Foreign ministers of the Caspian littoral states meet in Astana on July 13, 2016. (photo: MFA Russia)
Are the five states around the Caspian Sea finally going to resolve their dispute about how to divide the body of water between themselves?
A number of unusually positive statements from diplomats from the littoral states have suggested that the seemingly intractible dispute is on the verge of being resolved. But if any of the Caspian countries have softened their negotiating positions -- the intransigence of which has resulted in this long dispute -- they aren't telling.
The foreign ministers of the five states -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- met last week in Astana, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the sides could reach an agreement in a year.
"I believe it is absolutely realistic to aim for signing the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea in 2017. I think this can be done even in the first half of the year," he said. That enthusiasm was shared by Kazakhstan, whose prime minister, Karim Massimov, tweeted: "Met with foreign ministers of Caspian littoral states. There's hope for prompt completion of talks over Caspian Sea Legal Status Convention."
Turkey's TCG Tekirdağ patrol boat, taking part in Breeze 2016 exercises off the coast of Bulgaria (photo: The Bug Pit)
Russia has announced the deployment of more advanced air defense systems to Crimea, a move to protect the region from what one official called NATO's "air hooligans."
In August, the18th anti-aircraft missile regiment of the 31st Air Defense Division, based in Feodosia, will be equipped with Russia's top-of-the-line S-400 Triumf air defense system. It's yet a further buildup of Russia's defenses along its southwestern border against what it sees as a hostile western military threat in the Black Sea. This would complement Russia's system of land-based anti-ship missile defenses along the Black Sea, which already effectively let Russia control the surface of the sea.
"Placing the S-400 air defense system on duty in Crimea effectively locks down the Crimean sky against any attack from the air. The very fact of the placement of this advanced air defense system in Crimea will keep honest all NATO aviation based in the Black Sea region," said Crimea's vice premier, Ruslan Balbek.
The deployment is most likely directed against the United States as the only air force likely to threaten Crimea by air, said retired Colonel General Igor Maltsev, a former commander of Russia's air defense force.
Russian politicians and state media sounded sharp alarm about the July 15 military-coup attempt in Turkey, Moscow's traditional regional rival, with some calling for "responsible organs" to come to the rescue of Russian citizens in Turkey. By contrast, officials in the South Caucasus, which borders directly on Turkey, expressed much greater caution .
The failed coup attempt led to the deaths of 1,661 people, and the injury of 1,440, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced at an afternoon briefing on July 16 in the Turkish capital, Ankara. Some 2,839 armed-forces personnel allegedly involved in the coup-plot have now been arrested, he said, according to Turkey's official Anadolu Agency.
Yet even as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that the coup had been put down, Russia’s state-run TASS news agency led with a statement from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev that “we should undertake all measures for the defense of the interests of our citizens, and also our companies, our entities . . . “ in Turkey.
What measures, if any, were under consideration is not clear, but Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Alexander Romanovich, citing alleged bombing by Turkish military planes, earlier in the morning of July 16 called for "our responsible organs" to organize the immediate evacuation of all Russian citizens from Turkey.
An adviser to American presidential candidate Donald Trump has criticized United States policy in Central Asia as unnecessarily antagonistic, giving a rare glimpse into what a Trump presidency could mean for U.S. relations in the region.
The adviser, Carter Page, spoke Thursday in Moscow, and the main theme of the talk was that Russia and China have more successfully pursued their interests in Central Asia because they deal on the basis of “respect, equality and mutual benefit.” That, he argued, was one of the reasons for the flourishing of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Central Asia.
Page contrasted that with the American approach, which he said was characterized by books like "Chaos, Violence, Dynasty," and "Predatory Regimes." (He was referring, apparently, to academic monographs by Eric McGlinchey and Scott Radnitz.) This, Page argued, was evidence of "nakedly emotional approaches to news, often involving expressions of opinion and lacking verification of factual assertion" which typified "mainstream western discourse" on Central Asia.
Russian state-run energy giant Gazprom is seeking $5 billion in reimbursements from Turkmenistan for gas supplied from 2010 to 2015, news agency Interfax reported on July 5.
Interfax reported that Gazprom is demanding a retroactive revision to the prices it paid for Turkmen gas as part of a legal suit going through the motions at the Arbitration Institute of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce.
The aggressive move represents a remarkable disruption to the apparent recent outbreak of bonhomie between Moscow and Ashgabat. A delegation of high-ranking Russian military officials traveled to Turkmenistan last month with pledges to offer assistance in bolstering the Central Asian nation’s defense capabilities. And in May, Gazprom surprised many by hinting that it could resume buying Turkmen gas, which it formally stopped doing earlier in the year.
Deliveries of Turkmen gas to Russia reached a post-Soviet peak of 45 billion cubic meters in 2008, but that was when the trouble began. With a global economic crisis then gripping western economies, European demand for Russia’s gas began to flag and prices to fall. Since Moscow’s rationale for buying gas from Turkmenistan was to allow for additional export capacity, the arrangement stopped making sense.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meets with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in Sochi on July 1, the first high-level meeting in seven months between the two countries. (photo: MFA Russia)
Turkey's foreign minister floated a proposal to let Russia use a key air base for a joint fight against ISIS in Syria. He later qualified the offer, but it nevertheless was a measure of how rapidly Turkey's foreign policy, in particular its relationship to Russia, is changing.
On Monday, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told state broadcaster TRT that Turkey would cooperate with"“everybody who is fighting Islamic State," adding: "Ankara has opened the Incirlik airbase to all those wishing to join the active fight. Why not cooperate with Russia in the same manner?”
Those remarks caused a minor furor in Turkey and Russia, given what until just a few days ago was a dangerous level of tension between the two states caused by Turkey's shooting down last year of a Russian plane on the Turkey-Syria border.
