French military logisticians at the Dushanbe airport. (photo: http://www.defense.gouv.fr/)
The small French air detachment in Dushanbe is leaving Tajikistan, as France carries out its withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Operational Transport Group started pulling out on April 15, and will complete its withdrawal from the airport by July. A small engineering unit working on the resurfacing of the airport's runway will remain until next year, according to a statement from the French Ministry of Defense.
The small base has operated since 2002. (And small means small: 50 meters by 250 meters, as EurasiaNet's David Trilling noted in a 2009 photo essay on the detachment.) It has hosted between 170 and 230 French soldiers who work on supply and logistics for their compatriots in Afghanistan, and occasionally French multirole fighter jets used for operations in Afghanistan.
The French departure from Tajikistan is, not surprisingly, the result of the French disengagement from Afghanistan, said Florent de Saint Victor, a French military blogger, in an email interview with The Bug Pit. "The closure is linked to the end of the last step for the French troops withdrawal from Afghanistan (there are still some French troops - less than 800 troops - for logistics and training mission with the Afghan National Army)," de Saint Victor said.
France’s Foreign Minister should have used a trip to Uzbekistan this weekend to demand an artist be allowed the right to travel abroad, an international group of artists urged last week.
In January, Vyacheslav Akhunov was barred from leaving Uzbekistan. He has been invited to perform at the prestigious Venice Biennale this June.
In an open letter last week to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who visited Uzbekistan on March 2 to talk trade and development with President Islam Karimov, artists from the United States, Russia and other countries called on France’s top diplomat to "urge the government of Uzbekistan to honor the rights and freedoms of artist Akhunov, who represents the modern independent art of Uzbekistan abroad."
There is no indication Fabius responded to the request or discussed Akhunov’s situation with Karimov during his visit.
Akhunov has taken part in approximately 200 international exhibitions. But in January "authorities banned him from going abroad, explaining that his creative tours are 'inadvisable.' This response points to a political motive in the decision," the artists said in their letter, which was posted on February 27.
After sashaying to a folk dance with a dictator in Russia's North Caucasus, French cinema legend Gérard Depardieu may next appear in Azerbaijan for a film . . . and, perhaps, more dancing.
The larger-than-life French actor, who often goes on junkets to ex-Soviet spots these days, plans a “big movie” about sports in the young republic of Azerbaijan, said French film producer Arnau Frille, Russian and Azerbaijani media report.
Storyline details are not known, but, no doubt, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, head of Azerbaijan's 2015 European Olympics preparation committee, and President Ilham Aliyev, head of its Olympics committee, could make a few suggestions.
Nazarbayev during his November, 2012 visit to Paris, during which he signed a military transit agreement.
Kazakhstan has agreed to allow France to ship its military equipment from Afghanistan via a new transit hub at Shymkent, in southern Kazakhstan. President Nursultan Nazarbayev signed the agreement on Wednesday, and the plan is to fly the (non-lethal) equipment from Kabul to Shymkent, where it will be loaded on to trains and shipped via Russia to the Baltic Sea. As part of the deal, France has agreed to renovate some of the facilities in Shymkent. From Tengrinewws.kz:
France will fund construction of the needed infrastructure for the temporary bond storage and the area of enhanced customs control for the transshipment operations in Shymkent airport. France will also allocate funds for procurement or rent of loading equipment and vehicles for the railroad spur, construction of additional roads with hard surfacing of around 400 meters, protection of freights in the temporary storage and en route on Kazakhstan’s railroad.
Earlier Kazakhstan Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Aleksey Volkov, who presented the draft law in the Parliament, said that the agreement on transit will help turn Shymkent into a beneficial international transport hub.
A couple of points to consider: Kazakhstan has been pushing the U.S. to use Aktau, on the Caspian Sea, in a similar fashion. So this deal raises the question, why hasn't Kazakhstan been pushing the U.S. to use Shymkent, or did Kazakhstan want France to use Aktau and the French wanted Shymkent instead?
France is finding it difficult these days to get its troops to and from the fight in Afghanistan. In an interview with L'Orient-Le Jour, the French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet says that withdrawing troops from Afghanistan via Uzbekistan and the rest of the Northern Distribution Network is "too costly." From RFE/RL, which cited the interview:
Longuet said the route was "not optimal" for withdrawing NATO forces but conceded the better option -- via Pakistan -- was currently more complicated due to "spoiled relations" between NATO countries, particularly the U.S., and the Pakistani government.
That chill in ties followed a November 26 NATO air strike that hit Pakistani troops on Pakistan's side of the Afghan border, killing 26 soldiers.
The interview doesn't give any indication of how France intends to deal with that dilemma. France, of course, just announced that it is withdrawing from Afghanistan a year earlier than planned, after four of its troops were killed by a rogue Afghanistan government soldier. That, too, could be pinned on the Americans; the killer allegedly attacked the French because he was angry about a video showing U.S. Marines urinating on dead Taliban members.
France's sale of sophisticated warships to Russia has inspired reams of commentary speculating on what threat this might pose to NATO members or other Western allies, in particular Georgia. (Most recently, Vlad Socor wrote last week in the Eurasia Daily Monitor that the sale was motivated by "mercantilism... bypassing NATO and trumping basic notions of allied strategy and solidarity.")
Now, a U.S. Navy officer has published his master's thesis (pdf) on the purchase, which Dmitry Gorenburg says "may be the definitive work on the subject." The officer, Lieutenant Commander Patrick Thomas Baker, argues that Russia wants the ship not for any particular combat capability, but as the linchpin of a larger naval modernization strategy:
[T]he Mistral sale is driven by Russia‘s need to acquire modern command and control and shipbuilding technologies, rather than increase its amphibious assault capabilities per se.
