President-elect Donald Trump's nominees for his top foreign policy, defense, and intelligence posts testified before Congress this week, and expressed hardline positions on Russia that contrast markedly with their boss's more ambiguous opinions.
Trump's views on Russia, NATO, and associated issues have received substantial scrutiny, given that they are fairly far from the mainstream in Washington. But other than a personal admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a skepticism -- supposedly rooted in his busisnessman's dealmaking instincts -- of the U.S.'s alliances, Trump hasn't been very detailed about what he will actually do when in power.
So the Senate confirmation hearings for Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, and Mike Pompeo -- to head the State Department, Pentagon, and CIA, respectively -- were highly anticipated events, as senators can grill Trump's lieutenants in detail about the administration's foreign policy direction.
And what emerged was that their opinions on Russia and its neighborhood are far more conventional than their boss's. All described Russia as a threat rather than as a partner (as Trump has), expressed trust in the U.S.'s allies (Trump has suggested they weigh the U.S. down), and said they took seriously allegations that Russia meddled in the presidential elections (Trump has repeatedly played down the accusations).
Of particular interest was Tillerson's testimony: as CEO of Exxon/Mobil he had done substantial business in Russia, worked personally with Putin, and got the Order of Friendship award from Russia. All that made many in the U.S. and Russia suspect that he may be a pro-Russia voice in the administration.
Travel-blogger Alexander Lapshin’s irreverent reviews have left him in the doghouse before, but it was an alleged trip to separatist Nagorno Karabakh that really landed him in hot water. The Israeli-Russian blogger was detained in Belarus almost a month ago, and now, reportedly, is about to get extradited to Azerbaijan for supposedly trespassing on what Baku sees as Azerbaijani territory and supporting Karabakhi independence.
The case appears to mark the first time that a foreign national has been detained outside of Azerbaijan on such grounds.
A bout of camaraderie between two mustachioed strongmen, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, appears to have entrapped the blogger. Cooperation has been tightening recently between the two, who share a propensity for never-ending presidential terms and a dislike of critical, independent media.
To be sure, Lapshin is no freedom-fighter, like many of those who have been jailed in Belarus and Azerbaijan. Catering to Russian-speaking audiences, his Livejournal blog Puerrtto details his travels to 122 countries and territories. He has been doing mostly what travel writers do: posting photographs of landmarks and dishes, complaining about bureaucracy and bad driving, but also throwing in an occasional coarse word.
One rubric, billed as the author’s quarrels and lawsuits “with just about everyone in the world,” features Lapshin’s jeremiads about impediments to international travel. There are entries that blast Uzbekistan for requiring its citizens to get exit visas to leave the country, criticize Israel for supposedly over-zealous border guards and offer tips on how to conceal visits to Israel from select Arab countries.
The exodus of Tajikistan’s best minds has reached record levels, according to figures coming out of Russia.
In 2016, 14,000 Tajik family units filed residency applications withs Russia’s Interior Ministry under a state resettlement program designed for former citizens of the Soviet Union.
The number of applications marks a notable increase from 13,000 in 2015 and 10,000 in 2014.
Of those, in 2015, 1,200 families received residence permits, and that figure rose to 1,850 in 2016.
The Russian Interior Ministry’s representative for migration affairs in Tajikistan, Vladislav Makarevich, noted that preference is given to highly qualified applicants.
“First of all education and work experience are considered. Almost everybody who takes part in the program has higher or at least basic education. We are talking about medics, teachers, accountants, entrepreneurs,” Makarevich told Asia-Plus website.
Among all former Soviet nations, Tajikistan generates the greatest number of applications to relocate to Russia.
Russia’s gain naturally translates into Tajikistan’s loss, which continues in a climate of enduring economic stagnation to struggle in holding onto its qualified workforce.
Once families decided to relocate, the move is typically permanent.
The number of Tajik citizens that has received Russian citizenship in the past two deacdes is by some estimates placed at anywhere between 300,000 and 500,000. Arriving at an exact number is complicated by the fact that some people move to Russia for work and only apply for citizenship for several years after residing there.
The gate at Tajikistan's Ayni air base. (photo: The Bug Pit)
Russia is seeking to expand its military presence in Tajikistan by renting the Ayni airbase, Moscow's ambassador to Dushanbe has said.
