In the two weeks since Saudi Arabia announced that it was forming a yet another "coalition" to combat Islamist terror, the allegiances of the former Soviet states have come under increasing scrutiny. All of them, however, appear to believe that they have little to gain from picking a side and continue to spurn the advances from various suitors, including Russia and the United States in addition to the Saudis.
When Saudi Arabia announced its 34-member coalition of majority-Muslim states, there was a conspicuous lack of any post-Soviet republics in its ranks. Azerbaijan said it was considering the idea, and apparently still is.
A Saudi newspaper reported that Tajikistan's ambassador to Riyadh said that Dushanbe was considering the idea, and that President Emomali Rahmon would discuss the idea during his visit to Saudi Arabia in January. But the same day, that was denied by the country’s deputy foreign minister, Parviz Davlatzoda, who told the Russian news agency TASS, "We do not consider this at all."
Part of Tajikistan's reluctance is no doubt due to Moscow's hostile attitude toward the Saudi coalition. The Russian press has heaped scorn on the notion of the coalition; one journalist asked President Vladimir Putin about it, noting that "This will be an anti-Russian alliance, and it includes Turkey. This is very dangerous." Putin played the good cop, though:
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko meet in Moscow on December 15. (photo: kremlin.ru)
The prospect of a Russian air base in Belarus "will not be discussed," Belarus's defense minister has said, but regional analysts believe the issue is far from resolved.
Belarus-Russia relations have been a little strained lately, with one bone of contention being Russia's open desire to establish an air base on the territory its western neighbor, and Belarus's resistance. Russian officials have been talking about the base for two years, with regular statements met by conspicuous silence from Minsk. That changed in October when President Alexander Lukashenko, for the first time, said Belarus didn't need a Russian base, and furthermore denying that there had even been discussions to that effect.
Lukashenko was supposed to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in November, but that meeting was abruptly canceled. The two finally got together in Moscow last week, but nothing was said publicly about the base. After the meeting, Putin only glancingly mentioned security issues: "We agreed to develop our military and military-technical cooperation to strengthen regional stability and security."
A few days later, Belarus's defense minister Andrei Ravkov was asked about the prospect of a Russian base. "Nothing has changed. The issue hasn't been discussed and won't be discussed, most likely," he said.
The presidents of the CSTO member states gather in Moscow on December 21. (photo: CSTO)
Russia's post-Soviet security bloc has put off a decision to appoint a new secretary general, suggesting some internal dissension about the direction of the organization.
The heads of state of the six Collective Security Treaty Organization members met in Moscow on Monday and judging from the official statements, no particularly big decisions were made, other than reaffirming the group's intention to fight terrorism.
But just a few days earlier, an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yuriy Ushakov, said that the group would be choosing a new secretary general. "Working discussions are going on about that issue. There will be a final decision before the leaders on Monday. Several variants are being discussed," Ushakov said.
The CSTO's declaration Monday, however, noted: "The collective security council decided to prolong the authority of CSTO General Secretary Nikolay Bordyuzha until January 1, 2017."
Ushakov said that the next secretary general would be from Armenia: "The rotation is being considered on the basis of the Russian alphabet, so it's completely logical that Armenia will become the general secretary in the organization. But this issue is still being discussed."
This explanation about "rotation" isn't entirely convincing. Bordyuzha, a Russian and a career Soviet KGB officer, has been the CSTO's only general secretary and has served since 2003.
It may not be a coincidence that Armenia also happens to be the only CSTO ally who has unambiguously sided with Russia in its row with Turkey that resulted from the November shootdown of a Russian jet on the Turkey-Syria border.
A Kazakhstan warship tests anti-aircraft artillery in the Caspian Sea. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan has, for the first time, launched an anti-aircraft missile from a warship on the Caspian Sea. While the test may not mean much operationally, in the context of current heightened Russian military activity on the Caspian the move appears to be a modest show of force from Astana.
Kazakhstan's Ministry of Defense announced on December 14 that it had tested the Arbalet-K air-defense missile system from its missile boat Oral. The test was carried out at a "high level," the MoD said, noting that the [Ukrainian-made, incidentally] Arbalet-K was designed to defeat "jet, turboprop and propeller aircraft and helicopters, under conditions of visibility of the target, using surface-to-air missiles."
This follows another test, on November 27, of anti-aircraft artillery from the Oral and three other Kazakh warships on the Caspian. That test, the MoD said, was conducted in "conditions as close as possible to combat."
These weapons are a far cry from the cruise missiles that Russia has launched from the Caspian on three separate occasions since October -- twice at targets in Syria, and once in a test. Russian President Vladimir Putin also has recently dismissed worries by Kazakhstan about the danger posed to civilian aircraft over the Caspian, saying that the Caspian states need to make sacrifices for the sake of the anti-terror fight that Russia is carrying out.
Saudi Arabia on Tuesday announced the creation of a 34-country coalition of Muslim states aimed at fighting terrorism. Those 34 countries did not include the six Muslim-majority states of the former Soviet Union, though Azerbaijan said that it was considering joining in.
It's not yet clear what exactly the coalition will do: "It remains unclear what the Sunni kingdom is asking the other countries to do—whether it is a loose grouping to talk strategy and share intelligence or the first step to establishing a fighting force against the Sunni militant group," the Wall Street Journal reported.
The geopolitics of the new coalition suggest the emergence of a sort of new Cold War bloc arrangement in the region. The United States praised the creation of the new group. "In general it appears it is very much in line with something we've been urging for quite some time, which is greater involvement in the campaign to combat ISIL (Islamic State) by Sunni Arab countries," said U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
The plan for Russia’s state media to advance its narrative across friendly former Soviet nations in Central Asia has run into trouble in Tajikistan.
