Russia's top military officer has said that the country's Black Sea fleet is now stronger than Turkey's navy, and emphasized that Russia is now capable of easily striking the Bosphorus straits, statements that highlight the tenuous nature of the rapprochement between the two states.
"Several years ago the capability of the fleet was sharply contrasted, in particular, with the Turkish navy, when it was said that Turkey is virtually the master of the Black Sea. Now everything is different," said General Valeriy Gerasimov, chief of general staff of the Russian armed forces, at the conclusion of military exercises conducted in southern Russia earlier this month.
Gerasimov highlighted several of the fleet's new acquisitions, including submarines capable of firing Kalibr cruise missiles, new aircraft, and the Bastion coastal defense missiles that Russia deployed to Crimea shortly after annexing the territory.
"For [destroying a potential enemy] the Black Sea Fleet today has everything: reconnaissance assets, which locate targets at a distance of 500 kilometers, strike assets. One Bastion complex has a range of 350 kilometers, including to the Bosphorus," he said.
An Iskander missile on parade in Moscow in 2010. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Armenia has shown off advanced missile systems it acquired from Russia, giving it both a potentially substantial military boost as well as a source for controversy in Armenia's state of heightened political tension.
The Iskander missiles were spotted on Friday, in a rehearsal for tomorrow's military parade to mark 25 years of Armenian independence. The acquisition hasn't been announced officially, but the Russian newspaper Vedemosti cited two "managers of the military-industrial complex" confirming that Russia supplied four launchers (with two missiles each) to Armenia, and that they were provided under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which gives Russia's allies discounts on military hardware.
There were reports last year that negotiations on a more advanced version of the system, the Iskander-M, were underway between Russia and Armenia, but those were never publicly confirmed.
If this acquisition did in fact take place, it's a significant move: Armenia would be the first country other than Russia to get the weapons, among Russia's most advanced ballistic missiles. And it provides Yerevan a substantial capability boost in its arms race with Azerbaijan. Armenia-backed forces currently occupy Nagorno Karabakh, which is still de jure part of Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijan has heavily rearmed with the aim of taking Karabakh back.
Kazakhstan troops march in the opening ceremony of the SCO Peace Mission 2016 military exercises in Kyrgyzstan. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is conducting its first joint military exercises in Kyrgyzstan, just weeks after a suicide bomber attacked the Chinese embassy in Bishkek.
The 2016 version of the SCO's Peace Mission exercise kicked off on Thursday at the Edelweiss training center near Lake Issyk-Kul. As is often the case, the scenario of the exercise involves an "anti-terror" operation with considerably heavier firepower than is usually employed against terrorists. Chinese helicopters, for example, practiced using air-to-air missiles.
"The need to conduct such exercises is dictated by modern realities," said Colonel Ruslan Mukambetov, the Kyrgyzstan officer commanding the exercises. "They have repeatedly proven their relevance and significance amid the current international situation, both in the SCO area of responsibility and in the world at large... In addition to its direct purpose - the fight against terrorism, extremism and separatism - they also promote closer military cooperation between our countries’ armed forces."
There seems to be some discrepancies in the reporting of how many troops are involved: The official Chinese People's Liberation Army news site said that it was 1,100, while Mukambetov said it was 2,000. The Russian contingent is reportedly 500 strong, and the Chinese, about 300.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led security bloc, is having trouble finding its first non-Russian secretary general, as the man who had apparently been tapped for the job has turned it down.
Last week, Interfax reported, citing unnamed Armenian government sources, that Armenian Defense Secretary Seyran Ohanian would be appointed as the new CSTO secretary general. Ohanian would replace Nikolay Bordyuzha, a Russian former KGB officer who has been the only head the organization has had, serving since 2003.
But on Friday, Ohanian said that he wouldn't take the job. "As concerns my appointment as the CSTO secretary general, there has been no such offer. Today I'm carrying out my duties as minister of defense and I don't have any plans to work in any sort of international structure," he said in an interview with the website news.am. Asked if he would turn down the job if offered it, he said: "Definitely."
Bordyuzha himself said that his successor would be named by October 14, when a CSTO summit is scheduled in Yerevan, and that it would be an Armenian.
This is not the first hiccup the CSTO has experienced in finding a successor for Bordyuzha. Last December Yuriy Ushakov, a senior adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said that a new appointment was imminent. But just a few days later the CSTO announced that it would instead be extending Bordyuzha's appointment for another year. At that point, too, it was also said that the replacement would be an Armenian.
Investigators from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are working on the case of the Chinese embassy bombing in Bishkek, which includes "Russian traces," a senior Russian security official said.
"Work on identifying the individuals who took part in the terror act in Bishkek continues with the coordination of SCO special services," said Sergey Smirnov, deputy director of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), at an SCO meeting in Almaty on Tuesday. "In this work, Tajik, Chinese, and Russian traces are being pursued."
A suicide bomber, whom Kyrgyzstan authorities described as a Uighur holding a Tajikistan passport, attacked the Chinese embassy in Bishkek in late August, killing himself and wounding three embassy employees. If the Uighur connection is confirmed, it would signify that the insurgency that the Uighurs -- a Turkic, Muslim people centered in China's northwest -- have been carrying out in China has expanded into Central Asia.
Smirnov's reference to "SCO special services" is unclear; he could be referring to special services of SCO member countries (which include China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) or organs of the SCO itself, like the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure. The former is not newsworthy but the latter would be, suggesting a deepening role of the SCO in regional security. But for now it seems more likely that Smirnov was referring to SCO member states, and phrased it that way because he was at an SCO meeting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin with his Uzbekistan counterpart Islam Karimov this April at the Kremlin. (photo: Kremlin)
Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to visit Uzbekistan on Tuesday, inserting himself into an ongoing presidential succession after the death of President Islam Karimov, the only president Uzbekistan has known.
