U.S. Army officers load Abrams tanks on to a ferry in Varna, Bulgaria, to ship them to Georgia for NATO military exercises. (photo: U.S. Army)
The United States is for the first time shipping its tanks across the Black Sea for joint exercises with Georgia.
The U.S. Army's 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division loaded the tanks on to ferries in Varna, Bulgaria, in order to ship them to Batumi ahead of the second annual Noble Partner military exercises to be held later this month. The exercises will include 650 American troops, as well as 500 from Georgia and 150 from the United Kingdom.
Last year's Noble Partner (the first such exercise) was noteworthy for the fact that the U.S. shipped Bradley Fighting Vehicles across the Black Sea for the occasion. It was the first such movement of heavy U.S. materiel across the sea and was a vivid illustration of the U.S.'s ability to project power around Russia's periphery. This year's addition of tanks to the mix ups the stakes a little more.
General Philip Breedlove, commander of U.S. European Command, visits a farmer in Georgia whose land was divided by a Russian-built fence on the administrative boundary with South Ossetia. (photo: MoD Georgia)
The top United States military official in Europe has visited Georgia, promising "bigger and better" joint military exercises and telling Georgians that to deter Russian aggression they should build ties with NATO and the U.S.
General Philip Breedlove, commander of U.S. European Command, visited Georgia March 22-23. Breedlove has become known as one of the most anti-Russia hawks among current U.S. officials, and in Tbilisi he did not disappoint:
As your brave valiant nation has witnessed, Russia continues to extend its coercive and corrosive influence on its periphery. Now it's also trying to reestablish leading and aggressive role in a world stage. Russia automatically seeks to overturn the established rules and principles of the international system, fracture the unity of the free world and to challenge our solidity.
NATO and Georgian flags fly together as a four-ship NATO naval contingent visits Batumi, Georgia. (photo: Ministry of Internal Affairs, Georgia)
Russia is conducting snap exercises around the Black Sea and southern Russia as tensions continue to rise between Russia and Turkey. Meanwhile, a contingent of four NATO naval vessels -- including two from Turkey -- is visiting Georgia for joint exercises.
Russia began the exercises on Monday which reportedly involve 8,500 troops and 50 combat ships from the Black Sea Fleet and Caspian Flotilla. These sorts of large, unnanounced exercises have become common in Russia over the last several years, but analysts saw these particular drills as sending a message to Turkey.
"We've had many of these snap exercises over the past three years, it's a very correct element of training the armed forces. It's not at all necessary to see them as a signal to someone, but in this case it's of course also a signal to the Turks, because we are quickly and surely heading to war with them," said Alexander Khramichkin, a Russian military analyst, in an interview with newspaper Gazeta.ru.
Tension between Moscow and Ankara has remained high months after Turkey shot down a Russian military jet on the Syrian border. Most recently Russia accused Turkey of planning a land invasion of Syria, further heightening the risk of direct confrontation between the two powers.
The United States would give Georgia a big boost in aid to help it "resist Russian aggression" under a budget proposal announced this week by the White House. But Washington is deemphasizing military aid to Georgia, and a huge increase in Pentagon funding for a greater U.S. military presence around Russia's borders dedicates relatively little to Tbilisi.
The U.S. plans to give Georgia $63 million in general Economic Support Fund money in fiscal year 2017, up from $38 million this year, according to State Department budget documents. That money "will support Georgia’s democratization, economic development, Euro-Atlantic integration, and resistance to Russian aggression" and will be "targeted towards enhancing energy security and economic opportunities for populations susceptible to Russian influence."
But that aid is mainly for civilian programs, and American military aid to Georgia is set to decrease under this proposal. Aid to Georgia marked as Foreign Military Financing, intended for military equipment, will decrease from $30 million this year to $20 million in fiscal year 2017. Next year's funding is intended "to advance Georgia’s development of forces capable of enhancing security, countering Russian aggression, and contributing to coalition operations. This will include support in areas such as upgrades to Georgia’s rotary wing air transport capabilities, advisory and defense reform, and modernization of Georgia’s military institutions."
Romania is pressing NATO to create a regular Black Sea flotilla in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea, Romanian media have reported.
NATO, and in particular the United States, substantially stepped up their naval patrols in the Black Sea after the Crimean annexation, but thus far it's been done on an ad hoc basis. The Romanian proposal would create a regular "flotilla" reportedly also consisting of ships from Germany, Italy, Turkey and the United States, Romanian television station Digi24 reported.
Warships of countries not on the Black Sea are restricted from spending more than 21 days at a time there by the 1936 Montreux Convention. So if a NATO Black Sea fleet were to come to fruition members other than Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey would have to rotate their ships out regularly.
The increased NATO presence on the Black Sea has already been a major irritant to Russia. At the same time Russian naval vessels' use of the Bosphorus straits, which pass through the middle of Istanbul, to supply the war effort in Syria has become a flashpoint in the Russia-Turkey conflict.
