Off-limits for Georgians, the separatist side of breakaway South Ossetia’s boundary with Georgian-controlled territory will now become partly restricted for South Ossetians, too, leaving little opportunity for civilian contact across the Russian-policed line of conflict.
South Ossetians will need a permit from the KGB, as the separatist region’s security services are still called, to visit villages along the boundary, the de-facto body announced on February 15. South Ossetians living in these villages reportedly are worried that they will eventually face eviction. Their ethnic Georgian population was evicted en masse during the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia over the territory.
The South Ossetian KGB and Russia’s FSB, which handles keeping a watch on the contact line with Georgian-controlled territory, assured local villagers, however, that no evictions plans are in the can and that the travel restrictions will not extend to residents themselves
“Before visiting you, your guests, be it friends or relatives, will need to go to the KGB’s border service, which will be issuing the permits,” said South Ossetian KGB official Soslan Tigiyev, reported a local outlet of the Russian-government-owned Sputnik news network. Locals objected to the travel restrictions.
Separatist officials also said that South Ossetian and Russian border guards must be notified of weddings or funerals – usually large-scale events in the South Caucasus -- to lift the restrictions temporarily. Friends and relatives residing on the Georgian-controlled side of the conflict line are altogether barred from attending social functions in the breakaway region.
A screenshot from Kazakhstan TV station KTK of Russian military testing in Kazakhstan.
Members of Kazakhstan's parliament are pressing the government to get more money out of Russia for the rent it pays for its several military facilities, setting the stage for yet another negotiating battle between Russia and its ex-Soviet allies.
Last week, Deputy Defense Minister Okas Saparov testified in Kazakhstan's Senate, and got some criticism for the fact that Russia seems to be paying under market rates for the rent of its four military facilities in Kazakhstan. These include the Kapustin Yar test firing range, the Sary Shagan and Emba missile testing sites, and the 929th State Test Flight Center. For all that, Russia pays about $24 million in rent, and in some MPs' opinion, that is too little.
"I think that price is very low. In theory, it should be no less than the price of the land that Kazakhs use for agriculture. Farmers pay 2,000 tenge per hectare to rent a plot, while Russia just 424 tenge. How is that possible? After all, in the current crisis Kazakhstan could be getting tens of billions in profit for this rent," said MP Kuanysh Aitakhanov, television station KTK reported.
NATO and Georgian flags fly together as a four-ship NATO naval contingent visits Batumi, Georgia. (photo: Ministry of Internal Affairs, Georgia)
Russia is conducting snap exercises around the Black Sea and southern Russia as tensions continue to rise between Russia and Turkey. Meanwhile, a contingent of four NATO naval vessels -- including two from Turkey -- is visiting Georgia for joint exercises.
Russia began the exercises on Monday which reportedly involve 8,500 troops and 50 combat ships from the Black Sea Fleet and Caspian Flotilla. These sorts of large, unnanounced exercises have become common in Russia over the last several years, but analysts saw these particular drills as sending a message to Turkey.
"We've had many of these snap exercises over the past three years, it's a very correct element of training the armed forces. It's not at all necessary to see them as a signal to someone, but in this case it's of course also a signal to the Turks, because we are quickly and surely heading to war with them," said Alexander Khramichkin, a Russian military analyst, in an interview with newspaper Gazeta.ru.
Tension between Moscow and Ankara has remained high months after Turkey shot down a Russian military jet on the Syrian border. Most recently Russia accused Turkey of planning a land invasion of Syria, further heightening the risk of direct confrontation between the two powers.
The United States would give Georgia a big boost in aid to help it "resist Russian aggression" under a budget proposal announced this week by the White House. But Washington is deemphasizing military aid to Georgia, and a huge increase in Pentagon funding for a greater U.S. military presence around Russia's borders dedicates relatively little to Tbilisi.
The U.S. plans to give Georgia $63 million in general Economic Support Fund money in fiscal year 2017, up from $38 million this year, according to State Department budget documents. That money "will support Georgia’s democratization, economic development, Euro-Atlantic integration, and resistance to Russian aggression" and will be "targeted towards enhancing energy security and economic opportunities for populations susceptible to Russian influence."
