Kazakhstan soldiers goose-stepping in a 2015 military parade. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev has ordered a change in the way his country's soldiers march in a symbolic separation from Russia and the country's Soviet legacy.
In an order issued on Wednesday, Nazarbayev decreed that from now one, Kazakhstan's soldiers will march at a tempo of 95-105 steps per minute, with each step measuring from 60-70 centimeters. Furthermore, "the forward leg should be raised 10-15 centimeters from the ground and placed firmly on the entire sole, the toe held more freely, not extended."
This may seem to be a pretty arcane issue, but there are political implications. Russia and most post-Soviet militaries use the so-called "goose step," which uses a tempo of 120 steps per minute, at a maximum of 80 centimeters, and a straight leg.
Ever since Russia’s Defense Ministry announced it is to convert its military presence in Tajikistan from a division into a brigade, watchers of the region have been scratching their heads trying to work out the significance of the development.
Authorities in Tajikistan appear no more certain than anybody else what to make of it.
Russian news agency TASS on January 30 cited the commander of the Central Military District, Colonel General Vladimir Zarudnitsky, as saying that the reformatting of the base would make Russian forces more mobile, while reducing the volume of enlisted personnel.
“All the same, the role [of the base] as a Russian outpost in Central Asia and guarantor for peace and stability in the region will remain unchanged,” Zarudnitsky was quoted as saying.
A drastic reorganization of Russian forces in Tajikistan has been in progress since late last year, when news emerged that troops were redeploying away from a base near the southern city of Kulyab. The explanation for the move offered at the time was that it was part of plans to enhance combat readiness.
The motivations for the conversion to brigade status appear even more nebulous, and even Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Aslov confessed to being in the dark.
“Questions about changes to the organizational and staff structure of the 201st Russian military base in Tajikistan, as far as increasing or decreasing its size goes, have not been discussed at the official level,” Aslov told Deutsche Welle.
It seems remarkable that Russia’s armed forces are adopting strategic military decisions without bothering to consult their hosts, but the episode is characteristic of Moscow’s high-handed attitude toward Dushanbe in its dealings over the base.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meets Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in Ashgabat. (photo: MFA Russia)
Russia has offered Turkmenistan help in guarding that country's restive border with Afghanistan, but Turkmenistan has turned them down, Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said on a visit this week to Ashgabat.
The top agenda item for Lavrov's two-day visit was gas. Russia's state company Gazprom announced earlier this month that it was stopping gas purchases from Turkmenistan, which used to be one of Moscow's top suppliers until China built a huge pipeline to Turkmenistan and now buys the lion's share of Turkmen gas. It's not clear what progress was made on that front, but Russian newspaper Kommersant, citing anonymous sources, reported that "in the coming days the two sides will start negotiations about the possible parameters of further cooperation in the gas sphere."
But the two sides couldn't not discuss the situation on the border with Afghanistan, which over the past two years has unexpectedly become the site of several skirmishes and incursions back and forth between the Taliban and Turkmenistan's security forces.
The official Turkmen statement about Lavrov's visit said the two sides discussed "a united position regarding the necessity of a political-diplomatic resolution of the problems in the Central Asian region, in particular those connected with the situation in Afghanistan."
Lavrov himself was a little more specific, telling reporters that Ashgabat had described some "additional measures" that they were taking on the border, and that they didn't need Moscow's help.
Russia's post-Soviet security alliance is showing more and more signs of fracturing along regional, cultural, and political fault lines, as Armenia criticizes other members for not taking its side against Azerbaijan.
Armenia is probably the most loyal member of the alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization. And Yerevan has long complained about the fact that some of the other CSTO members, like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, have supported Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia in Turkic and Muslim fora.
That tension has been heightened recently as a result of increasing violence along the line of contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces around the disputed Nagorno Karabakh territory, as well as the fallout between Russia and Turkey.
The CSTO's Turkic members, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, have sympathized with Turkey over Russia in that dispute to a degree that is suprising given Russia's far stronger economic and strategic ties in Central Asia. And if they're not willing to support Russia -- which really has the ability to either pressure or help the Central Asian states -- they are certainly far less likely to support Armenia, which which they have little in common other than a fading Soviet legacy.
The schism doesn't have only to do pan-Turkic sympathies between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. Belarus, too, has refused to take the Kremlin's side against Turkey. Just as important as any cultural ties is a reluctance among all of Russia's allies to sign up for Moscow's increasingly unpredictable foreign policy ventures.
Russia has reached out to the Taliban in Afghanistan in what senior officials say is an effort to cooperate with them in the fight against ISIS in that country. The strategy would be shift for the Kremlin, which has largely portrayed the Taliban as just as much of a threat as ISIS.
The Kremlin's special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said in an interview with Interfax last month that Russian interests "objectively coincide" with those of the Taliban in the fight against ISIS, and that Moscow has channels for information sharing with the Taliban. "The Taliban now for the most part act like a national liberation movement. For them the Americans are occupiers, who illegally occupy their homeland and threaten their cultural and religious traditions," Kabulov said.
The Taliban, for its part, denied that any contacts with Russia had taken place:
On Wednesday 23rd December 2015 some media outlets published a report quoting the Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov as saying that they have talked to or established lines of communication with the Islamic Emirate regarding the threat of so called Daesh in Afghanistan.
