to stay involved in the region post-withdrawal, but Uzbekistan is vulnerable.

Neighboring Tajikistan is even more imperiled by the situation in Afghanistan and with Russia’s decline. Likewise, Kyrgyzstan remains internally fragile after three uprisings since 2005, with the last one a mere two years ago. To the south, is Turkmenistan where Sardar
Berdymuhammedov, a new president who succeeded his father back in February, is trying to bring the country out of its long international isolation. Even the one stable neighbor, Kazakhstan to the north, which just held presidential elections, is also going through a major political transformation propelled by the unrest from less than a year ago.

Clearly, the United States needs a more proactive foreign policy towards Central Asia — one that promotes enhanced partnerships in several fields such as trade and investment, science and technology, energy, health care, industrial production, education, and capacity building, as well as cooperation via international financial institutions. Such a multi-faceted approach can go a long way in ensuring that Uzbekistan is able to withstand the various geo-strategic pressures and thus ensure that Central Asia weathers the many storms raging across Eurasia. 

Kamran Bokhari, PhD, is the Director of Analytical Development at the New Lines Institute for Strategy & Policy in Washington, D.C. He is also a national security and foreign policy specialist at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute. Bokhari has served as the coordinator for Central Asia Studies at the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute.

Tags Biden foreign policy Central Asia China Great power competition National Security Strategy Russia Tashkent Uzbekistan Vladimir Putin

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

More International News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video