It's official. Georgia and Gazprom are going out. Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze, the former soccer star/pin-up staple, keeps getting spotted meeting Gazprom officials and he is running out of excuses for an entanglement that, some claim, threatens to upset the region's energy status quo, and possibly, its geopolitical layout.
Georgians mostly learn via foreign media about Kaladze’s trysts with the Russian gas monopolist in Milan, Brussels or Geneva. Each time the news breaks, the minister steps forth with claims that it was just some routine business meeting. Nothing to worry about.
But his line of reasoning has become sharply contradictory, stoking fears that Georgia is being seduced back into a dependency on Russian energy, which, in turn, critics say, could hamstring Georgia’s Western integration plans.
In his latest clarification, Kaladze said that his talks with Gazprom are about revising the terms for the transit of Russian gas through Georgia to Armenia. Instead of taking 10 percent of the gas (some 200 million cubic meters) as a transit fee, Tbilisi wants to get paid in cash, Kaladze said on January 11. The deal, if reached, will last for a year, the minister said, which, to his mind, means that the doomsday scenarios “painted by the so-called experts are nothing but delirious and wrong."
Russia says it has completed the handover of air defense systems to Kazakhstan, part of the project of creating a joint air defense system across the former Soviet Union. But Kazakhstan's Ministry of Defense is complaining that the systems aren't actually yet delivered and are not in working condition.
The gift of five Russian S-300 air defense systems to Kazakhstan was announced two years ago (and then was said to be on slate for completion by the end of 2014). This was to be the first step of the Central Asian portion of a joint air defense system Russia is trying to create with its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. (Armenia and Belarus are in their own discussions with Russia to build up the system in their regions.)
At December's meeting of the CSTO in Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced that the S-300 transfer to Kazakhstan was complete.
"We have completed the project to transfer without charge the S-300 air defense systems to Kazakhstan, taking into consideration the fact that this is a weighty, if not main, contribution to the integrated air defense system, which, one may say, has become a reality, and now its hardware component has been built up to the expected strength," Shoigu said.
But that's not quite the situation, senior Kazakhstani defense officials say. "The S-300 complexes won't enter service tomorrow. Two complexes are underdoing technical service in Kazakhstan, and three will undergo technical service in Russia," the head of Kazakhstan's air defense forces, General-Major Nurlan Ormanbetov, told the Kazakh service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Russia and other allies will hold a military intelligence exercise, the first of its kind, in Tajikistan in April.
A source in Tajikistan's security services told the newspaper Asia Plus that the Collective Security Treaty Organization will hold the exercise in a military training area in the Khatlon province, which borders Afghanistan. About 800 soldiers from CSTO member states Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan will take part. The source told Asia Plus that it's the first time the CSTO has held an exercise specifically devoted to intelligence.
Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan has become Russia's prime security concern in Central Asia as the Taliban has become more and more active in neighboring northern Afghanistan.
Russia is also looking at bilateral Russia-Tajikistan military action in case of a deteriorating security situation in Tajikistan, a senior Russian diplomat has said. "We may use coalition groups of the armed forces of Russia and Tajikistan, if circumstances demand," said Aleksandr Sternik, the head of the Russian foreign ministry's department in charge of ex-Soviet states, in an interview Sunday with the news agency Interfax. He said the issue was discussed at a recent meeting of the CSTO in Moscow.
"Toward this end we're optimizing the structures and deployment schemes of the 201st Russian military base in Tajikistan. Its capabilities are increasing. Under the current circumstances taking into account the state of affairs in the border region this is the most effective model of cooperation," Sternik added.
In a move to be expected, Russian gas behemoth Gazprom has formally suspended purchases of natural gas from Turkmenistan, according to a statement by state gas company Turkmengaz.
Turkmengaz has been philosophical about a development that now leaves it with only two international customers — China and Iran.
