But that’s exactly how it has been perceived by Georgian Facebook and Twitter users. “Nice to know that all those people died in Afghanistan for nothing,” bristled one Facebook user, referring to the more than two dozen Georgian soldiers who have died in NATO’s Afghanistan campaign.
With experience also in Iraq and Kosovo, Georgia has supplied the largest number of troops to that operation out of any non-NATO country.
In both the U.S. and Russia there has been a fair amount of talk about the possibility that as U.S.-Russia relations deteriorate, Russia could block the U.S.'s transportation of supplies to its forces in Afghanistan. But experts in Russia tell The Bug Pit that there is little incentive for the Kremlin to take such a step.
U.S. military planners say they have already been making contingency plans in case Russia shuts off the Afghanistan transit routes, known collectively as the Northern Distribution Network. In an interview with Russian newspaper Kommersant, NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow was asked about the possibility of Russia shutting down the NDN. "We hope that Russia, which has an interest in the long-term stability of Afghanistan, will continue cooperation on transit." And jingoistic Russians are licking their chops. "They understand this in the Kremlin: the agreement over the 'Northern Distribution Network' at NATO's disposal is one of the strongest trumps that Russia has in its conflict with the West," the website Military Review recently wrote.
Russia has hastened to assure its Central Asian allies that they will not be involved in any military moves in Ukraine, a sign that Moscow is aware of the growing worry about its new assertiveness.
The issue is the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led post-Soviet security bloc that includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The group thus far has seen a lot more talk than action, and plenty of questions remain about what it will actually do. On Monday, Kyrgyzstani MP Tursunbai Bakir Uulu expressed concern that the CSTO might embroil Kyrgyzstan in the conflict in Ukraine:
"The agreement was ratified, but before the events in Ukraine. I don't want to be a hostage to these agreements. You know, that the [Russian] Federation Council took a decision that, if the need arose, they could intervene militarily in Ukraine. If tomorrow war breaks out between Russia and Ukraine, we would be obliged to fight on Russia's side. We need to withdraw from these agreements so we don't get drawn into a war in Ukraine."
An American MRAP is loaded on to a Russian An-124 aircraft at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, in 2012. (photo: U.S. Air Force 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs)
Russia's potential blockage of the U.S. military's transportation corridors to Afghanistan has received a fair amount of attention as the U.S.-Russian relationship has collapsed over the crisis in Ukraine. Behind the scenes, however there is also discussion of suspending the substantial commercial cooperation that the U.S. military has with Russia over transport to and from Afghanistan.
At issue are the massive Antonov An-124 aircraft, the largest cargo plane in regular use. There are only three companies in the world that operate the 20 An-124s in commercial use, and only two of them -- the Russian company Volga-Dnepr and the Ukrainian company Antonov -- conduct military business, according to a 2012 article by Defense Media Network: "In the last dozen or so years, Russian and Ukrainian commercial carriers have flown thousands of missions in support of American and allied military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and all over the globe." The aircraft are useful in particular for carrying the Mine-Resistant, Armor-Protected (MRAP) vehicles in heavy use by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Volga-Dnepr has ten An-124s and Antonov seven, and Volga-Dnepr's director of North American operations, Colon Miller, said business is booming: “We’ll go from an oil mission out of Houston, Texas to something out of Africa, or a mission to Central Asia, then to Europe and back to the United States, a military mission leaving Charleston Air Force base, head over to CENTCOM area, offload its cargo in Afghanistan, pick up additional cargo while it’s there and fly it back to Kuwait and then reposition to South America for an oil job back to the United States, then Indonesia, Australia, Russia. They’re hot moving, pretty much all the time.”
The Dniestr River, dividing Transnistria from Chisinau-controlled Moldova (photo: The Bug Pit)
Fears that the crisis in Ukraine could be spreading to Moldova have sharpened as American and European leaders warn that the Russian military may be casting its eyes further West. "There is absolutely sufficient force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Trans-Dniester if the decision was made to do that. That is very worrisome," said U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO's supreme allied commander. Strobe Talbott, one of the U.S.'s top diplomats in the ex-Soviet world, tweeted: "[N]ow that we've had crash course on Crimea, read ahead about Transnistria, a likely target for Putin next move." Added Nicu Popescu, an analyst at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris" “What happened to Crimea in two weeks, most of that had happened to Trans Dnestr in the last 22 years, except for what happened to Crimea in the last 24 hours: recognition by Russia and annexation. That could happen in Trans Dnestr.” Russian officials denied they had any expansionist aims: “Russian armed forces are not involved in any manner of unannounced military manoeuvres that would endanger the security of neighbouring states,” said Russia’s deputy defence minister, Anatoly Antonov. “We have nothing to hide.” The de facto authorities in Transnistria, the separatist region of Moldova that borders western Ukraine. called last week to join Russia like Crimea did.
Belarus has been increasing its military cooperation with Russia during the period of the crisis in Ukraine, but analysts argue that is as much as a way to keep Moscow at arm's length as a desire for closer ties.
Earlier this month, Russia sent six Su-27 fighter jets to Belarus's Babruisk airfield, which Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said was prompted by the U.S. sending its own fighter jets to neighboring Poland and Lithuania. “We reacted calmly until large-scale exercises began ... in Poland,” Lukashenko said. “There is a clear escalation of the situation near our borders.”
Meanwhile, however, Belarus's government has been noticeably reluctant to toe Moscow's line on Russian policy in Ukraine. Its foreign ministry has not endorsed the Crimean annexation, unlike many of its fellow Collective Security Treaty Organization members like Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.
