A former Soviet submarine base at Balaclava in Crimea. (photo: The Bug Pit)
Russia's Black Sea Fleet base in Sevastopol has long been Moscow's top strategic priority in Crimea. So did the base play a role in Russia's decision to intervene in Crimea?
In 2010, just a couple of months after taking office, then-President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych extended Russia's lease of the Sevastopol base until 2042. And in December 2013, when Russia agreed to a big economic aid package for Ukraine following Yanukovych's decision to drop negotiations with the European Union, Yanukovych appeared poised to accept a long-time Russian demand, that Ukraine drop restrictions on Russia expanding the size and power of the fleet. Russian military expert Dmitry Gorenburg told The Bug Pit at the time that the move was "potentially very significant" and that an agreement "would probably create an environment where subsequent presidents wouldn't be able to prevent replacement."
Yanukovych's acquiescence stood in contrast to that of his pro-Western predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, who had been reluctant to extend the base agreement (which had been valid until 2017), So Russian President Vladimir Putin no doubt was concerned that the new pro-Western authorities who ousted Yanukovych would be less accommodating to the base.
The Russian drone and helicopter came whizzing in from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, respectively, and hovered over nearby Georgian police posts and villages, the foreign ministry reported. Tbilisi described the act as another violation of Georgia’s sovereignty and the 2008 ceasefire agreement with Russia.
In a March 7 TV appearance, though, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili tried to allay mounting fears over Russian pressure; even though he himself has repeatedly told the public to expect such tactics as Georgia prepares to sign an association agreement and free-trade deal with the European Union this year.
“I’d like to ask everyone… not to overstate the threats expected from Russia,” Garibashvili said in an interview with Georgian Public Television. “We know what these threats are, but I have heard . . . exaggerated forecasts and I don’t think it is right. We don’t have to stress people too much.”
With the crisis in Ukraine showing no sign of abating, the U.S.'s ties with Russia are at their lowest level since the Cold War. But some in the U.S. military are apparently advocating restraint in dealing with Russia for the sake of Afghanistan military logistics. That's according to a piece in the Christian Science Monitor, which quotes U.S. military officials discussing the potential impact of political problems with Russia on the transit to Afghanistan.
The U.S.'s military transit route through Russia and Central Asia to Afghanistan, the Northern Distribution Network, has been a key backup to the shorter, cheaper land routes via Pakistan. For a variety of reasons, the NDN has become a much less busy route over the last year or so. There have been various figures given for the percentage of cargo now transiting Russia from Afghanistan (including as little as less than one percent). But even at a small volume, the NDN plays an important role:
As the US military prepares to draw down in Afghanistan, the NDN – through which some five percent of US military materials are currently being moved out of the country – likely will continue to grow in importance, particularly if President Obama pursues a “zero option” and pulls all US troops from the war by the end of the year.
“That’s why we want to keep the NDN open,” [a] senior defense official says. “We can surge more material up and out through the network if we need to do that.”
However, Russia maintains a financial interest in keeping the NDN going, even despite political problems:
In a time of economic uncertainty, the NDN offers Russia a considerable source of income, in the neighborhood of $1 billion a year.
A Russian soldier launches a "Leer" drone. (photo: Russian Ministry of Defense)
Russian troops in Tajikistan have received surveillance drones designed for "terrain reconnaissance and detection of radioactivity," the Russian military has announced. "The UAVs have substantially raised the military capability of the units carrying out the surveillance mission during day and night," the report said. The UAVs in question are the "Granat," "Zastava," and "Leer." All are relatively small -- the Granat and Zastava are portable. And the Leer is apparently especially designed for "detecting radiation, creating interference for radio signals and suppressing specific frequencies."
It's not clear what radiation threat there may be in Tajikistan, but the small surveillance drones would be consistent with Russia's stated mission of trying to stop the spillover of militants from Afghanistan into Tajikistan. It's also possible that the drones are just for show. As regional security expert Mark Galeotti wrote in a recent analysis in openDemocracy, Russia's belated enthusiasm for drones is partly for show: "Of course, this is the age of the drone, and Moscow must be wanting to achieve parity with its rivals... [I]n 2012, Putin acknowledged that ‘unpiloted aircraft are being used more and more actively in armed conflicts; and I must say, they are being used effectively’ and so ‘we need the full line, including automated strike aircraft, reconnaissance drones and other systems… It is imperative to involve best engineering and science bureaus and centres in this effort.'" But Galeotti notes that Russia is far behind other countries like the U.S. -- by as much as two decades -- and is fast trying to catch up.
Ukraine's post-Soviet neighbors have been closely watching the events in Kiev -- in particular, to see how Russia responds. The spark for the protests was an unusually geopolitical one, President Viktor Yanukovych's abrupt decision to slow down negotiations with the European Union in favor of the Russia-led Customs Union. The "loss" of Ukraine, from the Kremlin's perspective, would be a huge blow to Vladimir Putin's dream of post-Soviet integration, as exemplified by the Customs Union, the Eurasian Union, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. So how might Russia's policies toward the other countries in its orbit change as a result of what happened in Ukraine?
Putin sees the events in Ukraine as the result of destabilization (albeit possibly accidentally) by the West, writes Fyodor Lyukanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs in a trenchant analysis of how the Kremlin is likely looking at the situation in Kiev:
In his view, unrest must be suppressed before it turns into a huge fire. Unrest produces nothing but chaos. A weak state drives itself into a trap. Once a state falters, external forces will charge through the breach and start shattering it until it falls. The West is destructive. It is either unable to understand the complexity of the situation and acts in a primitive way, designating "good" and "bad" players, or it deliberately destroys undesirable systems. The result is always the same - things get worse. The desire to limit Russian influence and hinder Moscow's initiatives is the invariable imperative of the Western policy.