Rossiya Segodnya, the holding company that controls the notoriously anti-Western outlet Sputnik, has let go several of its Dushanbe staff, according to a December 15 report by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi.
Ozodi speculates that economic troubles in Russia may be to blame, but there is a strong indication there is more at play.
Although the governments of Russia and Tajikistan are close partners, Rossiya Segodnya has failed for unknown reasons to obtain registration in Tajikistan.
Sputnik is typically uncritical of Russia-friendly nations, so it is hard to imagine that Dushanbe feared the presence of another critical voice.
The head of Rossiya Segodnya’s Dushanbe office, Dmitry Pisarenko, was last month recalled to Moscow, reportedly for his failure to obtain authorization during his year in post.
Ozodi reports that 10 out of the 15 people that worked in Sputnik’s Dushanbe bureau are to be let go before the end of the year.
It all started so promisingly.
The Rossiya Segodnya media holding — not to be confused with the unrelated, but also state-run television station RT, formerly Russia Today — was created in December 2013 to replace RIA-Novosti news agency, which was suspected in some quarters of harboring insufficiently patriotic elements. RIA-Novosti still operates in greatly reduced form as part of Rossiya Segodnya.
The goal set for Rossiya Segodnya, whose head is notoriously inflammatory television news anchor Dmitry Kiselyov, was to represent Russia’s political stance and values across the world.
Russian warships and Turkish commercial vessels have had run-ins on consecutive days, adding to tension between the rival powers.
On Sunday, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that one of its destroyers in the Aegean Sea was forced to fire warning shots at a Turkish fishing boat because the boat was approaching dangerously close to the warship. The MoD immediately summoned Turkey's naval attache to Moscow after that incident.
Then on Monday, a Russian corvette and coast guard boat forced a Turkish commercial ship in the Black Sea to change course because it was in the way of a Russian oil-rig towing boat.
Amid tensions between the two countries as a result of last month's Turkish shootdown of a Russian jet on the Turkey-Syria border, both sides accused the other of trying to provoke them.
"Ours was only a fishing boat. It seems to me the reaction of the Russian naval ship was exaggerated," said Turkey's foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, referring to Sunday's incident. "Russia and Turkey certainly have to re-establish the relationship of trust that we have always had, but our patience has a limit," Cavusoglu said.
A December 2 tweet by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin.
The Russia-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, has declared its support for Russia in its ongoing conflict with Turkey. But the fact that the CSTO's statement was issued by an Armenian general, and that all of the other CSTO members have conspicuously failed to publicly back the statement, has only reinforced the impression that few of Russia's friends are willing to take its side against Turkey.
On Wednesday, the CSTO's military committee met in Moscow and, according to the organization, unanimously condemned Turkey's shootdown of a Russian Su-24 bomber on the Turkey-Syria border last month.
"All chiefs of staff of the CSTO member states supported the position of Russia, calling the Turkish aggression treacherous. It can't be judged any other way — it was a stab in the back, as Russia said immediately," said the chief of staff of the Armenian armed forces, Colonel-General Yuriy Khachaturov.
He went on: "We support Russia in all of its decisions... The CSTO is united as never before. We will get stronger."
The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Ross passes through the Bosphorus straits on December 3. (photos: U.S. Navy)
An American warship has entered the Black Sea and three more NATO ships have docked in Istanbul as tension rises on the Bosphorus straits, a source of contention between Russia and Turkey for centuries.
The U.S. Navy destroyer the USS Ross entered the Black Sea on December 3. These visits to the sea are relatively routine, but this is the first such American visit to the Black Sea since Turkey shot down a Russian bomber jet on the Turkey-Syria border. In addition, warships from three other NATO members -- Canada, Portugal, and Spain -- have moored at Istanbul in an apparent show of support. Turks interviewed by Euronews were reportedly "reassured" by the NATO ships' visit.
The visits come as there has been a flurry of discussion in the Russian and Turkish press about the role the Bosphorus straits might play in the conflict between the two countries. The Bosphorus is the only outlet of the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, and so Russia depends on it as its only warm water access to the rest of the world.
According to the 1936 Montreux Convention, Turkey is obliged to allow free traffic through the straits, except in the case of war or the imminent threat thereof. While this is, in theory, a huge strategic advantage that Turkey holds over Russia, to actually close off the straits would no doubt be seen by Russia as an act of war and it's very unlikely Ankara would take such a step unless the situation between the two countries dramatically worsened.
Russian authorities have agreed to allow the father of a baby who died after he was taken into care when his mother was detained for violating migration laws to be classified as a complainant in the ongoing investigation into the death.
The legal distinction will allow Rustam Nazarov to press for further probe into the ultimate cause of 5-month old Umarali’s death in St. Petersburg in October. Under his previous status as witness, Nazarov was not authorized to make those demands.
Independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported on December 3 that lawyers for Nazarov has been fighting for the decision over a two-month period.
The case has sparked a wave of anger among people in Tajikistan, where grievances have long simmered over the ill-treatment often doled out to their countrymen in Russia.
Umarali’s mother, Zarina Yunusova, says her child was taken away from her by force, a claim that police in St. Petersburg have staunchly denied. Police have said that the baby was taken into care with Yunusova’s consent.
Russian government medical experts concluded in November that Umarali had died from acute cardiopulmonary failure resulting from a cytomegalovirus infection. No independent examination has been carried out and the child’s parents have been denied access to the final medical report.
Lawyers for the family, as well as some officials in Tajikistan, have expressed skepticism about the accuracy of the verdict.
Only Yunusova had previously been registered as a complainant in the case, but she was unable to pursue demands for fresh investigations after being deported to Tajikistan on November 16.