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.
Russia's announcement that it might be setting up repair facilities in Afghanistan for the maintenance of the Afghanistan military's equipment may seem like a pretty mundane bit of news, except for the irresistible symbolism. "Russia considers returning to Afghanistan," writes Foreign Policy. "Russia going back to Afghanistan? Kremlin confirms it could happen," writes the Christian Science Monitor.
“We will look into various options of creating repair bases on Afghan territory,” the head of the Defense Ministry’s department of international cooperation, Sergey Koshelev, told the press. He added that the maintenance of weapons and military hardware in Afghanistan remains a top priority, as any instability in the country would affect Russia’s own security, as well as the security of other European nations.
And Moscow is also not ruling out more substantive cooperation with NATO in Afghanistan. RT again:
Russian NATO envoy Aleksandr Grushko also said that Moscow was not excluding the possibility of broader cooperation with the military bloc. In particular, Russia could offer to enlarge the transport corridor to Afghanistan, so that the country’s own forces could continue to receive supplies from Western allies after coalition troops leave Afghanistan in 2014.
The logistics center that Russia set up in Ulyanovsk for NATO to use for transporting military equipment out of Afghanistan is not being used because it's too expensive, a senior NATO official has said. Alexander Vershbow, the alliance's deputy secretary general, gave a long interview to Russian newspaper Kommersant and discussed a variety of issues involving Russia-NATO relations. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the conversation was about missile defense, but there was also some interesting discussion on Ulyanovsk:
Kommersant: What is happening with the transit center at Ulyanovsk? As far as I know, there has been only one test flight with NATO cargo from Afghanistan. When will the transit center start working in full?
Vershbow: Everything is agreed on there and ready for use not just by NATO countries but by all other partners in ISAF who want to transport cargo to or from Afghanistan. The issue is the commercial aspect. NATO countries are studying the most advantageous transportation networks from the financial point of view. So, for example, transit routes through Pakistan, closed not long ago, now are fully open and that is the most inexpensive route.
Kommersant: The Russian proposal is less advantageous?
Vershbow: It's costlier. NATO governments are looking for the best proposal for the least amount of money. We're talking about a very large quantity of cargo -- tens of thousands of containers. Correspondingly, the prices have to be competitive, this is business.
Kommersant: Not long ago Russia announced it was ready to use one of its ports for these transport networks.
Vershbow: Yes, on the Baltic Sea. That was one of the variants discussed, but everything will depend on how commercially advantageous it is in comparison with the other available routes. If Russia makes a better proposal, that could gain them a greater share of this business (laughs).
Russia's Black Sea Fleet taking part in military exercises this week.
Russia's surprise, large-scale military exercises on the Black Sea are raising alarm among some of its neighbors. Russian President Vladimir Putin sprung the exercises on his military at 4 am Thursday and showed up in person, along with Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, to observe the exercises on Friday. The exercises involve around 30 warships, 7,000 servicemembers and various armored vehicles and artillery.
But the Black Sea is a complex geopolitical environment: Russia's Black Sea Fleet is based in Sevastopol, in on-again-off-again ally Ukraine. NATO members Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania also have naval forces on the sea, as of course does Russia's foe Georgia. So the international response to the exercise wasn't entirely positive. As RT put it, "The Russian naval drills came as a surprise not only to the Russian armed forces, but also for neighboring countries’ militaries as well, which were forced to rub sleep from their eyes and rush to their duties as up to 30 Russian battleships left port."
Russian officials pointed out that there is nothing to prevent them from conducting these sorts of surprise drills. “According to international practice, exercises involving up to 7,000 people do not require us to inform our partners in advance,” said Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
The U.S.'s growing military ties with Uzbekistan may be a strategic necessity, given the importance of the Central Asian country in the U.S.'s war effort in Afghanistan. But it is forcing the U.S. to confront an important, if little-discussed, complication: Uzbekistan is the least-trusted, most-feared country in the region. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have well-known border and water conflicts with Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan sees Uzbekistan as a regional rival. So is the U.S.'s military aid to Uzbekistan raising regional tensions?
