On March 15, 2018, four Central Asian leaders met at an important summit in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, to discuss regional issues ranging from economic to environmental to security concerns. The summit featured the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, and marked a significant moment for the region, as Uzbekistan, after years of strained relations, has worked under the leadership of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to improve his country’s ties with the other Central Asian states.
Noticeably absent from the summit was Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, who sent a delegation that included his son and other government officials in his absence. While it’s not entirely unusual for the president of Turkmenistan to miss such a summit – Berdimuhamedov’s predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, also made a habit of the practice[i] – the reasoning behind President Berdimuhamedov’s absence is indicative: he chose to visit Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates instead. The Gulf offers the potential for a financial lifeline that Turkmenistan’s Central Asian neighbors cannot match.
Turkmenistan is in need of economic assistance and financial support as the country’s economy continues to struggle. As Catherine Putz wrote for The Diplomat, “Nothing happening in Kazakhstan this week can be more important than Turkmenistan getting access to more funds to actually make the TAPI pipeline a reality.”[ii] Turkmenistan brought a large number of officials on the Gulf trip and has inked numerous Memorandums on Cooperation with Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
The thrust of Berdimuhamedov’s visit was economic, but, notably, his delegation included several top security officials, such as the Minister of Defense, Yaylym Beridiev, and the Head of the State Border Service, Begench Gundogdyyev, who commands the country’s Border Guard Forces.[iii] The UAE, the second stop on President Berdimuhamedov’s trip, has become a growing arms supplier for Turkmenistan in recent years, through the provision of tactical military vehicles like the Ajban 440 and LRSOV, both of which are produced by NIMR.
The purchase of Emirati military equipment, especially vehicles, benefits Turkmenistan’s rapid response capabilities, particularly in the country’s efforts to secure its border with Afghanistan.[iv] NIMR’s vehicles have been put to operational use by both the Emirati military and allied militaries in the Middle East, demonstrating their combat effectiveness. One configuration of the Ajban 440 in use by the Turkmen Armed Forces features an anti-tank guided missile system as well as an anti-aircraft gun. Turkmenistan is likely anxious over the use of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices,[v] as well as the proliferation of unsophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles in the hands of insurgents.
While details about the visit have been sparse – as is always the case with news regarding Turkmenistan, and even more so with news about the country’s military – Emirati state-owned WAM reported that Turkmen Minister of Defense Berdiev met with the UAE’s Minister of State for Defense Affairs, Mohammed bin Ahmed al-Bowardi, as well as other senior UAE military officials, to discuss “ways of consolidating ties of friendship and cooperation in defence and military fields.”[vi] WAM did not identify those military officials specifically, but the Chief of Staff of the UAE’s Armed Forces and the Deputy Supreme Commander were known to have been included in the UAE’s welcoming delegation.[vii]
There is no indication of what the two sides talked about more specifically in terms of “defense and military” cooperation. While the UAE might want to gain favor with a neighbor of its rival Iran, Turkmenistan’s permanent neutrality ostensibly should preclude most security commitments. The situation in Afghanistan and, more recently, the country’s financial troubles may have forced Turkmenistan to more aggressively court potential suppliers of arms and financing, but the country is not seeking to be embroiled in regional rivalries.
Beyond abstract discussions of the regional security environment, it is plausible that the two sides reviewed new potential arms agreements as a component of the broader agreements currently under negotiation. That Turkmenistan’s budget is strained, and its economy faltering,[viii] is apparently not an obstacle to Berdimuhamedov’s desire to bolster the country’s armed forces, as indicated by the various new hardware that has appeared in Turkmen inventories in the last few years. It is entirely possible that Berdimuhamedov’s unease with the country’s domestic conditions is even part of what is prompting his increased investment in the security forces, besides the situation in Afghanistan.
Whether any arms contracts were signed during the Gulf visits will not become apparent for some time. Most likely, it will only be revealed when new systems turn up in a military exercise or the country’s annual parade. Nevertheless, it is clear that Ashgabat views the UAE, especially, as a key partner for ensuring stability in Turkmenistan.
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[i] RFE/RL, “Party Pooper: Turkmen President A No-Show for Central Asian Summit,” March 6, 2018. http://www.rferl.org/a/qishloq-ovozi-turkmenistan-berdymukhammedov-central-asian-summit-not-attending/29083277.html
[ii] Catherine Putz, “Where in the World is Berdy This Week? Hint: Not Astana,” The Diplomat, March 13, 2018. http://thediplomat.com/2018/03/where-in-the-world-is-berdy-this-week-hint-not-astana/
[iii] AKIpress, “Turkmenistan, UAE discuss ways to develop cooperation in investment, economic, tourism, cultural fields,” March 16, 2018. http://akipress.com/news:603675/
[iv] Derek Bisaccio, “Turkmenistan Wary of Afghan Border,” Forecast International, August 16, 2017. http://www.defensesecuritymonitor.com/wordpress/turkmenistan-wary-of-afghan-border/
[v] Gulabudin Ghubar, “Taliban Seizing Humvees to Use as Vehicle Bombs,” Tolo News, October 9, 2017. http://www.tolonews.com/afghanistan/taliban-seizing-humvees-use-vehicle-bombs
[vi] WAM, “UAE, Turkmenistan discuss defence cooperation,” March 14, 2018. http://wam.ae/en/details/1395302674711
[vii] WAM, “Mohamed bin Zayed receives Turkmenistan’s President,” March 15, 2018. http://wam.ae/en/details/1395302674881
[viii] Bruce Pannier, “A Second Year of Shortages in Turkmenistan,” RFE/RL, December 14, 2017. http://www.rferl.org/a/second-year-of-shortages-in-turkmenistan/28918374.html