Tajikistan already hosts the 201st military base, Russia's largest base outside its borders, but the base "needs an air component," said Igor Lyakin-Frolov at a December 27 news conference in Dushanbe. Russia is currently in talks with Tajikistan about the base, which lies on the outskirts of Dushanbe, Lyakin-Frolov added.
Russian media reported in 2013 that Moscow had started negotiations with Dushanbe over the base. "Signing of an additional agreement on the Ayni air force base, which Moscow also intends to rent and to consider part of the 201st military base, is expected," Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported at the time, citing unnamed officials, though that apparently went nowhere. That Lyakin-Frolov said this on the record gives it a bit more credibility, but the recent history of Ayni has featured a lot of disappointed expectations.
In the 2000s India renovated the base at a cost of $70 million, obviously intending to use it themselves, but that never came to pass, as by 2010 Russia had apparently thwarted India's designs. The Indian press still consistently promotes Ayni as India's military foothold in Central Asia, though Delhi officially seems to have given up.
Heads of state of CSTO member countries meet at a summit in St. Petersburg. There was a bit more room at the table than planned as Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko skipped the event. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Dissension among the nominal allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led post-Soviet security bloc, continued to deepen at this week's summit, where Belarus was conspicuously absent and accusations were raised of a conspiracy against Armenia.
The CSTO summit was held in St. Petersburg on December 26, and the big news was that Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko was absent. Lukashenko gave no public explanation for his absence though Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitriy Peskov, played it down saying that "our Belarussian colleagues warned us that Lukashenko may not be able to take part in the summit."
There were two potential explanations for Lukashenko's move, not necessarily mutually exclusive. One was that it had to do with Russia-Belarus bilateral relations, and that this was just the latest expression of Lukashenko's discomfort with Russia's tight embrace. "This move seems to be yet another caprice by the Belarusian leader, demonstrating his attitude toward the integration projects that Russia is trying to create in the post-Soviet space," said Bogdan Bezpalko, the deputy head of the Center for Ukrainian and Belarusian studies at Moscow State University. (The CSTO summit was held concurrently with one of the Eurasian Economic Union, the Russia-led economic bloc; the rosters of the two organizations substantially overlap.)
With the New Year holidays approaching, Russia and Tajikistan have decided to engage in a fresh round of battle of flight bans.
The dispute is sowing deep uncertainty among passengers and affecting those most vulnerable, the Tajik migrant laborers upon whom Tajikistan’s economy strongly depends.
The first to be hit by the new bans were the passengers expecting to fly on December 23 on Somoni Air from the Russian city of Orenburg after aviation authorities in Russia stopped the company from operating in its skies. Somoni Air is now barred from flying at another four Russian cities.
The history of the dispute dates back to early November. Dushanbe fired the first salvo by refusing to give clearance to flights arriving from the Moscow region airport of Zhukovo, to which Russia reacted by threatening a complete halt to all flights to Tajikistan.
A Tajik delegation travel to Moscow on November 7 and managed after some panicked negotiations to reach a workable compromise and avert the embargo.
Trouble resumed on December 21, when Russia again threatened to close its airspace to Tajik airlines if Dushanbe would not agree to admit flights from Yamal Airlines, a company based in the northern Siberian town of Salekhard. More than 100 tickets had been sold for this route.
But Tajikistan’s Transportation Ministry said that during the November negotiations, Tajikistan agreed only to flights for Ural Airlines and Tajik Air, and that there was no mention of Yamal Airlines.
The Transportation Ministry noted that Yamal had no right to sell tickets without receiving a permit from the the government.
The Iron Dome air defense system in action in Israel. (photo: Israeli Defense Forces)
Azerbaijan has reached a deal with Israel to buy the Iron Dome air defense system, a senior Azerbaijani government official has announced. But questions remain over how useful the celebrated system really is for Azerbaijan and whether it would be worth the cost.
Over the last couple of months, there have been a number of reports that a deal like this was in the works, and last month this blog featured a post on how those reports probably weren't true. There are technical reasons that the Iron Dome won't do what Azerbaijan wants. And the state-of-the-art system would be a budget buster for Azerbaijan, which has been forced by falling oil prices to slash expenditures, not least on the military.
