The United States Congress has held a rare closed hearing on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, as leading members of Congress are pushing for new conflict-resolution measures favored by Armenia but opposed by Azerbaijan.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee held the hearing last week, with James Warlick, the U.S. co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, testifying. Warlick did not comment on the content of the hearing, except to tweet: "I thank the @HouseForeign affairs committee and its chair @RepEdRoyce for hosting me to discuss #NKpeace. We agreed to work for a settlement."
It's not clear why the hearing was closed, or why it was held now. But tension has been getting worse along the so-called "line of contact" between the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides. Armenian forces won control of the territory, which is de jure part of Azerbaijan, in a war in the early 1990s, but the ceasefire that has held since then has become increasingly tenuous, with violence along the line at its highest level since the war formally ended in 1994. "This is a war, and I would ask you to use the term ‘war’ and not to use the phrase ‘ceasefire violation’ because, in effect, we don’t have a ceasefire anymore,” Defense Ministry spokesperson Artsrun Hovannesyan told reporters in December.
Russian warships and Turkish commercial vessels have had run-ins on consecutive days, adding to tension between the rival powers.
On Sunday, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that one of its destroyers in the Aegean Sea was forced to fire warning shots at a Turkish fishing boat because the boat was approaching dangerously close to the warship. The MoD immediately summoned Turkey's naval attache to Moscow after that incident.
Then on Monday, a Russian corvette and coast guard boat forced a Turkish commercial ship in the Black Sea to change course because it was in the way of a Russian oil-rig towing boat.
Amid tensions between the two countries as a result of last month's Turkish shootdown of a Russian jet on the Turkey-Syria border, both sides accused the other of trying to provoke them.
"Ours was only a fishing boat. It seems to me the reaction of the Russian naval ship was exaggerated," said Turkey's foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, referring to Sunday's incident. "Russia and Turkey certainly have to re-establish the relationship of trust that we have always had, but our patience has a limit," Cavusoglu said.
The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Ross passes through the Bosphorus straits on December 3. (photos: U.S. Navy)
An American warship has entered the Black Sea and three more NATO ships have docked in Istanbul as tension rises on the Bosphorus straits, a source of contention between Russia and Turkey for centuries.
The U.S. Navy destroyer the USS Ross entered the Black Sea on December 3. These visits to the sea are relatively routine, but this is the first such American visit to the Black Sea since Turkey shot down a Russian bomber jet on the Turkey-Syria border. In addition, warships from three other NATO members -- Canada, Portugal, and Spain -- have moored at Istanbul in an apparent show of support. Turks interviewed by Euronews were reportedly "reassured" by the NATO ships' visit.
The visits come as there has been a flurry of discussion in the Russian and Turkish press about the role the Bosphorus straits might play in the conflict between the two countries. The Bosphorus is the only outlet of the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, and so Russia depends on it as its only warm water access to the rest of the world.
According to the 1936 Montreux Convention, Turkey is obliged to allow free traffic through the straits, except in the case of war or the imminent threat thereof. While this is, in theory, a huge strategic advantage that Turkey holds over Russia, to actually close off the straits would no doubt be seen by Russia as an act of war and it's very unlikely Ankara would take such a step unless the situation between the two countries dramatically worsened.
Russia's would-be military allies have been nearly silent on Moscow's rift with Turkey over the latter's shootdown of a bomber jet on the Turkey-Syria border last week, resulting in some consternation about what good the alliance is.
Russia leads the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military-security bloc whose other members are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Russia called an urgent session of the CSTO's permanent council the day after the Su-24 was shot down, where Russian representatives showed their allies evidence that showed that their plane had not crossed into Turkish airspace, as Ankara had claimed.
The CSTO issued a statement afterwards saying that the participants called the shootdown "a grave violation of international norms with the gravest consequences." But the phrasing of the statement was ambiguous; as Belarusian website tut.by put it, "it wasn't specified whether this was Russia's position or the joint position of the CSTO."
Kazakhstan has issued a diplomatic call for restraint from its allies Russia and Turkey following Ankara’s shooting down of a Russian warplane involved in airstrikes on Syria.
The Foreign Ministry said in a statement, issued the day after Turkey downed the Russian fighter jet, that the “tragic incident” on November 24 was cause for regret.
Both sides should exercise restraint and explore “all possible measures and channels of communication for the de-escalation of the situation,” Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry said.
The statement follows an ill-tempered war of words between Ankara and Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned what he called “a stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorists” and foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has canceled a planned trip to Ankara.
The standoff between two of Kazakhstan’s allies that have long been at loggerheads over Syria — with the Kremlin backing embattled incumbent Bashar al-Assad with airstrikes targeting rebels and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan seeking his overthrow and backing the militants — is uncomfortable for President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Kazakhstan is a staunch ally of Russia and a fellow member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, but also has a close partnership with Turkey and is a fellow member of the Ankara-led Turkic Council.
Turkey’s links with Turkic peoples have played a role in the controversy, as the fighter jet crashed in an area of Syria inhabited by ethnic Turkmen, some of whom are believed to be Ankara-backed rebels.
Astana was careful not to apportion blame for the shooting down of the aircraft, in which one pilot died and the other was rescued by Russian special forces.
Turkey has shot down a Russian warplane that crossed into its airspace amid tension over Russia's targeting of ethnic Turkmen forces in Syria which Turkey considers its "brothers and sisters."