“The basis for this decision is the changing situation on the international gas market, and also certain economic and financial issues that has arisen for Gazprom Export,” Turkmengaz said in a stament
Turkmenistan said it remains open to further negotiations with Gazprom’s export branch on “wide array of issues.”
The language emerging from Ashgabat is substantially more measured than that heard last year, when Turkmenistan reacted to Gazprom’s announcement it was to slash the amount of gas it buys from the Central Asian nation by dubbing Russia an “unreliable partner.”
Russia has been a regular, if not always reliable, buyer of Turkmenistan gas since 1991. In April 2003, Russia signed a 25-year gas contract with Turkmenistan that envisioned exports increasing to 80 billion cubic meters per year.
Deliveries to Russia through the traditional routes hit a peak of 45 billion cubic meters in 2008.
In the two weeks since Saudi Arabia announced that it was forming a yet another "coalition" to combat Islamist terror, the allegiances of the former Soviet states have come under increasing scrutiny. All of them, however, appear to believe that they have little to gain from picking a side and continue to spurn the advances from various suitors, including Russia and the United States in addition to the Saudis.
When Saudi Arabia announced its 34-member coalition of majority-Muslim states, there was a conspicuous lack of any post-Soviet republics in its ranks. Azerbaijan said it was considering the idea, and apparently still is.
A Saudi newspaper reported that Tajikistan's ambassador to Riyadh said that Dushanbe was considering the idea, and that President Emomali Rahmon would discuss the idea during his visit to Saudi Arabia in January. But the same day, that was denied by the country’s deputy foreign minister, Parviz Davlatzoda, who told the Russian news agency TASS, "We do not consider this at all."
Part of Tajikistan's reluctance is no doubt due to Moscow's hostile attitude toward the Saudi coalition. The Russian press has heaped scorn on the notion of the coalition; one journalist asked President Vladimir Putin about it, noting that "This will be an anti-Russian alliance, and it includes Turkey. This is very dangerous." Putin played the good cop, though:
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko meet in Moscow on December 15. (photo: kremlin.ru)
The prospect of a Russian air base in Belarus "will not be discussed," Belarus's defense minister has said, but regional analysts believe the issue is far from resolved.
Belarus-Russia relations have been a little strained lately, with one bone of contention being Russia's open desire to establish an air base on the territory its western neighbor, and Belarus's resistance. Russian officials have been talking about the base for two years, with regular statements met by conspicuous silence from Minsk. That changed in October when President Alexander Lukashenko, for the first time, said Belarus didn't need a Russian base, and furthermore denying that there had even been discussions to that effect.
Lukashenko was supposed to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in November, but that meeting was abruptly canceled. The two finally got together in Moscow last week, but nothing was said publicly about the base. After the meeting, Putin only glancingly mentioned security issues: "We agreed to develop our military and military-technical cooperation to strengthen regional stability and security."
A few days later, Belarus's defense minister Andrei Ravkov was asked about the prospect of a Russian base. "Nothing has changed. The issue hasn't been discussed and won't be discussed, most likely," he said.
The presidents of the CSTO member states gather in Moscow on December 21. (photo: CSTO)
Russia's post-Soviet security bloc has put off a decision to appoint a new secretary general, suggesting some internal dissension about the direction of the organization.
The heads of state of the six Collective Security Treaty Organization members met in Moscow on Monday and judging from the official statements, no particularly big decisions were made, other than reaffirming the group's intention to fight terrorism.
But just a few days earlier, an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yuriy Ushakov, said that the group would be choosing a new secretary general. "Working discussions are going on about that issue. There will be a final decision before the leaders on Monday. Several variants are being discussed," Ushakov said.
The CSTO's declaration Monday, however, noted: "The collective security council decided to prolong the authority of CSTO General Secretary Nikolay Bordyuzha until January 1, 2017."
Ushakov said that the next secretary general would be from Armenia: "The rotation is being considered on the basis of the Russian alphabet, so it's completely logical that Armenia will become the general secretary in the organization. But this issue is still being discussed."