But on December 17, the Minister of Defense Industry Yaver Jamalov gave a press conference and announced that the deal had been made. "The Azerbaijani Defense Industry Ministry and the relevant Israeli body have reached the agreement on procurement of the Israeli Iron Dome air defense system," Jamalov said.
Soldiers from Kazakhstan take part in the opening ceremony of "Cooperation-2016," the CSTO military exercises taking part near the borders of Estonia and Latvia. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Russia will try to enlist its post-Soviet allies in shoring up its western border against NATO, a senior security official has said. Those allies, however, have shown little interest in getting dragged into Russia's fight with the West, setting the stage for a rupture between Moscow and its ostensible partners.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led military alliance, will discuss how to respond to NATO's buildup in Eastern Europe at its next summit, scheduled for December 26. That's according to Nikolay Bordyuzha, the CSTO's general secretary, in an interview with Russian newspaper Izvestiya.
"We should understand precisely what is happening around our borders, why NATO is bringing in weapons, creating infrastructure," Boryuzha said. "It's transferring an additional four battalions [toward Russia's borders], why are they doing this? And how is the security situation changing in general? How to react, so as to not be too late... This is what the conversation will be about. We shouldn't be quiet and do nothing, seeing how the countries around us are crammed with weapons, units are being deployed."
It's not clear what response Bordyuzha had in mind, as he said it would not entail a military buildup. "We have sufficient forces," he said.
It's also not possible to tell how out of context these statements are, and how high a priority NATO will in fact be for the CSTO. But it's also perhaps telling that on the same day that Bordyuzha's interview was published, the CSTO's own website republished another article from a Russian news website -- a rare thing to see on the CSTO site -- headlined "Is the CSTO Turning Into a NATO Opponent?"
The defense ministers of Russia and Tajikistan, Sergey Shoigu and Sherali Mirzo, respectively, sign a military aid agreement in Moscow. (photo: mil.ru)
Russia has promised a "large quantity" of military aircraft to Tajikistan over the next year. The aid is part of a deal that the two countries signed in 2012, but which has taken on more urgency since Moscow began worrying about China's military/diplomatic advances in Tajikistan.
The deal was announced on November 30 at a meeting of defense ministers of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow.
“Next year the key phase of our military-technical cooperation will begin, the delivery of weaponry and military equipment,” said Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said after a meeting with his Tajikistan counterpart, Sherali Mirzo. “In particular, this is a large quantity of aviation equipment, airplanes and helicopters. I think this will be implemented according to plan and on schedule.”
Shoigu didn't provide any additional information about the aircraft. On December 2, the newspaper Asia Plus, citing an unnamed Tajikistan defense ministry source, said that all of the equipment would be new, not used. And it wouldn't be only aircraft. “The forthcoming Russia’s armament supplies to Tajikistan will include a large number of aviation equipment, including combat aircraft, as well as armored vehicles and communication means,” the source said.
A man in northern Kazakhstan has reportedly been sentenced to 5 1/2 years in jail after he called for part of the country to break away and become part of Russia.
Russian news agency Sputnik reported on December 5 that a court in the North Kazakhstan Region ruled that Igor Chuprina had violated two laws — one on disseminating propaganda undermining the country’s territorial unity and another on inciting interethnic hatred through his social media posting.
The trial underlines the enduring anxiety provoked in Astana by the roiling conflict in Ukraine, whose government remains mired in a war with Russian-backed militias in the east of the country seeking independence or possible unification with Russia. Northern Kazakhstan has a substantial ethnic Russian minority.
The court in Petropavlovsk found that in September 2014, Chuprina used his cellphone to log into social media website VKontakte, a Russian analogue of Facebook, and posted disparaging posts about Kazakh people. The posts reportedly lasted until May 2015..
The messages “provoked negative reactions and social tension, and fueled conflict and the emergence of a type of anti-constitutional civil and political conduct, expressed as incitement to ethnic hatred, and also constituted a potential for compromising the [territorial] integrity of the Republic of Kazakhstan,” the court ruling noted, according to Sputnik’s report.
Those responding to Chuprina’s thread on the VKontakte page are also being investigated, Sputnik reported.