The Kremlin wheeled out its soft power machine this week to make the pitch for Kyrgyzstan to join its Customs Union trade bloc. But if a recent talk by Kremlin evangelists at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek was anything to go by, the machine could use some grease.
The main speaker at the February 19 event was Semyon Uralov, editor of a website close to United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party. While Putin has tried to assure potential members that the Customs Union – Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia – is not a Soviet Union redux, Uralov seemed to do the opposite. Quoting Engels, Marx and Lenin during a forthright speech in which he extolled the virtues of state-sponsored industry, Uralov responded to a complaint about his tone: “I don’t hide it. I am an imperialist.”
And like Customs Union officials, he did little to address economic questions.
Moral and social degradation was a key theme in Uralov’s presentation. He described seeing people bribe a customs official at Bishkek’s airport for the privilege of flouting the building’s non-smoking policy. “Now tell me,” Uralov asked, “would it be possible to reach that kind of an agreement with a Belarusian customs official? A Russian customs official?” The assembled students murmured that it probably would be. “Well, clearly not for 20-30 soms [40 to 60 cents],” Uralov retorted. (Curiously, Belarus, with its highly inefficient command economy centered on manufacturing stood as something of a role model for the Russia-born, Ukraine-educated Uralov. In Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index, Belarus ranks 123th, Russia 127th and Kyrgyzstan 150th out of 177 countries.)
The USS Mount Whitney passes through the Bosphorus en route to the Black Sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Collin Turner.)
Two U.S. warships have entered the Black Sea in preparation for the Winter Olympics, kicking off Friday night in Sochi, Russia. The USS Mount Whitney passed through the Bosphorus into the Black Sea on February 4, and was followed the day after by the USS Taylor. The official announcement of the deployment from U.S. European Command did not mention Sochi: "Both ships will perform routine operations in the Black Sea to establish and enhance cooperation, mutual training and interoperability with regional partner nations and allies."
But it's clear that the visits to the Black Sea are timed for Sochi. The website Black Sea News reported that on February 6 the Mount Whitney reached a point about 20 miles off the coast of Sochi and began patrolling. The Mount Whitney is primarily a command-and-control ship, and Daniel Goure, a Washington-based defense analyst, told Military.com that "the communications assets of the USS Mount Whitney and the helicopter landing ability of both ships could provide a lily-pad type of presence in the event of crisis. 'You could deploy something off of the back of these ships if you had to operate,' he added. 'You also have command and control if you had to communicate with the Russian Navy and Coast Guard.'"
Russia's new political-military bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, has been widely criticized for its inaction in the face of real threats to security in the region that it covers, most recently when fighting broke out between CSTO member states Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. But it's rare that the organization has had to explain itself: it operates, for the most part, in countries where the press doesn't often challenge authority figures. But when Yevgeniy Denisenko of Kyrgyzstan newspaper Vecherniy Bishkek interviewed the CSTO's secretary general, Nikolay Bordyuzha, he actually asked the question that outside observers of the organization have been asking:
Denisenko: However, threats to stability in the CSTO do not come only from outside, but from inside, too. It is sufficient to recall the events in the Kazakh town of Zhanaozen [the riots of December 2011], the conflict on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border [in 2010] and the current incident involving the use of weapons on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. Does it not seem to you that concentrating on foreign dangers, the CSTO is underestimating the internal risks?
Bordyuzha: There are questions that should be solved bilaterally. The Kyrgyz-Tajik incident is one of them. That was a border incident and no-one except these two states themselves and those responsible for the demarcation and delimitation of the border, can solve this question. It is another matter that the CSTO can act as a mediator, which is what we are doing. This role involves providing the platform for a deeper discussion of the problems that have emerged.
Denisenko: However, in this case we are talking about colleague countries, CSTO members.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is concerned about the possibility of the American military conducting intelligence operations in Kyrgyzstan and will bring up the issue with his Kyrgyzstani counterpart Almazbek Atambayev when the two meet at Sochi during the Olympics. That's according to Russian diplomatic and military stories quoted in a story in Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta which provides a useful report what Moscow is thinking these days about Central Asian security.
Atambayev, having managed the U.S.'s withdrawal from the Manas military base, still leaves on the territory of the country a large-scale foreign military aviation presence, including American (and their allies). Concern has been expressed by experts about the possibility of conducting military surveillance with them. But Russia, of course, has no need for that. Evidently Putin, in his conversations with his Kyrgyzstan colleague, will touch on this problem. Russia has contributed too much to strengthening regional security for its interests not to be considered,
The piece also mentions the billion-plus dollars in military aid that Russia has promised Kyrgyzstan, and complains that "for Kyrgyzstan that's a lot, but the leadership of the republic, it appears, is trying to sit on two chairs" [that is, the U.S. and Russia].
Russia has agreed to give Kazakhstan S-300 air defense systems, as well as to share a Russian missile-testing range in the country with Kazakhstani troops, the two countries' defense ministers announced.
The S-300 gift had been announced some time ago, but nothing had been said about it for years, leading to speculation that Russia had rescinded the offer. But on a visit to Astana on January 31, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said that Moscow would deliver five "divisions" of S-300PS (consisting of 12 units per division) this year.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization, Russia's post-Soviet security bloc, has laid out its priorities for the upcoming year, and it appears that the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan conflict -- the year's most pressing security issue -- remains low on the agenda.
