The Turkish tomato, the ultimate victim of the Russia-Turkey food fight, is suspected of finding an unlikely way around Russian import ban -- Armenia.
Following its embargo on agricultural imports from Turkey -- Moscow’s retaliation for Ankara’s downing a Russian warplane last year -- Russia began getting its tomatoes and other salad ingredients from other countries and territories in the neighborhood. “Iran, our friends from Abkhazia, colleagues from Armenia have been taking over the market,” elaborated Igor Artemyev, head of Russia’s Anti-Trust Service, to the Kremlin-run Sputnik news network.
But Moscow also suspects that the Turkish tomato went undercover to infiltrate Russia, trying to pass itself off as Armenian, among other fake identities. Earlier this month, the Russian food safety agency, Rosselkhoznadzor, said that the spike of food imports from Armenia and other countries prompt some doubts. The agency pointed out that imports of tomatoes from Armenia reached a rate of a thousand tons in January and February this year, while in the same period of the last year Armenia did not export any tomatoes to Russia.
Rosselkhoznadzor, long known for its vigilance against suspected covert culinary operations, said that it contacted Armenian officials to make sure that the tomatoes were not coming from Turkey or the European Union. Fruits and veggies from both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been held at the Russian border on several occasions as Russian officials tried to check the quality and the provenance of the imports.
Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey have reiterated their intention to expand military cooperation, including holding joint military exercises aimed at protecting oil and gas pipelines. But the promises of further cooperation belie the stalled development of this would-be military bloc on Russia's southern flank.
The defense ministers of the three countries met Sunday in Gabala, Azerbaijan, and afterwards they announced a variety of cooperation measures including joint military exercises, cooperation on cyber security, and "further improvement of trilateral exercises on the protection of oil and gas pipelines," in the words of Azerbaijan Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov. While some of this already has been going on, Hasanov added that the three sides are preparing a memorandum to "to enter a new stage" of the cooperation. Hasanov's Georgian counterpart, Tinatin Khidasheli, said Georgia would host the new joint exercises next year.
This nascent alliance was formalized in 2012, but of course much has changed in the region since then, like Russia's growing assertiveness and the collapse of Russia-Turkey relations. So it now includes one country that is a longtime Russian enemy (Georgia), another new but fervent enemy (Turkey) and one country strenuously keeping its options open (Azerbaijan).
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for a greater NATO presence in the Black Sea to counter Russia, potentially representing a policy shift for Ankara, which has traditionally jealously guarded its role as the sole Western power on the sea.
Speaking at a Balkan security conference in Istanbul, Erdogan complained that the sea has become a "Russian lake":
We should enhance our coordination and cooperation in the Black Sea. We hope for concrete results from the NATO summit in Warsaw on July 8, 9… The Black Sea should be turned into the sea of stability. I told the NATO secretary general that you are absent in the Black Sea and that is why it has nearly become a Russian lake. We should perform our duty as we are the countries with access to the Black Sea. If we do not take action, history will not forgive us.
A senior American NATO official has signaled support for a proposal to create a regular alliance naval presence on the Black Sea, where tension has been rising between Russia and its maritime neighbors.
"There are some very valuable discussions under way among the allies who live on the Black Sea ... of more closely integrating their naval forces and operations," said NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow, an American diplomat, referring to Bulgaria, Turkey, and Romania, Reuters reported. "We need to consider a more persistent NATO military presence in the region, with a particular focus on our maritime capabilities."
Vershbow was apparently referring to an idea, promoted by Romania, to creating a permanent NATO presence on the sea. Romanian officials also have said that their proposal envisages cooperation with non-NATO partners on the Black Sea, in particular Georgia and Ukraine, as well as the United States. The proposal looks to be considered at the alliance's June summit in Warsaw, as the alliance continues to build up its military presence along Russia's borders.
With Nagorno Karabakh's worst violence in two decades having abated, Armenia and Azerbaijan are taking stock of how loyally their allies and partners responded to the crisis. And in most cases, both sides have found the responses wanting.
The major outside player in the conflict remains Russia, but its actions and the subsequent reactions followed a well-worn path: Armenia complained that its ostensible ally was providing weapons to its enemy, Russia justified that policy in terms of a balance of power, and nothing concrete changed.
While Armenia is a treaty ally of Russia, hosts a Russian military base, and gets discounted Russian weaponry in return, oil-rich Azerbaijan has rearmed itself, with the aim of retaking its lost territory, buying most of its arms from the very same Russia.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin visited the region at the end of last week, part of a Russian diplomatic blitz that seems to have succeeded in tamping down the violence for the time being. And both officials made it clear that Russia did not intend to change its policy of supplying both sides.
“If we consider for a moment that Russia gave up that role, we all will see clearly that such place won’t remain vacant. Weapons will be bought from other countries, and that won’t make weapons less deadly. However, it could ruin the current balance to some extent,” Medvedev said. "Everything is done in compliance with the contracts. Both these countries are our strategic partners," Rogozin said.
Turkish and Ukrainian warships carry out joint exercises near Odessa. (photo: MoD Ukraine)
Turkey's naval ships have made simultaneous port calls to all the Black Sea countries except Russia, in an apparent military-diplomatic show of force as tensions on the sea continue to simmer.
As part of this year's iteration of the annual Deniz Yildizi (Sea Star) exercises, Turkish ships made port calls over last weekend to Batumi (Georgia), Varna (Bugaria), Constanta (Romania), and Odessa (Ukraine). These countries, all engaged in conflicts with Russia of varying severity, are increasingly finding common cause on the Black Sea. Turkey, though, is the only naval power with anything close to Russia's strength.
"The scope of the exercise shows that Turkish Navy intends to show a strong presence in the Black Sea," wrote Turkish naval blogger Can Devrim Yaylali. "This is an impressive way of showing the flag, an important message."
The hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia between April 2 and April 5 have not just been on the military front; hackers from Armenia and close Azerbaijani ally Turkey have been exchanging deadly cyber-fire over the past few days, too.
Declaring that it had “sided with Azerbaijan against Armenia, the aggressor,” HackRead reported, a group with the nom de guerre of Turk Hack Team claimed on April 3 to have shut off access to sites for Armenia’s government administration and the National Security Service, National Bank and Ministry of Economy. Another band, Aslan Neverler Tim, alleged that it knocked offline the websites for Armenia’s defense, agriculture, energy ministries.
Some Armenian observers confirmed DDOS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks, a targeted congestion of service, on gov.am sites. Cyber-security expert Samvel Martirosian told Armenian media that the attackers failed, though, to hack into the websites.
Turk Hack Team is known for anti-Armenian cyber-attacks. The group claimed responsibility for taking down the Vatican’s website a year ago in retaliation for Pope Francis’ description of Ottoman Turkey’s 1915 killings of ethnic Armenians as genocide, a term modern-day Turkey rejects.
A Russian warship, the Alexander Otrakovsky, passes through the Bosphorus on March 9 with heavy Turkish coast guard and police security. (photo: Yoruk Isik)
Russian warships passing through the Bosphorus are getting stronger protection from the Turkish coast guard and police, in an apparent response to heightened security concerns.
Last week two ships carrying cargo for the Russian military in Syria passed through the straits, which connect the Black Sea to the Mediterrannean, accompanied by three Turkish coast guard vessels, an Istanbul police department vessel, and a police helicopter. This week at least three more Russian warships have gotten the same protection.
This level of protection is unprecedented in recent years, said Can Devrim Yaylali, a Turkish naval expert and author of the blog Bosphorus Naval News. Normally the Russian ships are accompanied by a single Turkish coast guard vessel, Yaylali told The Bug Pit in an email interview.
Russian warships, by international treaty, are allowed to pass freely through the Bosphorus. That has been the source of some tension recently, as the two countries are at odds over the war in Syria and Turkey's shooting down of a Russian air force jet last year.
Nevertheless, the Turkish coast guard gives an escort to every foreign warship that passes through, Russian or otherwise. But what explains the new level of security? Yaylali suggests that the Turkish authorities probably got intelligence about a possible attack on a Russian ship. "Otherwise the Turks would not bother so much to protect Russian ships, especially in this political climate," he said.
Russia has announced the details of a new shipment of arms it is sending to Armenia, a relatively rare move likely connected with Russia's ongoing tension with Turkey.
Last week, the Russian government announced that it would be providing Armenia with a $200 million credit to buy equipment including multiple-launch rocket systems, anti-tank missiles, handheld antiaircraft missiles and upgrades to tanks.
The credit was announced last year, as an apparent concession by Russia amid large-scale street protests in Armenia against the country's Russian-owned electricity company. But the details of the weapons to be acquired weren't released, which is the normal practice with Russian arms deliveries to Armenia, said Emil Sanamyan, an analyst who closely follows Caucasus military affairs.
In general, Armenia prefers to cultivate an air of mystery about what weaponry exactly it is acquiring, partly to keep its rival, Azerbaijan, off-guard but also because it likely is acquiring far less and so has little to gain by flaunting it. Azerbaijan, by contrast, tends to exaggerate its purchases in an effort to intimidate.
(That said, Azerbaijan's purchases are still substantial, and a large portion of them also come from Russia. This week, the Stockholm International Peace Research institute released a report noting that Azerbaijan was the largest importer of arms in Europe over the period 2011-15, and that it accounted for nearly five percent of Russian exports over that period.)