Karimov and Putin meet in Moscow (photo: Kremlin.ru)
When Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, visited Moscow earlier this month, was he trying to shore up his relations with the Kremlin at the expense of Washington? That seems to be the expert consensus that is emerging in the wake of the meeting between Karimov and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
Russia's reaction to Karimov's growing ties with the U.S. generally oscillates between two poles: alarmism that Uzbekistan is falling into the Western geopolitical camp, and confidence that Karimov -- who has repeatedly and dramatically shifted his superpower allegiances -- will eventually return to Moscow's fold. On the eve of Karimov's visit, a report in the Russian newspaper Kommersant quoted an alarmist:
The Uzbekistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment on the situation. But Kommersant's sources in the Russian government admit that the situation worries Moscow. "The Uzbek authorities confirm their interest in strengthening military-technical cooperation with Russia, reassuring [Moscow] that there will not be any American military infrastructure on their territory," said Kommersant's source. "But with deliveries of Western weapons and equipment to Uzbekistan will come Western instructors and technicians, and then the establishment of a base is not far away."
And some commentators say that Karimov's goal in coming to Moscow was to assuage such fears. Russian analyst Andrei Grozin told CA-News that "the Uzbek side decided to dispel Russian concern regarding his excessively pro-American position":
A Russian unmanned aerial vehicle crashed in western Kazakhstan. The drone measured 12 meters long and appeared to have been launched from the Ashuluk military facility near Astrakhan before crashing in the village of Balkuduk, reports Kazinform:
Representatives of Kazakhstan's Prosecutor's Office, Border Guard and Emergency Situations Ministry attended the crash scene. According to the information provided by them, the drone fell in a deserted place, exploding and breaking into three pieces as a result of falling.
Radiation background in the crash area is normal.
There does not appear to be any word yet from Russia on what the drone was doing over the border in Kazakhstan. But Kazakhstan's authorities have handed over the wreckage to Russia. Kazakhstan seems to not be too alarmed about the incident, unlike the last time a foreign drone allegedly violated its airspace.
Armenian forces take part in CSTO exercises in Armenia in September 2012.
Most of the focus on the Collective Security Treaty Organization has been its Central Asian activities, as Russia has positioned the new political-military bloc as its primary tool for preventing the spread of instability from Afghanistan toward its borders. But as Sergei Minasyan points out in a good piece for Russia in Global Affairs, it is in fact Armenia for whom the CSTO really holds strategic value. As he points out, among CSTO members (which include Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) only Armenia faces a threat of interstate conflict. (One might quibble with that, looking at increasing tensions between Uzbekistan and its neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but certainly the threat of serious military conflict is much smaller there than between Azerbaijan and Armenia.) And the collective security requirements of the CSTO effectively make it impossible for Azerbaijan, in the event that it decides to try to take back its breakaway territory of Nagorno Karabakh, to widen the conflict into Armenia. And that would allow Armenia, if Azerbaijan attacks Karabakh, to use the latter's territory for missile strikes against oil and infrastructure facilities while remaining "unpunishable":
As a result, Azerbaijan is in a military and political zugzwang, which effectively prevents a resumption of war. A direct involvement of the CSTO (or even Russia alone) would make the likely outcome of combat operations in Nagorno-Karabakh more than predictable. Starting a war in Karabakh without spreading it to the territory of the Republic of Armenia (so as to provide no reasons for the CSTO mechanisms and bilateral Armenian-Russian obligations taking effect) would contradict military logic and put Baku in disadvantageous military strategic conditions.
When Tajikistan announced that it was sending troops to the Gorno Badakhshan region, the site of a controversial military operation last year, it was bound to raise some suspicion: Tensions are still high in the region, and mistrust of the government pronounced. But the controversy that has unfolded this time has been stranger than one would have expected.
Shortly after the troop movement was announced, the government was quick to point out that it was for a regularly scheduled exercise. Asia Plus reported on April 9:
“The Ministry of Defense is not going to carry out any military operation in Khorog and military convoys heading for Gorno Badakhshan are connected with the ongoing spring conscription campaign and the planned military exercises that will be conducted in Gorno Badakhshan in late May – early June,” said Faridoun Mahmadaliyev, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense (MoD). “Similar military exercises for servicemen of the power-wielding and law enforcement structures were finished in Khatlon province on March 29 and now such exercises will be conducted in Gorno Badakhshan and Sughd province.”
