Azerbaijan was the second-largest arms importer in Europe over the past five years, according to a new report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, an arms trade research group.
Azerbaijan accounted for fully 13 percent of all of Europe's arms imports over the last five years, SIPRI reported, behind only the U.K. (The report doesn't list dollar values for the imports.)
While overall arms imports have been decreasing across Europe, Azerbaijan is bucking the trend: its imports of weaponry increased 249 percent in the period 2010-2014 when compared to the previous five-year period, 2005-2009.
SIPRI also tabulated the world trade in drones ("unmanned aerial vehicles" in military-speak) and Azerbaijan also ended up near the top of that list, as the fourth-largest importer of drones in the world since 1985, trailing only the U.K., India, and Italy. It also scored impressively in another SIPRI survey from last year, tallying the second-largest increase in defense budgets in the world over the past ten years.
Hours before heroically coaxing Vladimir Putin out of his mysterious 11-day hibernation on March 16, Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek made a brief stopover in Moldova.
He was flying on a private jet, reportedly provided by one of Moldova’s richest men.
The secretive mission to Chisinau, where Atambayev reportedly met controversial oligarch-politician Vladimir Plahotniuc, has baffled many in Bishkek and angered opposition leaders.
Plahotniuc, aside from being a parliamentarian from the pro-Europe Democratic Party of Moldova, has faced legal scandals related to his business activity in both Great Britain and the Netherlands. In 2012, Business New Europe called the oligarch “a kingmaker.” Others describe him as the most powerful man in Moldova.
Prompting even more questions, Atambayev did not meet Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti during the four-hour layover. Timofti’s press secretary said to local media, as a way of explanation, that Atambayev was short on time and that he “met with someone in Chisinau.”
Atambayev’s office is mostly tight-lipped about the meeting, prompting a furious reaction from opposition leader Ravshan Jeenbekov, who said such behavior – flying on a private jet and holding secret meetings – “does not honor the head of an independent state.”
After 11 days of no public appearances and dozens of theories and speculations about his curious absence, Russian President Vladimir Putin stepped back into the public spotlight today during a presentation to the news media with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev joining him at the Konstantinovsky Palace in St. Petersburg. Photos released by the Kyrgyz Presidential Press Service show the two leaders striding into a room together, shaking hands, sitting down, and exchanging comments to each other and reporters.
During the discussion the Kyrgyz president commented: "I’d like to add for the media that Mr. Putin just drove me around the [palace] grounds, and was at the wheel himself. I say this to dispel the rumors." Atambayev was referring to more than a week of media commentators, political analysts, bloggers, and government opposition figures conjuring up guesses and gossip as to Putin's absence, including a Kremlin coup, attending the birth of secret lovechild in Switzerland, illness, and even death
Putin added: "Life would get boring without rumors."
Russian President Vladimir Putin ended a mysterious 11-day disappearance by materializing for a meeting with his Kyrgyz counterpart in St. Petersburg on March 16, Kremlin pool journalists at the meeting reported on Twitter just before 2 p.m. local time.
Kyrgyzstan’s aggressively pro-Putin president, Almazbek Atambayev, confirmed his counterpart was in good health, Russian state media reported. For his part, Putin dismissed reports on his health, saying “[life] would be boring without gossip.”
Putin had last been seen in public on March 5. There was no immediate explanation for his long absence.
The president rarely drops out of sight. So with his disappearance coming at a time of heightened anxieties in the West about Russia’s course, and rising militant nationalism at home, Russian and international media nervously speculated over his whereabouts. Pundits postulated that the president had died, was recovering from a botched Botox job, had been toppled in a place coup, or was on a secret mission to oversee the birth of a lovechild in Switzerland.
Even some of Russia’s urban liberals – no Putin lovers – became concerned that if the president had exited, who or what would come next. Had Putin been deposed in a coup by hardliners even more hardline than himself?
Putin’s spokesman tried in vain all last week to bat away the speculation, which was fueled by revelations that recent footage of presidential meetings had been pre-recorded.
In the hours before Putin appeared, as the suspense grew in St. Petersburg, some noted that Kyrgyz journalists had not been invited on the trip with Atambayev.
Recent reports that Russian military vehicles were appearing in Georgia have raised complaints in neighboring Azerbaijan that Tbilisi is “betraying” Baku by allowing the Russian military to ship military supplies into Armenia via its territory or airspace.
The story of the Russian vehicles in Georgia is almost certainly a tempest in a teapot – after footage surfaced of Russian-made ZIL 131 military trucks on Georgian streets, various theories quickly emerged. Georgia's opposition claimed the trucks were evidence that the current government was in cahoots with Moscow, while some suggested they may be on the way to Armenia, where Russia both has its own large military base and provides substantial military aid to the armed forces there. But it didn't take long for another, more banal explanation to come out: the vehicles were decommissioned in Russia and are being sold on the commercial market.
There's no indication that the Russian trucks were in fact destined for Armenia, but the question of how Russia supplies its base in Armenia, as well as delivers military aid there, has long been a secretive and contentious one. Armenia is separated from Russia by Azerbaijan and Turkey, which are hostile to Armenia, and Georgia, which is hostile to Russia. Georgia nevertheless did allow overflights of Russian military shipments to Armenia until 2011, when it publicly annulled the agreement with Russia allowing for that transit. The status of that transit is now unclear, though there have been various unconfirmed reports that it was reinstated even while former president Mikheil Saakashvili was in power.
