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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ivanov Touts Defense in Central Asia

APIvanov gesturing while speaking with Bakiyev at the Kant base Wednesday.
TASHKENT, Uzbekistan -- Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov arrived in Tashkent on Wednesday to attend the first joint military exercise between Russian and Uzbekistan, hailing it as a sign of an expanding cooperation.

The three-day maneuvers that began Wednesday involve about 200 troops from each side, but they signal that Uzbekistan is edging closer to Russia after a falling out with the West.

The Russian-Uzbek maneuvers are being held in a mountainous area about 200 kilometers northeast of a U.S. military base in southern Uzbekistan that the Uzbek government has ordered vacated within months.

"These exercises demonstrate a new quality of bilateral relations," Ivanov told reporters.

Ivanov said that the joint exercise would involve Russian paratroopers and an elite commando unit of the Defense Ministry's Main Intelligence Directorate, a powerful foreign intelligence organization known as GRU.

Ivanov said the Uzbek-Russian military exercise was necessary because of "new threats and challenges in the region," pointing at a growing drug flow from Afghanistan which he said helps finance terrorist groups in the region.

In the years following the Soviet collapse, Uzbek President Islam Karimov shunned Russia's military cooperation proposals and sought to cultivate closer ties with the United States and other Western nations. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, Uzbekistan and neighboring Kyrgyzstan hosted U.S. troops for operations in Afghanistan.

But Uzbekistan's relations with the West deteriorated when Karimov angrily rejected U.S. and other Western calls for an international probe into his government's suppression of the May 13 uprising in the city of Andijan.

Facing Western criticism, Karimov found strong support in Russia and China, which together dominate the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional security grouping also including Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and two other Central Asian nations. In July, the SCO demanded a quick U.S. withdrawal from Central Asia -- a call that reflected the unease Moscow and Beijing felt about the U.S. presence in the region.

In July, Uzbekistan handed the U.S. troops a six-month eviction warning. Kyrgyz authorities said the necessity of the U.S. base in their country should be discussed, but then allowed the troops to stay as long as necessary to stabilize Afghanistan on the condition that they pay higher rent.

Kyrgyzstan also hosts a Russian military base, located just 30 kilometers from the U.S. base.

Ivanov visited Kyrgyzstan earlier Wednesday and said Russia was ready to invest several billion rubles in the future to expand the Kant base.

Ivanov handed an Mi-8 NTV military helicopter, 10 military trucks and other equipment over to the Kyrgyz military at the base, which he visited with Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. "We are treating this base seriously," he said.

Bakiyev expressed hope that military cooperation with Russia would continue to develop "dynamically and effectively," Itar-Tass said.