Tajikistan’s Asia-Plus news website is reporting that Russian troops are pulling out of their base in the southern city of Kulyab in an unexpected and, so far, unexplained development.
The website based its report on November 18 on an official order from Russian military command obtained by local residents with ties to the base.
“We inform you that in connection with a [Russian Central Military District] directive, this military facility is being relocated as of October 15, 2015. The relocation will be completed within two months of receipt of this directive,” reads the summons, as reproduced by Asia-Plus.
No details are provided about where the garrison is to be relocated.
Kulyab is one of the three cities in Tajikistan where the Russian 201st Motor Rifle Division is deployed — the others are Dushanbe and Kurgan-Tyube.
Russian troops numbers in the country are estimated to stand at around between 6,000 and 7,000.
The presence of the base in Kulyab provokes mixed feelings. While adding to the local economy, the military presence has also been at the root of much scandal in recent years.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported in July on an incident of drunken Russian soldiers going on the rampage in Kulyab and getting into a mass brawl with some local men.
In an earlier incident in February, a Russian officer was charged with grievously assaulting a waiter in Kulyab, RFE/RL reported.
And although the base is a valuable economic input, even that aspect has on occasion fallen short of people’s expectations.
About 4,500 Islamist militants are operating in northern Afghanistan near the borders of Central Asia, and are planning to create an "emirate" consisting of much of the territory of the region, Russian officials have said.
"According to the information we have, in that area groups of militants are moving toward the border of the [former Soviet Union], in particular to the borders of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan," said Alexander Manilov, coordinator of the Commonwealth of Independent States border guard services, at a meeting on Thursday of the group in Astana. (The CIS is an organization of post-Soviet states.)
"Therefore one of our tasks today is to discuss how to liquidate these threats on the border and that they don't cross into the CIS countries," he said. "According to estimates about the Afghan border, around 4,500 militants, terrorists, are located in the Afghan territories bordering immediately on the CIS countries."
"I believe this is significantly more than it used to be before," Manilov added. "I think there are real threats - from penetrations across the border to attempts to destabilize the states on the [Afghan] border."
Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court have identified Georgian military units trained by the United States as being suspected of war crimes, possibly jeopardizing future American aid to those units.
Last month, the ICC prosecutor's office formally requested the authority to start investigations into war crimes in the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia over the disputed territory of South Ossetia. According to the prosecutor's initial report, Georgian and Russian military forces, as well as units of the de facto South Ossetian security forces, all were implicated in war crimes.
In the Georgian case, the crimes involved attacks on Russian units of the Joint Peacekeeping Forces under the Sochi agreement between Georgia and Russia, which formally ended the conflict. Intentionally attacking peacekeepers is a war crime under the Rome Statute, under which the ICC operates. From the ICC report:
During the night from 7 to 8 August 2008 the Georgian armed forces conducted a military operation against JPKF HQ and the base of the Russian Peacekeeping Forces Battalion (RUPKFB) claiming that it had lost its protected status. According to the Russian authorities, 10 peacekeepers belonging to the Russian peacekeeping contingent were killed and a further 30 were wounded as a result.
A spokesman for a key security body in Tajikistan has wandered off the script on Afghanistan by scoffing at claims there is a build-up of Islamic State militants beyond the country's southern border.
Muhammad Ulugkhodzhayev, spokesman for the security services Main Border Troops Directorate, told Avesta website on November 5 that the rumors of fighters with the terrorist organization converging in northern Afghanistan were “far from truthful.”
Seeking to downplay another oft-aired scare scenario, Ulugkhodzhayev said there has not to date been a single attempt by militants from either Islamic State or the Taliban to make an incursion into Tajikistan.
The more thoughtful observers of the region have indeed long questioned whether the Taliban in particular would have any tactical, strategic or ideological interest in venturing into the former Soviet states along Afghanistan’s border.
Ulugkhodzhayev said that defenses on the country’s border were as normal.
Officials in Tajikistan, from the president downward, have tended to speak out of both sides of their mouths on the thorny issue of security. On one hand, they seek to cast themselves as the frontline against Islamic radicalism, thereby buying themselves diplomatic leverage with international partners, but at the same time they insist Tajikistan’s security forces are more than capable of dealing with any challenges that present themselves.
Iran's Damavand frigate, which made its first visit to Russia, but skipped a planned trip to Baku without explanation. (photo: MoD Iran)
Iran's navy appears to have quietly scrapped plans to make its first-ever visit to Azerbaijan.
Iranian officials announced earlier this month that a three-ship contingent from their Caspian fleet would be visiting Baku after a stop in Astrakhan for joint exercises with Russia's Caspian Flotilla. The stop in Russia seems to have gone as planned, but on Friday Iranian military officials announced that the ships had returned home to Iran, with no mention of the previous Azerbaijani plans.
"The Iranian fleet of warships comprising Joshan (Shield) and Peykan (Arrow) warships and the hi-tech Damavand destroyer which embarked on a 12-day voyage in the Caspian Sea on October 18 and after conducting joint naval drills with the Russian Navy and berthing at Russia's Astrakhan port returned home today," Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari told the Fars news agency. (It's worth noting that the tour was originally said to be 14 days.)
So what happened to Baku? Although the planned visit was reported in the Azerbaijani media at the start of the trip, there seems to have been no mention since then about the visit or that it had been canceled.
Screenshot of Russian MoD-produced video of launch of Kalibr rocket from the Caspian Sea.
Less than a month after its first-ever launch of a cruise missile from the Caspian Sea, the Russian navy has done it again, this time as part of a large-scale test.
