The United States and Romanian navies practiced storming the beaches of the Black Sea, a relatively rare example of practicing an attack in the region that Russia considers its own and where it increasingly feels under siege.
The USS Carter Hall, an amphibious dock landing ship, exited the Black Sea on March 22 after taking part in the exercises, Spring Storm 2017. U.S. or NATO exercises in the Black Sea have become fairly dog-bites-man news -- and NATO has promised to conduct them even more frequently -- but these are novel in that they are practicing an explicitly offensive scenario.
The U.S. Navy didn't say much about the goals of the exercises, except that they were " to enhance tactical unit and staff interoperability between Romanian and U.S. naval forces." But images and video of the exercise depicted U.S. Marines and Romanian troops storming the beach with amphibious armored vehicles and hovercraft known as LCACs, Landing Craft Air Cushion. They were accompanied by air support.
"We're going to conduct an assault from ship to shore and attack their position," explained one unidentified Marine in the video.
Russia has been relatively quiet officially about these particular exercises, particularly considering their potentially provocative scenario. "Of course we're following them and we're ready for any developments," one anonymous source in Russia's Black Sea Fleet told Pravda.
A Georgian coast guard vessel at its base in Poti. (photo: Ministry of Internal Affairs.)
When NATO officials announced last month that they were planning to increase the alliance's presence on the Black Sea, they noted that the details of what that would look like are still being worked out. Since then, Georgia and Ukraine have offered creative solutions about how they might chip in -- with NATO's help, of course.
The Black Sea has become one of the most dynamic sites of confrontation between Russia and NATO since Russia's annexation of Crimea, with both sides substantially stepping up their military activities in, around, and over the sea. But one limitation to an expanded NATO presence in the sea is the Montreux Convention, the 1936 international agreement that regulates the use of the Bosphorus straits. It restricts the presence of warships from non-littoral states to 21 days in the Black Sea. That affects all NATO countries other than Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey. But NATO aspirant Georgia had one idea.
"One of the possibilities for strengthening the capabilities of NATO in the Black Sea is frequent visits of alliance warships, but there is a restraining factor here -- the Montreux Convention," said Brigadier General Vladimir Chachibaia, Georgia's chief of general staff. "One possibility is if NATO helps Georgia and Ukraine strengthen their military fleets, which costs a lot of money. Or, for example, create a coast guard base on Georgia's coast." He suggested that such a base could be "near Poti -- a port with strategic significance."
Three Georgian Su-25s, in better days. (photo: MoD Georgia)
Georgia is planning to get rid of its entire fleet of attack airplanes and replace them with drones, the country's chief of general staff has said.
Nominally, Georgia operates around 12 Su-25 ground attack aircraft, but only one of them has been able to fly recently, said Brigadier General Vladimir Chachibaia in an interview with Georgian magazine Arsenali. The main supplier of components for the aircraft is Russia, "which we don't have access to," Chichibaia said.
The move also is occasioned by a frank recognition that Georgian aircraft would be of little use in a potential conflict with Russia. "We know that in the case of Russian aggression our aircraft have no chance," he said. "Taking into account the forward position of air defense systems on the territory of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it would only be ten minutes after takeoff to shoot down any of our aircraft. And in the case of an unconventional threat, we don't need the Su-25."
That assessment was borne out in the 2008 war with Russia over South Ossetia, when Georgian air attacks, including using the Su-25s, were quickly neutralized by Russia. And one of Georgia's most notable successes in the conflict was that their air defense managed to shoot down three or four Russian Su-25s.
Instead, Georgia will attempt to replace the Su-25's using drones, Chachibaia said. "We're putting the emphasis on unmanned aerial vehicles, which have multiple uses." That's a big step down, as Georgia isn't known to have any armed drones in its arsenal, and even in the best case an armed drone is much less capable than the Su-25.
An S-400 missile defense system in use by Russian armed forces. (photo: mil.ru)
Senior Turkish officials say that Russia is now the leading contender in its seemingly never-ending competition to pick a multi-billion-dollar air defense system. The news will surely come as an annoyance to Turkey's NATO partners, which may be precisely the point, some analysts say.
