Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev and Russian TV journalist Dmitriy Kiselev. (photo: president.az)
During a largely friendly interview with Russian state media, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev nevertheless pushed back against a number of Moscow's talking points, offering a high-level view on to the two countries' disagreements on issues including the war in Syria and Azerbaijan's arms procurements.
The interview was conducted October 18 in Baku by Dmitriy Kiselyev, one of Russia's most prominent and patriotic television journalists. Kiselyev was fulsome in his praise of Aliyev, Baku, and Azerbaijan, and the interview appeared to be partly a Russian charm offensive toward Azerbaijan, and partly an attempt to portray Aliyev to the Russian public as, if not exactly an ally, then at least someone with whom Russia could do business.
There were a number of softballs, like when Kiselyev asked Aliyev to take credit for the recent rapprochement between Turkey and Russia. Aliyev modestly demurred, but – without Kiselyev's prompting – floated a conspiracy theory about Turkey's shootdown of the Russian jet that resulted in the crisis last year. Aliyev suggested that “certain forces, worried about strengthening ties between Russia and Turkey” were behind it, and agreed with Kiselyev that it could be an “outside” force, without offering any specifics. But it dovetails well with a theory current in Turkey following the rapprochement with Russia that blames Gulenist saboteurs for the shootdown.
And Kiselyev's line of questioning about the West's “double standards,” one of the favorite topics of both Moscow and Baku, led to a long discussion. (One interesting novelty: Aliyev suggested that one of the reasons for the West's criticism of his government was that Baku declined to go along with “campaigns and adventure” that don't benefit it, which in the context appears to refer to Western sanctions against Russia.)
Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko speaks at the Yerevan summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization on October 14. (photo: president.gov.by)
The Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led political-military bloc, has again failed to find a new leader during a summit that did nothing to combat the growing suspicion that the organization is dysfunctional.
The CSTO held its annual summit on October 14 in Yerevan, and the current secretary general, Nikolay Bordyuzha, had said that the group would pick his replacement at the summit. But the summiteers, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, left the get-together without settling on a new leader and without explaining that failure. "We'll get back to the matter in late 2016," Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan said after the summit.
It's not clear how significant a role the secretary general of the CSTO plays and what might change with a new person in the role. Some Armenian officials tried to play down the succession issue. "It's not important which nationality or government the next secretary general represents," said Bagram Bagdasaryan, the ruling Republican Party of Armenia's parliamentary leader
But the fact that the new leader is slated to be an Armenian has added some intrigue to the leadership question. Armenia is probably the most loyal CSTO member, with the most to gain -- if a wider war were to break out with Azerbaijan, Armenia could in theory gain the support of its allies.
Turkey has reportedly invited Russia to bid on an air defense system that has become a sort of geopolitical bellwether, suggesting that Ankara may be using its rapprochement with Moscow to send a message to its Western partners.
On October 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin made his first visit to Turkey since the two countries fell out over Turkey's shooting down of a Russian jet on the Syrian border last year. And after Putin met with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russia was "invited" to take part in the air defense tender, Defense News reported, citing Turkish diplomatic and procurement sources.
This would appear to revive the epic saga of Ankara's multibillion dollar T-LORAMIDS air defense program. In 2013, Turkey surprised everyone by choosing a Chinese system for the program, but after its NATO partners strongly objected, eventually abandoned the procurement and last year announced that it would instead work on building the system in Turkey.
Since then, though, Ankara has been quietly negotiating with the original American and European bidders, Defense News reported. And now Russia makes it a three-way competition.
Russia was one of the bidders in the original competition, with an export version of the S-300VM, but it was the least attractive of the four options: it shared the high price of the Western systems (reportedly double the price the Chinese offered) with the security risk of the Chinese. The crux of NATO's objection to the Chinese system was that it couldn't be securely intregrated with NATO's system; a Russian system would surely be just as dangerous from that perspective.
Soldiers from CSTO member states practice carrying out a UN peacekeeping mission in Belarus in August 2016. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Russia's post-Soviet security bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, has held discussions with the United Nations about taking part in UN peacekeeping missions, an effort analysts said was likely made with Syria in mind.
"We have agreed to prepare a roadmap on the involvement of CSTO peacekeepers in UN peacekeeping operations," said CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha last month in New York after meeting with UN officials there. The UN "has already proposed the steps that we need to take and there is quite an active dialogue going on," he said.
The CSTO has been developing a peacekeeping structure for years, and held its first peacekeeping exercise in Kazakhstan in 2012. (The CSTO includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, in addition to Russia.)
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."