Presidents of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan watch a military exercise from the Kremlin. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Russian President Vladimir Putin convened an "informal" summit of his allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization last week as Moscow faced continued international isolation over its role in the Ukraine crisis. But the event only highlighted the misgivings of Russia's foreign policy direction, even among its closest allies.
For one, there was the absence of Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of CSTO member Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is the CSTO member with the most international stature (outside of Russia); with Kazakhstan the group hardly presents an impressive front; without it, remaining CSTO allies Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are an even more motley crew.
And Nazarbayev's excuse was one unlikely to elicit understanding from the Kremlin: he had to stay in Astana to meet with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. And Burns, after meeting with Nazarbayev, told the local press that he had brought the message from Washington that "so long as Russia continues down its current dangerous and irresponsible path, we will continue to work with our international partners to apply steadily increasing counter-pressure." The jilted CSTO allies continued on undaunted; It seems the words "Nazarbayev" or "Kazakhstan" were not uttered at the meeting, in public anyway, and the Kremlin account did not mention the fact that it was called under the auspices of the CSTO (though the CSTO itself did).
A Buyan-class corvette in the Caspian Sea; more soon headed for the Black Sea. (photo: mil.ru)
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu on Tuesday said that the plan for the Black Sea Fleet renovation would be altered in light of the annexation of Crimea. He didn't give a tremendous number of details about what that might mean, but we are learning a bit more now about the Black Sea Fleet "development plan" that Shoigu's boss, Vladimir Putin, announced recently.
Most of the headlines about Shoigu's comments, both in the Russian- and English-language press focused on his mention of adding new ships and submarines to the fleet. But that was already planned long ago; the shifts as a result of the Crimea annexation are not (yet) too substantial.
Mikhail Barabanov, a naval analyst at the Moscow Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, told The Bug Pit that a development plan for the Black Sea Fleet announced in 2008 has not been changed too much. Under that program, the Black Sea Fleet was slated to get six new frigates and six new submarines. While it had appeared that the sixth frigate may be in danger because of budget reasons, that has now been reversed: Putin "personally" ordered the sixth frigate to be reinstated, Barabanov said. Barabanov also said that three light guided missile corvettes that had been slated for the Caspian Flotilla now appear to be headed to the Black Sea (to augment seven such ships already designated for the Black Sea Fleet). "But all this is hardly a significant increase in strength," Barabanov said,
In coordination with the Kremlin, Russian activists plan an ex-USSR-wide distribution of black-and-orange ribbons meant to commemorate the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. The caveat is that the St. George’s ribbon has evolved to embody Russian power and nostalgia for the USSR; concepts that many in the Caucasus are not willing to wear on their sleeves.
The state-run Russian Information Agency (RIA Novosti), a champion of the annual St.-George's-ribbon campaign, has announced that on May 9, the 69th anniversary of the 1945 Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, millions of ribbons will rain down on ex-Soviet countries, the South Caucasus included.
In an April 29 talk show, headlined “St. George’s Ribbon Struts across the Planet,” RIA Novosti claimed that a massive ribbon-handout rally would be held in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. The ribbons, talk-show participants said, also would be up for grabs at the Russian embassies in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova. In the case of Georgia, which severed diplomatic ties with Russia after the two countries' 2008 war, the Russian consulate at the Swiss embassy would provide the ribbons.
Many pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine are wearing these ribbons, and the show host made sure to take a swipe at Ukrainian “nationalists” and their alleged attempts to “erase the historic memory" of the war.
But it looks like the show and its claims of a post-Soviet team spirit may have been ultimately meant for a domestic, Russian audience.
Led by a flag bearer hoisting an image of Jesus, and six drummer girls in purple satin, about a thousand supporters of various nationalist causes marched for what they called “Russian May Day” in northwestern Moscow on May 1.
Young and old, men and women shouted, “Russia is for Russians,” “Glory to the Russians,” and angrier slogans, such as “get out, black dirt” – a reference to migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Indeed, it was migration that seemed to unite this broad swath of rightwing Russia.
“Russian citizenship for Russians. No to handing out citizenship,” some chanted. “Who are we? Russians! We are the power here!”
Several of the groups also yelled, “Cancel 282” – that is, Article 282 of the criminal code, which prohibits inciting ethnic hatred. Each of about 10 groups had its own flag, including a black-yellow-and-white-striped banner used briefly by Tsarist Russia in the 19th century. Other banners incorporated white power symbols. (The kolovrat, seen in several images above on a red flag, is sometimes called the Slavic swastika. Adopted by some rightwing groups, others defend it as an ancient pagan symbol for the sun.)
The three leaders at an intimate meeting on April 29 in Minsk.
Vladimir Putin’s project to launch a political union of former Soviet republics – which has assumed even greater significance in the eyes of the Russian president as Moscow engages in a bitter struggle to retain influence in Ukraine – has run into trouble. A summit of the three prospective founding presidents wound up inconclusively on April 29, with the leaders making it clear that the ambitious undertaking is in danger of coming off the rails.
As Putin met in Minsk with Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, the three founding members of the existing Customs Union were expected to set a date set for the signing of a landmark treaty to transform that free trade zone into the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) next month.
Instead, the summit appeared to collapse in disarray, with only one point agreed: The three disagreed on too much to be able to finalize the union treaty as hoped.
“We still have questions,” Putin said in laconic remarks quoted by ITAR-TASS. “But I’d agree with my colleagues that we can always jointly work on them to find compromise solutions.”
