A cake commemorating the Northern Distribution Network at a 2013 ceremony in Riga, Latvia. Might the Russian flag be removed from future cakes? (photo: The Bug Pit)
The U.S. is already making plans to redirect cargo to Afghanistan if Russia no longer allows the Pentagon to use its territory, a top U.S. military official has said. And it appears that Georgia and Azerbaijan may be poised to benefit if that happens.
U.S. Air Force General Paul Selva is currently the head of Air Mobility Command and the nominee to be the new chief of U.S. Transportation Command, which operates the Northern Distribution Network of supply lines through Russia and other former Soviet states. General Selva had his confirmation hearing this week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, and among the issues he was asked about was contingency plans for the NDN.
"In light of what's happening in the Ukraine, we are -- the president, many of us -- are pushing us for further economic sanctions, other types of sanctions against Russia for their invasion of Crimea," said Senator Kelly Ayotte, a Republican from New Hampshire. "And if the Russians were to take retaliatory action as a result of that to shut down the Northern Distribution Network... what impact would that have to us and how would we address it?"
"That is a priority," Selva said. "If the Russians were to take action to constrain our access to the Russian segments of the Northern Distribution Network, we have other options to move that cargo in and out of Afghanistan," he said. "I'm told about 20 percent of the subsistence cargoes [e.g. food] move through that network, so we'd have to use another option to get it in. We do have several options in the Northern Distribution Network that do not include transiting Russia."
Members of Crimea's "self-defense forces" in Simferopol. (photos: The Bug Pit)
The de facto Crimean government has sworn in its first armed forces, formalizing the "self-defense forces" that sprung up as a result of the peninsula's autonomous government breaking with the Ukrainian central government in Kiev.
The force is commanded by Alexander Bochkarev, a retired Ukrainian Interior Ministry colonel. Estimates of the size of the force vary: Bloomberg cites Bochkarev saying that "their numbers rose to about 15,000 on March 7, when a local hunting club joined with 4,500 members, guns and ammunition." And then:
“We have several arsenals in reserve that are guarded by our Crimean guys,” said Bochkarev, who has 2,800 people under his command. Many of them may join the regular Crimea army that is being formed now, he said.
Crimean authorities started recruiting last week and 186 soldiers have already taken an oath, the Interfax news service reported, citing premier Aksenov. There will be a 1,500-strong army with guns guarding polling stations at the March 16 referendum, he said.
Bochkarev told Russian press, meanwhile, that the size of the force is only 1,500, "and we don't need more."
All of the recruits were “carefully checked because they will be handed weapons,” Aleksandr Bochkarev, head of the Crimean self-defense forces, told RIA-Novosti.
“They have already proven themselves in the people’s militia of Crimea. Each of them had previously served either in the military or in the law enforcement agencies. All of them are fit for military service and possess the necessary skills,” he said...
U.S. sailors aboard the USS Truxtun as it visits Romania during joint exercises in the Black Sea (photo: U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd class Scott Barnes)
In response to the crisis in Crimea, the U.S. has undertaken a number of military moves around the region. While Washington's military deployments are still far from a direct involvement in the conflict in Ukraine, they do raise the stakes, as the U,S, tries to walk a narrow line, reassuring its allies in the region while avoiding provoking Russia into widening the conflict.
In recent days the U.S. has sent 12 F-16 fighter jets to Poland and Lithuania for joint exercises. NATO has started reconnaissance flights over Poland and Romania, NATO members that border Ukraine. “What we are doing is reassuring our allies that we are there for them,” said U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, explaining the F-16 deployment. “This is an important time for us to make it crystal clear to all our allies and partners in the region that the United States of America stands by them.”
Nevertheless, as aviation analyst David Cenciotti noted on his blog, the reconnaissance planes NATO has sent are intended for monitoring air activity, and that has been a relatively minor element of the conflict thus far. "The news would have been much more relevant if platform specialized in mapping ground targets (as the E-8C Joint Stars or the RAF Sentinel R1) were involved in the operation: so far Moscow has mainly employed ultra-low-level flying helicopters that could be difficult to detect even for an E-3 at that distance," he wrote.
