Amidst mounting concerns in Washington about Russia’s military presence in war-ravaged Syria, one question persists — if existing air routes for Russian flights to Syria are closed, what will be Moscow’s backup plan? Long a corridor between Russia and fellow Syrian ally Iran, the South Caucasus countries of Georgia and Armenia appear an option to some.
It is unclear, however, what exact role US ally Georgia, to Russia's south, and Russian ally Armenia, to Iran's north, play or could play in any such corridor.
So far, government agencies in both Caucasus countries and US diplomats have equivocated on the matter.
On September 11, Georgian aviation officials announced that Russia, its northern neighbor, has not asked to use Georgia’s airspace for Syria-bound flights “in recent days or in the past two months.” Whether it did so before “the past two months” was not specified in the statement to GHN newswire.
In Armenia, with which Russia has just announced plans for a joint air defense union, the foreign ministry deferred questions on Russian military flights to Armenia’s Civil Aviation Authority.
Armenian Civil Aviation Authority Spokesperson Rouben Grdzelian told EurasiaNet.org that “there isn’t any restriction” on Russian military flights “as Russia can freely use Armenian airspace . . .” Russian military flights come into Erebuni, a military airport just outside of the capital, Yerevan, almost every day, he added.
Kazakhstan has launched festivities to mark over half a millennium of Kazakh statehood in a celebration designed to shore up patriotism at home and make a geopolitical statement abroad.
“We pay tribute to the memory and deeds of our ancestors, remembering that the history of our sacred land dates back several centuries,” President Nursultan Nazarbayev said in Astana at the kickoff to a month of nationwide celebrations.
There will be festivities in Astana this weekend ahead of the main events in the southern city of Taraz in October as Kazakhstan marks 550 years since the khans Kerey and Zhanibek created the first Kazakh khanate.
The date seems arbitrary to some critics, but Nazarbayev defended it when he announced the plans for the celebrations last fall.
“The statehood of the Kazakhs dates to those times,” he said. “It may not have been a state in the modern understanding of this term, in the current borders. … [But] it is important that the foundation was laid then, and we are the people continuing the great deeds of our ancestors.”
Russia has given its allies half a billion dollars in discounts on weaponry, the head of Russia's post-Soviet security bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, has said.
"In recent years the volume of deliveries, purchases of weaponry by our allies for the collective forces of the CSTO has significantly increased," Nikolay Bordyuzha, the CSTO General Secretary, told Russian news agency Interfax. "Over the last few years the effect has exceeded $500 million. That is, our allies have saved as a result of the agreement on subsidies for military-technical cooperation."
And, he added, "these purchases are increasing every year."
That Russia gives discounts on weaponry via the CSTO isn't news, but we don't often hear about the amount. As a point of comparison, Russia exported about $15 billion in weaponry last year.
The main recipients of the subsidized weaponry are Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Belarus, Bordyuzha said. The other two CSTO members, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, are getting direct Russian military aid packages of more than a billion dollars each.
Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli and General Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Europe, meet in Tbilisi on September 7. (photo: MoD Georgia)
The United States is practicing how quickly it can deploy its military to Georgia in order to respond to "Russian aggression," Georgia's defense minister has said.
General Ben Hodges, the commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, visited Tbilisi and spoke September 7 at a conference, "Georgia: Europe’s New Geopolitical Landscape: Security, Economic Opportunity, Freedom and Human Dignity for the Frontline States." Hodges also met with Minister of Defense Tinatin Khidasheli and senior Georgian military officials.
"There were a lot of interesting nuances when he discussed joint Georgian-American exercises," Khidasheli said after the meeting. "In particular, one of the objectives of these exercises will be to see how quickly the US military vehicles and soldiers will arrive in Georgia in case of aggression – something that the General stated publicly.”
"For me, as Defence Minister, General Ben Hodges’ speech was very interesting. He made some interesting points, especially when talking about Russia,” she continued. "He very clearly and directly said that Russia had been busy with aggression for 20 years. I think when an American General says such phrases, it means a lot.”
However, it's not clear exactly what Hodges' words were. The press office of U.S. Army Europe, asked by The Bug Pit to clarify Hodges's remarks, provided a transcript of his answers to reporters' questions at the conference, but they contained nothing about U.S. forces responding to Russian aggression in Georgia.
According to a report on the website civil.ge, Hodges's remarks were somewhat vaguer:
The USS Donald Cook enters the Odessa, Ukraine, harbor to start the joint Sea Breeze 2015 exercises. (photo: U.S. Navy)
The United States, Ukraine, and other allies are conducting joint naval exercises in the Black Sea, which the American commander says Russia has greeted, somewhat uncharacteristically, "cordially."
This year's iteration of the annual Sea Breeze exercises was kicked off September 1 in Odessa, with U.S. naval officials and Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk present.
Yatsenyuk took the opportunity to paint the exercise as an anti-Russian effort, saying that drills like this will "turn the Black Sea into a safe area and to make the Russian Federation, which illegally annexed Crimea, realize that any illegal actions will be curbed by our joint efforts." In Odessa Yatsenyuk also announced that the country's new military doctrine, for the first time, identifies "an enemy and an aggressor" -- Russia.
But a senior U.S. naval official took pains to emphasize Russia's equanimity with respect to these exercises. Russia has in the past greeted the U.S. naval presence in the Black Sea with some mildly aggressive gestures, but not this time. When the USS Donald Cook, the American ship taking part in the drills, entered the Black Sea a Russian frigate was waiting. It hailed the warship and its commander by name and “welcomed him to the Black Sea,” said Vice Admiral James Foggo, deputy commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe in a telephone press conference with American reporters. "It was cordial," he added.