U.S. military aid, after being suspended for several years because of human rights concerns, is steadily being ramped up. That the U.S. is giving small surveillance drones to Uzbekistan is the worst-kept secret in Washington (OK, in the narrow slice of Washington that The Bug Pit inhabits). It's also giving Uzbekistan's armed forces night-vision goggles, body armor, and GPS systems, and there are credible rumors in Washington of heavier military equipment being considered for Uzbekistan to either buy or be given. (And it's not just the U.S.: Uzbekistan has pledged to work more closely with NATO on training, and the U.K. is also planning to make some donations to Uzbekistan as well.)
The roles played by regional powers Russia and Turkey in Syria's civil war are well documented, the former on the side of the government of Bashar al-Assad, and the latter on the side of the opposition. But according to a new report by a human rights group, Georgia and Azerbaijan also play bit parts in helping the Syrian government.
The report by the Human Rights First, Enablers of the Syrian Conflict (pdf), attempts to shine light on the international actors fueling the bloodshed in that country. It focuses solely on aid given to the government of Syria, not to the rebels. "Although both sides of the conflict are responsible for atrocities, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is responsible for the vast majority," the report says.
Private companies in Georgia and Lebanon have supplied Syria with diesel fuel, the report notes:
[S]mall vessels carrying diesel from Georgia have also sailed into Syria.The United States provides foreign assistance to both Lebanon and Georgia. This assistance, and close bilateral relations, affords the United States an opportunity to exercise diplomatic and political action to have the Lebanese and Georgian governments investigate these reports and stop actors within those countries from fueling the crisis in Syria.
For its part, Azerbaijan allows Russia to use its airspace for shipments of weapons and cash:
Some lethal provisions to Syria by air initially involved transit through Turkey; however, after Turkey took steps to inspect suspected arms flights to Syria, Russia, Iran, and North Korea have all attempted to instead use Iraq as an arms corridor, with Russian transfers also traveling through Azerbaijan and Iran....
The history of the Caucasus has long been dominated by three surrounding powers: Turkey,Russia, and Iran. And while Europe and the U.S. have become part of the equation in recent years, the region is still likely to be subject to the influences of its big neighbors to the west, north, and south. And so a big project by the Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies on "The Turkey, Russia, Iran Nexus" is particularly interesting for observers of the Caucasus. CSIS has just released a report (pdf) examining how the various bilateral relationships (i.e. Turkey-Russia, Russia-Iran, Turkey-Iran) interact in political, economic and other ways. The report notes that Russia is not as worried about Iranian influence in the Caucasus as it is about Turkey:
Moscow is not enthusiastic about any state increasing its influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, be it Turkey, Iran, China, the United States, or whomever. As then-President Dmitri Medvedev stated in September 2008 just after the five-day Georgia War, Russia regards the post-Soviet states as its “zone of privileged interests.” Having noted that, Iran’s presence and activities in Central Asia have been viewed as very much aligned with those of Moscow while Turkey’s as neither significant nor malign enough to draw too much attention.
Tajikistan has seen the massive amount of military aid that Russia has promised Kyrgyzstan, and has decided that it wants in on the windfall. And it's willing to delay the ratification of the Russia-Tajikistan military base agreement signed back in October in order to get it, according to a report in Russian newspaper Kommersant.
Recall that last year, Russia promised a big military aid package to both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, with the former country getting $1.3 billion and the latter $200 million. Tajikistan's aid was part of the deal for a 30-year extension of Russia's lease on the 201st military base. It's not clear why it took so long, but Tajikistan's president, Emomali Rahmon, has now apparently decided that he got a raw deal. From Kommersant:
In the words of Kommersant's source close to the bilateral government commission [working out the base agreement] Dushanbe has raised two additional conditions [to the base deal]. The Tajik side has demanded a formal bilateral agreement based on the verbal agreements reached in October -- on Russia's provision of the means of modernizing Tajikistan's armed forces, and money for the development of its hydroenergy. Moreover, in Dushanbe they have expressed the wish for Moscow to allocate more than the promised $200 million for the rearming of the Tajik army, noting that Russia promised Kyrgyzstan around $1 billion for the analogous purpose.
This comes on top of another delay, imposed by the Tajik side in January. And the Kommersant piece ends with a dark warning: