Kazakhstan soldiers in southern Tajikistan for CSTO joint military exercises. (photo: CSTO)
Russia and several of its allies have completed joint military exercises on the Tajikistan Afghanistan border, which they say was necessitated by the worsening situation in northern Afghanistan.
The drills of the Collective Security Treaty Organization began last week and the first step was deploying the 2,500 troops, without prior notice, to the exercise site in Tajikistan's Khatlon province. According to the scenario of the exercises, "the situation on the Tajik-Afghan border seriously deteriorated. Armed groups invaded the territory of Tajikistan from the territory of Afghanistan. The Tajikistan armed forces together with other security structures carry out military operations to repel the invasion."
Military units from the various CSTO member states carried out individual tasks: Tajikistani aircraft carried out aerial reconnaissance and identified the position of "terrorist groups" numbering 700 people.
Then an Armenian special forces company reconnoitered the site on the ground, traveling with modified Nissan pickup trucks armed with machine guns. Then, various special forces units from Belarus, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan advanced to "capture the militants' field commander and secure the withdrawal of the Armenian reconnaissance troops."
In the final stage, Russian and Kazakhstani bomber jets carried out air strikes on the militant positions, and drones identified targets for further artillery strikes.
Abkhazia has appointed a retired senior Russian military officer as its new chief of general staff of the armed forces, suggesting a tightening control by Moscow over the nominally independent breakaway Georgian territory.
De facto President of Abkhazia Raul Khajimba announced the appointment of General Anatoliy Khrulev to head the armed forces on May 18, just three days after Khajimba met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi. Until his retirement in 2010, Khrulev had commanded the Russian 58th Army, and was wounded in South Ossetia fighting in the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia.
In announcing the appointment, Khajimba said it would help improve "cooperation" with Russia: "Our army isn't large, but in conditions of great military difficulty, when it was formed, it showed itself to be capable," Khajimba said. "Today is a different time, and we are taking on new missions, including those connected with the development of military-technical cooperation with Russia. We are counting on your [Khrulev's] knowledge and experience."
The appointment follows last year's signing of an integration deal between Abkhazia and Russia, which called for a "unified defense space" and other forms of tighter military coordination.
Khrulev isn't the first non-Abkhazian to hold such a high-ranking role in the security services: Sultan Sosnaliyev, a native of Kabardino-Balkaria who fought in Abkhazia's war against Georgia in the early 1990s, served two terms as defense minister, including as recently as 2007.
Central Asia faces a gloomy economic outlook for the rest of this year and into next, battered by the tanking Russian economy and low commodity prices, according to a regional outlook released by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on May 19. Several countries face double-digit inflation.
“The region has been hit by two major external shocks: the oil price and the slowdown in the Russian economy,” Juha Kahkonen, deputy director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia department, told a briefing in Almaty as the forecast was released.
Growth slowed last year and is set to decrease “much more significantly” this year, he said, before recovering “only slightly” next year.
All the Central Asian states are feeling the pinch of the slump in Russia, “which has close linkages with the region through remittances, trade, and foreign direct investment,” the IMF pointed out.
Energy exporters (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) and importers (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) alike are suffering: exporters are battling falling revenues from the drop in global oil and gas prices, while importers are feeling what Kahkonen described as “only a very small beneficial impact” from lower prices because of the long-term nature of their energy import contracts in which prices are set.
Falls in prices for other commodities (gold in the case of Kyrgyzstan and aluminum for Tajikistan, for example) are also biting.
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are also suffering from a drop in labor remittances from Russia, as migrants lose their jobs and the dollar value of remittances falls because of the depreciation of the ruble. This is causing weaker domestic demand in remittance-dependent economies.
As NATO officials gathered last week in the Turkish beach city of Antalya, Turkish officials used the occasion to make unusually strong commitments affirming their support of the alliance in its growing conflict with Russia.
Turkey announced that it would head the alliance's new Spearhead Force in 2021. Plans for the Spearhead Force, a rapid reaction unit staffed from NATO member militaries, were drawn up last year explicitly to combat potential Russian attempts to destabilize NATO countries.
In remarks at the meeting, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Cavusoglu explicitly criticized Russian policy in the region. AFP reported that Cavusoglu said "Ankara was prepared to play a 'constructive role' in the disputes between Russia and the West over Ukraine. But he said: 'Nothing can justify what Russia has been doing in its neighbourhood.... Ukraine. Crimea. Georgia.'"
And Cavusoglu also called for the next NATO summit in Warsaw in 2016 to accept new members. "We favour NATO expansion. Currently we have four candidate countries – Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Georgia. And we would like to see the 2016 Summit aimed at expansion,” he said.
Troops from Russia and other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization are taking part in snap exercises to practice quickly deploying to the border of Tajikistan.
The exercise is taking place amid heightened tension in Tajikistan, as fighting in northern Afghanistan has -- according to some officials -- the potential to destabilize Central Asia.
The CSTO has tried to position itself as the guarantor of security in Tajikistan; in March the group's head said that CSTO rapid reaction forces could reach the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border in three days if fighting broke out there. This exercise is taking place in Tajikistan's Khatlon province, just across the border from Kunduz province in Afghanistan, where heavy fighting broke out last month.
"We are worried by incoming reports about the deterioration of the situation in the north-eastern provinces of Afghanistan on the border with Central Asian countries. We are particularly concerned by the large-scale offensive launched by terrorists in Kunduz, a province that borders on Tajikistan, during which administration buildings were attacked in a number of districts," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in an April 30 statement.