This explanation about "rotation" isn't entirely convincing. Bordyuzha, a Russian and a career Soviet KGB officer, has been the CSTO's only general secretary and has served since 2003.
It may not be a coincidence that Armenia also happens to be the only CSTO ally who has unambiguously sided with Russia in its row with Turkey that resulted from the November shootdown of a Russian jet on the Turkey-Syria border.
A Kazakhstan warship tests anti-aircraft artillery in the Caspian Sea. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan has, for the first time, launched an anti-aircraft missile from a warship on the Caspian Sea. While the test may not mean much operationally, in the context of current heightened Russian military activity on the Caspian the move appears to be a modest show of force from Astana.
Kazakhstan's Ministry of Defense announced on December 14 that it had tested the Arbalet-K air-defense missile system from its missile boat Oral. The test was carried out at a "high level," the MoD said, noting that the [Ukrainian-made, incidentally] Arbalet-K was designed to defeat "jet, turboprop and propeller aircraft and helicopters, under conditions of visibility of the target, using surface-to-air missiles."
This follows another test, on November 27, of anti-aircraft artillery from the Oral and three other Kazakh warships on the Caspian. That test, the MoD said, was conducted in "conditions as close as possible to combat."
These weapons are a far cry from the cruise missiles that Russia has launched from the Caspian on three separate occasions since October -- twice at targets in Syria, and once in a test. Russian President Vladimir Putin also has recently dismissed worries by Kazakhstan about the danger posed to civilian aircraft over the Caspian, saying that the Caspian states need to make sacrifices for the sake of the anti-terror fight that Russia is carrying out.
Saudi Arabia on Tuesday announced the creation of a 34-country coalition of Muslim states aimed at fighting terrorism. Those 34 countries did not include the six Muslim-majority states of the former Soviet Union, though Azerbaijan said that it was considering joining in.
It's not yet clear what exactly the coalition will do: "It remains unclear what the Sunni kingdom is asking the other countries to do—whether it is a loose grouping to talk strategy and share intelligence or the first step to establishing a fighting force against the Sunni militant group," the Wall Street Journal reported.
The geopolitics of the new coalition suggest the emergence of a sort of new Cold War bloc arrangement in the region. The United States praised the creation of the new group. "In general it appears it is very much in line with something we've been urging for quite some time, which is greater involvement in the campaign to combat ISIL (Islamic State) by Sunni Arab countries," said U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
The plan for Russia’s state media to advance its narrative across friendly former Soviet nations in Central Asia has run into trouble in Tajikistan.
Rossiya Segodnya, the holding company that controls the notoriously anti-Western outlet Sputnik, has let go several of its Dushanbe staff, according to a December 15 report by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi.
Ozodi speculates that economic troubles in Russia may be to blame, but there is a strong indication there is more at play.
Although the governments of Russia and Tajikistan are close partners, Rossiya Segodnya has failed for unknown reasons to obtain registration in Tajikistan.
Sputnik is typically uncritical of Russia-friendly nations, so it is hard to imagine that Dushanbe feared the presence of another critical voice.
The head of Rossiya Segodnya’s Dushanbe office, Dmitry Pisarenko, was last month recalled to Moscow, reportedly for his failure to obtain authorization during his year in post.
Ozodi reports that 10 out of the 15 people that worked in Sputnik’s Dushanbe bureau are to be let go before the end of the year.
It all started so promisingly.
The Rossiya Segodnya media holding — not to be confused with the unrelated, but also state-run television station RT, formerly Russia Today — was created in December 2013 to replace RIA-Novosti news agency, which was suspected in some quarters of harboring insufficiently patriotic elements. RIA-Novosti still operates in greatly reduced form as part of Rossiya Segodnya.
The goal set for Rossiya Segodnya, whose head is notoriously inflammatory television news anchor Dmitry Kiselyov, was to represent Russia’s political stance and values across the world.