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev has strongly endorsed Vladimir Putin’s strategy in Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, despite the uncomfortable precedent Russia’s military adventure has set for other post-Soviet republics with large ethnic Russian populations. Like Kazakhstan.
Nazarbayev told the isolated Russian president during a telephone conversation on March 10 that “Kazakhstan, as a strategic partner, treats Russia’s position, protecting the rights of national minorities in Ukraine, and also the interests of its security, with understanding,” his office said in a statement released after the call.
Kazakhstan is one of Russia’s closest allies, but the endorsement still raised eyebrows given that Nazarbayev’s remarks could be taken as carte blanche for Russia to intervene on behalf of Russian speakers across the former Soviet Union—including in Kazakhstan, where the ethnic Russian minority constitutes 22 percent of the population.
Crimea is set to hold a Russian-backed snap referendum on March 16 that will determine whether it stays part of Ukraine.
While backing Russian intervention abroad to protect minority rights, Nazarbayev also called for a “peaceful settlement of the crisis in Ukraine on the basis of the preservation of sovereignty in line with the norms of international law,” and hoped all sides would show “restraint” and resolve the crisis through negotiations.
Four days after Crimean Tatars sent an SOS to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, nothing has been heard from Baku but silence. For all its grievances with Moscow, chances are slim that Azerbaijan, the Tatars' rich South-Caucasus cousin, will stick its neck out over Crimea.
But Crimean Tatar community leader Mustafa Dzhemilyev, a Ukrainian parliamentarian, gave it his best shot in a March 6 interview with the news site Haqqin. “Do not leave your Crimean brothers and sisters at this difficult time,” Dzhemilyev implored Aliyev.
Recalling repressions by Tsarist and Soviet Russia, he underlined that the Tatars will never put up with a Russian takeover of the Crimean peninsula, and asked Aliyev to use his influence with Russian President Vladimir Putin to prevent such an event.
The request was cc-ed to Turkish President Abdullah Gül and another Turkic leader, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Turkey has so far weighed in the strongest on the issue, while Aliyev and Nazarbayev have been slow to provide even a non-binding, thinking-of-you response.
Azerbaijani officials routinely emphasize Azerbaijan's emergence as a regional power, but don’t expect Aliyev to snap his fingers in Putin’s face over Crimea. Through its economic and political involvement in the region and its many conflicts, Nagorno-Karabakh included, Russia could hurt Azerbaijan.
A former Soviet submarine base at Balaclava in Crimea. (photo: The Bug Pit)
Russia's Black Sea Fleet base in Sevastopol has long been Moscow's top strategic priority in Crimea. So did the base play a role in Russia's decision to intervene in Crimea?
In 2010, just a couple of months after taking office, then-President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych extended Russia's lease of the Sevastopol base until 2042. And in December 2013, when Russia agreed to a big economic aid package for Ukraine following Yanukovych's decision to drop negotiations with the European Union, Yanukovych appeared poised to accept a long-time Russian demand, that Ukraine drop restrictions on Russia expanding the size and power of the fleet. Russian military expert Dmitry Gorenburg told The Bug Pit at the time that the move was "potentially very significant" and that an agreement "would probably create an environment where subsequent presidents wouldn't be able to prevent replacement."
Yanukovych's acquiescence stood in contrast to that of his pro-Western predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, who had been reluctant to extend the base agreement (which had been valid until 2017), So Russian President Vladimir Putin no doubt was concerned that the new pro-Western authorities who ousted Yanukovych would be less accommodating to the base.
The Russian drone and helicopter came whizzing in from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, respectively, and hovered over nearby Georgian police posts and villages, the foreign ministry reported. Tbilisi described the act as another violation of Georgia’s sovereignty and the 2008 ceasefire agreement with Russia.
In a March 7 TV appearance, though, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili tried to allay mounting fears over Russian pressure; even though he himself has repeatedly told the public to expect such tactics as Georgia prepares to sign an association agreement and free-trade deal with the European Union this year.
“I’d like to ask everyone… not to overstate the threats expected from Russia,” Garibashvili said in an interview with Georgian Public Television. “We know what these threats are, but I have heard . . . exaggerated forecasts and I don’t think it is right. We don’t have to stress people too much.”