Romania will try to bring the proposal up at the alliance's next summit, in Warsaw in July, Digi24 reported.
Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli speaks December 10 at the Washington think tank Heritage Foundation. (photo: MoD Georgia)
Georgia's government is asking the United States to store some of its weaponry in the country in the case it were needed quickly to defend against Russia. The U.S., while announcing an ambitious plan to "preposition" equipment in several NATO countries on Russia's border, is so far declining to do so in Georgia.
By the end of next year, the U.S. Army hopes to have what it calls "European Activity Sets" placed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, the top Army commander in Europe, General Ben Hodges, said this week. The sets would consist of vehicles and weaponry so that American soldiers coming to the area for training, or for a quick deployment, would have gear waiting for them.
Hodges added that the army is not now considering additional sites. But Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli, visiting Washington this week, is lobbying for Washington to change its mind and to include Georgia in that list.
“Putting more security in [the] Baltics or eastern border of NATO is the same value for us as putting it in Georgia, because deterring Russia anywhere means more security for Georgia,” Khidasheli said in an interview with the newspaper Defense News. “But at the same time, we hope that Georgia will be part of that deal, as well, and we will get our share in this entire picture of European security setup … we will see. We’re negotiating all those issues and I’m very optimistic that we will get our portion from this.”
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.
NATO has struck a blow to Georgia's membership aspirations, announcing that the country is still expected to pass through a stage of accession, the so-called MAP, that officials in Tbilisi have lobbied to skip.
"At the 2008 Bucharest Summit we agreed that Georgia will become a member of NATO with MAP as an integral part of the process; today we reaffirm all elements of that decision," NATO foreign ministers announced after a meeting Wednesday.
Georgia has sought MAP, without success, for many years, and of late Tbilisi has taken a new tack: Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli has been trying to convince NATO members that the MAP, or Membership Action Plan, is an unnecessary "intermediate step" for Georgia. "There should be no intermediary steps between Georgia and NATO," she tweeted in October.
So Wednesday's move, reaffirming the necessity of MAP, was yet another setback in Georgia's quest for NATO accession. "That Khidasheli has been unable to secure even that is unsurprising, but it does represent a symbolic blow considering that Georgia is already in many ways 'beyond' the MAP stage -- not to mention the amount of diplomatic energy Tbilisi spent on this initiative," said Michael Hikari Cecire, a Caucasus expert and associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, in an email interview with The Bug Pit.
The video, apparently first posted on an ISIS-associated, Russian-language site, opens with a sleekly edited intro, Arab music and requisite praises to Allah. Then, a young man, flanked by three fellow Islamic fighters with rifles, calls on Georgia’s Muslim minority, in Arabic-accented, grammatically faulty Georgian, to come to Iraq and Syria to join the holy war. “Oh, my Muslim brothers, know that you are forbidden to live with the kafirs [infidels],” says the man.
The man urges Georgian Muslims to throw off the infidel’s rule — a reference to Georgia’s status as a majority Orthodox Christian society. He also lambasted the leader of Muslims in the Turkish-border region of Achara, describing the mufti as schismatic and conformist. “A great sin is on you,” he said. “People do not know true Islam, they are confused and you are confusing them even more…. Are not you afraid of Allah, who created you from a drop of blood?”
The diatribe ends with the man calling on Georgian Christians to relinquish “idols and crosses” and adopt Islam.
Then another fighter, with an accent typical of Georgia’s western region of Guria, takes to the floor to warn “Georgian infidels” to stop waging war against Islam. Citing Georgia’s time under a caliphate during the early middle ages, he singles out Georgian troops that contribute to NATO’s campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The time will come to cut your heads off,” he warns.
The long-running drama over Turkey's controversial decision to buy a Chinese missile system appears to have ended with a move to scrap the purchase altogether.
An unnamed Turkish official told Reuters on Sunday that the $3.4 billion program has been canceled. Daily Sabah, a pro-government newspaper, cited its own sources saying that Turkey would now pursue building the system by itself.
The program had been a geopolitical touchstone, with the original competition pitting four competitors from the U.S., Russia, China, and a European consortium. The announcement, in 2013, that Ankara was choosing the Chinese HQ-9 air defense system, set off a massive, twisting controversy. Ankara's original justification for choosing the Chinese system was that it was the cheapest, and also included the most generous offers of technology transfer, which would allow Turkey to acquire the blueprints for the system so that it could eventually build its own system.
But that decision angered Turkey's NATO partners, which objected that they couldn't integrate the Chinese system into NATO's larger air defense umbrella because it could compromise the security of NATO data. Many in China and Turkey complained that this was merely a pretext, and that Western governments were trying to bully Ankara into choosing a European system for commercial reasons.