To review: in 2013, Turkey surprised everyone by choosing a Chinese system for its multibillion dollar T-LORAMIDS air defense program, but after its NATO partners strongly objected, Ankara eventually abandoned the procurement and in 2015 announced that it would instead work on building the system in Turkey.
The crux of the NATO objection to the Chinese pick was that it would expose sensitive alliance data to Beijing. Turkey countered that only China was willing to give Turkey the production information with which it would eventually be able to manufacture the system on its own -- a key demand in Ankara's tender -- and at a much lower cost than western offers, to boot. Analysts generally saw Turkey's gambit as a means of bargaining with its American and European partners so that the latter might sweeten their deals.
Now that story seems set to repeat all over again, this time with Russia instead of China.
"It seems as though Russia is the most suitable candidate for fulfilling the country's need at the moment,'' Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık said on February 22.
The issue will likely be discussed, if not finally decided, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits his counterpart Vladimir Putin in Russia next month.
"The talks are continuing on the S-400," Erdogan's spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin,
The USS Porter transits the Bosphorus out of the Black Sea on February 13 after conducting NATO exercises. (photo: U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams)
NATO countries have agreed to increase the alliance's activities around the Black Sea, including more air and naval patrols of the sea, further increasing pressure in an area Russia considers to be of vital strategic importance.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced the decision at last week's defense ministerial in Brussels. "Today, we agreed on two additional maritime measures: an increased NATO naval presence in the Black Sea for enhanced training, exercises and situational awareness, and a maritime coordination function for our Standing Naval Forces when operating with other Allied forces in the Black Sea region," he said.
Stoltenberg didn't provide any more specific information, but that seems to fall short of what was originally being proposed by Romania: some sort of permanent NATO structure dealing with the Black Sea. Asked for more details, a NATO official told The Bug Pit that the specifics were still being worked out, but thus far the plan involved a greater tempo of air and sea patrols, and expanding the already existing land forces brigade based in Romania:
The Black Sea is key to NATO’s security and in response to Russia’s build-up there, the Alliance is increasing its presence in the region. On land, this presence will be built around a Romanian-led multinational brigade. It will focus on the training and interoperability of allied forces. This year we also plan more air patrols over the Black Sea and NATO’s Standing Naval Forces will be in the Black Sea more frequently for training and port visits. This will increase our situational awareness and contribute to NATO’s overall deterrence posture.
A photo released by the de facto authorities of Nagorno Karabakh of an Azerbaijani Israeli-produced ThunderB drone that Armenian forces shot down during last April's fighting.
Turkmenistan was Turkey's single largest weapons buyer over the past five years, while the arms industries of Belarus and Israel are increasingly dependent on Azerbaijan's business, a new report has shown.
The report, by the arms trade research group Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, also shows that Azerbaijan is one of the world's leading arms importers. And while a large majority of Baku's purchases still come from Russia, its dependence on Moscow is declining.
Azerbaijan was the 21st leading arms importer in the world over the period 2012-2016, according to new data published by SIPRI. Only two countries ahead of Azerbaijan on that list had smaller populations -- Israel and Singapore.
According to SIPRI's data, 69 percent of Azerbaijan's weapons imports come from Russia, with 22 percent from Israel and under four percent from Belarus. That makes Azerbaijan Israel's second-largest arms customer (accounting for 13 percent of its exports) and Belarus's third-most important customer (11 percent of Belarus's exports).
That 69 percent from Russia is a lot, but when SIPRI made similar calculations two years ago, Azerbaijan had bought fully 85 percent of its weapons over the previous five years from Russia.
Most of Russia's sales to Azerbaijan have been for land forces, including armored vehicles, artillery, and anti-tank missiles. From Israel, Azerbaijan has bought a large variety of drones, as well as anti-tank missiles and some naval equipment.
The USS Porter transits the Bosphorus out of the Black Sea on February 13 after conducting exercises and, its commander said, being buzzed by Russian planes. (photo: U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams)
Russian planes buzzed a United States warship in the Black Sea as it was conducting NATO exercises, American officials said. Russian officials denied that they had done anything aggressive but still criticized the presence of U.S. ships in the sea, indicating that U.S.-Russia military tension is continuing even under the U.S.'s new, ostensibly Russia-friendly, leadership.