According to him, the GBAO population’s apprehensions regarding military convoys heading for Khorog are absolutely unfounded.
Then, when one opposition politician commented on the troop movement, he said -- or seemed to say -- that it was to quell unrest among the population over the fact that China was effectively stealing land on the Tajik side of the countries' mountainous, uninhabited border. The politician, Rahmatillo Zoirov, head of the Social-Democratic Party of Tajikistan made his comments to an Iranian newspaper, Sada-ye Khurasan:
A Russian A-50 AWACS aircraft during 2012 exercises at the Kant Air Base in Kyrgyzstan.
Russia's nascent post-Soviet military bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, is planning to create a joint air force, for both transport of CSTO forces and air cover to support CSTO operations. The announcement was made during a CSTO meeting at the Kyrgyzstan military base at Koy Tash, and as is the norm with the CSTO, the promises here are lofty and the details scanty. But Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, reporting on the news, says that "the 'aviation plans' of the CSTO leadership are significant." And there is already an acronym: CAF, for Collective Air Forces (КАС in Russian).
Nezavisimaya Gazeta quotes Bordyuzha as saying that "We expect that all governments which are today able will share the appropriate air assets for the formation of the collective air forces." The paper suggests that that means that Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan will supply attack helicopters to the CAF. The paper also seems to suggest that the establishment of the CAF is connected to the strengthening of the Russian air force contingent at Kant air base in Kyrgyzstan. Though, as it says, "how the air base will be strengthened was not specified." NG adds:
It had earlier been reported that Kant would be used as a base for long-range aviation of the Russian Air Force. but this hardly means that strategic bombers equipped with nuclear weapons will be part of the CSTO CAF. However fighter and assault aviation, as well as attack helicopters from the air forces of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus (the CSTO countries possessing that military capability), judging from the Russian-Kyrgyzstan agreement on the status of the 999th air base and plans of the CSTO, are likely to be deployed at Kant.
The birds didn’t get far, the stunt prompted a lot of jokes, and the selection of Uzbekistan’s border region abutting Afghanistan as the cranes’ ideal wintering ground didn’t go down well in Tashkent.
Conservationists from Flight of Hope – the organization Putin promoted with his unforgettable stunt – chose the unpopulated banks of the Amu Darya river because it is protected, in essence, like a reserve.
But Tashkent believes the birds should be guided elsewhere because Uzbek border guards often burn vegetation in the area for better visibility, the BBC Russian Service said on April 12.
After Putin’s flying lesson, the Siberian cranes were expected to fly to Uzbekistan with gray cranes from western Siberia, but, in the end, they spent the winter in Russia due to early snowfall.
Some hope Uzbek President Islam Karimov's upbeat visit to Moscow this week might lead to some international cooperation on behalf of the cranes.
The two presidents did not address the issue publicly when they met on April 15, but a Flight of Hope representative told the BBC Russian service days before Karimov’s visit that the Russian president promised to discuss the birds’ fate with his counterpart. The two sides also signed a number of agreements during and before the visit, including on environmental protection.
Putin and Karimov on April 15. (Photo: Kremlin.ru)
Amid ongoing rumors about his frail health, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov popped up in Moscow today, where he publicly glossed over strained ties with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The fight against terrorism and the pullout of NATO troops from Afghanistan topped the two leaders’ agenda, according to the Kremlin's press service.
Tashkent withdrew from the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization last summer for the second time. Since then, Moscow's promises of military aid to Uzbekistan’s regional rivals – Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – and its pledges of support and investment for grand hydropower projects in those upstream countries have vexed Tashkent. Meanwhile, Washington's promises to gift Tashkent some Afghanistan leftovers in return for facilitating the pullout have alarmed Moscow.
Yet whatever was said about these delicate topics behind the Kremlin’s closed doors, it was all smiles following the April 15 talks. Praising economic and humanitarian collaboration, Putin told journalists that security cooperation in light of the NATO pullout from Afghanistan was paramount to bilateral relations.
