Ever a strategic crossroads, ardently pro-Western Georgia on August 25 became the site where the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, billed as the Chinese counterweight to the World Bank, chose its first president.
China's former deputy finance minister, Jin Liqun, got the pick at the August 24-25 meeting in Tbilisi, but it’s the longer term implications of the bank’s role that could prove more intriguing.
Initially meant as an Asia-only lending club, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has fast expanded to attract members across Europe and is set to help China build international clout.
The US has tried to discourage allies like the United Kingdom and South Korea from embracing the bank, a financial institution that Washington reportedly fears will lower international banking standards, but did not react publicly when Georgia, its strongest ally in the strategic South Caucasus, also decided to help midwife the AIIB into existence.
Granted, Georgia, which holds a mere .05 percent share in the bank, does not have the banking or economic muscle of the UK or South Korea, but its geo-strategic location means that those with influence here tend to keep a wary eye out for potential rivals.
Troops from Central Asia, Armenia, and Belarus are conducting military exercises with Russia near the borders of Estonia and Latvia.
The exercises are being held under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led political-military bloc. It's the CSTO's annual exercise, but this year's location -- in the Pskov region, about 40 kilometers from the Estonian border, and only a little farther to Latvia -- is an intriguing one considering the ongoing tension between Russia and the Eastern European NATO members.
During the drills, the CSTO's rapid reaction forces "will conduct a joint operation to localize an armed conflict with the aim of restoring territorial integrity and defending constitutional order in a simulated CSTO member state, working out tasks for destroying irregular armed formations," the organization said in a statement.
The CSTO also seemed to try to play down the potentially provocative scenario. "The exercise plan is based on a simulated military-political situation, which is not connected to reality but was developed only for working out training issues related to deploying operational contingents of the rapid reaction force to the Eastern European region of collective security," the statement continued.
"We're conducting exercises in the Eastern European region. One of the main goals of the exercises is to get our forces, within literally hours, to arrive in any given region of collective security," added Valeriy Semerikov, the CSTO's deputy secretary general, speaking to reporters.
An Su-25 aircraft under repair at Tbilaviastroy. Might the company soon be producing new, completely non-Russian versions of the plane? (photo: Delta)
Georgia is developing a version of the Su-25 ground attack aircraft that replaces all the Russian-origin parts with European or Israeli substitutes.
The effort is being undertaken by the state defense company Tbilaviastroy, which under Soviet times was the center of Su-25 production and now carries out repair and renovations of the aircraft.
Hostile relations between Tbilisi and Moscow obviously hamstrung Georgia's work on the Su-25, which relied heavily on Russian-produced parts and subsystems. And the situation got especially bad after the 2008 war between the two countries: "the plant had simply no other way out after approximately 2008, when Moscow imposed a total ban on exports of any products to Georgia of a military or dual use," said Irakli Aladashvili, a reporter for Georgian newspaper Kviris Palitra.
Georgia had tried various routes out of this situation, such as proposing joint production with Azerbaijan and cooperating with Israel. But now, Aladashvili reports, citing company director Nodar Beridze, Tbilaviastroy is going all the way and creating a version of the Su-25 without any Russian parts whatsoever. The new aircraft would be called the Ge-31, or "Bora."
The Bora's fuselage and wings would be manufactured in Georgia, while engines, electronic systems, and so on will be procured in France, Italy, and the UK, according to Beridze. The Su-25 is still a popular aircraft around the world, so it could potentially have a large export market.
A Russian Voronezh-DM early-warning radar station in Kaliningrad; Russian military media is reporting that a similar radar could be in the works for Azerbaijan. (photo: MoD Russia)
Russia is planning to set up a radar installation in Azerbaijan in 2017, a television station operated by the Russian Ministry of Defense has reported. It would be Russia's first military installation in Azerbaijan after Baku refused to renew the lease for a previous radar system, at Gabala, in 2012.
The report, on TV Zvezda, details Russia's air defense posture and future plans. Among the future plans are to deploy a Voronezh-DM early-warning radar in Azerbaijan: "Erection of Voronezh stations is continuing, and not only in Russia. There are plans to start construction in Azerbaijan in 2017, in place of the out-of-service "Daryal" radar in Gabala. The new station will be under exclusively Russian control," the report says.
The planned system in Azerbaijan would supplement the existing Voronezh system in Armavir, in Russia's North Caucasus. That radar covers Russia's air borders from "southern Europe to Northern Africa," and the Azerbaijani radar would "cover those regions which the Armavir station can't reach," Zvezda reports.
Azerbaijani government officials have not yet commented on the report. The one Azerbaijani media outlet to have picked it up, haqqin.az, headlined it "Russia is Going to Build a New Military Base in Azerbaijan," somewhat of an exaggeration but one that's suggestive of the political impact this could have.
An S-300PS air defense complex delivered from Russia to Kazakhstan by train. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Russia has donated five air defense complexes to Kazakhstan, a (small) part of a planned joint air defense system shared between Russia and its allies.
Kazakhstan's Ministry of Defense this week announced the delivery of five complexes of the S-300PS air defense system, which arrived by train from Russia to Almaty. The donation was announced first in 2009, then again last January, when Moscow said they would be delivered by the end of 2014.
More significantly, the donation was supposed to be of five divisions of the system, and a division consists of 12 complexes -- so Russia still has 55 more to deliver. The Kazakhstan MoD made no mention of any future deliveries, or the previous announcement, so it's not sure where things stand.
When the donation was announced last year, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoliy Antonov said that with the move "we are strengthening not only Kazakhstan, but the air defense of the CSTO," referring to the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led defense bloc that also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. (Armenia has the same system as Kazakhstan was just given, as does Belarus.)
The joint CSTO air defense system has been slow to get off the ground, though several military officials said at the end of last year that while they acknowledged that up to that point it was mainly just talk, now they were getting serious.
Ukrainian air force chief Major General Sergei Drozdov meets Georgia Chief of General Staff Vakhtang Kapanadze in Tbilisi. (photo: Georgia MoD)
Ukraine's new air force chief is on a visit to Tbilisi to learn from his Georgian counterparts' experience fighting with Russia, and to discuss future military cooperation between the two countries.
"The Georgian side will share [with] us [their] experience of 2008," said Major General Sergei Drozdov, appointed last month to head Ukraine's air force, in a statement issued by Georgia's Ministry of Defense. Georgia fought a five-day war with Russia in 2008 over the breakaway territory of South Ossetia. "Unfortunately, we have similar circumstances in the Ukraine. But with joint forces and cooperation we will overcome all obstacles and achieve success." The statement noted that air defense would be one of the priorities.
Not just operational cooperation, but military business ties appeared to be on the agenda. “One of the main goals of the visit of the Ukrainian delegation is to familiarize with the Georgia’s military-industrial complex and potential in order to plan joint projects for the future. This will give us possibility to improve Georgian and Ukrainian Armed Forces and their defence capabilities”, said Major General Vakhtang Kapanadze, Georgia's chief of General Staff, after meeting Drozdov.
Ukraine has supplied Georgia with the bulk of its air defense systems: according to the database of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the only air defense purchases Georgia made from 2000-2014 were from Ukraine, which included Sa-8 ("Osa") and Sa-11 ("Buk") systems.
In a sign of how close the unrest in Afghanistan has crept to Tajikistan, two stray shells flew across the border during a recent bout of fighting, forcing Kabul to issue a blushing apology.
Interfax news agency cited a source in Tajikistan’s military as saying the 82-millimeter shells fell in the Farkhor district, which is situated along a wide section of the Panj River, a water course that straddles the frontier.
“Happily, nobody was injured and we have no objections to raise with Afghanistan. We support their fight to restore stability to the long-suffering land of Afghanistan,” the source told Interfax. No date was specified for when the incident took place.
Dushanbe-based newspaper Asia-Plus quoted Afghan media, which in turn cited an unnamed and high-ranking army source, as saying that security operations have successfully expunged Taliban forces from villages in the border area.
That will provide only scant comfort to Dushanbe, which has been in a state of intense anxiety for some months over the trouble rumbling to the south.
In May, Tajikistan’s Defense Ministry reacted to the worsening situation in Afghanistan’s Kunduz Province by ordering the formation of a secondary defensive line along the border. An official quoted by Asia-Plus said that additional forces and equipment had been dispatched to the southern Khatlon province to make up the numbers.
In an indication of the level of concern, President Emomali Rahmon ordered that reservists be drafted into reinforcing the security presence.
Screenshots of RFE/RL video of the Russian military trial of Valeriy Permyakov, August 12, on charges of desertion and taking weapons from the base.
A Russian soldier accused of murdering seven members of an Armenian family faced his first trial this week, a Russian military tribunal which tried him on charges of desertion and taking weapons from the base where he was stationed.
It took the tribunal only a day to convict the soldier, Valeriy Permyakov, on those charges and convict him to ten years in a high-security penal colony. Permyakov still faces murder charges which, under a political compromise between Yerevan and Moscow, will be prosecuted by an Armenian court later.
Permyakov did not testify in the August 12 trial, held at Russia's 102nd military base in Armenia's second city, Gyumri. However, his pretrial testimony was read out in court, giving for the first time his account of the events of January 12.
In his pre-trial testimony, Permyakov admitted his guilt and said his intention on leaving the base was only to break into a house, steal money and valuables and go back home to Russia because he was homesick. However, in the course of the robbery, he got scared and opened fire, he said. The murders, and Russia's response to them, have been a serious point of friction between Armenia and Russia in a period of slowly deteriorating ties between the two allies.
According to Armenian media, Permyakov will remain in prison at the base in Gyumri for the time being. Officials have not yet announced when his trial in Armenian courts may begin, and what will happen with this ten-year sentence in the very likely case he's convicted in that trial remains unclear.
Azerbaijan's ships compete in the inaugural Caspian Cup naval skills competition. (photo: MoD Russia)
The first-ever "Caspian Cup" naval skills competition has ended with Russia, unsurprisingly, the winner. But it was Azerbaijan's performance that garnered the most headlines, for all the wrong reasons.
In the final tally, Russia won with 65 points, Kazakhstan came in second with 48, and Azerbaijan brought up the rear with 33 points. The other two Caspian naval states, Iran and Turkmenistan, chose not to compete.
Reporting on the event was spotty, and it's not entirely clear what happened. But from what can be gleaned from the reporting out there, at the first stage of the contest Azerbaijan's entry, Patrol Cutter G-122, had some kind of problem. "Not everything worked out for the Azerbaijani team, their equipment and weapons let them down," said Dmitry Gorbatenko, the chief judge of the competition, on August 6. "They will change the ship and on August 7 Azerbaijan will be able to perform and show off their mastery in this contest."
The same day, though, Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry responded, saying that "Russian websites" were spreading information "that does not fully reflect the reality of the situation."
"The press service of the Ministry of Defense officially reports that minor problems were quickly solved on the scene by our sailors," the ministry said in a statement. "At the current time the warships taking part in the competition are successfully continuing to compete in the crew skills and equipment capabilities [competitions]. Contrary to the published information, our soldiers have successfully carried out all tasks which have been assigned up to now, have destroyed all sea and air targets, achieving an excellent result."
A row has erupted in northern Kazakhstan over the erection of a monument to Russian Tsar Nicholas II, who is reviled by many Kazakhs for his association with the bloody suppression of an uprising in 1916.
The bust to Tsar Nicholas II, who was murdered by the Bolsheviks following the 1917 Russian Revolution, was put up by local businessman Pyotr Vanger outside a church in the village of Arkhangelskoye, just south of the border with Russia.
On August 10, the statue was moved inside the village’s Russian Orthodox church following an outcry on social media about a monument revering somebody perceived as a Russian despot appearing in public.
“The monument has been taken inside, into the church,” Tengri News quoted local authorities as saying. “The decision to take it inside was made by the entrepreneur himself, to avoid questions.”
The statue has so far avoided the fate of a monument to Soviet leader Josef Stalin in southern Kazakhstan which was torn down earlier this year after generating a similar controversy.
That statue was removed from its pedestal in May, after villagers had re-erected it following its toppling in a hurricane last summer.
Village authorities ruled that they had acted without planning permission. But the case had wider political connotations as many were enraged at the reverential treatment of a Soviet leader whose policies caused the death of millions of people in Kazakhstan and elsewhere in the Soviet Union.
Statues to Russian and Soviet despots are sensitive for Astana, which is eager to promote its own sovereignty without antagonizing its powerful neighbor and close ally Russia.