When outsiders look at the various new post-Soviet integration projects they often see an attempt by Russia to impose its will on its neighbors; in Hillary Clinton's formulation, a move to "re-Sovietize" the region. The U.S., by contrast, likes to say that its policy in the former Soviet space are directed at allowing those states to maintain their "sovereignty and independence."
But that has it backwards, Russia is increasingly arguing. In a piece published Wednesday in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov argues that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and other post-Soviet security blocs allow members "a choice of their own pattern of development" while NATO demands strict "bloc discipline" of its members.
That Lavrov wrote an op-ed praising the SCO is already interesting enough: Russia has not always been so enthusiastic about the organization, which tends to carry more of a Chinese influence (the other members are the smaller Central Asian states in between the two powers: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan). But since the crisis in Ukraine resulted in a huge rupture between Russia and the West, Moscow has sought to revive its ties to China and as a result has become noticeably more enthusiastic about the SCO.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that "disagreements" have arisen with China over the two countries' controversial deal on air defense systems. And it appears that a French offer -- which would be the much-preferred option for Turkey's NATO partners -- is gaining momentum.
Ever since Turkey announced last September that it was picking a Chinese system over American, French, and Russian competitors, U.S. and NATO officials have been pressuring Ankara to change its mind. They have argued that it would be impossible to integrate Turkey's NATO-compatible air defense systems with the Chinese system without the risk of leaking sensitive data to China. For some time there have been indications that Ankara is rethinking its decision, but Erdogan's comments on Sunday make that explicit.
"Some disagreements have emerged with China on the issues of joint production and know-how during negotiations over the missile defense system," Erdoğan told reporters as he returned from the NATO summit in Wales, private television channel NTV said on Sunday.
"Talks are continuing despite that, but France, which is second on the list, has come up with new offers. Right now, our talks with France are continuing. For us, joint production is very, very important," he said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meets a Georgian soldier during his visit to Tbilisi. (photo: MoD Georgia)
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Georgia, and on the agenda was Georgia's planned purchase of American military helicopters and Georgia's joining the emerging U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition.
The deal for Blackhawk utility helicopters has been in the works since at least 2012. But this is the first time it seems to have been discussed very publicly, and the two sides seem to be getting close: "One of the things that I noted here is that [Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania] and I discussed as to how we go forward on Georgia's request for helicopters and pricing and availability -- that being the next step as to how that works," Hagel said at a press conference in Tbilisi.
It wasn't announced how these would be financed, but this variant -- the Sikorsky S-70i, produced in Poland -- cost about $5 million each. Georgia's defense budget for this year is under $400 million -- that is, about 80 Blackhawks -- and that has to cover troops' pay and care in addition to any new equipment procurement. Alasania has previously said that Russian-type helicopters are too expensive to maintain given the difficulty Georgia has getting spare parts. Those are "credible complaints," said Michael Cecire, a Washington-based Georgia analyst, in an email interview with The Bug Pit. "But why US platforms, specifically? Partially for the prestige and symbolism, but also likely with an eye on reinforcing bilateral ties and building those prized business relationships with US defense companies," he said.
Georgian officials are sounding upbeat notes over a decision by NATO that seems to accelerate efforts to bring Tbilisi into the alliance. From Tbilisi’s perspective, NATO offered Georgia a package of measures at a September 4-5 summit in the United Kingdom that could potentially make the country's full membership a reality in the not-too-distant future.
"Today we agreed on a substantive package of measures for Georgia that will help it advance in its preparations towards NATO membership," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen tweeted on September 5.
Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania said that the package included a commitment to create a training center for NATO members and allies in Georgia.
Georgia has long sought membership in both NATO and the European Union. While wanting to encourage Georgia’s membership bid, NATO has tread cautiously on the issue out of an apparent concern not to rile Russia. Georgia and Russia fought a five-day war in 2008, and portions of Georgian territory remain occupied by Russian armed forces. Russia’s actions in Ukraine are prompting NATO to re-evaluate its relations with the Kremlin.
Though satisfied with the steps taken by NATO at its UK summit, Georgian officials voiced an intention to press for a formal membership invitation at the Atlantic alliance’s next gathering in 2015. "We hope that the next summit is going to be an expansion summit where Georgia will be granted membership," Alasania said at the Atlantic Council's Future Leaders' Meeting.
South Ossetia is poised to join a "unified defense space" along with Russia and Abkhazia, further extending Russia's military presence into what is still legally Georgian territory. This budding alliance will both "follow the example of and oppose NATO," South Ossetia's ambassador to Abkhazia told the Russian newspaper Izvestia.
Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin met the newly elected de facto president of Abkhazia, Raul Khajimba, and one of the things they discussed was the creation of a unified defense space, i.e. the Russian military taking joint control of security in Abkhazia along with the Abkhazian security forces. Fellow Georgian breakaway republic South Ossetia is going to be part of that process as well, the ambassador, Oleg Botsiev, told Izvestia.
"Currently our side is working out the possibility with the Abkhazian side of concluding an agreement with Russia on joining South Ossetia to the single defense contour," Botsiev said, adding that it wasn't yet clear whether the agreement would be trilateral or if South Ossetia's agreement with Russia would be separate.
And he said South Ossetia's agreement with Russia would differ from Abkhazia's (though his explanation of how wasn't entirely clear): "Its creation is still being discussed, though it's already clear that included in it will be first of all a military component, and then the conditions for economic and information security of our region will be drawn up."
Georgian soldiers take part in American training in Germany to prepare them for deployment to Afghanistan, 2012. (photo: Spc. Robert Sheets, U.S. Army Europe)
The United States is preparing a military aid package of about $35 million to help Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine defend themselves against Russia.
