Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov meet in Iran on November 23. (photo: kremlin.ru)
The disruption of air traffic over the Caspian Sea is a sacrifice necessary for the sake of fighting terrorism, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said.
Russia's launch of cruise missiles from warships in the Caspian against targets in Syria prompted several airlines, including Kazakhstan's flag carrier Air Astana, to suspend flights over the sea in mid-October. Last week, Russia launched another salvo of missiles from the Caspian to Syria.
Putin's recent comments came during a meeting with Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov at a gas conference in Iran. It was raised in a curious fashion: Berdymukhammedov brought it up and said it was something that worried Kazakhstan, without mentioning what his own opinion might be.
"Our Kazakh colleagues are very worried about what is happening above the Caspian Sea," Berdymukhammedov said, according to a Kremlin transcript. This is connected with military issues. So the issue has arisen connected with international civilian air traffic, should traffic be altered, the flight level. I don't know if you are aware of this issue, but our Kazakh colleauges are very concernd about this."
Putin's answer was basically: we're the ones fighting terrorism on everyone's behalf, so don't complain about these kinds of inconveniences.
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.
Residents of Tajikistan's southern city of Kulyab are lamenting the imminent departure of the Russian military presence there, which is slated to move to the capital, Dushanbe in two months.
News of the base closure broke last week, after which it emerged that the Russian soldiers in Kulyab would be moving to other facilities within Tajikistan and that the Kulyab facility would be handed over to the government of Tajikistan.
"The redeployment was agreed with the Ministry of Defense of Tajikistan and is going according to plan. It is in the interests of increasing the military readiness and the growth of the military potential of the units," said Yaroslav Roshchupkin, a spokesman for Russia's Central Military District, reported RIA Novosti. "The military base in Kulyab will be handed over to the jurisdiction of the government organs of Tajikistan."
The overall size of the Russian military presence in Tajikistan won't change, Roshchupkin added. "Of the three Russian military objects in the region, two will remain -- the Kurgan-Tyube motor rifle regiment and the 'Okno' optical-electrionic structure of the Russian Aerospace Defense Forces."
But that didn't really answer the question of why the move was being made. It's particularly curious given the amount of attention Russia has been paying to the purported threat of radical Islamists militants spilling over from Afghanistan into Central Asia. Kulyab is only about 40 kilometers from the Afghan border, and as such would seem to be ideally placed to protect against that spillover threat.
Screenshot of Russian MoD-produced video of launch of Kalibr rocket from the Caspian Sea against targets in Syria on November 20.
Russia has launched another salvo of missiles at Syrian targets from the Caspian Sea, the Russian Ministry of Defense has announced.
"On November 20, the Caspian Flotilla warships launched 18 cruise missiles at seven targets in the Raqqa, Idlib and Aleppo provinces of Syria. All the targets were hit," said Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu in an update given Friday on Russian military operations in Syria. In addition, 29 long-range bomber aircraft from the Caspian Sea (it wasn't specified where precisely) have carried out strikes in Syria.
This was the second cruise missile attack from the Caspian, after the pioneering strike of October 7 in which Russia brought the Caspian region into the Syria conflict, at the same time demonstrating its military dominance over the sea.
The hardware was the same this time around, Kalibr rockets fired from the Dagestan missile carrier ship and the Uglich, Grad Sviyazhsk and Veliky Ustyug missile boats.
"The task of delivering Kalibr long-distance cruise missile strikes at Islamic State targets in Syria has been accomplished," said Sergey Yekimov, a deputy commander of the Caspian Fleet. "All 18 Kalibr missiles have been successfully fired. Results will be reported after objective control data are received."
Tajikistan’s Asia-Plus news website is reporting that Russian troops are pulling out of their base in the southern city of Kulyab in an unexpected and, so far, unexplained development.
The website based its report on November 18 on an official order from Russian military command obtained by local residents with ties to the base.
“We inform you that in connection with a [Russian Central Military District] directive, this military facility is being relocated as of October 15, 2015. The relocation will be completed within two months of receipt of this directive,” reads the summons, as reproduced by Asia-Plus.
No details are provided about where the garrison is to be relocated.
Kulyab is one of the three cities in Tajikistan where the Russian 201st Motor Rifle Division is deployed — the others are Dushanbe and Kurgan-Tyube.
Russian troops numbers in the country are estimated to stand at around between 6,000 and 7,000.