But that aid is mainly for civilian programs, and American military aid to Georgia is set to decrease under this proposal. Aid to Georgia marked as Foreign Military Financing, intended for military equipment, will decrease from $30 million this year to $20 million in fiscal year 2017. Next year's funding is intended "to advance Georgia’s development of forces capable of enhancing security, countering Russian aggression, and contributing to coalition operations. This will include support in areas such as upgrades to Georgia’s rotary wing air transport capabilities, advisory and defense reform, and modernization of Georgia’s military institutions."
As Moscow tests for Turkey’s weaknesses in the fight over the downed SU-24 fighter plane, Russia’s communists have gone on a mission to revoke a treaty that their Soviet forefathers signed with Ankara. Heads are turning in the South Caucasus, which was essentially sliced and diced into its modern-day shape by the treaty and another 1921 Soviet-Turkish accord.
The document under debate, the 1921 Treaty of Moscow, drew a line between the Turkish Republic and the Soviet Union, and also set the borders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia without the consent of the three newly Bolshevik-occupied nations. The partitioning was further cinched by the Treaty of Kars, signed by the then Soviet republics’ Bolshevik-installed authorities.
The idea of revoking the treaty, pitched to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, comes amidst an unscheduled military exercise in Russia’s Southern Military District, which borders on the South Caucasus. Russian military analyst Viktor Murakhovsky commented to gazeta.ru that the exercises are meant as “a little signal” to Turkey. “[B]ecause we’re headed toward war with them, very quickly and certainly,” he predicted.
In remarks to the Azerbaijani news service APA, however, the Russian Communist Party’s deputy chairperson, Valery Rashkin, pooh-pooh’d the notion that Moscow withdrawing its signature from the 1921 Treaty of Moscow could lead to war with Turkey. “[O]n the contrary, we will begin the negotiation process.”
United States intelligence believes that Georgia could reverse its strategic orientation toward the West under Russian pressure, the country's top intelligence official has said.
The U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified to Congress on Tuesday, offering the U.S. intelligence community's annual "Worldwide Threat Assessment." The short section dealing with the Caucasus and Central Asia offers some interesting insights into how American government spooks and analysts see developments in the region. Perhaps the most intriguing statement is that on Georgia, which suggests that Georgia may be rethinking its Euro-Atlantic orientation, in part due to Russian efforts:
Even as Georgia progresses with reforms, Georgian politics will almost certainly be volatile as political competition increases. Economic challenges are also likely to become a key political vulnerability for the government before the 2016 elections. Rising frustration among Georgia’s elites and the public with the slow pace of Western integration and increasingly effective Russian propaganda raise the prospect that Tbilisi might slow or suspend efforts toward greater Euro-Atlantic integration. Tensions with Russia will remain high, and we assess that Moscow will raise the pressure on Tbilisi to abandon closer EU and NATO ties.
Russian officials have attacked the International Criminal Court for an anti-Russian bias in its prosecution of alleged war crimes in the 2008 war with Georgia over South Ossetia.
At the end of January the ICC gave its prosecutor the go-ahead to investigate the war. The court's prosecutor has said she is looking at crimes allegedly committed by Georgian, South Ossetian, and Russian forces during the conflict. But all sides seem to have ignored the potential charges against Georgia, with Georgia welcoming the ICC's involvement and Russia and South Ossetia criticizing it.
After the ICC's announcement that it would proceed with the investigation, Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs complained that the court was taking Georgia's side.
"The ICC prosecutor has placed the blame with South Ossetians and Russian soldiers, taken the aggressor’s side, and started an investigation aimed against the victims of the attack. Such actions hardly reflect the ideals of justice," said MFA spokeswoman Maria Zakharova in a January 29 briefing. "In the light of the latest decision, the Russian Federation will be forced to fundamentally review its attitude towards the ICC."
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.