The money would be part of a much larger, $1 billion European Reassurance Initiative that the White House announced about two months ago. Part of the plan, as announced originally, would be to: "Build the partner capacity of close friends such as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine so they can better work alongside the United States and NATO, as well as provide for their own defense."
At a recent Congressional hearing on the Initiative and other Pentagon funding programs, U.S. officials gave a little more detail about how that $1 billion would be apportioned. And they revealed that the largest amount of money would go to bolstering the presence of U.S. troops in Eastern Europe. From the testimony (pdf) of Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work:
Approximately $440 million will go to increase the U.S. military presence in Europe by:
• Enabling rotation of elements of an Army armored brigade combat team into Europe;
• Providing additional funds for expanded naval deployments in the Black and Baltic Seas;
• Augmenting NATO’s Air Policing mission; and
• Either temporarily delaying withdrawal of Air Force F-15C aircraft from Europe or increasing aircraft rotations to Europe.
And most of the rest would go to NATO allies in Eastern Europe:
An American sailor monitors the Breeze 2014 exercises from the USS Vella Gulf. (photo: U.S. Navy)
Competing Black Sea naval exercises by NATO and Russia have again raised tensions in the region as the once sleepy sea has become a venue for geopolitical competition.
Russia's exercise started July 4 and involves 20 ships and 20 aircraft. Its scenario was the "destruction of enemy ships in the sea and organization of air defense of naval groups and coastal infrastructure."
NATO's exercises, called "Breeze" and formally hosted by Bulgaria, also started July 4 and continue until July 13, with ships from Greece, Italy, Romania, Turkey, the U.K. and the U.S. also taking part, along with naval patrol planes from Turkey and the U.S. The exercises are "aimed at improving the tactical compatibility and collaboration among naval forces of the alliance's member states."
And the U.S. participation, with the guided missile cruiser USS Vella Gulf is intended to "reassure" allies in the region, a thinly veiled reference to Russia: "It is important to support and reassure our partners, we hope our presence in the Black Sea continues to strengthen those bonds," the USS Vella Gulf's commander said.
Georgian Defense Minister Iraklia Alasania with his Latvian counterpart, Raimonds Vējonis, at a press conference June 25 in Tbilisi. (photo: Georgian MoD)
NATO officials are raising expectations for Georgia ahead of the alliance's summit this fall, saying that while the country won't get the coveted Membership Action Plan that would be a direct path to full membership, it will nevertheless get a "substantial," "unprecedented" boost that will help Georgia get closer to NATO.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said definitively that Georgia will not get a MAP at the upcoming summit, which was news only to the most starry-eyed Georgians. "The summit in Wales will not be about a Membership Action Plan; but about more support to bring Georgia closer to NATO. And it will be a substantive package," Rasmussen said at a press conference in Brussels.
As to what that "package" will include, it is apparently not yet known, Rasmussen continued: "We will work on that package in close collaboration with Georgia from now until the summit. So I regret to say that I'm not able to outline the specific elements of that package at this stage. It will be elaborated on...from now until the summit."
Georgia's drawn-out courtship of NATO thus appears to be destined for years more of slow-motion drama. Some NATO members, notably the United States and many of the newer, post-communist members have pushed for faster NATO integration for Georgia (Latvia's defense minister, speaking Wednesday with his Georgian counterpart, endorsed MAP for Georgia). But several Western European members have been more reticent, for a variety of reasons: concern over the promise to defend a country which doesn't even control all of its de jure territory (i.e., the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia), reticence to provoke Russia for the sake of unclear strategic gain, and Georgia's uncertain record on democracy and human rights.
A German Patriot missile system. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
NATO is reportedly looking at ending its deployment of air defense units on the Syrian border, prompting objections from Ankara.
The German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that the U.S., Germany, and the Netherlands are considering ending their deployment of Patriot missile batteries by the end of the year. The systems were deployed in January 2013 in response to the intensified fighting there. The fighting, of course, has not died down, but the threat of a chemical attack has diminished. That, in combination with the fact that the soldiers from Germany and the Netherlands who operate the systems have been overstretched by the long deployment, have led to the reconsideration of the mission, Der Spiegel's sources said.
But Turkey isn't ready for them to go. “Turkey thinks that such a move doesn't serve relations between allies,” one Turkish foreign ministry official told Today's Zaman. Another diplomatic source told Hurriyet Daily News, "At a moment when there are serious security problems [in the region], a decision to withdraw these systems from Turkey would be inappropriate and unsuitable to the [values of our] alliance."
Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania meets NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Brussels on June 4. (photo: NATO)
Georgia was one of the main topics of the discussion as defense ministers from NATO countries met in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday, which focused on the alliance's response to Russia's newly aggressive behavior. But in spite of the dramatically altered circumstances, the discussion about Georgia repeated the same themes and phrases that have been used for the last several years. Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen reiterated that he supports Georgia's territorial integrity and opposes Russia's recognition of the de facto independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and that Georgia is making progress towards NATO accession. And when journalists tried to pin him down about what, exactly, Georgia might expect at the upcoming summit in Wales, he was vague, saying "more remains to be done to open the door to NATO membership," without specifying who needs to do more.
The news, perhaps, was the dog that didn't bark: the request for NATO "defensive weapons" to be deployed to Georgia, which seemed not to be mentioned at all in Brussels. It was just a month ago that Defense Minister Irakli Alasania made the public request while in Washington, and NATO officials said they would look into it, comparing it to the deployment of air defense systems to Turkey's border with Syria. But since then, the proposal faced criticism from all sides.