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.
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."
Russian President Vladimir Putin met with the President of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, in Dushanbe on February 27. Photo: Russian Presidential Press Service
Anybody expecting major developments out of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Tajikistan will be left disappointed as nothing of note appears to have transpired.
Putin exchanged the usual pleasantries with his Tajik counterpart, Emomali Rahmon, during their February 27 meeting in Dushanbe, while paying some very cursory and noncommittal lip service to the need to intensify defenses against potential threats spilling over from Afghanistan.
No mention was made of the Eurasian Economic Union, quashing suspicions for now that Tajikistan was considering finally relenting and joining the Moscow-led trading bloc. In fact, a very pointed reference was made in a speech by Rahmon to how talks addressed specifically bilateral relations.
“During the talks, we thoroughly reviewed the status and prospects of Tajik-Russian cooperation in the bilateral format and within international forums such as the United Nations, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization,” Rahmon said.
The most significant break for Tajikistan was signaled by Putin’s remark about his government considering a revision on a ban of Tajik citizens barred from traveling to Russia for one or other reason.
“We discussed this. And overall a solution has been found and we will work in line with an agreement reached with the president of Tajikistan,” Putin said.
Russian deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov, who traveled with the visiting delegation, said that more than 200,000 Tajik citizens may currently be affected by travel bans. Shuvalov said bans would likely be waived for those people that had committed only minor violations of migration laws.
“Those that committed crimes or were in some way involved in illegal activity will, of course, not be granted permission to enter,” he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov delivers remarks at the Munich Security Conference on February 18, where he poured cold water on the prospects of visa-free travel for Georgians to Russia. (photo: Munich Security Conference)
After getting the green light for long-awaited visa-free travel to the European Union, Georgians will have to wait a little longer for the same privileges in Russia.
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference on February 18, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the possibility of a visa free waiver with Georgia, which recently won visa liberalization with the European Union. While Lavrov said he was pleased the relationship “has begun to normalize,” he expressed reservations about allowing Georgians into Russia without a visa, arguing that it was premature to embark on such a step without closer formal cooperation between the two countries. More controversially, he appeared to cast Georgia as a major security concern.
“[A visa-free regime] is linked to the need to ensure security,” Lavrov told reporters. “Militants and extremists are trying to use not only Central Asia, but also the Caucasus as a transit route.”
Diplomatic relations between Georgia and Russia were severed after the 2008 war and, despite some steps towards normalization, the Georgian government has ruled out reestablishing formal diplomatic relations while Russian forces occupy its territory. However, Georgia allows Russians to enter their country without a visa—a policy established by the previously ruling United National Movement government—and over a million Russians visited the country in 2016, according to the Georgian National Tourism Administration. That was enough to make Russia the fourth-largest source of tourists, and represented a 12% increase over 2015.
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.
The USS Porter transits the Bosphorus out of the Black Sea on February 13 after conducting exercises and, its commander said, being buzzed by Russian planes. (photo: U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams)
Russian planes buzzed a United States warship in the Black Sea as it was conducting NATO exercises, American officials said. Russian officials denied that they had done anything aggressive but still criticized the presence of U.S. ships in the sea, indicating that U.S.-Russia military tension is continuing even under the U.S.'s new, ostensibly Russia-friendly, leadership.
The incident took place on February 10, the last day of Romania-led naval exercises in the Black Sea. Four separate Russian planes made low passes over the USS Porter, which was participating in the exercise. The ship's commander described the actions as "unsafe and unprofessional," a U.S. military spokesman said.
Russia denied the charges. "All of our flights were conducted and are being conducted over the neutral waters of the Black Sea in accordance with international rules and safety requirements,” Major General Igor Konashenkov said in a statement.
But Konashenkov dropped a little shade on the U.S., as well. “If the U.S. destroyer, as the Pentagon official claims, conducted a 'regular' patrol mission in the vicinity of Russia, tens of thousands miles away from their own shores, it is strange to be surprised about the no less regular flights of our aircraft over the Black Sea,” he said.
An embattled Israeli-Russian travel blogger was trotted in front of news crews in Baku on February 8 following his extradition from Belarus to Azerbaijan, where he is facing charges of illegal border-crossing and hostile activity.
News reports showed handcuffed blogger Alexander Lapshin emerging from a government jet in the Baku airport and escorted with gun-wielding guards in balaclavas. “The extradition of Alexander Lapshin is another testimony that Azerbaijan is capable of defending its national interests,” said Deputy Prime Minister Ali Akhmedov.
He remains in pre-trial detention, his next destination not disclosed.
The Russian-language blogger stands accused of unauthorized entry into Nagorno Karabakh, a breakaway territory from Azerbaijan controlled by ethnic Armenian rebels and Armenian military forces. Baku also accuses Lapshin of posting entries supportive of Karabakh’s independence on his Livejournal blog, Puerrtto.
Azerbaijan long has tried to coerce Karabakh back under Baku’s fold through international isolation; mainly by blacklisting foreign travelers to the territory. But this is the first time Azerbaijan had a foreign national arrested in a foreign country and then handed over to its control for such an offense.
The USS Porter transits the Bosphorus Straits on February 2 en route to the Black Sea, where it is conducting joint exercises with NATO. (photo: US Navy, Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams)
NATO is conducting some of its biggest naval exercises ever in the Black Sea, even as a new administration in Washington has cast into doubt how much the United States is interested in confronting Russia.
The latest round of exercises, Sea Shield 2017, started February 1 and are scheduled to last until February 10. The exercises will include eight ships from Romania, two from Turkey, and one each from Bulgaria, Canada, Spain, and the U.S.
The drills are aimed at "demonstrating our continued commitment to security and stability in the region," said Commander Andria Slough, commanding officer of the USS Porter, the American ship in the exercises. "Our upcoming operations are meant to help us improve interoperability, sharing of information and experiences, and the ability to work together toward peace and prosperity."
That's pretty standard stuff for the past few years, since Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea prompted the U.S. and NATO to significantly step up their naval presence in the Black Sea. This is the third iteration of Sea Shield since the exercise started in 2015, and has been accompanied by a number of other such drills.