Reports about Vladimir Putin’s death might be slightly exaggerated, but they have kept Internet-users entertained for two days now. Yet, as journalists go chasing the vanished Russian president, perhaps someone needs to talk to his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, who insisted that he spoke to Putin over the phone just yesterday.
According to the Armenian president’s office, Putin told Sargsyan he was planning to come visit Yerevan on April 24 for Armenia’s commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the massive slaughter of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey.
If the chat did take place, Sargsyan may be the last leader to have spoken to Putin. A trip to Kazakhstan was canceled, as was a meeting with a delegation from breakaway South Ossetia.
Armenia ranks as Russia's main ally in the South Caucasus, so, presumably, Sargsyan would know when he's talking to Putin himself.
But how did Putin sound to the Armenian leader? For now, Sargsyan's office ain't sayin'.
The chat, though, is likely to feed the fire of speculation since Putin disappeared from public view after late last week. What began as a “have you seen Putin?” whisper is turning into a wildly trending “Putin died” phenomenon that some take seriously and others as a total joke. Even an oracular website has been set up to let users ask if Putin is dead or not.
NATO warships deploy to the Black Sea. (photo: NATO)
A six-ship NATO naval group is conducting joint exercises in the Black Sea, and the Russian military is taking advantage of the event to carry out war games of a sort.
The NATO group is led by an American admiral aboard the USS Vicksburg, and also includes warships from Canada, Germany, Italy, Romania, and Turkey. The training "will include simulated anti-air and anti-submarine warfare exercises, as well as simulated small boat attacks and basic ship handling manoeuvres," according to a release from NATO.
An anonymous source in the Russian naval base at Sevastopol, Crimea, told agency RIA Novosti that they are following the deployment and using it as an opportunity to practice testing the NATO forces' anti-aircraft systems. The probing is being carried out by Su-30 fighters and Su-24 bombers, the source said:
"Our pilots are mainly monitoring the direction of the NATO ships and monitoring the tasks that they are carrying out on their visit to the sea," the source said. "In addition, the ships' crews are no doubt conducting exercises with our planes to practice an air attack, which gives our pilots the opportunity to gain experience maneuvering and conducting aerial surveillance both in and outside of the range of the anti-aircraft systems."
The Taysoygan training grounds, which Russia currently leases from Kazakhstan, in a screenshot from a report on Astana TV.
Kazakhstan has reached an agreement with Russia to take over most of a Russian military training facility in far western Kazakhstan. The deal represents the latest step in Kazakhstan's efforts to regain control over the many Soviet-legacy military and other strategic facilities that Russia still operates in the country.
Under the agreement, Russia will hand over about 90 percent of the Taysoygan testing facility near Atyrau, Senator Sarsenbay Engsegenov told Astana TV. President Nursultan Nazarbayev instructed the Ministry of Defense to work out the details of the agreement, which should be ratified by parliament by the end of March, Engsegenov said. There hasn't yet been any comment from the Russian side.
The Taysoygan facility is currently used for Russian testing of pilots and aircraft, but in the Soviet era it was used for nuclear testing (it was reportedly subject to 24 nuclear explosions in the 1960s and 70s), and today residents still talk about the environmental impact of that: there have been calves born with five legs or one eye, children with a variety of developmental disabilities, and adults tend to have short lifespans.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Iranian envoy Ali Akbar Velayati in January. (photo: Kremlin)
Iran may be admitted into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization this summer if it makes progress in resolving disputes over its nuclear program, Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has said.
It already seems clear that India and Pakistan, who have both long sought SCO membership, will be admitted at the organization's summit this July in Ufa, Russia. Iran -- which also has been trying for years to enter the SCO -- has been hampered by the fact that it is under international sanctions related to its nuclear program.
But when a senior Iranian official, Ali Akbar Velayati, visited Moscow in late January, he reportedly gained the Kremlin's approval for SCO membership.
"Velayati’s Moscow trip might signal that some kind of a significant change in relations is about to take place. Iran’s Mehr News reported that in Moscow, Velayati was able to secure Putin’s approval for Iran to 'upgrade its status' in the SCO," noted regional analyst Alex Vatanka. "As an observer state in SCO, Iran has since 2005 unsuccessfully sought to obtain full membership in the organization, but perhaps the Russians are about to entertain the idea of Tehran joining the alliance. Along these lines, the state-run Iranian media have been busy hyping the prospects of an SCO membership for Iran."
Three-and-a-half tons of mimosas allegedly now are crossing each day from separatist Abkhazia into Russia, Russian news outlets allege. The tiny, subtropical region is hoping to make a roaring trade out of its resplendent yellow blossoms ahead of the March 8 International Women’s Day, a combination of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day in the post-Soviet world.
As it blossoms early, mimosa, or acacia dealbata, makes a prime gift for the big day. Mother Nature has helped out as well. A moderate winter led to early blossoms this year on Abkhazia’s Black Sea coast, Russian media claim.
Yet contraband is also on the increase. Some smugglers are trying to hide Abkhazia’s mimosas in their car trunks, Russian customs officials complained, Vesti.ru reported, citing TASS.
A standard mimosa bouquet sells for 100 rubles, or $1.60, in Sochi, the largest Russian city near Abkhazia, according to one outlet.
But, soon, those mimosas may not rank as contraband. Russian President Vladimir Putin, ever land-hungry, would like to eliminate Russia’s de-facto border with flowering Abkhazia, which Moscow recognises as an independent country from Georgia.