Since Russia's bombing campaign in Syria began about two months ago Russian jets have repeatedly crossed into Turkish airspace. Until now Turkey has been relatively sanguine about those incursions (though it did send a couple of military helicopters into Armenian airspace which observers interpreted as a message to Russia).
But by Tuesday, Ankara's patience had apparently worn out. After what Turkey claimed was a 17-second violation of its airspace, and ten warnings, Turkish F-16 jets shot down the Russian Su-24. It was apparently the first exchange of fire between a NATO member and Russia since the end of the Cold War.
Turkey's decisionmaking was likely heavily influenced by the fact that Russia had of late been targeting units of ethnic Turkmens, culturally and linguistically close to Turks, in northern Syria. “That definitely played a role in how they responded to this incursion as compared to other ones," said Aaron Stein, a fellow at the Washingon-based Atlantic Council, in a conference call with reporters.. "This isn't just another Russian bombing campaign” but one that attacks what Turkey considers to be its sphere of influence, Stein added.
The long-running drama over Turkey's controversial decision to buy a Chinese missile system appears to have ended with a move to scrap the purchase altogether.
An unnamed Turkish official told Reuters on Sunday that the $3.4 billion program has been canceled. Daily Sabah, a pro-government newspaper, cited its own sources saying that Turkey would now pursue building the system by itself.
The program had been a geopolitical touchstone, with the original competition pitting four competitors from the U.S., Russia, China, and a European consortium. The announcement, in 2013, that Ankara was choosing the Chinese HQ-9 air defense system, set off a massive, twisting controversy. Ankara's original justification for choosing the Chinese system was that it was the cheapest, and also included the most generous offers of technology transfer, which would allow Turkey to acquire the blueprints for the system so that it could eventually build its own system.
But that decision angered Turkey's NATO partners, which objected that they couldn't integrate the Chinese system into NATO's larger air defense umbrella because it could compromise the security of NATO data. Many in China and Turkey complained that this was merely a pretext, and that Western governments were trying to bully Ankara into choosing a European system for commercial reasons.
A series of airspace violations related to Russian airstrikes in Syria has raised tensions between Russia and Turkey, adding a military dimension to what has long been a political disagreement over how to deal with the violence in the Middle East.
The controversies began shortly after Russia began its air campaign in support of the Syrian government. Turkish authorities said that Russian jets had entered its airspace from Syria on two occasions, on October 3 and 4. Russia claimed the incursion was an accident caused by the weather but Turkish, NATO, and American officials argued that it was intentional.
The point, said Turkish military expert Aaron Stein, was a warning to Turkey to not challenge Russia in Syria. "Turkey's historical adversary [Russia] is intentionally breaching Turkish air space, obviously to send a message to Turkey," he told RFE/RL.
Days later, Turkish military transport helicopters crossed into Armenian air space on two occasions, October 6 and 7. As in the earlier Russian case, Ankara explained the situation by bad weather, but it was widely interpreted as being a retaliatory measure, albeit an understated one, by Ankara. "Armenia was the least challenging place to respond in a deescalated way," said Emil Sanamyan, a regional security analyst, in an email interview with the Bug Pit. "The Russians and Armenians got the point and just ignored it."
Step aside, CNN, and make room, Al Jazeera: an international news network is coming to break the current "monopoly" on news and promote a Turkic point of view.
Media scholars like John Merrill may welcome a diversity of perspectives in the global news flow as a counterbalance to Western news companies and their takes. The caveat is that the latest new channel is a brainchild of four autocracy-prone governments; primarily of Kazakhstan's president-for-life, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The idea of a pan-Turkic news has been in the can for a while, but on August 18 information ministers signed a memorandum of understanding about the project in the Kazakh capital of Astana.
Kazakh communication officials said that Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey have reached a conceptual agreement on the network, which will broadcast "Turkic cultural values" in the four countries' languages and English. It is unclear when the channel goes live.
But, already, Ali Hasanov, a senior aide of Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev and the longtime presidential point-man for media matters, has his ideas.
Looking back to this summer’s European Games, he complained that “the great strides” made by his country “are hardly highlighted by some leading global media resources.” Rather, as the country’s star has risen, the “ media attacks based on preconceived, false accusations” only have increased, he claimed, the pro-government Trend news agency reported.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited China and negotiated over a controversial deal with Beijing to buy sophisticated air defense systems.
The visit is yet another twist in the long-running drama of Turkey's multi billion-dollar air defense deal, which has become a litmus test of sorts for its geopolitical leanings. The controversy kicked off in 2013, when Turkey announced it would opt for a Chinese system over American and European bidders. That, in turn, sparked harsh reactions from NATO allies and it had increasingly seemed that Ankara was getting ready to change its mind and opt for the European system after all.
But ahead of his July 28-29 visit to Beijing Erdogan suggested that air defense was part of the agenda. "The most suitable bid came from China but certain developments led to delays. We will revisit these matters during this trip. If we receive a proposal that enriches the bid, we will view this positively," Erdoğan told a news conference in Ankara before departing for China.
"The visit's most important topic will be the negotiations between China and Turkey on defense systems," an unnamed Turkish official told Turkish newspaper Today's Zaman.
NATO's primary objection to Turkey buying the Chinese system was that it would not be able to be securely integrated into NATO's own air defense system, of which Turkey already plays a large part. Turkey, meanwhile, has argued that its highest priority is getting access to the technology used to built the system so that it can eventually build them (or something similar) itself; China was willing to that (in addition to being a cheaper offer) while the European bidder weren't.