The Kremlin wheeled out its soft power machine this week to make the pitch for Kyrgyzstan to join its Customs Union trade bloc. But if a recent talk by Kremlin evangelists at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek was anything to go by, the machine could use some grease.
The main speaker at the February 19 event was Semyon Uralov, editor of a website close to United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party. While Putin has tried to assure potential members that the Customs Union – Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia – is not a Soviet Union redux, Uralov seemed to do the opposite. Quoting Engels, Marx and Lenin during a forthright speech in which he extolled the virtues of state-sponsored industry, Uralov responded to a complaint about his tone: “I don’t hide it. I am an imperialist.”
And like Customs Union officials, he did little to address economic questions.
Moral and social degradation was a key theme in Uralov’s presentation. He described seeing people bribe a customs official at Bishkek’s airport for the privilege of flouting the building’s non-smoking policy. “Now tell me,” Uralov asked, “would it be possible to reach that kind of an agreement with a Belarusian customs official? A Russian customs official?” The assembled students murmured that it probably would be. “Well, clearly not for 20-30 soms [40 to 60 cents],” Uralov retorted. (Curiously, Belarus, with its highly inefficient command economy centered on manufacturing stood as something of a role model for the Russia-born, Ukraine-educated Uralov. In Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index, Belarus ranks 123th, Russia 127th and Kyrgyzstan 150th out of 177 countries.)
The USS Mount Whitney passes through the Bosphorus en route to the Black Sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Collin Turner.)
Two U.S. warships have entered the Black Sea in preparation for the Winter Olympics, kicking off Friday night in Sochi, Russia. The USS Mount Whitney passed through the Bosphorus into the Black Sea on February 4, and was followed the day after by the USS Taylor. The official announcement of the deployment from U.S. European Command did not mention Sochi: "Both ships will perform routine operations in the Black Sea to establish and enhance cooperation, mutual training and interoperability with regional partner nations and allies."
But it's clear that the visits to the Black Sea are timed for Sochi. The website Black Sea News reported that on February 6 the Mount Whitney reached a point about 20 miles off the coast of Sochi and began patrolling. The Mount Whitney is primarily a command-and-control ship, and Daniel Goure, a Washington-based defense analyst, told Military.com that "the communications assets of the USS Mount Whitney and the helicopter landing ability of both ships could provide a lily-pad type of presence in the event of crisis. 'You could deploy something off of the back of these ships if you had to operate,' he added. 'You also have command and control if you had to communicate with the Russian Navy and Coast Guard.'"
Russia's new political-military bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, has been widely criticized for its inaction in the face of real threats to security in the region that it covers, most recently when fighting broke out between CSTO member states Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. But it's rare that the organization has had to explain itself: it operates, for the most part, in countries where the press doesn't often challenge authority figures. But when Yevgeniy Denisenko of Kyrgyzstan newspaper Vecherniy Bishkek interviewed the CSTO's secretary general, Nikolay Bordyuzha, he actually asked the question that outside observers of the organization have been asking:
Denisenko: However, threats to stability in the CSTO do not come only from outside, but from inside, too. It is sufficient to recall the events in the Kazakh town of Zhanaozen [the riots of December 2011], the conflict on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border [in 2010] and the current incident involving the use of weapons on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. Does it not seem to you that concentrating on foreign dangers, the CSTO is underestimating the internal risks?
Bordyuzha: There are questions that should be solved bilaterally. The Kyrgyz-Tajik incident is one of them. That was a border incident and no-one except these two states themselves and those responsible for the demarcation and delimitation of the border, can solve this question. It is another matter that the CSTO can act as a mediator, which is what we are doing. This role involves providing the platform for a deeper discussion of the problems that have emerged.
Denisenko: However, in this case we are talking about colleague countries, CSTO members.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is concerned about the possibility of the American military conducting intelligence operations in Kyrgyzstan and will bring up the issue with his Kyrgyzstani counterpart Almazbek Atambayev when the two meet at Sochi during the Olympics. That's according to Russian diplomatic and military stories quoted in a story in Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta which provides a useful report what Moscow is thinking these days about Central Asian security.
Atambayev, having managed the U.S.'s withdrawal from the Manas military base, still leaves on the territory of the country a large-scale foreign military aviation presence, including American (and their allies). Concern has been expressed by experts about the possibility of conducting military surveillance with them. But Russia, of course, has no need for that. Evidently Putin, in his conversations with his Kyrgyzstan colleague, will touch on this problem. Russia has contributed too much to strengthening regional security for its interests not to be considered,
The piece also mentions the billion-plus dollars in military aid that Russia has promised Kyrgyzstan, and complains that "for Kyrgyzstan that's a lot, but the leadership of the republic, it appears, is trying to sit on two chairs" [that is, the U.S. and Russia].
Russia has agreed to give Kazakhstan S-300 air defense systems, as well as to share a Russian missile-testing range in the country with Kazakhstani troops, the two countries' defense ministers announced.
The S-300 gift had been announced some time ago, but nothing had been said about it for years, leading to speculation that Russia had rescinded the offer. But on a visit to Astana on January 31, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said that Moscow would deliver five "divisions" of S-300PS (consisting of 12 units per division) this year.