The incident took place on February 10, the last day of Romania-led naval exercises in the Black Sea. Four separate Russian planes made low passes over the USS Porter, which was participating in the exercise. The ship's commander described the actions as "unsafe and unprofessional," a U.S. military spokesman said.
Russia denied the charges. "All of our flights were conducted and are being conducted over the neutral waters of the Black Sea in accordance with international rules and safety requirements,” Major General Igor Konashenkov said in a statement.
But Konashenkov dropped a little shade on the U.S., as well. “If the U.S. destroyer, as the Pentagon official claims, conducted a 'regular' patrol mission in the vicinity of Russia, tens of thousands miles away from their own shores, it is strange to be surprised about the no less regular flights of our aircraft over the Black Sea,” he said.
The former NATO Central Asia liaison office in Tashkent. (photo: NATO)
Central Asians are more likely to see NATO as a threat rather than as a source of protection, according to a new survey.
The survey, by the American firm Gallup, polled residents of all the ex-Soviet republics except for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. All of the Central Asian states saw NATO as more of a threat than as protection. Tajikistan was the most anti-NATO state, with 34 percent seeing it as a threat and eight percent as protection. Next is Kyrgyzstan, at 19 percent protection and 30 percent threat; then Kazakhstan, 25 percent protection and 31 percent threat.
It's hard to imagine what NATO would possibly threaten in Central Asia. And while it's tempting to attribute this to exposure to Russian narratives about NATO, Tajikistan is the least Russian-speaking of all these countries, and Kazakhstan the most Russian-speaking, so that explanation isn't satisfying. (The Bug Pit is unable to come up with a better one, though.)
Note that NATO closed down its Central Asia liaison office in Tashkent last year, deciding that it would henceforth operate all of its modest cooperation programs in the region from Brussels.
Armenia also had a mostly negative response, with 20 percent saying NATO is a threat and only eight percent as a protection. Armenia's government makes not-insignificant efforts to maintain real cooperation with NATO, in spite of being a member of the NATO rival Collective Security Treaty Organization. But the fact that the only NATO country on Armenia's border is Turkey no doubt colors public opinion on the alliance.
The diplomatic brouhaha over a travel blogger has led to senior officials in Armenia calling for Belarus to be kicked out of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the security alliance to which they both belong.
Alexander Lapshin, the now-notorious Russian-Israeli travel blogger, was extradited from Belarus to Azerbaijan on February 8. He is facing charges in Baku related to his visit to Nagorno Karabakh, a de jure part of Azerbaijan that is de facto controlled by Armenian forces. Azerbaijan considers a visit to Karabakh to be an illegal border crossing.
Demanding Lapshin's extradition was a dramatic step for the relatively minor crime of an illegal border crossing, especially given that both Russia and Israel are two of Azerbaijan's most important partners, and both have strongly objected to the extradition.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev called his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko to personally thank him for the extradition, calling it a "manifestation of the Azerbaijan-Belarus friendship and strategic partnership."
The episode, correspondingly, resulted in outrage in Armenia, including protests at the Belarusian embassy in Yerevan, and there were calls to retaliate against Minsk in various ways, including withdrawing its ambassador and suspending relations. But the most commonly proposed retaliation was to try to kick Belarus out of the CSTO.
The USS Porter transits the Bosphorus Straits on February 2 en route to the Black Sea, where it is conducting joint exercises with NATO. (photo: US Navy, Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams)
NATO is conducting some of its biggest naval exercises ever in the Black Sea, even as a new administration in Washington has cast into doubt how much the United States is interested in confronting Russia.
The latest round of exercises, Sea Shield 2017, started February 1 and are scheduled to last until February 10. The exercises will include eight ships from Romania, two from Turkey, and one each from Bulgaria, Canada, Spain, and the U.S.
The drills are aimed at "demonstrating our continued commitment to security and stability in the region," said Commander Andria Slough, commanding officer of the USS Porter, the American ship in the exercises. "Our upcoming operations are meant to help us improve interoperability, sharing of information and experiences, and the ability to work together toward peace and prosperity."
That's pretty standard stuff for the past few years, since Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea prompted the U.S. and NATO to significantly step up their naval presence in the Black Sea. This is the third iteration of Sea Shield since the exercise started in 2015, and has been accompanied by a number of other such drills.