A few days after President Nursultan Nazarbayev said Kazakhstan could withdraw from the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, Russia’s president appeared to threaten Kazakhstan, stressing publicly that Kazakhstan benefits by casting its lot with Russia and fanning suspicions that all is not well between the two leaders.
Speaking at an annual, town-hall style meeting with university students and young professors on August 29, Vladimir Putin fielded a question about Kazakhstan’s post-Nazarbayev future and the likelihood of a “Ukraine scenario”—presumably, a power vacuum and civil conflict.
Because it is widely assumed that the questions are either vetted or planted, the exchange has invited plenty of scrutiny. While Putin’s answer was full of seeming praise for Nazarbayev, it also cast doubt on Kazakhstan’s durability as an independent state—a sensitive issue in Kazakhstan after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.
Events in Ukraine, including Russia’s support for rebels in the east, have already set many Kazakhstanis on edge – sparking fears that by joining the EEU Kazakhstan is tying the knot with an international pariah. They understand the obvious parallels: If Russia can seize Crimea under the pretext of protecting Russians, can it not seize northern Kazakhstan, home to large ethnic Russian communities? And if Russia can support insurgents against Kiev (a charge Moscow denies), can it not do the same against Astana? The propositions will sound even more ominous once Nazarbayev, a strongman who has established few mechanisms for a smooth transition of power, is out of the picture.
The Secretary General of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization was asked whether the group, which just finished peacekeeping exercises in Kyrgyzstan, might be able to intervene in Ukraine. That he didn't say "no" made news.
“The peacekeeping forces of the CSTO were formed several years ago and has undergone military preparation," said the CSTO chief, Nikolay Bordyuzha, in an interview with RIA Novosti on Friday. "The military personnel in its ranks are well-prepared in individual relations and equipped with all the needed military and technical means. They are ready to participate in peacekeeping operations of any caliber, as was confirmed by the results of recent joint drills in the Republic of Kyrgyszstan."
And he added that it would have to be a decision made jointly by the other CSTO members, which include Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. “Deployment of the CSTO peacekeeping forces is within the jurisdiction of the Council for Collective Security of the Treaty, the supreme body of the CSTO consisting of the members’ heads of state. With their joint decision and in accordance with existing agreements, the peacekeeping forces can be deployed within and without the territory of member states."
Abkhazia's de facto president Raul Khadjimba meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin outside Moscow August 27. (photo: The Kremlin)
The newly elected de facto president of Abkhazia Raul Khadjimba has made his first trip abroad, to Russia, where he discussed with President Vladimir Putin the deepening of ties between the two countries' militaries and security services. The two sides are discussing a "unified defense space" and uniting the Abkhazian armed forces with the Russian troops in the territory under a single command. This will be worked out in a new agreement to be completed by the end of the year.
Russia already has about 3,500 troops in Abkhazia, which broke off from Georgia after a war in the early 1990s. In the wake of the 2008 war with Georgia, Russia officially recognized Abkhazia as an independent country and has already made several moves to make its military presence more permanent.
"I know that you are a proponent of expanding the relations between Abkhazia and Russia and deepening integration processes: this concerns defence, security, law enforcement activities and fighting crime, as well as the economy and the social sector," Putin said at his August 27 meeting with Khadjimba. "With regard to matters relating to defence, the state border and socioeconomic issues, we have our own proposals, and they are within the Russian side’s line of vision, so to speak. As we move forward on these issues, we are ready to continue our dialogue and talk about these topics. I think that they will develop positively," Khadjimba replied.
Not long ago, Russia was one of the primary markets for Kyrgyzstan’s agricultural goods. Then came the Eurasian Customs Union of Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan, which removed customs checkpoints between the three in 2011. Kyrgyz produce was suddenly on the other side of a wall and exports to Russia plummeted from 195,000 tons in 2008 to 7,500 tons last year, according Kyrgyzstan’s Agriculture Ministry.
Now Russia, having banned produce from the West in response to sanctions over its support for rebels in Ukraine, needs Kyrgyzstan again. Kyrgyz officials are eager to help fill Russian stomachs, but unsure just how much they can abruptly increase exports.
On August 19 local news agency KyrTAG.kg quoted Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov telling a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Commission, the Customs Union’s regulatory body, “We are lifting all restrictions on the supply of Kyrgyz fruits and vegetables. In case of unjustified barriers, contact me – we will assist.” Kyrgyz authorities also hope that Russia will terminate restrictions on meat imports.
While some locals fear Russia will export its inflation and shortages to Kyrgyzstan, officials are losing no time pointing out the benefits of closer cooperation with Russia to a reluctant population.
The Agriculture Ministry hopes to restore exports to Russia to the their pre-Customs Union peak (an increase of 2,500 percent), Zhumabek Asylbekov, head of the ministry’s Food Supply and Marketing Department, told local news agency Vechernii Bishkek on August 20.
CSTO Rapid Reaction Forces drill in Kazakhstan. (photo: CSTO)
Russia and its allies are practicing military drills involving a "separatist" force supported by sympathetic co-ethnics across the border, trying to provoke the central government into a disproportionate use of force, justifying an invasion by the bordering country.
That scenario may sound a lot like what's going on in Ukraine. But in the ongoing exercises, Russia is on the otherside: fighting against the separatists, carrying out what might be called an "Anti-Terror Operation" to regain control of the border territory.