Kazakh soldiers drill in preparation for the September 3 military parade in Beijing commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Asia. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Central Asian soldiers and presidents took part in a massive Chinese military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Asia, the guest list of which provided some grist for speculation on China-Central Asia relations.
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan were among the 11 countries sending relatively large contingents (of about 75 soldiers each) to take part in the September 3 parade. The Central Asian soldiers started arriving in China more than two weeks ahead of the parade, and rehearsed six hours a day. Soldiers from those three Central Asian states also participated in a similar event May 9 in Moscow.
But there were some intriguing inconsistencies in the turnout of Central Asian presidents who showed up. Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, who skipped the Moscow parade, did appear in Beijing. And Turkmenistan's Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who appeared at Moscow's parade, skipped Beijing's. (The presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan took part in both.) As the parade was about to begin, Chinese state television showed Karimov standing on the reviewing stand just to the right of his regional rival, Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev. (The cameras did not catch any conversation between the two men.)
Ever a strategic crossroads, ardently pro-Western Georgia on August 25 became the site where the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, billed as the Chinese counterweight to the World Bank, chose its first president.
China's former deputy finance minister, Jin Liqun, got the pick at the August 24-25 meeting in Tbilisi, but it’s the longer term implications of the bank’s role that could prove more intriguing.
Initially meant as an Asia-only lending club, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has fast expanded to attract members across Europe and is set to help China build international clout.
The US has tried to discourage allies like the United Kingdom and South Korea from embracing the bank, a financial institution that Washington reportedly fears will lower international banking standards, but did not react publicly when Georgia, its strongest ally in the strategic South Caucasus, also decided to help midwife the AIIB into existence.
Granted, Georgia, which holds a mere .05 percent share in the bank, does not have the banking or economic muscle of the UK or South Korea, but its geo-strategic location means that those with influence here tend to keep a wary eye out for potential rivals.
Troops from Central Asia, Armenia, and Belarus are conducting military exercises with Russia near the borders of Estonia and Latvia.
The exercises are being held under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led political-military bloc. It's the CSTO's annual exercise, but this year's location -- in the Pskov region, about 40 kilometers from the Estonian border, and only a little farther to Latvia -- is an intriguing one considering the ongoing tension between Russia and the Eastern European NATO members.
During the drills, the CSTO's rapid reaction forces "will conduct a joint operation to localize an armed conflict with the aim of restoring territorial integrity and defending constitutional order in a simulated CSTO member state, working out tasks for destroying irregular armed formations," the organization said in a statement.
The CSTO also seemed to try to play down the potentially provocative scenario. "The exercise plan is based on a simulated military-political situation, which is not connected to reality but was developed only for working out training issues related to deploying operational contingents of the rapid reaction force to the Eastern European region of collective security," the statement continued.
"We're conducting exercises in the Eastern European region. One of the main goals of the exercises is to get our forces, within literally hours, to arrive in any given region of collective security," added Valeriy Semerikov, the CSTO's deputy secretary general, speaking to reporters.
An Su-25 aircraft under repair at Tbilaviastroy. Might the company soon be producing new, completely non-Russian versions of the plane? (photo: Delta)
Georgia is developing a version of the Su-25 ground attack aircraft that replaces all the Russian-origin parts with European or Israeli substitutes.
The effort is being undertaken by the state defense company Tbilaviastroy, which under Soviet times was the center of Su-25 production and now carries out repair and renovations of the aircraft.
Hostile relations between Tbilisi and Moscow obviously hamstrung Georgia's work on the Su-25, which relied heavily on Russian-produced parts and subsystems. And the situation got especially bad after the 2008 war between the two countries: "the plant had simply no other way out after approximately 2008, when Moscow imposed a total ban on exports of any products to Georgia of a military or dual use," said Irakli Aladashvili, a reporter for Georgian newspaper Kviris Palitra.
Georgia had tried various routes out of this situation, such as proposing joint production with Azerbaijan and cooperating with Israel. But now, Aladashvili reports, citing company director Nodar Beridze, Tbilaviastroy is going all the way and creating a version of the Su-25 without any Russian parts whatsoever. The new aircraft would be called the Ge-31, or "Bora."
The Bora's fuselage and wings would be manufactured in Georgia, while engines, electronic systems, and so on will be procured in France, Italy, and the UK, according to Beridze. The Su-25 is still a popular aircraft around the world, so it could potentially have a large export market.
A Russian Voronezh-DM early-warning radar station in Kaliningrad; Russian military media is reporting that a similar radar could be in the works for Azerbaijan. (photo: MoD Russia)
Russia is planning to set up a radar installation in Azerbaijan in 2017, a television station operated by the Russian Ministry of Defense has reported. It would be Russia's first military installation in Azerbaijan after Baku refused to renew the lease for a previous radar system, at Gabala, in 2012.
The report, on TV Zvezda, details Russia's air defense posture and future plans. Among the future plans are to deploy a Voronezh-DM early-warning radar in Azerbaijan: "Erection of Voronezh stations is continuing, and not only in Russia. There are plans to start construction in Azerbaijan in 2017, in place of the out-of-service "Daryal" radar in Gabala. The new station will be under exclusively Russian control," the report says.
The planned system in Azerbaijan would supplement the existing Voronezh system in Armavir, in Russia's North Caucasus. That radar covers Russia's air borders from "southern Europe to Northern Africa," and the Azerbaijani radar would "cover those regions which the Armavir station can't reach," Zvezda reports.
Azerbaijani government officials have not yet commented on the report. The one Azerbaijani media outlet to have picked it up, haqqin.az, headlined it "Russia is Going to Build a New Military Base in Azerbaijan," somewhat of an exaggeration but one that's suggestive of the political impact this could have.