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.)
Security services in Russia have detained another native of Kyrgyzstan in connection with the bombing of the St. Petersburg metro train that claimed 15 lives.
Russian news outlets have cited officials as saying Arbor Azimov is suspected of being one of the masterminds behind the April 3 attack. A representative of the Investigative Committee, Svetlana Petrenko, has said that Azimov’s suspected role in the bombing is not yet clear, however.
A video posted online on April 17 shows a squad of Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, officers pouncing on Azimov near a railway underpass in the Odintsovo district outside Moscow and then carting him away in handcuffs. In the video, Azimov is seen to have a Makarov handgun tucked into the back of his jeans.
A few details have already emerged about Azimov’s background. He is an ethnic Uzbek born in 1990 in the southern city of Jalal-Abad, but moved to Russia some years ago and renounced his Kyrgyz citizenship. Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev’s office issued a statement on April 18 to say that Azimov’s Kyrgyz citizenship was revoked in 2013.
In 2016, Azimov reportedly flew twice to Turkey on a Russian passport — once in March, when he spent three days in Istanbul, and again in October. St. Petersburg-based news website fontanka.rusaid that on the second trip, Azimov returned to Russia via the South Korean capital, Seoul, from where he traveled to the Pacific coast city of Vladivostok.
Russia’s energy behemoth Gazprom has revealed the amount it is paying in a mid-term deal for the delivery of natural gas from Uzbekistan, and it is not very much.
RIA-Novosti reported on April 12 that Gazprom Export, an affiliate of the Moscow-based company, said its five-year contract to supply 4 billion cubic meters of gas annually from 2018 is worth a total of $2.5 billion. That translates into $125 per 1,000 cubic meters delivered.
The deal struck at the start of April has been cast as historic for how long it runs before expiring — long enough to ensure some certainty of cash transfers in economically uncertain times, but not so long as to make the hedge feel semi-permanent. Gazprom has historically favored calculating gas supply agreements in Central Asia in decades rather than single years.
Despite that spin, the deal evidently signals a noteworthy withdrawal by Russia from the Central Asian market. Gazprom bought 6.2 billion cubic meters of gas from Uzbekistan in 2016 and is buying only 5 billion cubic meters this year, so the five-year deal represents another drop.
And Gazprom has recently reiterated that it has no intention of resuming gas supplies from Turkmenistan.
As to the question of why Gazprom is buying the gas when it has more than enough of its own, the explanation is offered succinctly by Mikhail Krutikhin, an analyst with RusEnergy, writing in Russian weekly magazine New Times.
Uzbekistan’s president came away with some eye-catching investment deals with Russia from his state visit to Moscow this week, but the less flashy talks on labor migration may have represented the most important achievement of all.
Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s visit to Russia on April 4-5 marked his third trip overseas after Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan — a sequence that is telling about the new leader’s foreign policy priorities.
One of the first documents to emerge from the government-to-government meetings involved an agreement to create a clearer and more formal process for Uzbeks to resettle in Russia for short-term work contracts. Representatives offices will be established in one another’s countries to assist Uzbek migrants.
While this seems like a largely arcane bureaucratic fix, it actually represents a historic step for Uzbekistan, which has, perversely, never since gaining independence actually formally recognized the existence of labor migration.
This is not to say that Uzbek officials are not aware of the fact that their fellow citizens go abroad to work. On the contrary, in 2013, the late President Islam Karimov alluded at length to such people, only to refer to them as “lazy people” who “disgrace all of us.”
Even the concept of unemployment is barely acknowledged in Tashkent. The official unemployment rate is around 5 percent, which is a figure that bears no proper scrutiny.
Karimov’s remarks were particularly offensive in view of the vast amounts of money Uzbeks in Russia inject back into their home nation’s economy.
Indeed, Russia’s Central Bank noted last month that money transfers by individuals in Russia to Uzbekistan had hit $2.74 billion in 2016.
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 recent visit to Kazakhstan by a notoriously provocative and pro-government TV presenter on Russian state television drew howls of indignation from the self-styled national-patriotic camp.
The irritation could be felt even before the arrival of Vladimir Solovyov, who is among others things charged with being a prominent propagator of the chauvinist “Russian World” ideology that underlies much of the aggressive diplomatic, and at times military, posturing by Moscow toward its neighbors. Solovyov has, for example, been an ardent champion of the annexation of Crimea and condemned Ukrainian government attempts to regain control over its separatist-occupied territories in the east.