We have, of course, discussed the situation in Central Asia in detail and talked about problems associated with the pullout of international coalition forces from Afghanistan in 2014. We have agreed to continue to follow this topic attentively and to coordinate possible joint steps. By this we mean providing necessary assistance to the Afghan leadership regarding the stabilization of the military and political situation and the fight against drug trafficking, terrorism and extremism. […] I stress: Close interaction with Tashkent on a wide range of aspects will be continued.
A familiar pattern has emerged in Russia’s relations with Tajikistan: Moscow doesn’t get what it wants, so it starts threatening Tajik migrants.
Several comments from high-level Russian officials over the past two days suggest the Kremlin has run out of patience with Dushanbe’s attempts to re-re-negotiate the lease for a Russian military division in Tajikistan. The deal – which appeared to be done – was announced last October during President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Dushanbe. But it has yet to be ratified by Tajikistan’s rubberstamp parliament.
Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, whose portfolio includes defense, ostentatiously toured a Moscow-bound Tajik train on April 14 and declared it unfit for transporting humans. Rogozin also suggested that Tajiks could be subject to new passport restrictions.
On April 15, the Russian FSB, which manages the country’s borders, proposed suspending Tajik rail service to Russia altogether.
Russia is building up its military presence in the breakaway Georgian territory of Abkhazia in a way that suggests that Moscow anticipates a long-term presence there, according to a new report by the International Crisis Group. As is often the case with ICG reports, the whole thing (pdf) -- titled "Abkazia: The Long Road To Reconciliation" is worth reading. But Bug Pit readers will be especially interested in the details it provides on Russia's current military posture in Abkhazia:
The 2008 war with Georgia allowed Russia to greatly enhance its already considerable military presence. Russian officials say there are roughly 5,000 Russian personnel in Abkhazia: 3,500 military and 1,500 Federal Security Service (FSB) officers and “border guards”. Moscow allocated $465 million over four years to the rehabilitation and construction of military infrastructure. This included work on Bombora, the largest military airfield in the South Caucasus, in Gudauta. Though Russian media sources describe significant weapons at the base, Western military officials in late 2012 said intelligence indicated only four fighter craft there on a regular basis – two Sukhoi 27s and two MiG-29s.
The Russians also refurbished a smaller, though strategically and symbolically important naval port in Ochamchire, just 30km from Georgian-controlled territory. Eight Russian “border patrol” boats are reportedly there – including two new craft that arrived in 2012. According to FSB officials, they likewise set up several radar stations along the coast to cover Abkhazia’s “territorial waters” and monitor areas under Georgian naval control.
Azerbaijan has asked Russia to relocate some of its Caspian Fleet to Baku after Turkmenistan's naval forces fired on some of Azerbaijan's offshore oil drilling facilities. That's according to Russian website OSTKRAFT, and while the chances of this being accurate are probably pretty small, it's too intriguing a rumor to not pass on. According to OSTKRAFT's story:
President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev has appealed to the leadership of Russia to move part of its Caspian Fleet from Astrakhan and Makhachkala to Baku.
The goal of such military assistance would be the defense of offshore oil drilling facilities in the Caspian Sea territorial waters of Azerbaijan. The immediate cause for the appeal of the government of Azerbaijan to Moscow, according to an OSTKRAFT source, is the damage to Azerbaijan's offshore oil refining infrastructure in shooting by the naval forces of Turkmenistan on the Caspian. The Russian reply is not known.
Given the vagueness of the sourcing, it's best to treat this report with a high degree of skepticism. And it seems unlikely that Aliyev would make such a dramatic request to Russia -- in the long term he's more worried about Russia than about Turkmenistan. And inviting the Russians to base themselves in Baku would make it very hard later to get them out.
Still, the nascent naval forces of Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan have clashed in the past and we didn't hear about it until long after the fact (and probably still wouldn't have, if not for WikiLeaks). And Baku has shown that it prefers not to publicize news of its own weakness in the Caspian. So is there at least a kernel of truth to this somewhere, perhaps some sort of naval clash between the two countries? We'll have to wait for more information.