Cavusoglu was forced to clarify: "We said that we could cooperate with Russia in the period ahead in the fight against Daesh ...I did not make any comment referring to Russian planes coming to the Incirlik Air Base."
Not everyone was convinced by that denial. "I think officials in Ankara wanted to see the possible reactions about Incirlik issue," said Mehmet Fatih Öztarsu, an analyst who follows Turkish relations with the post-Soviet world. "Even pro-governmental media published the same speech but a few hours later [Cavusoglu] denied it. It was an attempt to understand domestic and international balance," Öztarsu said in an email interview with The Bug Pit. He added that while Russia's use of Incirlik -- a key hub for NATO allies including the United States -- was unlikely, some form of military cooperation could be expected to develop between Turkey and Russia.
The heads of state of the SCO member states at their 2016 summit in Tashkent. (photo: president.uz)
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization's summit concluded with few concrete results and plenty of reminders that the group's members have different visions for where the would-be non-Western bloc should be heading.
At the SCO's 15th anniversary summit in Tashkent, there were plenty of vague declarations about the desirability of greater economic cooperation and stepping up the fight against terrorism, but no new initiatives as to how that might be achieved.
The concrete results of the summit were so meager that Russian President Vladimir Putin was reduced to touting the new SCO Youth Card, "which would offer students discounts on travel, accommodation, and visits to museums and other cultural and historical sites in the member countries."
The much-discussed accession of India and Pakistan as full members of the SCO progressed with the signing of a memorandum of obligation. "We hope that our partners will complete these steps as soon as possible, in time for our next meeting in Kazakhstan," Putin said in his speech. Putin also pushed for Iranian membership: "We think that now that the Iranian nuclear issue has been settled and the UN sanctions lifted, there are no obstacles in the way of a positive assessment of Tehran’s membership application."
South Ossetia will keep its army, its de facto president has said, apparently ending a contentious discussion about dissolving the territory's armed forces and subsuming them into the Russian military.
However, South Ossetia's armed forces will remain heavily dependent on their Russian patrons, who are funding a rearmament program that will make Tskhinvali's military the equal of Russian units, de facto president Leonid Tibilov said in an interview with Russian news agency Sputnik.
"The process of arms and equipment modernization of the Republic of South Ossetia will be launched to reach the level of the Russian Defense Ministry's 58th Army," Tibilov said. He added that the Russian military presence in the territory will not be increased: "Regarding an increase in the number of [Russian] military, I can say that the current contingent is capable of solving the tasks, therefore the issue of an expansion… is not on the agenda," he said.
The future of South Ossetia's armed forces emerged as a controversy earlier this year after the de facto defense minister accused some members of parliament of conniving to dissolve the armed forces. The issue of the military is one of the sharpest in the negotiations between Moscow and Tskhinvali over the level of autonomy that the territory will retain.
South Ossetia broke away from Georgia as the Soviet Union was collapsing, and has been propped up by arms and money from Moscow since then. Georgia attempted an ill-fated attack to get the territory back in 2008, and Russia responded by formally recognizing the territory's independence (though very few other countries followed Moscow's lead).
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov greets his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping upon the latter's arrival to Uzbekistan for the SCO summit. (photo: president.uz)
As the 15th summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is set to start on Thursday in Tashkent, the group is poised to continue its growth, with two new members and five new partners. The group's purpose, however, remains unclear, with its diverse members apparently unable to agree on a consistent agenda.
The biggest headline after last year's summit was that India and Pakistan were invited to join the organization as full members, the first expansion since the group was founded. (The SCO currently consists of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.)
But on the eve of this year's summit, it's not clear what the timetable for their accession is. Their final accession should take place next year, Yuriy Ushakov, a senior adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said. "The process of accepting India and Pakistan into the SCO will enter the final stage and we expect that at the next summit in Kazakhstan, India and Pakistan will be finally admitted into the SCO ranks," he said.
A senior Indian diplomat suggested that the timetable may be looser and hinted that it is dependent on the desires of current member states. “We need to work out what we need to do … As far as India’s pace of accession at the SCO being a function of Russia, China and the four countries of Central Asia, I would say we see ourselves as following fairly flexible multilateralism. So we are quite happy to engage in multiple processes. We have been working with other members of SCO on several other fields,” said the diplomat, Sujata Mehta, at a press conference Wednesday.
A Bulgarian minesweeper takes part in NATO exercises in 2014. (photo: NATO)
Bulgaria's prime minister has said the country will not participate in a proposed joint NATO naval fleet in the Black Sea, slowing the momentum of a project that had thus far received broad support from NATO members and partners.
The move would “turn the Black Sea into a territory of war,” Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said on Thursday, adding that he “wants to see cruising yachts, and tourists, rather than warships.”
“To send warships as a fleet against the Russian ships exceeds the limit of what I can allow,” Borissov told reporters in Sofia on Thursday, as quoted by Bloomberg. “To deploy destroyers, aircraft carriers near Bourgas or Varna during the tourist season is unacceptable.”
The Romanian-led proposal to create a sort of joint NATO Black Sea naval force has the support of Turkey, the United States, NATO headquarters, as well as non-NATO members Georgia and Ukraine.
Bulgaria's refusal could have several causes. For one, presidential elections are coming up and Borissov may be concerned that rival, more pro-Russia parties could use the move against him, said Dimitar Bechev, a Bulgarian political scientist and fellow at Harvard's Center for European Studies. "Most of all, I think he's concerned about domestic repurcussions," Bechev said in an interview with The Bug Pit. He added that Bulgaria could likely eventually join whatever NATO naval force emerges in an "under the radar" fashion