An American sailor monitors the Breeze 2014 exercises from the USS Vella Gulf. (photo: U.S. Navy)
Competing Black Sea naval exercises by NATO and Russia have again raised tensions in the region as the once sleepy sea has become a venue for geopolitical competition.
Russia's exercise started July 4 and involves 20 ships and 20 aircraft. Its scenario was the "destruction of enemy ships in the sea and organization of air defense of naval groups and coastal infrastructure."
NATO's exercises, called "Breeze" and formally hosted by Bulgaria, also started July 4 and continue until July 13, with ships from Greece, Italy, Romania, Turkey, the U.K. and the U.S. also taking part, along with naval patrol planes from Turkey and the U.S. The exercises are "aimed at improving the tactical compatibility and collaboration among naval forces of the alliance's member states."
And the U.S. participation, with the guided missile cruiser USS Vella Gulf is intended to "reassure" allies in the region, a thinly veiled reference to Russia: "It is important to support and reassure our partners, we hope our presence in the Black Sea continues to strengthen those bonds," the USS Vella Gulf's commander said.
That’s the lesson after a Chinese company appears to have bested a Russian one for the right to turn Kyrgyzstan’s main civilian airport into a strategic aviation “hub” for freight and passenger flights connecting Europe and Asia.
The Chinese maneuver would not have surprised anyone in a country where China is building almost everything, except that Kremlin-controlled energy giant Rosneft appeared to have had the deal to remodel Bishkek’s Manas International Airport in the bag. On February 19, Putin ally Igor Sechin, Rosneft’s chairman, and Kyrgyz First Deputy Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev (now prime minister), signed a memorandum on Rosneft’s interest in the airport and its lucrative fuel-distribution contracts.
Fast forward five months and both Russian and Taiwanese media are reporting that Beijing Urban Construction Group will invest $1 billion in the makeover, a figure similar to the Rosneft deal. China Machinery Engineering Corporation will sign a $300 million deal for the country’s second airport, in the southern city of Osh—another asset that had interested Rosneft.
"So far these are memorandums of intention, but in the near future the fully planned projects will be ready," Kommersant quoted Kyrgyz Economics Minister Temir Sariyev as saying on July 4. The reports do not mention what share in the airports the Chinese will get.
Kazakhstan has again publicly criticized Russia's operation of the Baikonur space launch facility, suggesting that Astana continues to keep up the pressure on Moscow to take more control over the facility.
One of the most contentious issues has been Russia's use of the Proton launcher, which uses an especially toxic fuel. A crash of a Russian Proton rocket last year over Kazakhstan caused an estimated $90 million in damages and spurred a growing environmental protest movement in the country. But the alternative, the Zenit launcher, needs more technical work to achieve the same power as Proton.
Last week, the head of Kazakhstan's space agency KazCosmos, Talgat Musabayev , told the country's parliament that Kazakhstan would foot the bill for that modernization itself. From TengriNews:
“We would like to replace it [Proton] with Zenit rocket launcher. Of course, Proton is one of a kind technological achievement; there are practically no rockets of such good quality in the world. But you are right: this rocket uses terribly toxic fuel components. This is why I supported and support its replacement,” Musabayev said during the meeting in the lower chamber of the Parliament....
“Russia does not want to do it, I am telling you openly. That is why, it appears, that our country will bear all the costs. If there is a political will, then we are ready to act on it,” Musabayev added.
Russian forces transported during recent snap military exercises in the Central Military District (photo: Russian MoD)
Snap Russian military exercises involving 65,000 troops also included Russian forces based in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. And the exercises demonstrated that "the main tasks of the Russian army in the near future will be focused not only on the Western, but also on the Central Asian military theater," wrote Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
The exercises took place June 21-28 in Russia's Central Military District, and is part of a broader push by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu to institute these sorts of large-scale, unannounced exercises as a way of testing the armed forces' readiness. "The war games will give the picture of combat readiness of the troops stationed on a swathe of huge territory from the Volga River through the Urals Mountains to Siberia, and from the Kara Sea in the Arctic to the steppe on Russia’s southern border with Kazakhstan," reported state television network RT.