Russia's naval chief, Admiral Vladimir Vysotskiy -- who is notorious for arguing that with the Mistral, Russia would have been able to defeat Georgia "in 40 minutes, not 26 hours" -- was interested in the ship since before the Georgia war, which Baker says "suggests that a desire to acquire a new system preceded identifying a required capability and developing a system to fulfill that capability.":
Well, the Mistral deal between France and Russia that everyone was so exercised about – especially Georgia – has gone through, and barely anyone noticed. As far as I can tell, none of the big English-language Georgian news sites have any notice of it. And this despite the fact that the news is not just a formality – the French agreed to include the various equipment that would make the ship dangerous, not just a shell of a ship. But as the blog Evolutsia.Net wrote, the response was “crickets chirping”:
The glaring incompatibility of the Mistral deal with Paris’ frequent lecturing on human rights and such has been qualified in the past with assurances that the warships would be sold ‘bare,’ or without the advanced equipment and electronics that really help make the Mistral the capable platform that its considered to be.
Russia seemed content with this for awhile, but last March it changed its requirements mid-course and demanded that the Mistrals be delivered with all the goodies intact. France, to its credit, held firm as long as it could. Unfortunately, ‘as long as it could’ lasted only until now.
Reported Defense News:
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Dec. 9 on a visit to Moscow that France was ready to transfer military technology if it won a tender to supply Russia with Mistral warships.
“There is no question about the technology transfer, no problem regarding technology transfers,” Fillon said at a joint news conference with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
Remember when France started discussing the possibility of selling its Mistral helicopter carrier ships to Russia? Georgia and its defenders in the West flipped out. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said that if Russia "gets tanks, ships, missiles—technology which he's also shopping for—then we are getting into a very, very risky zone."
And several American senators officially complained to France. Reported The Cable at the time:
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, put forward a bill calling on the Obama administration to try to stop the potential sale. The Russians are in violation of the agreement struck after last year's Georgian war, the bill asserts, along with several other concerns.
Now, as expected, senators are weighing in. Six senators, all from the GOP, have signed a letter to French Amb. H.E. Pierre Vimont outlining their concerns with the sale.
"Such a sale would be the most significant military sale ever between a NATO member country and Russia, and we believe it would have significant implications for all NATO members," the letter reads.
The signees were Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-AZ, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain, R-AZ, Tom Coburn, R-OK, Roger Wicker, R-MS, Sam Brownback, R-KS, and James Risch, R-ID.
The letter points disapprovingly to comments by Russian Navy Commander Adm. Vladimir Vysotskiy, who said in September: "In the conflict in August last year [against Georgia], a ship like that would have allowed [Russia's] Black Sea Fleet to accomplish its mission in 40 minutes, not 26 hours which is how long it took us [to land the troops ashore]."
Most of the speculation surrounding the newly opened Ayni military airfield in Tajikistan centers around Russia and India, as the two countries most likely to use the base. But there is another factor: France has a couple hundred military engineers based at Dushanbe's international airport, and they might be moving to Ayni. According to Interfax:
It is believed that the French Air Force engineers corps offering support to French troops in neighboring Afghanistan may move to the new airdrome. Currently 300 French servicemen are deployed at Dushanbe's international airport.
Jane's Defence Weekly (not online) says that may be premature:
“I'm sure they are interested, but there is going to be a long negotiation process,” said one Tajikistan MoD official, speaking to JDW on condition of anonymity.
And RFE/RL spoke to a Defense Ministry spokesman, who said the issue of who will use the base is still up on the air, but that there is a possibility of another country using it:
Russian media reported that Rahmon and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, reached an agreement during talks in Dushanbe on August 30, 2008, that Russia would station five Su-25 fighter jets, Mi-24 and Mi-8 helicopters at Ayni after renovations were completed.
Muhammadaliev said those reports are are baseless. He said that "for now we have not signed any agreements with any country about the use of Ayni. This airport is for the [Tajik] air force and the antiaircraft defense of Tajikistan."
For those inclined to believe the worst about Russia's military intentions, there have been two recent developments that have aroused pundit ire: the possible sale of advanced French Mistral-class ships to Russia, along with the statement of Russia's top naval official that "a ship like this would have allowed the Black Sea fleet to accomplish its mission [invading Georgia] in 40 minutes and not 26 hours," and the new Russian military doctrine and its explicit designation of NATO as a threat.
The volume on the Mistral sale is bound to increase over the next few days, as France and Russia formally began talks today to buy not just one Mistral but up to four.
But RFE/RL has a perceptive analysis that suggests that the alleged aggressiveness of the doctrine is overblown, and that those two developments, in a way, blunt each other, that the Mistral sale in fact suggests a softer attitude toward NATO than Kremlin rhetoric can suggest:
The 600-pound gorilla hiding in the verbiage of the new doctrine is the question of how to arm the military with the high-tech weapons listed in the document. The Russian defense industry suffers from outdated plants, an aging work force, and the incompatibility of a system built by Josef Stalin with the realities of a market economy.
The new doctrine suggests that Russia somehow invigorate investment into innovative technologies and keep its independence as an arms manufacturer. While debating the best way to direct the Russian economy toward technological innovation, Russia's leaders appear to be moving away from defense industry autarky. During a meeting with Western experts on Russia last September, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reportedly said Russia wanted to cooperate with Western nations in weapons manufacturing.