Putin will stop over in Samarkand on his way back from China, where he attended the G20 summit (and as a result missed Karimov's funeral; Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev represented Russia). "I think I have to stop over tomorrow to pay my respects," Putin said. Putin's spokesman later emphasized that Putin's visit would be personal, but there will certainly be more to it than that. A report on the Uzbekistan news site anhor.uz initially said that Putin would also meet there with "possible successors," though that was subsequently edited to say he would meet with "the leadership of the country."
Most analysts, and this blog, are skeptical that whoever succeeds Karimov will do much to change Uzbekistan's foreign policy, which was characterized by isolationism bolstered by playing various powers off of one another. So it's unlikely Putin believes he can tip the scales on the ongoing succession process.
"Putin's visit is symbolic, to show that Russia will be highly involved in Uzbekistan's future, but also an attempt to reset relations," said Erica Marat, , an assistant professor at the National Defense University and Central Asia expert, in an email interview with The Bug Pit. "I don't think the Kremlin is able to influence the succession process itself, but this is an opening for Russia nevertheless."
Soldiers from CSTO member states practice carrying out a UN peacekeeping mission in Belarus. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Russia and its allies have for the first time carried out exercises simulating a United Nations peacekeeping mission, signaliing -- at least from Russia's side -- an expanded vision of how it and its allies might deploy in the future.
The five-day exercises, "Unbreakable Brotherhood 2016," took place in Belarus and ended Saturday. About 1,000 troops from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (which also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) took part.
This is the fifth iteration of these exercises, but the first which envisaged a UN peacekeeping scenario, and in a non-CSTO country at that. In the scenario, the UN has given the CSTO a mandate to send its peacekeeping units to the fictional country of Angoria, where ethnic conflict has broken out:
The Gorniks have bad relations with the Belnyaks as a result of the June 2016 parliamentary elections in Angoria, where the representatives of the Belnyaks got the majority of votes, unsanctioned rallies took place in large cities during which pogroms took place in Belnyak areas. In response, Belnyaks took to the street to demand that the government take measures to protect them. Interior Ministry units took measures to stabilize the situation. However these measures did not stabilize the situation in the country. Being unable to restore constitutional order in Angoria, the organs of government power completely lost control over the situation.
The Belnyak forces began to form self-defense units responding to the actions of the Gorniks. Armed clashes between the Gorniks and Belnyaks became more common. Streams of civilians who had abandoned their homes flowed to regions where armed conflict had not broken out.
A Russian soldier who killed six members of an Armenian family after deserting his military base has been found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. But questions remain over where he will serve his sentence, setting the stage for another conflict between the two allies over Russia's increasingly contentious military presence in Armenia.
The soldier, Valeriy Permyakov, wandered off the 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, Armenia's second city, last January 12, broke into the house of the Avetsiyan family and shot six of them to death. He was captured trying to cross the border into Turkey.
The case shocked Armenia and led to unprecedented protests in Gyumri and Yerevan against the Russian military presence in the country. The Russian presence is largely welcomed in Armenia, as protection against Turkey and Azerbaijan, but lately there has been increasing resentment of Russia's heavyhanded behavior in Armenia. Russia wanted to try Permyakov in a military court on the base, but the protests led Moscow to back down and allow him to be tried in an Armenian court.
Now the conflict could turn to where Permyakov serves his sentence. The judge, apparently contrary to standard procedure, declined to say where he would be sent. Some Armenian media reported that a deal is in the works to exchange Permyakov for an Armenian prisoner currently serving time in Russia.
A screenshot of a video released by the State Security Service of Georgia, showing the questioning of a suspect alleged to have plotted to blow up a gas pipeline between Russia and Armenia.
Georgia's security services have arrested five men they claim were planning to blow up a gas pipeline between Russia and Armenia, setting off speculation about who could have been behind the alleged plot.
The State Security Service of Georgia announced that it had broken up the plot and released a video showing the explosives they seized, the accused men being taken into custody and questioned, and schemes of the attempted plan. Two others were also arrested in connection with the plot, a police officer accused of "abuse of power" and someone accused of not reporting the plot.
So the question immediately became: who would want to blow up the pipeline? Taken together, Russia and Armenia -- the likely targets of the plot -- have plenty of foes. At a press conference, the authorities alluded to an intriguing Ukraine connection. From Civil.ge:
One of the journalists at the briefing asked the State Security Service official if the arrested men had “links to Ukraine” – the journalist said that his question was stemming from a post on a social media by one of the Georgian volunteer fighters in Ukraine, who wrote that their supporters had been arrested in Georgia.
An investigator from the State Security Service, Savle Motiashvili, responded: “According to available information, one of the arrested men was visiting Ukraine often, but it is not yet clear whether this criminal group was directed from Ukraine.”
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)
Russian military exercises near its western borders have become de rigeur over the last couple of years, as tension between Russia and NATO has spiked. But exercises that kicked off this week are novel in that Russia has brought along its allies from the Caucasus and Central Asia, which have for the most part sought to avoid getting drawn into Russia's conflict with the West.
The exercise kicked off August 16 in the Pskov oblast, which borders Estonia and Latvia. About 5,000 Russian soldiers are taking part, along with about 1,000 from the other countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
These exercises, under the rubric "Cooperation," are the annual cornerstone of the CSTO military exercise program. But there are some new twists this time. For the first time in the history of the exercises, Russia's ambassador to NATO Aleksandr Grushko is observing them. "Obviously, in the situation where NATO countries are pursuing a course of military containment of Russia, we have to undertake efforts to ensure that Russia's safety is secured," he said at a press conference there. "I'm sure that the NATO countries are carefully following" the CSTO exercises, he added. "The art of war is an extremely competitive field."