With the crisis in Ukraine showing no sign of abating, the U.S.'s ties with Russia are at their lowest level since the Cold War. But some in the U.S. military are apparently advocating restraint in dealing with Russia for the sake of Afghanistan military logistics. That's according to a piece in the Christian Science Monitor, which quotes U.S. military officials discussing the potential impact of political problems with Russia on the transit to Afghanistan.
The U.S.'s military transit route through Russia and Central Asia to Afghanistan, the Northern Distribution Network, has been a key backup to the shorter, cheaper land routes via Pakistan. For a variety of reasons, the NDN has become a much less busy route over the last year or so. There have been various figures given for the percentage of cargo now transiting Russia from Afghanistan (including as little as less than one percent). But even at a small volume, the NDN plays an important role:
As the US military prepares to draw down in Afghanistan, the NDN – through which some five percent of US military materials are currently being moved out of the country – likely will continue to grow in importance, particularly if President Obama pursues a “zero option” and pulls all US troops from the war by the end of the year.
“That’s why we want to keep the NDN open,” [a] senior defense official says. “We can surge more material up and out through the network if we need to do that.”
However, Russia maintains a financial interest in keeping the NDN going, even despite political problems:
In a time of economic uncertainty, the NDN offers Russia a considerable source of income, in the neighborhood of $1 billion a year.
A Russian soldier launches a "Leer" drone. (photo: Russian Ministry of Defense)
Russian troops in Tajikistan have received surveillance drones designed for "terrain reconnaissance and detection of radioactivity," the Russian military has announced. "The UAVs have substantially raised the military capability of the units carrying out the surveillance mission during day and night," the report said. The UAVs in question are the "Granat," "Zastava," and "Leer." All are relatively small -- the Granat and Zastava are portable. And the Leer is apparently especially designed for "detecting radiation, creating interference for radio signals and suppressing specific frequencies."
It's not clear what radiation threat there may be in Tajikistan, but the small surveillance drones would be consistent with Russia's stated mission of trying to stop the spillover of militants from Afghanistan into Tajikistan. It's also possible that the drones are just for show. As regional security expert Mark Galeotti wrote in a recent analysis in openDemocracy, Russia's belated enthusiasm for drones is partly for show: "Of course, this is the age of the drone, and Moscow must be wanting to achieve parity with its rivals... [I]n 2012, Putin acknowledged that ‘unpiloted aircraft are being used more and more actively in armed conflicts; and I must say, they are being used effectively’ and so ‘we need the full line, including automated strike aircraft, reconnaissance drones and other systems… It is imperative to involve best engineering and science bureaus and centres in this effort.'" But Galeotti notes that Russia is far behind other countries like the U.S. -- by as much as two decades -- and is fast trying to catch up.
Ukraine's post-Soviet neighbors have been closely watching the events in Kiev -- in particular, to see how Russia responds. The spark for the protests was an unusually geopolitical one, President Viktor Yanukovych's abrupt decision to slow down negotiations with the European Union in favor of the Russia-led Customs Union. The "loss" of Ukraine, from the Kremlin's perspective, would be a huge blow to Vladimir Putin's dream of post-Soviet integration, as exemplified by the Customs Union, the Eurasian Union, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. So how might Russia's policies toward the other countries in its orbit change as a result of what happened in Ukraine?
Putin sees the events in Ukraine as the result of destabilization (albeit possibly accidentally) by the West, writes Fyodor Lyukanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs in a trenchant analysis of how the Kremlin is likely looking at the situation in Kiev:
In his view, unrest must be suppressed before it turns into a huge fire. Unrest produces nothing but chaos. A weak state drives itself into a trap. Once a state falters, external forces will charge through the breach and start shattering it until it falls. The West is destructive. It is either unable to understand the complexity of the situation and acts in a primitive way, designating "good" and "bad" players, or it deliberately destroys undesirable systems. The result is always the same - things get worse. The desire to limit Russian influence and hinder Moscow's initiatives is the invariable imperative of the Western policy.