Recent reports that Russian military vehicles were appearing in Georgia have raised complaints in neighboring Azerbaijan that Tbilisi is “betraying” Baku by allowing the Russian military to ship military supplies into Armenia via its territory or airspace.
The story of the Russian vehicles in Georgia is almost certainly a tempest in a teapot – after footage surfaced of Russian-made ZIL 131 military trucks on Georgian streets, various theories quickly emerged. Georgia's opposition claimed the trucks were evidence that the current government was in cahoots with Moscow, while some suggested they may be on the way to Armenia, where Russia both has its own large military base and provides substantial military aid to the armed forces there. But it didn't take long for another, more banal explanation to come out: the vehicles were decommissioned in Russia and are being sold on the commercial market.
There's no indication that the Russian trucks were in fact destined for Armenia, but the question of how Russia supplies its base in Armenia, as well as delivers military aid there, has long been a secretive and contentious one. Armenia is separated from Russia by Azerbaijan and Turkey, which are hostile to Armenia, and Georgia, which is hostile to Russia. Georgia nevertheless did allow overflights of Russian military shipments to Armenia until 2011, when it publicly annulled the agreement with Russia allowing for that transit. The status of that transit is now unclear, though there have been various unconfirmed reports that it was reinstated even while former president Mikheil Saakashvili was in power.
Reports about Vladimir Putin’s death might be slightly exaggerated, but they have kept Internet-users entertained for two days now. Yet, as journalists go chasing the vanished Russian president, perhaps someone needs to talk to his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, who insisted that he spoke to Putin over the phone just yesterday.
According to the Armenian president’s office, Putin told Sargsyan he was planning to come visit Yerevan on April 24 for Armenia’s commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the massive slaughter of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey.
If the chat did take place, Sargsyan may be the last leader to have spoken to Putin. A trip to Kazakhstan was canceled, as was a meeting with a delegation from breakaway South Ossetia.
Armenia ranks as Russia's main ally in the South Caucasus, so, presumably, Sargsyan would know when he's talking to Putin himself.
But how did Putin sound to the Armenian leader? For now, Sargsyan's office ain't sayin'.
The chat, though, is likely to feed the fire of speculation since Putin disappeared from public view after late last week. What began as a “have you seen Putin?” whisper is turning into a wildly trending “Putin died” phenomenon that some take seriously and others as a total joke. Even an oracular website has been set up to let users ask if Putin is dead or not.
NATO warships deploy to the Black Sea. (photo: NATO)
A six-ship NATO naval group is conducting joint exercises in the Black Sea, and the Russian military is taking advantage of the event to carry out war games of a sort.
The NATO group is led by an American admiral aboard the USS Vicksburg, and also includes warships from Canada, Germany, Italy, Romania, and Turkey. The training "will include simulated anti-air and anti-submarine warfare exercises, as well as simulated small boat attacks and basic ship handling manoeuvres," according to a release from NATO.
An anonymous source in the Russian naval base at Sevastopol, Crimea, told agency RIA Novosti that they are following the deployment and using it as an opportunity to practice testing the NATO forces' anti-aircraft systems. The probing is being carried out by Su-30 fighters and Su-24 bombers, the source said:
"Our pilots are mainly monitoring the direction of the NATO ships and monitoring the tasks that they are carrying out on their visit to the sea," the source said. "In addition, the ships' crews are no doubt conducting exercises with our planes to practice an air attack, which gives our pilots the opportunity to gain experience maneuvering and conducting aerial surveillance both in and outside of the range of the anti-aircraft systems."
The Taysoygan training grounds, which Russia currently leases from Kazakhstan, in a screenshot from a report on Astana TV.
Kazakhstan has reached an agreement with Russia to take over most of a Russian military training facility in far western Kazakhstan. The deal represents the latest step in Kazakhstan's efforts to regain control over the many Soviet-legacy military and other strategic facilities that Russia still operates in the country.