As the Belarus Security Blog argued, Belarus considers its military to be a low priority. "In this case, official Minsk decided to demonstrate its loyalty on defense issues in order to neutralize the effect from refusing to follow Russian policy," a recent post said.
Now that Russia’s snatching of Crimea is complete, the dirty business of plundering assets is kicking into gear.
The process, of course, does not involve lawyers and courts; it relies on the use of force. In the highest-profile hostile takeover to date, a truckload of armed, masked men wearing military-style uniforms seized control of a Simferopol car dealership March 18. The property, located on Balaklavskaya Street in the Crimean capital, belonged to the Bogdan Corp., a Kyiv-headquartered auto company with dealerships across Ukraine. Bogdan Corp. reportedly has close ties to Petro Poroshenko, one of the richest men in Ukraine and a member of the Ukrainian Rada. He was also a prominent figure in the Euromaidan protests in Kiev.
What person or entity wrested control of the dealership from Bogdan Corp. is difficult to discern. When journalists from a local television station, ATR, started asking questions, they were quickly chased away by the armed brigands, and one unfortunate reporter took a rifle butt on the chin.
A statement issued by Bogdan Corp. asserted that several employees at the dealership were being held against their will.
With law and order on the peninsula in disarray, it seems a fair bet that the dealership take-away marks the start of the process of divvying up Crimea’s spoils.
A cake commemorating the Northern Distribution Network at a 2013 ceremony in Riga, Latvia. Might the Russian flag be removed from future cakes? (photo: The Bug Pit)
The U.S. is already making plans to redirect cargo to Afghanistan if Russia no longer allows the Pentagon to use its territory, a top U.S. military official has said. And it appears that Georgia and Azerbaijan may be poised to benefit if that happens.
U.S. Air Force General Paul Selva is currently the head of Air Mobility Command and the nominee to be the new chief of U.S. Transportation Command, which operates the Northern Distribution Network of supply lines through Russia and other former Soviet states. General Selva had his confirmation hearing this week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, and among the issues he was asked about was contingency plans for the NDN.
"In light of what's happening in the Ukraine, we are -- the president, many of us -- are pushing us for further economic sanctions, other types of sanctions against Russia for their invasion of Crimea," said Senator Kelly Ayotte, a Republican from New Hampshire. "And if the Russians were to take retaliatory action as a result of that to shut down the Northern Distribution Network... what impact would that have to us and how would we address it?"
"That is a priority," Selva said. "If the Russians were to take action to constrain our access to the Russian segments of the Northern Distribution Network, we have other options to move that cargo in and out of Afghanistan," he said. "I'm told about 20 percent of the subsistence cargoes [e.g. food] move through that network, so we'd have to use another option to get it in. We do have several options in the Northern Distribution Network that do not include transiting Russia."
Members of Crimea's "self-defense forces" in Simferopol. (photos: The Bug Pit)
The de facto Crimean government has sworn in its first armed forces, formalizing the "self-defense forces" that sprung up as a result of the peninsula's autonomous government breaking with the Ukrainian central government in Kiev.
The force is commanded by Alexander Bochkarev, a retired Ukrainian Interior Ministry colonel. Estimates of the size of the force vary: Bloomberg cites Bochkarev saying that "their numbers rose to about 15,000 on March 7, when a local hunting club joined with 4,500 members, guns and ammunition." And then:
“We have several arsenals in reserve that are guarded by our Crimean guys,” said Bochkarev, who has 2,800 people under his command. Many of them may join the regular Crimea army that is being formed now, he said.
Crimean authorities started recruiting last week and 186 soldiers have already taken an oath, the Interfax news service reported, citing premier Aksenov. There will be a 1,500-strong army with guns guarding polling stations at the March 16 referendum, he said.
Bochkarev told Russian press, meanwhile, that the size of the force is only 1,500, "and we don't need more."
All of the recruits were “carefully checked because they will be handed weapons,” Aleksandr Bochkarev, head of the Crimean self-defense forces, told RIA-Novosti.
“They have already proven themselves in the people’s militia of Crimea. Each of them had previously served either in the military or in the law enforcement agencies. All of them are fit for military service and possess the necessary skills,” he said...
U.S. sailors aboard the USS Truxtun as it visits Romania during joint exercises in the Black Sea (photo: U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd class Scott Barnes)
In response to the crisis in Crimea, the U.S. has undertaken a number of military moves around the region. While Washington's military deployments are still far from a direct involvement in the conflict in Ukraine, they do raise the stakes, as the U,S, tries to walk a narrow line, reassuring its allies in the region while avoiding provoking Russia into widening the conflict.
In recent days the U.S. has sent 12 F-16 fighter jets to Poland and Lithuania for joint exercises. NATO has started reconnaissance flights over Poland and Romania, NATO members that border Ukraine. “What we are doing is reassuring our allies that we are there for them,” said U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, explaining the F-16 deployment. “This is an important time for us to make it crystal clear to all our allies and partners in the region that the United States of America stands by them.”
Nevertheless, as aviation analyst David Cenciotti noted on his blog, the reconnaissance planes NATO has sent are intended for monitoring air activity, and that has been a relatively minor element of the conflict thus far. "The news would have been much more relevant if platform specialized in mapping ground targets (as the E-8C Joint Stars or the RAF Sentinel R1) were involved in the operation: so far Moscow has mainly employed ultra-low-level flying helicopters that could be difficult to detect even for an E-3 at that distance," he wrote.