Yuri Khachaturov, the new secretary general of the CSTO. (photo: CSTO)
After a delay of more than a year, the Russia-led post-Soviet security bloc has appointed a new secretary general, a former senior Armenian military official. But whether this will tilt the organization towards Yerevan's interests remains to be seen.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization has announced that its new head will be Yuri Khachaturov, who served as chief of general staff of Armenia's armed forces from 2008-2016. The appointment ends a long saga that began in 2015 when the CSTO announced that the only secretary general it's ever had, Russian KGB officer Nikolay Bordyuzha, would step down and be replaced by an Armenian, following (they said) alphabetical order. (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan are the other member states.)
But that was followed by a long series of delays, including the withdrawal of the apparent first choice to replace Bordyuzha, former defense minister Seyran Ohanian, as well as apparent passive-aggressive efforts by Kazakhstan and Belarus -- possibly under the influence of Azerbaijan -- to block the appointment of an Armenian.
A U.S. warship launches Tomahawk missiles against targets in Syria on April 7. The strikes have been seen in the Caucasus as a sign of the Trump administration's resolve to stand up to Russia. (photo: U.S. Department of Defense)
The United States missile strikes on Syria have gladdened pro-Western hearts among in the Caucasus, where they have been seen as a sign that the new Trump administration is willing to act tough against Russia.
“I think what happened April 7 in Syria, the launching of the Tomahawk missiles, changed the situation very dramatically," said David Shahnazaryan, a senior analyst at the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center and a former senior Armenian security official. "The Kremlin now must be much more careful. Maybe this will slow down, a little bit, the possibility of another war" in the Caucasus, he said.
Shahnazaryan was speaking at the South Caucasus Security Forum, held April 20-21 in Tbilisi, a gathering of Atlanticist foreign policy wonks from around the region. The uncertain foreign policy of the Trump administration was, naturally, a running theme throughout the event. And if there had been any worries that Trump might be soft on Russia, the Syrian missile strikes appear to have dispelled them.
“We saw how lost and how frightened Russians were" after the strikes, said Nodar Kharshiladze, the founder of the Georgian Strategic Analysis Centre and a former deputy minister of both defense and internal affairs. "Yes, they [the Russians] will come up with something nasty, but the initial reaction, they were very confused, they simply didn't know what to do. That shows that, when it's done properly, deterrence works very well. They recognize force when they see it, and they recognize weakness when they see it.”
Another speaker, former Georgian ambassador to Washington Batu Kutelia, even saw traces of legendary cold warrior Ronald Reagan in Trump's emerging foreign policy. (This is high praise in Tbilisi, which features the only statue to Reagan in the former Soviet Union.)
Sailors from Kazakhstan and Iran at a welcoming event for a flotilla of Iranian warships to Kazakhstan. (Photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Iran's navy has made its first formal visit to Kazakhstan as Tehran continues to slowly build military ties with its Caspian neighbors.
Two Iranian warships, the destroyer Damavand and corvette Paykan, berthed at Kazakhstan's Caspian port of Aktau on April 12. It is the Iranian navy's first such visit to Kazakhstan, and follows 2015's first-ever visit to Azerbaijan. Iranian warships have made at least three visits to Russia's Caspian coast, the first in 2013 and the most recent in March.
In Aktau, the Iranians were greeted by the rocket-artillery ship Saryarka; the two sides will exchange visits to one another's ships and take part in some sort of joint exercise.
"The aim of the visit is the establishment of cooperation between the navies of the two countries, the role of which is significantly rising amid the need to ensure regional security, in particular in the Caspian Sea," the Kazakhstan Ministry of Defense said in a statement.
"The Iranian Navy's flotilla ... is slated to convey Iran's message of peace and friendship to Kazakhstan," Iran's Fars News Agency reported.
The area around the Emba missile test site in Kazakhstan, which Kazakhstan is taking over from the Russian military. (image: Google Maps)
Kazakhstan has shut down another Russian military testing site, as it steadily removes Moscow's Soviet-legacy military footprint.
On April 5, President Nursultan Nazarbayev ratified an agreement to take over the Emba missile testing site, in the Aktobe region of western Kazakhstan, from Russia.
When the agreement was first signed in October, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoliy Antonov presented it as just a bit of housekeeping: "After all, the weapons and equipment that are tested at these facilities, protect not only Russia, but Kazakhstan as well," he said. He described the move as an "optimization" of the use of Kazakhstan's land by the Russian military.
But there is an unmistakeable trend: in 2015 Kazakhstan got Russia to hand over another missile testing site in western Kazakhstan, Taysogan; in 2014 it got Russia to agree to the joint usage of another site, Balkhash, which had previously only been used by Russia. Astana also has gotten Moscow to cede more control over the Baikonur space launch facility. Russia now operates only three test facilities in Kazakhstan.
At a Kazakhstan parliamentary hearing last year, MPs complained that Russia was paying a pittance for the use of the various test sites it operates, about $24 million.
"I think that price is very low," MP Kuanysh Aitakhanov said at the time. "In theory, it should be no less than the price of the land that Kazakhs use for agriculture. Farmers pay 2,000 tenge per hectare to rent a plot, while Russia just 424 tenge. How is that possible? After all, in the current crisis Kazakhstan could be getting tens of billions in profit for this rent."
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.