Nazarbayev likewise stressed his conviction that “we have always found consensus and I am sure it will be this way in the future, too.”
The Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry is looking into reports that volunteers from Kazakhstan are among the pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The "people's mayor" of the breakaway town of Slavyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, told Time magazine that "his militia force... is made up partly of volunteers who have come from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and other parts of the former Soviet Union." And a member of the Russian "Eurasian Youth Union" organizing volunteers to support pro-Russian forces in Ukraine told the newspaper Izvestia that they had been in touch with "thousands of people from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vorkuta, Irkutsk, other Russian cities, even the Cossack community from eastern Kazakhstan has responded."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Nurzhan Aitmakhanov told Tengrinews.kz: "We have paid attention to various media reports that allege that 'among the militias in Slavyansk are volunteers from Kazakhstan.' We note that in the reports there are no specific names or documents proving the citizenship of the volunteers. As a result it's not possible to confirm the information. We consider the reports groundless." But he said the ministry and other relevant organs will keep looking into the reports.
A Mistral-class warship in France; Russia will soon receive two ships of this class, one possibly destined for the Black Sea Fleet. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Russian President Vladimir Putin has signaled his intent to expand the country's Black Sea Fleet now that the previous restrictions to its size have been annulled.
On Friday, the Kremlin announced that "The Government and the Defence Ministry have been instructed to draft a development programme for the Black Sea Fleet." This follows the annulment of the agreements that Russia and Ukraine had signed in 2010, on account of the fact that Ukraine is no longer in charge of Crimea. As RIA Novosti puts it: "The development of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet became an important task for the country when a number of agreements were annulled with Ukraine after the Crimean Peninsula was reunited with Russia last month."
One key provision of those agreements was that Russia was not allowed to expand the number or capability of the ships it had in the Black Sea Fleet; instead it could only replace an old ship with a new one of the same class. When Russia reached a deal with then-president Viktor Yanukovych in December in a failed attempt to shore up Yanukovych's rule, it reportedly included a provision to "start negotiations on preparation of a bilateral agreement on replacement of weaponry and military equipment" of the fleet. Russia had long been pushing Ukraine to alter their agreement so that the fleet could add more ships; now those constraints are gone and Russia can add as much as it wants. Aside from potential additional ships, one analysis in the journal New Eastern Europe suggests various on-land expansion possibilities:
The Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization announced on Thursday that it would stop all contacts with NATO. It's a decision not likely to be deeply mourned in Brussels, which rarely had evinced any interest in cooperating with the CSTO in the first place.
CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha said at a Moscow press conference that: "For now we will not be making any efforts to establish contact with NATO, due to their stance during the Ukrainian crisis.... Today, NATO is blackmailing all of the CSTO member states ... showing that they are extremely dissatisfied with Russia's actions in recent months."
Bordyuzha's remarks echo those made by Russia's deputy defense minister, Anatoly Antonov, earlier this week:
"There is moral pressure and an attempt to convince people that 'Russians are bad' and therefore they should look up to European democracy. They are talking about some military-technical assistance, about sending advisers and increasing the number of joint exercises. NATO has only one task to pursue — to drive a wedge between Russia and its allies, to tear us away from each other," Antonov said.
Russia's April 21 offer to turn into Russians anyone who has lived on the territory of the former Soviet Union or Russian Empire and speaks Russian fluently has got the South Caucasus on edge.
The law on simplifying access to citizenship for Russian-speakers across the former Soviet Union is ostensibly meant to replenish the thinning numbers of Russians, who, even at over 142.47 million people ( the world's tenth largest country), apparently just don’t reproduce like they used to. Azerbaijan, and especially Armenia and Georgia, which do not exactly boast high birth rates, are worried that Russia could annex many of their citizens to make up the difference.
Knowledge of Russian may have weakened of late in the South Caucasus, but widespread poverty still makes the region a prime place for creating born-again Russians. Armenia, which lacks Azerbaijan's natural resources and Georgia's status as a regional trade conduit, is particularly vulnerable to a citizenship drain. Russia also tightened its migrant- worker laws, which may prompt many Armenians, who travel to Russia for work, to opt for citizenship.
Russian gunboats during a 2011 exercise on the Caspian Sea. (photo: mil.ru)
The foreign ministers of the countries surrounding the Caspian Sea met in Moscow on Tuesday, in preparation for a summit this fall. Diplomatic activity around the sea is not new, and the major dispute -- how to divide up the sea between the five countries -- remains unresolved. But as with everything else in the post-Soviet space, the crisis in Ukraine has changed the calculations in the Caspian, making for an unusual amount of turbulence in the normally stagnant diplomatic waters.
The most interesting potential storyline of the meeting was that Russia had convinced the other four countries -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan -- to agree to forbid the military presence of any other country on the sea. This was based on a report in Russian newspaper Kommersant, which quoted a "diplomatic source from one of the Caspian countries" saying that "Moscow managed to convince its partners that no outside power should influence decisions about the Caspian. In particular, the issue is about limiting the deployment of military forces of third countries, especially the U.S., to the Caspian."
It's not clear to what extent the issue came up at the meeting. At a press conference afterwards, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was asked about "the intention of some non-Caspian countries to gain a presence, including military, without taking into account the interests of the countries in the region?" Lavrov answered: "Responsibility for the state of affairs in the Caspian region rests with the Caspian countries... We are open to cooperation with outside countries, if they are ready to do so on the basis of the rules and principles that the five Caspian countries agree on among themselves."