Unruffled by the criticism, Solovyov described his detractors in Kazakhstan as “lost people suffering from mental illnesses.”
The talk show presenter was ostensibly in Kazakhstan to lead a training seminar for people looking to get ahead in business, deal with tricky opponents and develop leadership techniques.
He was bullish on his return to Russia this week, noting on his Twitter feed that “the seminar went well. I met no ‘outraged citizens.’ That was to be expected. Internet hamsters do not reflect the mood of the population.”
Kazakh-language media in particular has had a field day.
The website Abai.kz ran a story under the headline: “Fire the people that invited Solovyov!”
Politician and commentator Amirzhan Kosanov was quoted as saying that it was absolutely mandatory that “any kind of propagandist should be given no quarter.”
Was the St. Petersburg bomber the one that got away?
Russian media have reported that the deadly April 3 bombing that shook St. Petersburg metro, killing 11 people, was carried out by a 23-year old suicide attacker from Central Asia. Media in Kyrgyzstan have cited the State Committee for National Security as saying the main suspect is a man called Akbarjon Djalilov, born in 1995, and a native of Osh, but now a Russian citizen.
If these claims are confirmed, they would fit into a clear pattern established by the numerous terrorism-related arrests of people of Central Asian origin in Russia over the past few years. The implications for the vast community of embattled migrant laborers living in Russia could be grave and will pose a thorny security and political challenge to authorities in Moscow.
Of late, reports of Central Asians being detained across Russia — including in St. Petersburg — on suspicion of involvement with radical Islamic groups are so common as to barely elicit much attention.
Just to cite some cases at random, Life News website reported in November that a court in St. Petersburg had ordered the arrest of a Tajik citizen, 25-year old Umar Mirzoyev, on suspicion of recruiting Russian citizens into the Islamic State group. Mirzoyev was detained in St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport as he prepared to embark on a flight to the southern city of Samara.
Also in November, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, announced they had intercepted a terrorist cell planning terrorist acts in Moscow and St. Petersburg. At least 10 people were detained in that instance, although it is unclear how many were eventually charged.
Russia has once again slapped major restrictions on Tajikistan-based private carrier Somon Air in the latest installment of a long-running saga.
The Transportation Ministry in Moscow was candid in a statement over the weekend that it adopted the measure in a tit-for-tat response to Tajikistan’s refusal to grant landing rights to Russia’s Yamal Airlines.
The dispute stems from a petty disagreement over what airlines are allowed to operate which routes and has been rolling on since early November, so some background is in order.
Dushanbe fired the first salvo by refusing to give clearance to flights arriving from the Zhukovsky airport in the Moscow region, to which Russia reacted by threatening a complete halt of all flights to Tajikistan.
After multiple rounds of bickering, Tajikistan agreed to allow Yamal Airlines, a Russian airline based in the northern Siberian town of Salekhard, to fly once a week to Dushanbe and the northern city of Khujand.
The matter appeared to have been definitively put to rest following the visit to Dushanbe from Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov in late January.
Tajikistan’s Somon Air was again granted the right to fly to four Russian cities — Krasnoyarsk, Krasnodar, Orenburg and Ufa. And for its part, Dushanbe relented by finally giving clearance to flights arriving from Zhukovsky airport.
Not so fast.
It would now appear that Yamal Airlines is now intent on securing yet more flights — four weekly to Dushanbe and three to Khujand — but Tajikistan does not seem to think that was part of any deal.
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.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets his de facto South Ossetian counterpart Leonid Tibilov in the Kremlin on March 21. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Upcoming elections for the presidency of South Ossetia have been thrown into turmoil after the de facto authorities refused to register former president Eduard Kokoity and his supporters took to the streets to protest.
South Ossetia's Central Election Commission on March 4 said that they would not allow Kokoity to run in the April 9 elections, on the grounds that he fails to satisfy the ten-year residency requirement. He has been living in Russia since leaving office in 2011. The vote will pick a new leader of South Ossetia, which considers itself an independent country, but is recognized as part of Georgia by Tbilisi and most of the rest of the world (with the conspicuous exception of Moscow).
Following the decision, Kokoity rallied his supporters in South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinval (which Georgians call Tskhinvali), to protest. In response, the authorities temporarily closed the center of Tskhinval to motorized traffic and deployed security forces. Not everyone has fond memories of Kokoity's time in power, though, and on March 21, around two thousand people attended a counter demonstration against Kokoity.