On January 21, CSTO General Secretary Nikolay Bordyuzha gave a press conference in Moscow with the intention of summarizing the organization's goals for 2014. And tellingly, the CSTO's official account of the event contains no mention of the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan conflict. He did, however, speak about it. A report in the Russian official military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda said that Bordyuzha "spoke out against the use of force by CSTO units for the settlement of the conflict between member states of the organization. Speaking of the recent Tajik-Kyrgyz border incident, he expressed the opinion that this is an issue between the two countries and no one, except for them, can resolve it."
And according to ITAR-TASS, Boryuzha said that the organization's involvement has been limited to phone consultations: "We are in constant contact with the heads of government, discussed measures for the containment of this conflict. Today there remain several unresolved questions such as the closure of checkpoints from the Kyrgyz side and the presence on the border of military forces of both republics," he said.
An arms cache that Russian and Abkhazian security forces said they discovered in 2012, part of a plot to attack the upcoming Winter Olympic games. (photo: Russian Antiterrorism Committee)
A swathe of Abkhazian territory will be included in part of the large "security zone" being set up in advance of the Winter Olympics taking place in Sochi, Russia, next month. Starting today, anyone entering the zone will have to produce documents to police, according to a report by the Abkhazian news agency Apsny (and translated into English by civil.ge).
“[A] stationary checkpoint” will be established at the village of Bagripshi on the edge of the 11km zone, which will be manned by officers from the Abkhaz security service, interior ministry and migration service.
At this checkpoint the officers will be authorized to check identification cards of persons entering into the extended ‘border zone’ or heading towards the Russian border, as well as to inspect vehicles. Abkhaz law enforcement officers will be carrying out round-the-clock patrols in the villages falling within the zone, according to the decree.
This is a previously unannounced expansion of the already very extensive security zone that Russian security forces have imposed around Sochi. Security fears have mounted as the games approach; Islamist groups from the North Caucasus have vowed to attack the games and last month carried out suicide attacks in the city of Volgograd.
As tensions continue to simmer between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan after a border clash over the weekend, it's looking like the two countries are being left to resolve their differences by themselves. A particularly noteworthy absence: Russia's nascent political-military bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which has declared for itself the lead role in providing security in Central Asia but which has so far taken a low-profile approach so far to the conflict between two of its member states.
The CSTO has yet to make any public statement on the event, during which several troops on each side of the border and which (according to Kyrgyzstan) involved some heavy weaponry. All that we know is that the "leadership structures of the CSTO" have been in contact with the security services in each country. This, while the CSTO has been taking on such ambitious missions for itself as creating a joint air force, joint rapid-reaction forces, capabilities to defeat cyberterrorism and even "color revolutions."
The Buyan-class Grad Sviazhsk warship, in trials on the Caspian Sea. (photo: Russian MoD)
Russia plans to add an additional five warships to its Caspian Flotilla in 2014, as well as a number of support ships, setting the stage for this year to be the largest yet for Russian naval expansion in the sea.
The flotilla will gain two Buyan-class ships (classified either as corvettes or small missile boats), the Grad Sviazhsk and Uglich, and one anti-terror ship, the Grachonok, which successfully completed naval trials in December. In addition, a third Buyan-clas ship, the Velikiy Ustyug, as well as another anti-terror ship will be completed in 2014. In addition, the Caspian Flotilla is expected to gain seven auxiliary ships, like fire and rescue ships. "Currently, the command of the flotilla has begun work on formation of the crew for the [new] ships. Sailors are being sent to Zelenodolsk for training on the new weaponry and technology," according to a release from the Russian Ministry of Defense.
This may actually be a step back in the pace of expansion: according to one recent schedule, the flotilla should be gaining a fourth Buyan-class ship in 2014, but the MoD release doesn't mention that. In any case, the three Buyan-class ships would double the presence of those ships on the sea, part of a steady naval buildup by all five Caspian littoral states.
Officers taking part in joint Russia-Belarus military exercises in 2013. (photo: mil.ru)
Russia has taken the first steps toward establishing its first air base in Belarus, but questions remain over how much Moscow will have to pay for the privilege.
Last month, four Russian Su-27 fighter jets and their support personnel arrived at the Baranovichi air base, near Belarus's borders with Poland and Lithiania (both NATO members). The move is part of a plan to set up a Russian fighter jet regiment, likely at another base in Belarus, by 2015. RIA Novosti writes that the new base would be "Russia’s first on Belarusian territory in modern times."
The terms of the base agreement, however, are yet to be worked out, which holds the promise of some interesting times ahead in Russia-Belarus relations. At the end of December, Russia's ambassador to Minsk said that the two sides would work out the terms together, saying that "these things don't happen for free."
RIA Novosti sums up the international implications of the new Russian base:
Plans for the airbase come amid continued irritation in Moscow over combat air patrols from NATO members states Latvia and Lithuania, which lie near Belarus, wandering into areas close to Russian airspace.
European defense officials have bristled at evidence of Russia’s increased military deployments close to NATO’s border, arguing that it fuels tension with former Communist bloc countries in Central Europe and the Baltic States.