Under the agreement, Russia will hand over about 90 percent of the Taysoygan testing facility near Atyrau, Senator Sarsenbay Engsegenov told Astana TV. President Nursultan Nazarbayev instructed the Ministry of Defense to work out the details of the agreement, which should be ratified by parliament by the end of March, Engsegenov said. There hasn't yet been any comment from the Russian side.
The Taysoygan facility is currently used for Russian testing of pilots and aircraft, but in the Soviet era it was used for nuclear testing (it was reportedly subject to 24 nuclear explosions in the 1960s and 70s), and today residents still talk about the environmental impact of that: there have been calves born with five legs or one eye, children with a variety of developmental disabilities, and adults tend to have short lifespans.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Iranian envoy Ali Akbar Velayati in January. (photo: Kremlin)
Iran may be admitted into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization this summer if it makes progress in resolving disputes over its nuclear program, Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has said.
It already seems clear that India and Pakistan, who have both long sought SCO membership, will be admitted at the organization's summit this July in Ufa, Russia. Iran -- which also has been trying for years to enter the SCO -- has been hampered by the fact that it is under international sanctions related to its nuclear program.
But when a senior Iranian official, Ali Akbar Velayati, visited Moscow in late January, he reportedly gained the Kremlin's approval for SCO membership.
"Velayati’s Moscow trip might signal that some kind of a significant change in relations is about to take place. Iran’s Mehr News reported that in Moscow, Velayati was able to secure Putin’s approval for Iran to 'upgrade its status' in the SCO," noted regional analyst Alex Vatanka. "As an observer state in SCO, Iran has since 2005 unsuccessfully sought to obtain full membership in the organization, but perhaps the Russians are about to entertain the idea of Tehran joining the alliance. Along these lines, the state-run Iranian media have been busy hyping the prospects of an SCO membership for Iran."
Three-and-a-half tons of mimosas allegedly now are crossing each day from separatist Abkhazia into Russia, Russian news outlets allege. The tiny, subtropical region is hoping to make a roaring trade out of its resplendent yellow blossoms ahead of the March 8 International Women’s Day, a combination of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day in the post-Soviet world.
As it blossoms early, mimosa, or acacia dealbata, makes a prime gift for the big day. Mother Nature has helped out as well. A moderate winter led to early blossoms this year on Abkhazia’s Black Sea coast, Russian media claim.
Yet contraband is also on the increase. Some smugglers are trying to hide Abkhazia’s mimosas in their car trunks, Russian customs officials complained, Vesti.ru reported, citing TASS.
A standard mimosa bouquet sells for 100 rubles, or $1.60, in Sochi, the largest Russian city near Abkhazia, according to one outlet.
But, soon, those mimosas may not rank as contraband. Russian President Vladimir Putin, ever land-hungry, would like to eliminate Russia’s de-facto border with flowering Abkhazia, which Moscow recognises as an independent country from Georgia.
The gates of the Dastan factory in Bishkek in February 2015 (photo: twitter user @Bakai04)
Russia has apparently lost interest in a Soviet legacy torpedo factory in Kyrgyzstan that it has long sought to acquire, which officials in Bishkek say is the result of the Ukraine crisis.
The Dastan torpedo plant in Bishkek has been the source of extended negotiations between Kyrgyzstan and Russia. But the story seemed more or less over in 2013, when Kyrgyzstan announced that it would finally put the factory up for sale, and that Russia would be the buyer. Now, though, that seems to have fallen through.
According to Kyrgyzstan Deputy Prime Minister Valery Dil, Russia is no longer interested in buying Dastan because, in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, it's trying to reduce its dependency on other countries' defense businesses. (Ukraine has an extensive defense industry on which Russia has depended heavily even since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and now that cooperation has obviously been curtailed.)
"Dastan is a unique enterprise, the likes of which don't exist any more in the former USSR. Because of the crisis in Ukraine, when Russia lost its relationships with many foreign defense enterprises, they are limiting their entrance into third countries," Dil told journalists last week. "[So] Dastan can't find a place in the defense-industrial complex. But the potential of the factory is huge, it needs to work."