Top: the photo published by the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense. Below: from the twitter account of Armenia MFA spokesman Tigran Balayan.
Azerbaijan's Ministry of Defense published a photo of its soldiers in Moscow's May 9 Victory Day parade in which an Armenian flag has been digitally edited out.
Armenia and Azerbaijan were among a number of countries whose soldiers marched in the parade, marking 70 years since the allied victory in World War II. And thanks to the fact that they are next to one another alphabetically, they marched one behind the other in the parade.
While the parade went off without a hitch, the controversy began soon afterwards. Azerbaijan's Ministry of Defense published a photo of its soldiers on its website, which web users quickly identified as an alteration of a previously published photo which was a good shot of the Azerbaijani contingent but -- unfortunately for Azerbaijan military PR -- prominently featured the flag of the Armenian soldiers right behind.
Armenia's government, naturally, leapt. "#Azerbaijan falsifying history, is going far beyond and fabricates reality," tweeted Armenia Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Tigran Balayan.
The episode caused some embarrassment within Azerbaijan, as well. "It's an obvious Photoshop," prominent military analyst Uzeir Jafarov told the BBC Russian service. "Our soldiers are in a ceremonial parade. They have Israeli weapons in their hands, conforming to NATO standards -- and all this for a photo shoot? It's unworthy of us." (The Azerbaijan MoD declined to comment.)
Georgian support for joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union appears to be on the increase, based on data from a survey conducted for the National Democratic Institute, a US-based NGO.
Thirty-one percent of the roughly 4,360 Georgian respondents surveyed expressed support for signing onto the trade-bloc; a twofold increase from 2014 and a threefold increase from 2013, respectively.
Yet considerably more of the respondents (41 percent) remain hostile to the idea of teaming up with Russia, according to data released on May 11. A solid majority of the interviewees – 68 percent and 65 percent, respectively – are rooting for joining the European Union and NATO.
Seventy-seven percent consider Russia a threat, though opinions vary on the immediacy of the threat. Ethnic minorities are most skeptical about Russia’s hostile intentions; half of those surveyed do not see Russia as a threat.
Pro-Russian activism remains on the fringes of the political mainstream in Georgia, but it has become more noticeable under the Georgian Dream coalition than it was during the fiercely anti-Moscow United National Movement, which lost power in 2012. The same poll said that Georgians can freely vent their views today.
Additionally, Russia’s state TV channels, formerly essentially barred from broadcast, now rate as the most-watched foreign channels in Georgia, the survey claimed.
The Chinese navy is making a rare visit to the Black Sea, as two warships have passed through the Bosphorus en route to take part in May 9 Victory Day celebrations in Russia.
The two ships, the frigates Linyi and Weifang, crossed into the sea on May 4, reported the Bosphorus Naval News blog (which also has several photos of the ships). The ships' visit has still not been publicly announced, but an unnamed source in the Russian Ministry of Defense told news agency RIA Novosti that the ships were headed to the port of Novorossiysk to take part in ceremonies celebrating the 70th anniversary of victory in World War II.
The two Chinese ships are also slated to participate in the first-ever joint Russian-Chinese naval drills in the Mediterranean Sea later this month, in which the two navies will practice "navigation safety, at-sea replenishment, escort missions and live fire exercises." Another interesting storyline: Russia is reportedly interested in buying the types of frigates China has sent, and that China is reportedly using the visit in part as a sales pitch.
Tajikistan has created a "second line of defense" along the border with Afghanistan in response to the flare-up in fighting in northern Afghanistan's Kunduz province, government officials have said.
"In connection with the battles between the security forces of Afghanistan and Taliban fighters in the Afghan province of Kunduz, it's been decided to create a second line of defense, and it was carried out in recent days," said one government official. (Tajikistan newspaper Asia-Plus and Russian news agency Interfax seem to have gotten identical statements; Asia Plus identifies the source as a Ministry of Defense official.)
"We are in constant contact with Afghan security forces, and our allies in the CSTO [Collective Security Treaty Organization]. Tajikistan today is able to prevent the escalation of tension in its border areas," the official continued.
The official didn't specify what is meant by a "second line of defense," and for much of the 800-mile long Afghanistan-Tajikistan border there is barely a first line of defense. Aid that Russia has promised to shore up border defenses has been slow to arrive, so it's not clear what might be forming this extra defense.
The fighting in Kunduz has displaced 2,000 families and killed 20 Afghan troops and 150 Taliban fighters, according to Afghanistan officials. Tajikistan officials last week said that the fighting represented no threat to their country.
The United States and the European Union have taken renewed interest in constructing a pipeline to take natural gas from Turkmenistan across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan and westward to Europe. The move is motivated by a desire to further decrease Europe's dependence on Russian gas in the wake of Moscow's newly assertive foreign policy posture, but regional analysts say the pipeline could also increase tensions around the Caspian.
European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic visited Ashgabat this week for talks with energy ministers of Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan. He told Reuters that the EU expects to start receiving gas from Turkmenistan by 2019.
"[W]e discussed all aspects referring to the trans-Caspian pipeline," Sefcovic said. "We made a big step in the strategic direction... Now there is a political decision that Turkmenistan will become part of this project and will feed the European direction."
The possibility of a trans-Caspian pipeline has been long discussed but has been hindered by a number of obstacles, not least of which is the opposition of Russia, which stands to lose market share in Europe were the pipeline to be built. Russia is the single-largest supplier of gas to Europe, holding about 30 percent of the market share (and far more in some Eastern European countries). And the volatility in Moscow has renewed efforts in Brussels and Washington to reduce that dependency.