The presence of the base in Kulyab provokes mixed feelings. While adding to the local economy, the military presence has also been at the root of much scandal in recent years.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported in July on an incident of drunken Russian soldiers going on the rampage in Kulyab and getting into a mass brawl with some local men.
In an earlier incident in February, a Russian officer was charged with grievously assaulting a waiter in Kulyab, RFE/RL reported.
And although the base is a valuable economic input, even that aspect has on occasion fallen short of people’s expectations.
About 4,500 Islamist militants are operating in northern Afghanistan near the borders of Central Asia, and are planning to create an "emirate" consisting of much of the territory of the region, Russian officials have said.
"According to the information we have, in that area groups of militants are moving toward the border of the [former Soviet Union], in particular to the borders of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan," said Alexander Manilov, coordinator of the Commonwealth of Independent States border guard services, at a meeting on Thursday of the group in Astana. (The CIS is an organization of post-Soviet states.)
"Therefore one of our tasks today is to discuss how to liquidate these threats on the border and that they don't cross into the CIS countries," he said. "According to estimates about the Afghan border, around 4,500 militants, terrorists, are located in the Afghan territories bordering immediately on the CIS countries."
"I believe this is significantly more than it used to be before," Manilov added. "I think there are real threats - from penetrations across the border to attempts to destabilize the states on the [Afghan] border."
Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court have identified Georgian military units trained by the United States as being suspected of war crimes, possibly jeopardizing future American aid to those units.
Last month, the ICC prosecutor's office formally requested the authority to start investigations into war crimes in the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia over the disputed territory of South Ossetia. According to the prosecutor's initial report, Georgian and Russian military forces, as well as units of the de facto South Ossetian security forces, all were implicated in war crimes.
In the Georgian case, the crimes involved attacks on Russian units of the Joint Peacekeeping Forces under the Sochi agreement between Georgia and Russia, which formally ended the conflict. Intentionally attacking peacekeepers is a war crime under the Rome Statute, under which the ICC operates. From the ICC report:
During the night from 7 to 8 August 2008 the Georgian armed forces conducted a military operation against JPKF HQ and the base of the Russian Peacekeeping Forces Battalion (RUPKFB) claiming that it had lost its protected status. According to the Russian authorities, 10 peacekeepers belonging to the Russian peacekeeping contingent were killed and a further 30 were wounded as a result.
A spokesman for a key security body in Tajikistan has wandered off the script on Afghanistan by scoffing at claims there is a build-up of Islamic State militants beyond the country's southern border.
Muhammad Ulugkhodzhayev, spokesman for the security services Main Border Troops Directorate, told Avesta website on November 5 that the rumors of fighters with the terrorist organization converging in northern Afghanistan were “far from truthful.”
Seeking to downplay another oft-aired scare scenario, Ulugkhodzhayev said there has not to date been a single attempt by militants from either Islamic State or the Taliban to make an incursion into Tajikistan.
The more thoughtful observers of the region have indeed long questioned whether the Taliban in particular would have any tactical, strategic or ideological interest in venturing into the former Soviet states along Afghanistan’s border.
Ulugkhodzhayev said that defenses on the country’s border were as normal.
Officials in Tajikistan, from the president downward, have tended to speak out of both sides of their mouths on the thorny issue of security. On one hand, they seek to cast themselves as the frontline against Islamic radicalism, thereby buying themselves diplomatic leverage with international partners, but at the same time they insist Tajikistan’s security forces are more than capable of dealing with any challenges that present themselves.
Iran's Damavand frigate, which made its first visit to Russia, but skipped a planned trip to Baku without explanation. (photo: MoD Iran)
Iran's navy appears to have quietly scrapped plans to make its first-ever visit to Azerbaijan.
Iranian officials announced earlier this month that a three-ship contingent from their Caspian fleet would be visiting Baku after a stop in Astrakhan for joint exercises with Russia's Caspian Flotilla. The stop in Russia seems to have gone as planned, but on Friday Iranian military officials announced that the ships had returned home to Iran, with no mention of the previous Azerbaijani plans.
"The Iranian fleet of warships comprising Joshan (Shield) and Peykan (Arrow) warships and the hi-tech Damavand destroyer which embarked on a 12-day voyage in the Caspian Sea on October 18 and after conducting joint naval drills with the Russian Navy and berthing at Russia's Astrakhan port returned home today," Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari told the Fars news agency. (It's worth noting that the tour was originally said to be 14 days.)
So what happened to Baku? Although the planned visit was reported in the Azerbaijani media at the start of the trip, there seems to have been no mention since then about the visit or that it had been canceled.