The exercises, of the Collective Security Treaty Organization's rapid reaction forces, took place this week in Kazakhstan, and involved about 3,000 soldiers from CSTO members Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. And the public description of the scenario for the exercises is much more detailed than it has been in past years, providing an intriguing look into what Russia (the dominant power in the group) sees as the threats it could be facing in its region.
The parallels to Ukraine are far from exact -- in the CSTO exercises, the conflict is in Central Asia and there is fighting on both sides of the border. And here, the separatists are supported by the West and are known as the "brown" forces, presumably an allusion to the fascists that Russia believes it's fighting in Ukraine. The scenario, published on the CSTO website, is worth quoting at length:
A joint operation [is undertaken] to localize an armed conflict on the territory of a CSTO member state, 'Karania,' which according to the scenario of the exercise, has appealed to the CSTO with a request for military assistance."
A Russian tank en route to victory in the 2014 international tank biathlon. (photo: mil.ru)
Russia hosted -- and won -- the second international tank biathlon competition, an event Moscow appears to be trying to turn into a major forum for military cooperation with friendly customers/potential weapons customers.
While last year's inaugural event featured just three other competitors -- fellow Collective Security Treaty Organization members Armenia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan -- this year saw an additional eight countries taking part: Angola, China, India, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Serbia, and Venezuela.
Tank biathlon is about what you would imagine, a tank race combined with shooting; teams that miss targets have to do a penalty lap. Russia won (as it did last year), with Armenia coming second, China third, and Kazakhstan fourth -- at least according to the Russian tabulation of results. In the Kazakhstan Ministry of Defense's statement about the event, they said they got second, with China third and Armenia fourth. (The Russian sources compare the teams based on time, the Kazakhstan one on points; it's not clear what the relationship is between the two.)
Map of NDN routes, including those through Russia. (photo: U.S. Transportation Command)
Russia does not intend to block U.S. and NATO military transit routes to Afghanistan, President Vladimir Putin said, in spite of the recent spike in tensions with the West.
The U.S.'s Northern Distribution Network has been the quiet success of U.S.-Russia relations over the past several years; as of last year 100,000 containers of U.S. and NATO had been shipped to and from Afghanistan through Russia (and Central Asia and the Baltic states). The U.S. set up the route so as to not be dependent on its volatile relations with Pakistan, a decision that was vindicated in 2011 when Pakistan -- shut down its territory to U.S. and NATO military cargo. And even while NATO and Russia have suspended nearly all cooperation, the NDN keeps operating.
When Russia banned many Western agricultural products last week in response to Western sanctions, it created a $9.5 billion hole for other countries to fill. Immediately, officials across Central Asia optimistically announced plans to help plug the gap.
But sudden shortages created by the ban have all but guaranteed to increase inflation in Russia, a major food importer. And Central Asians will suffer likewise because their expected jump in exports will leave fewer products available to local consumers, thus driving up prices at home.
All this highlights a paradoxical mix of opportunities and risks for Kazakhstan, a member of the Moscow-led Customs Union whose economy often feels ripple effects from Russia. Aside from the immediate pros and cons of the food ban, Kazakhstan is clearly spooked by Russia’s deepening confrontation with the West over its support for rebels in Ukraine, concerned about the fallout from a slowing Russian economy.
Kazakhstan’s response to the food ban paints a picture of a junior partner struggling to navigate the shoals between an increasingly isolationist Kremlin and its own ambitions of greater global integration.
Russia has settled on a location for its planned air base in Belarus scheduled to start operating next year, the head of the air force has said.
The base will be located in Baranovichi, in western Belarus, said Lieutenant General Viktor Bondarev. “We will set up a base in Baranovichi. We are only waiting for an intergovernmental agreement to be signed,” he said.
The base will host Russian Su-27 aircraft, four of which were deployed to Baranovichi in December. But it hadn't been clear where the base would ultimately be located. When Russian officials announced plans for the base last summer they said it would be at a base in Lida; by November they were saying that "several potential locations have been identified in Belarus, but that further consultations were needed with the neighboring former Soviet nation's authorities."
"We never planned this in Lida, everything will be in Baranovichi," Bondarev said Monday, despite the fact that it was Bondarev himself who had originally identified Lida as the site.
Russia has promised Kyrgyzstan $500 million in assistance to help the reluctant country’s preparations to join the Moscow-led Customs Union, an economic bloc that currently includes Belarus and Kazakhstan. As usual when numbers fly between Russian and Kyrgyz officials, details are scarce.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on August 11 that the funds (“details to be agreed upon”) will ensure “maximum comfort” for Bishkek during its journey into the common economic space. Few believe that Kyrgyzstan, which has long served as a conduit for cheap Chinese goods through Central Asia into Russia, has much to offer the protectionist trade bloc. But always eager to please Moscow, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev has been talking about membership since his inauguration in December 2011.
Lavrov’s announcement came while Atambayev was visiting Russia for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin.
Atambayev told Putin that Kyrgyzstan would enter the Customs Union by the end of the year (and the Eurasian Economic Union, when it is born in January), but noted the “difficulties” the country will face integrating with the more industrialized economies already in the bloc.
For almost a year now, Kyrgyz policymakers, notably Economics Minister Temir Sariev, have been putting figures on those “difficulties”—expected inflation and a rise in unemployment stemming from the decline in lucrative re-export trade from China. Last November, Sariev said Kyrgyzstan would require $200 million a year over six or seven years in the form of a “fund” to help readjust its re-export-dependent economy to the demands of the Customs Union.