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.
The have been some rumblings of irritation in Kazakhstan over reports that an ultra-nationalist member of parliament in Russia called for parts of northern Kazakhstan to be “taken back.”
According to some flimsily sourced reports, a deputy with the ultra-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Pavel Shperov, is said to have made his remarks, describing parts of Kazakhstan as “temporarily seized” lands, at a January 26 roundtable on the plight of ethnic Russian living overseas. Shperov is then reported to have predicted that the return of those lands was imminent.
There are lingering suspicions the remarks might have been a fabrication, or at best a gross distortion of what was said at some point — Shperov’s colleagues have blamed media in Ukraine.
“I can assure you that nobody had any idea of revising the borders of Russia and Kazakhstan. The quote has clearly been taken out of context and has been accompanied by the subjective and obviously contrived assumptions of the journalist,” the head of the State Duma committee for international affairs, Leonid Slutsky, also an LDPR deputy, told reporters on February 1.
Be that as it may, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry reached out to its Russian counterparts to seek reassurances. On February 1, Kazakhstan’s deputy foreign minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi initiated a phone call with his Russian counterpart, Grigory Karasin, to reconfirm that relations between the countries remained founded on mutual acknowledgement of one another’s borders, among other things.
“Russia asserted that entreaties from the Foreign Ministry of Kazakhstan have been considered in all serious,” ministry spokesman Anuar Zhainakov told Tengri News.
The "Georgian Legion" fighting in Ukraine, from the facebook page of its commander, Mamuka Mamulashvili.
Ukraine has released a Georgian soldier whose arrest -- under a Russian warrant -- sparked controversy and accusations that the pro-Western governments were colluding with Moscow.
The Kyiv city prosecutor's office announced January 27 that it released Giorgi Tsertsvadze, a retired Georgian lieutenant colonel. Tsertsvadze was arrested 12 days earlier at Kyiv's airport on an Interpol warrant.
That warrant was issued in Russia late last year based on a murder that Tsertsvadze was accused of committing in Russia in 2003. It was no doubt germane that, in the interim, Tsertsvadze also had fought in Georgia's war over South Ossetia and on the side of Ukraine's government against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The arrest quickly became a political issue: Georgia's United National Movement Party accused the ruling Georgian Dream government of secretly giving Russia information on Tsertsvadze. “The Georgian government is using tricks, as they can’t directly pass the soldiers on to Russia. They didn’t warn soldiers that there are criminal charges against them in Russia," said UNM spokeswoman Khatia Dekanoidze. "Tsertsvadze left the territory of Georgia and he was arrested in Ukraine. This is a very evil trick, which is being implemented against our soldiers." Former president and erstwhile UNM leader Mikheil Saakashvili echoed that sentiment, as did Tsertsvadze's Ukrainian lawyer.
A South Ossetian tank trains at the Tarskoe training grounds. (photo: MoD South Ossetia)
South Ossetia's armed forces will become part of the Russian armed forces but will retain separate units, the self-declared republic's authorities have announced. The plan appears to be a compromise worked out between the de facto leadership in Tskhinvali and their patrons in Moscow.
The fate of South Ossetia's modest military (numbering about 800 troops) has been at the center of negotiations on the level of autonomy that the small territory will retain. Most of the world considers South Ossetia to be part of Georgia, but Russia recognized it as an independent state in 2008 and has been cementing its control since then.
In 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his de facto South Ossetian counterpart Leonid Tibilov signed an agreement on "alliance and integration" which included a provision calling for "certain units of the armed forces of South Ossetia to enter the structure" of the Russian military.
But the specific implementation of that "entering the structure" remained unclear. Controversy broke out last year when some forces in parliament put forth a proposal to dissolve South Ossetia's armed forces and fold them into Russia's. Then some months later the de facto president, Leonid Tibilov, said that wouldn't happen and that South Ossetia would keep control of its armed forces, implying that they wouldn't be folded into Russia's.
The new arrangement seems to be a compromise between those two proposals, and was laid out by the de facto defense minister, Ibragim Gassayev, at an event in Tskhinvali on January 12.
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.