The test, which Russia's military said was aimed at testing its system of its missile command system, involved simultaneous launches of various sorts of missiles from land, aircraft and warships from Kamchatka to Komi to southern Russia.
For Caspian watchers, the most interesting element of the exercise was the launch of a Kalibr missile from the ship Velikiy Ustyug of the Caspian Flotilla. This, recall, was one of the ships -- using the same type of missile -- that participated in the long-range strikes against Syrian targets earlier this month.
That test was widely interpreted as a demonstration of Russia's growing ability to strike targets from long distances. One American naval analyst said the test showed Russia's capacity for "distributed lethality," or dispersing its strike capability around many small sources.
"The Russians are adopting distributed lethality faster than the US,” said the analyst, Bryan Clark, a naval analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, in an interview with Defense News. “The arguments made for distributed lethality are to put firepower on a bunch of smaller ships, have them disperse, in turn increase targeting problems for the enemy, and you may be able to generate the same kind of firepower if you concentrate the platforms."
A series of airspace violations related to Russian airstrikes in Syria has raised tensions between Russia and Turkey, adding a military dimension to what has long been a political disagreement over how to deal with the violence in the Middle East.
The controversies began shortly after Russia began its air campaign in support of the Syrian government. Turkish authorities said that Russian jets had entered its airspace from Syria on two occasions, on October 3 and 4. Russia claimed the incursion was an accident caused by the weather but Turkish, NATO, and American officials argued that it was intentional.
The point, said Turkish military expert Aaron Stein, was a warning to Turkey to not challenge Russia in Syria. "Turkey's historical adversary [Russia] is intentionally breaching Turkish air space, obviously to send a message to Turkey," he told RFE/RL.
Days later, Turkish military transport helicopters crossed into Armenian air space on two occasions, October 6 and 7. As in the earlier Russian case, Ankara explained the situation by bad weather, but it was widely interpreted as being a retaliatory measure, albeit an understated one, by Ankara. "Armenia was the least challenging place to respond in a deescalated way," said Emil Sanamyan, a regional security analyst, in an email interview with the Bug Pit. "The Russians and Armenians got the point and just ignored it."
Afghanistan's Uzbek leader and vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum has kicked off an offensive in the northern part of the country, just two weeks after traveling to Russia to arrange an increase in military aid.
On Wednesday, Afghanistan's security forces started an operation in the province of Jawzjan, which borders Turkmenistan, led personally by Dostum. The offensive is meant to beat back recent Taliban gains in the north, both in Jawzjan and in neighboring Faryab, which also borders Turkmenistan. Dostum led another offensive in Faryab in August, but his advances were quickly reversed.
Dostum's increasing involvement in the fighting in northern Afghanistan comes as he has also apparently sought to strengthen his ties to the former Soviet states to the north. He visited Grozny and Moscow earlier this month, meeting with officials including Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, to arrange increased Russian military aid.
After arriving in the north, Dostum appeared on Afghan television and publicly thanked his northern neighbors. "The countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, from Russia to Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, all of these states are ready to stand with us against [the Islamic State], against extremism, against the bloody Taliban," he said.
Iran's Damavand frigate, which is making its first visit to Russia. (photo: MoD Iran)
Iranian warships are on a rare trip around the Caspian, calling on their neighbors in Russia and Azerbaijan in a period of new uncertainty for the sea.
Three Iranian vessels are scheduled to berth in Astrakhan, the home of Russia's Caspian Flotilla, on Wednesday. After three days in Astrakhan, the ships will head to Baku and then back to Iran. According to Iranian media it is only Iran's second naval visit to Russia and apparently its first to Azerbaijan.
Russia, the dominant power in the Caspian, makes these sorts of small, friendly naval visits around the sea somewhat regularly. In August, a small contingent of Russian ships visited the Iranian coast and conducted joint exercises.
But Iran's first such visit was in the summer of 2013, and then only to Russia. The visit to Baku isn't the only novelty; this time Iran is sending its new frigate, the Damavand, Iran's most powerful ship on the Caspian which was launched earlier this year.
Although the Caspian is the site of much greater attention these days as a result of Russia's surprise missile launch to Syria, this visit was no doubt planned well in advance. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu visited Tehran in January and on the agenda was more naval port calls.
South Ossetia, a separatist region that sees itself as an independent country, has announced plans to hold a popular show of hands about joining its big neighbor and benefactor, Russia.
“Today’s political reality is such that we have to make our historic choice: we must reunite with brotherly Russia and ensure centuries of security and prosperity for our republic, our people,” the region’s de-facto leader, Leonid Tibilov, allegedly announced at an October 19 meeting with Vladislav Surkov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s advisor for separatist matters.
What particularly attracts South Ossetia to Russia is neighboring North Ossetia, a Russian republic seen as part of an Ossetian homeland.
But Putin’s press person, Dmitry Peskov, has a different recollection of Tibilov’s words. Nothing was said about a referendum or the region becoming part of Russia, he claimed, the state-run RIA reported. Just South Ossetia's "age-old dream of reunification" with Russia; in other words, nothing new, he said.
Russia effectively pulled South Ossetia out of Georgia during the two countries’ 2008 war, and subsequently declared it an independent state, an entity that it had saved from abuse by Georgia. It has shelled out millions of rubles to sponsor South Ossetia’s statehood-building.
It apparently sees no reason to go a step further and absorb the region altogether. South Ossetia has not announced a date for its referendum, but the plain message from Moscow is "bad timing."