That explanation would be at odds with Russia's claim that the Ukraine crisis would have the opposite result, that its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization -- including Kyrgyzstan -- would gain business by replacing Ukrainian imports.
A few weeks ago, Russia’s state-run Gazprom announced it would sharply and immediately cut the amount of gas it purchases from Turkmenistan. Now Turkmenistan’s authoritarian government has responded with a rare outburst. Unfortunately for Ashgabat, these days there’s not much it can do but screech.
Russia is an “unreliable partner,” a think-tank inside Turkmenistan’s own state energy company, Turkmengaz, said in a February 16 rant published on its website.
The article – “Will Gas Exports of Turkmen Gas to Russia Recover?” – criticizes Russia and Gazprom for all of the unhappiest moments in an up-and-down relationship that has seen deliveries of Turkmen gas to Russia drop from a peak of around 45 billion cubic meters per year (bcm) in 2008 to the 4 bcm the Russian giant says it will now import in 2015.
The piece expressed outrage at Gazprom’s failure to fulfill a 2008 agreement to build a Trans-Caspian pipeline and fingered Gazprom for an unexplained pipeline explosion in April 2009 that marked the beginning of the decline in its purchases.
Gazprom and its affiliates “periodically violate agreements at interstate, intergovernmental and interdepartmental levels,” the article notes.
Talco, the company behind Tajikistan’s largest factory, is nearing a deal that would end an eight-year legal battle with the world’s largest aluminum maker, the company says.
The state-owned Talco aluminum smelter is controlled directly by Tajikistan’s strongman President Emomali Rakhmon, whose family has appeared to benefit disproportionately from the plant’s revenues.
But a history of troubled deals with Russia’s Rusal and its subsidiaries saw Talco lose in arbitration hearings in Switzerland and the British Virgin Islands in 2013 and 2014. According to Rusal, as of May 2014 the Tajik company owed $363 million, including interest. With interest accruing at nearly $45,000 per day, the total would be roughly $375 million today.
Now Talco says it has made a proposal that satisfies Rusal and that the two companies have signed off on a draft agreement, Radio Ozodi quoted Talco executive Igor Sattarov as saying on February 16. Tajikistan’s government and the Rusal board must still okay the deal, said Sattarov, who did not disclose any of the terms. Last week President Rakhmon replaced the company’s boss.
A Rusal spokesperson would not offer any details about the alleged deal, only telling EurasiaNet.org, “We can officially say that nothing has been signed yet and the agreement in question is pending approval of Rusal’s board of directors.”
Tajikistan does not mine alumina, but imports the raw materials and uses its cheap electricity to operate the smelter, which was opened in 1975 when the country was part of the Soviet Union. When the plant was functioning at capacity, it used 40 percent of Tajikistan’s electrical output, leaving much of the country in the dark.
Russia is behind schedule implementing billions of dollars of critical hydropower projects on the Naryn River.
A top official in Kyrgyzstan has grumbled that Russia is far behind schedule implementing billions of dollars of critical hydropower projects in the energy-starved country.
The giant Kambar-Ata 1 hydropower dam and the Upper-Naryn Cascade of four smaller hydropower dams were supposed to be well on their way to completion by now. Moscow and Bishkek signed deals for their construction in August 2012. As part of the package of related agreements, Moscow secured a 15-year extension on its military facilities in the Central Asian country after the current lease expires in 2017.
But according to Kyrgyz Energy Minister Kubanychbek Turdubayev, nothing much is happening. Speaking at a ministry meeting on February 12, in comments carried by Vechernii Bishkek, Turdubayev said:
We have been barraged with criticism over [energy] projects. People can see no real progress in such projects as [the construction of] two Kambar-Ata hydroelectric power plants and the Upper-Naryn Cascade of hydroelectric power plants. It should be admitted that there are serious omissions. Kyrgyzstan's rights have been violated and there is no progress. […]