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."
No sooner had Kyrgyzstan’s parliament canceled deals with Russian companies to build two major hydropower plant in January, talk began of having to pay money back.
With more than six months having elapsed since that decision, Russia is now raising the issue anew, demanding the return of $37 million its companies sunk into the projects, RFE/RL has reported.
The deal agreed between Kyrgyzstan and Russia on construction of the Upper Naryn cascade and Kambarata-1 hydropower projects, which were to be built by RusHydro and Inter RAO UES, respectively, officially expired on August 9.
Kyrgyzstan has, on paper at least, been candid about its obligations since day one. In January, deputy Economy Minister Nurlan Sadykov said that $37 million spent on a worker dormitory, cement production facility and other items would be reimbursed.
There was one catch though.
Sadykov added that money would be returned only once Kyrgyzstan had found new investors for the projects in question.
“Kyrgyzstan has fully abided by the obligations placed upon it by the project [agreement],” he said.
Sadykov said that while Kyrgyzstan allocated the necessary land for work, Russia had failed to provide funds required develop it in the required timeframe.
“The lack of financing was what became the cause of the cancellation of the deal,” he said.
No alternative has materialized and it does not appear that Bishkek has made especially concerted efforts to seek out such a party. Generating interest from individuals, companies or states will be tough given the likely costs. RFE/RL explains how the initial estimate for the Upper Naryn cascade was calculated at $400 million, but that this figure later rose to $700 million. And Inter RAO UES was contemplating $2 billion investments into Kambarata-1.
The Russian corvette Makhachkala, taking part in ongoing exercises -- and more? -- in the Caspian Sea. (photo: Russian MoD)
Russia asked Iran and Iraq for permission to to use their airspace for ballistic missiles against Syrian targets, apparently from the Caspian Sea, part of a new offensive against ISIS from the East.
"The Russian Defense Ministry last week sent a request to Iraq and Iran for the use of the airspace of these countries for the flight of ballistic missiles," a military source told the Russian news agency Interfax on Monday.
The request coincides with naval exercises, which also started Monday, of the Caspian Flotilla in the "southwest part of the sea," i.e. the part closest to Syria. "The plan of the exercises envisages testing the readiness of the forces of the Caspian Flotilla in resolving crisis situations presenting a threat to the military security of the country, including of a terrorist nature," the MoD said in a release.
Russia last year senttwo salvos of Kalibr cruise missiles against ISIS targets in Syria from ships in the Caspian Sea, the first ever combat use of those missiles and an unprecedented step in the militarization of the Caspian. The events caused some consternation among Russia's Caspian neighbors, most notably Kazakhstan, which rerouted flights across the sea and apparently complained behind the scenes.
Screenshot of a television ad, aired by Georgia's Centrist Party on state television, advocating for the legalization of Russian military bases in Georgia.
Geopolitics has taken center stage in Georgia's election campaign, with one party calling to legalize Russian military bases in the country, another calling for the constitution to enshrine Georgia's "non-bloc" status, and another calling for the constitution to reflect the country's NATO aspirations.
At the end of June, the Democratic Movement party called for Georgia to be officially neutral. The party leader, Nino Burjanadze, was once a leader of Georgia's pro-Western Rose Revolution but has since developed close ties with Russia.
“We believe that a clause should be added to the Georgian constitution, which would stipulate non-bloc status for Georgia,” she said, according to Civil.ge. “It means that Georgia should reject joining any kind of military bloc be it NATO or any other military alliance. There should be no troops of any foreign country or a bloc on the Georgian soil." She argued that Georgia's “authorities and significant part of country’s political elite act pursuant to NATO and the U.S. interests, instead of Georgia’s interests.”
Then, in response, the pro-NATO Republican Party introduced a counterproposal, to amend the constiution so that its preamble included the direction "to establish a full-fledged place in the Euro-Atlantic system of security and cooperation of democratic states."
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev hosts his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for tea at his house. (photo: president.az)
The presidents of Russia, Iran, and Azerbaijan met in Baku this week, for the first time in this trilateral format, part of a week of heavy diplomatic activity that highlighted the shifting international relations around the South Caucasus.
The Baku meeting took place on Monday, and was taken on the initiative of Azerbaijan. The top agenda item was a railroad project that could connect Russia and Eastern Europe to the Persian Gulf.