Some units from the Western and Southern military districts also took part in the drills, and NATO accused Moscow of using them to threaten Ukraine. "A NATO spokeswoman, Oana Lungescu, lamented Moscow’s military exercises, saying that 'it can be seen as a further escalation of the crisis with Ukraine,'" the AP reported.
The Eurasian Economic Union complements the role of the Collective Security Treaty Organization but the two organizations shouldn't be merged -- at least in the short term -- the CSTO's Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha said in an interview. He added that the organization was creating "special operations" forces that would be involved in thwarting "cyberattacks." Bordyuzha compared Russia's post-Soviet integration schemes to those of Europe, with the Eurasian Economic Union the analog of the European Union, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization similar to NATO. He told Belarussian news agency BelTA;
For example in Europe you have NATO and the European Union. Not one government is accepted into the European Union without joining NATO. NATO deals with security, the EU with politics, economics and so on. The same scheme is proposed for relations between the CSTO and the EEU. That is, the EEU will resolve economic issues, and the CSTO -- politics and security. I think that we will work precisely in this vein.
That's an interesting division of labor, with the "politics" being the responsibility of the EU in Europe, but of the CSTO in the post-Soviet world. The EEU members have been stressing that the union is purely economic, not political, in order to assuage Russia's wary allies that they won't be giving up any of their sovereignty by joining. But do those allies want a "political" alliance if it's in the form of the CSTO, rather than the EEU? Anyway, Bordyuzha continues:
A GM-400 air defense radar, recently purchased by Kazakhstan. (photo: ThalesRaytheonSystems)
During its big defense expo last month, Kazakhstan announced that it is buying air defense radars from French-American company ThalesRaytheonSystems.
Air defense radars aren't the sexiest piece of military hardware, but this was an interesting move given Kazakhstan's large dependence on Russia for air defense. Russia and Kazakhstan are in the process of setting up a joint air defense system under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization; in May, Kazakhstan's senate ratified the deal. And as part of this arrangement, Russia gave Kazakhstan several S-300 air defense systems in January. Other CSTO partners Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are in various stages of joining the system as well. “Such cooperation greatly enhances the defense potential of Russia and its partners, and contributes to strengthening peace and stability in Eurasia,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said last year.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has set up a new "anti-terror unit" in an apparent effort by China to deepen cooperation with Russia and Central Asia in its fight against Uyghur nationalist groups.
The director of the SCO's anti-terror section, based in Tashkent, gave a series of interviews to Chinese media last week and gave a handful of new details about the organization's security efforts in Central Asia. From China Daily:
"Many terrorists who carried out deadly attacks in China watched or listened to video or audio files online with extremist ideological content, but such materials are produced or uploaded outside China," Zhang Xinfeng, director of the Eurasian grouping's regional anti-terrorist structure executive committee, said at its headquarters in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan.
"The regional anti-terrorist structure decided to set up a special unit at the end of 2013 to deal with the new situation."
Xhang doesn't elaborate in that interview on what the new unit is, but in another interview, with the Global Times he reports that "our anti-terrorist structure established a joint expert team from all SCO members later last year to deal with the threat from the Internet." (Members of the SCO are China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.)
Gazprom was supposed to end Kyrgyzstan’s gas shortages and contract disputes with its neighbors. Instead, since the Russian energy giant took control of Kyrgyzstan’s bankrupt gas company almost two months ago, the country has faced one of its worst gas crises in memory.
The immediate cause of the shortage is Uzbekistan. The Uzbek state gas supplier, Uztransgaz, closed the taps on April 14, leaving an estimated 60,000 households in southern Kyrgyzstan without gas. Kyrgyz leaders are now proposing solutions that are likely to get Uzbekistan’s attention, but could prove risky.
The problem appears to have started on a technicality: Shortly before Kyrgyzgaz handed control of its debt-ridden gas network to Gazprom, its supply contract with Uzbekistan ran out. Uztransgaz agreed to add two more weeks, to April 15, but who were they supposed to negotiate with? The now-defunct Kyrgyzgaz? Gazprom? Gazprom’s new local subsidiary Kyrgyzgazprom?
That question lingers, but after almost two months it sounds like the Uzbeks are not keen to talk.
Deputy Prime Minister Valery Dil says he has tried multiple times to reach his Uzbek counterparts, yet they ignore him. Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev has also complained he can't get anyone in Tashkent to take his calls.