The Islamic Emirate has made and will continue to make contacts with many regional countries to bring an end to the American invasion of our country and we consider this our legitimate right.
But we do not see a need for receiving aid from anyone concerning so called Daesh and neither have we contacted nor talked with anyone about this issue.
The ending of international sanctions against Iran could soon send Iranian gas flowing across and through the South Caucasus, amping up the region’s strategic significance and possibly changing the dynamics of its energy trade.
For Azerbaijan, getting Iran on board with TANAP, the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Export Pipeline, could bolster Baku’s largest energy-export undertaking, the Southern Gas Corridor, a chain of three big pipelines, stretching across more than 3,400 kilometers and seven countries from the Caspian Sea into Europe. TANAP is the largest and costliest section of the Corridor.
As a transit country, Georgia would get a share of any Iranian gas flowing through the Southern Gas Corridor. But with more Iranian gas in the region, Tbilisi fears losing that share of gas it receives from another pipeline — run by Russian energy behemoth Gazprom for shipments to Armenia from Russia.
Advocates for the survivors of an Armenian family killed by a Russian soldier say that the soldier's murder trial is being unduly influenced in favor of Russia.
The soldier, Valeriy Permyakov, has already admitted that he killed seven members of the Avetisyan family after deserting the 102nd Russian military base in Armenia's second city of Gyumri. He has been convicted of desertion by a Russian military court, and is now on trial for murder.
Russia originally announced that it planned to try Permyakov for murder, as well, but street protests in Gyumri and Yerevan against that decision forced Moscow to back down and agree to let Armenian courts try him.
But the way the trial is being conducted has again raised accusations that Russia is trying to influence it. The trial is being overseen by an Armenian judge, but is being conducted on the premises of the Russian military court at the base in Gyumri.
The trial began in December, and then lawyers for the defense complained that the presence of Russian servicemembers in the courtroom "shows that it is overseen by the Russian side," Armenian media reported. The judge at the time disagreed, saying they were needed to protect Permyakov, but when the trial resumed on Monday the Russian servicemembers had been replaced by Armenian guards.
With international sanctions lifted, Iran is ready to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, senior Iranian officials said Monday.
Iran applied for full membership in the SCO in 2008, but has been blocked by rules in the organization's charter that forbid membership for any country under United Nations sanctions. Those sanctions were lifted on Saturday as a result of Tehran's compliance with its nuclear deal with world powers including the United States, China, and Russia.
The organization has been eager to get Iran on board. "The organization wishes success to Iran in the finalization of efforts related to the nuclear program so that the essential legal procedures leading up to the lifting of sanctions were implemented as soon as possible," said SCO Secretary General Dmitry Mezentsev last month. "I'd like to believe the SCO will take up Iran's request for the status of a full member immediately after that."
And with the sanctions lifted, Iranian officials said that among their priorities would be gaining full SCO membership.
"The lifting of sanctions opens for Iran the opportunity to become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and eliminates other limitations, which the Islamic Republic has been facing in the regional foreign policy," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari told a press conference on Monday.
"For several years Iran has been an observer state in the SCO and is interested in strengthening that organization. The removal of sanctions creates new possibilities for acquiring full membership for Iran in the SCO," wrote Iran's ambassador to Moscow, Mehdi Sanai, on his blog.
Romania is pressing NATO to create a regular Black Sea flotilla in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea, Romanian media have reported.
NATO, and in particular the United States, substantially stepped up their naval patrols in the Black Sea after the Crimean annexation, but thus far it's been done on an ad hoc basis. The Romanian proposal would create a regular "flotilla" reportedly also consisting of ships from Germany, Italy, Turkey and the United States, Romanian television station Digi24 reported.
Warships of countries not on the Black Sea are restricted from spending more than 21 days at a time there by the 1936 Montreux Convention. So if a NATO Black Sea fleet were to come to fruition members other than Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey would have to rotate their ships out regularly.
The increased NATO presence on the Black Sea has already been a major irritant to Russia. At the same time Russian naval vessels' use of the Bosphorus straits, which pass through the middle of Istanbul, to supply the war effort in Syria has become a flashpoint in the Russia-Turkey conflict.
Romania will try to bring the proposal up at the alliance's next summit, in Warsaw in July, Digi24 reported.
The United States Congress has held a rare closed hearing on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, as leading members of Congress are pushing for new conflict-resolution measures favored by Armenia but opposed by Azerbaijan.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee held the hearing last week, with James Warlick, the U.S. co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, testifying. Warlick did not comment on the content of the hearing, except to tweet: "I thank the @HouseForeign affairs committee and its chair @RepEdRoyce for hosting me to discuss #NKpeace. We agreed to work for a settlement."
It's not clear why the hearing was closed, or why it was held now. But tension has been getting worse along the so-called "line of contact" between the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides. Armenian forces won control of the territory, which is de jure part of Azerbaijan, in a war in the early 1990s, but the ceasefire that has held since then has become increasingly tenuous, with violence along the line at its highest level since the war formally ended in 1994. "This is a war, and I would ask you to use the term ‘war’ and not to use the phrase ‘ceasefire violation’ because, in effect, we don’t have a ceasefire anymore,” Defense Ministry spokesperson Artsrun Hovannesyan told reporters in December.