That project would bring not only economic benefits to the three countries, but could be a geostrategic boon for Azerbaijan, as well, said Zaur Shiriyev, a Baku-based political analyst. He noted that this project would compete with another Russia-initiated North-South railroad project, that would go from Russia through Abkhazia, Georgia, and Armenia.
"This transport corridor bypasses Armenia, thereby eliminating the possibility of reopening the Russian-Georgian railway though Abkhazia, or any kind of discussion that was used a threat [against] Baku," Shiriyev said in an email interview with The Bug Pit. He noted that that Armenia project also could have competed with another Azerbaijani rail priority, the currently under-construction Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway that will connect Azerbaijan to Turkey and Europe.
At the International Army Games competitions in Kazakhstan, soldiers from 12 countries competed in sniper and artillery competitions; military VIPs viewed an opening ceremony with Kazakh pageantry, and the visiting soldiers toured Almaty. (photos: MoD Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan is hosting two events of the International Army Games, a Russia-created military Olympics, the first time the competition has been held outside of Russia.
The sniper and artillery competitions of the Army Games are being held at the Gvardeiskiy training facility near Almaty, with 278 soldiers from Kazakhstan, Venezuela, Kyrgyzstan, China, Russia, Belarus, Zimbabwe, India, Iran, Mongolia, Greece, and Armenia taking part. "We are glad to be the first to widen the geography of the Army Games," said Defense Minister Imangali Tasmagambetov, the opening ceremony.
Competing at home apparently inspired the Kazakh teams; they won the sniper competition and as of Monday they were leading the artillery event.
This is the second year of the Army Games, a sort of Russian military soft power event with origins in a Collective Security Treaty Organization (Russia's post-Soviet security cooperation alliance) but which has taken on a more global scope. While Russia has tried to get NATO countries to take part, that effort has largely failed and the list of competitors is largely a Russia-friendly one.
The chiefs of staff of the armed forces of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan watch military exercises in Urumqi. (photo: Inter Services Public Relations)
Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan have set up a "Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism" to jointly combat terrorism, further advancing security cooperation between the unlikely group of countries.
The chiefs of general staffs of the four armed forces met in Urumqi, China, on Wednsday and announced the formation of the mechanism, which will coordinate efforts on "study and judgment of counter terrorism situation, confirmation of clues, intelligence sharing, anti-terrorist capability building, joint anti-terrorist training and personnel training," according to a joint statement by the four sides.
Recall that when this idea was first publicly broached in March, Russian analysts reacted with some alarm, calling it a "Central Asian NATO" representing an unprecedentedly bold move by China into Central Asian security while excluding Russia. (Some Russian media then blamed this blog for fomenting discord between China and Russia by reporting on those analysts' comments.) Thus far there seems to be no further comment from the Russian government or press on this development.
The four representatives also observed a Chinese military exercise at Korla. "Exercise encompased a very effective neutralization of a terrorists' base in a remote mountainous region employing all the modern aerial and ground equipment and gadgets. [Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan] appreciated [the People's Liberation Army] troops for their skills and enhanced abilities to counter all categories of terrorism," according to a Pakistani military press release.
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and his Kazakhstan counterpart Imangali Tasmagambetov meet in Astana. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Russia has given Kazakhstan several air defense systems, and the two sides reportedly negotiated more Kazakh purchases of Russian aircraft during a visit by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu this week to Astana.
The delivery of the S-300PS air defense systems has been discussed for years. When Russia announced at the end of last year that the deal was finally complete, the Kazakh side declined to comment publicly, and anonymous MoD officials complained that the systems in fact needed lots of repair and were not ready for service.
This time, though, Kazakhstan's MoD announced that they had received the S-300s -- and that Russia had even thrown in 170 rockets to be used with them.
It's unclear what threats from the air Kazakhstan faces. But Russia has been pursuing a joint air defense system within the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and has been carrying out analogous negotiations with CSTO members Armenia and Belarus. (Kazakhstan also has claimed that Uzbekistan drones have violated its airspace.)
In addition, Shoigu discussed two possible aircraft deals with Kazakhstan, reported the Russian newspaper Kommersant, citing a source "familiar with the deals." They would include four Yak-130s, which can be used both as training aircraft and light attack jets; an undisclosed number of Yak-152 training aircraft; and two Il-76MD-90A military transport aircraft. The negotiations on the transport aircraft are "relatively advanced," Kommersant reported.