The American warship USS Taylor makes a port call to Batumi, Georgia, in May. (photo: U.S. Navy)
The United States is planning a "stronger presence of U.S. ships in the Black Sea" as Russia accused the U.S. and NATO ships that have been on the sea recently as "spying" on Russia's own Black Sea Fleet. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Romania on Thursday, and he made a stop at the USS Vella Gulf, which was on a port call at Constanta as part of its tour around the Black Sea. The Vella Gulf’s port visit in Romania “a clear expression of [the] commitment" that the U.S. and NATO have expressed recently toward strengthening their military presence in the countries neighboring Russia "“which is becoming even more important in the wake of Russia’s actions in Ukraine." From a Pentagon press release:
Another example, Hagel said, is Obama's announcement this week that he will ask Congress for up to $1 billion to enhance the readiness of U.S. and allied forces in Europe, including more U.S. troop rotations for exercises and training and a stronger presence of U.S. ships in the Black Sea. “The U.S. has maintained a regular naval presence in the Black Sea since mid-March, with the USS Truxton, the USS Donald Cook and the USS Taylor all conducting port calls in Romania, and we will sustain this tempo going forward,” he said. “We are also stepping up our cooperation with other partners and allies surrounding the Black Sea, including Bulgaria, Georgia, Turkey, and Ukraine.”
Russia has repeatedly complained about the increased Western military presence on the Black Sea. On Wednesday, Itar-Tass quoted an unnamed source in the "military-diplomatic corps" as saying that a French frigate in the Black Sea was spying on Russia:
The frigate Surcouf is conducting maneuvers in the northern part of the Black Sea, periodically approaching 50-60 kilometers from the coast of Crimea. According to available data, the NATO warship is conducting electronic surveillance of military objects of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, deployed on the peninsula along the coastline, as well as of important administrative and strategic objects on the coastal territory."
The source added, helpfully, that Russia was watching the French ship, as well: "All the actions and maneuvers of the French 'uninvited guest' are being recorded, including its compliance with norms of international maritime law."
According to the expert's data, the frigate passed along the Caucasus coast, the coast of Crimea, lingered alongside Novorossiya and relocated to the northwestern part of the sea. "Now the French ship is heading in the direction of Odessa, but whether it will stop there is not yet known. In any case, the visit of the Surcouf to Odessa, if it happens, will not remain a secret."
The presence of foreign warships on the Black Sea is regulated by the Montreux Convention, which limits them to 21 days at a stretch. Recall that one U.S. warship, USS Taylor, stayed on the sea longer than 21 days because it needed repairs. That circumstance was never noted by Russian officials, who complained about the violation. But in a piece from RT on Thursday, headlined "NATO’s merry-go-round electronic surveillance in the Black Sea," they took a swipe at that assertion:
The USS Taylor actually became a rare example of a ship that violated the Montreux Convention by exceeding the limited time of deployment to the Black Sea by 11 days, as the crew claimed the vessel ran aground on February 12 and had to undergo maintenance in the Turkish port of Samsun.
Lest anyone get the wrong idea about who controls northern Kazakhstan, a golden man and his silver maiden consort were out in Pavlodar on June 4 drumming up Kazakhstani patriotism.
These symbols of Kazakhstani identity rode white horses through the streets in the northern city where ethnic Russians slightly outnumber Kazakhs, reports Bnews.kz.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March alarmed Central Asian leaders who fear Moscow could have an eye on their territories. Kazakhstan looks especially vulnerable because it shares a 6,846-kiliometer border with its former imperial overlord, along which live large ethnic Russian populations. Just in case, Astana has moved to criminalize calls for separatism.
The flag-waving parade in honor of the day Kazakhstan's national emblem was adopted in 1992 culminated with a crowd of 5,000 young patriots gathering in Pavlodar's football stadium to sing the national anthem.
Symbolism hung heavy on the football pitch. The original Golden Man (“Altyn Adam” in Kazakh) was a Scythian prince dressed in gold-plated armor whose remains were discovered in a burial mound near Almaty in 1969. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Kazakhstan adopted the Golden Man as a symbol of independence, representing a nomadic, warrior heritage.