Bulgaria has joined the long list of Russia's neighbors who have accused it of violating its airspace.
Russian military aircraft have violated Bulgaria's -- and therefore NATO's -- air space four times in the past week and more than ten times over the last ten months, Defense Minister Nikolay Nenchev said in a TV interview on Sunday. "Our fighter jets are ready to intercept them," Nenchev said, calling the actions a "provocation toward Bulgaria and its air force."
Bulgaria and Russia don't share a land border but both lie on the Black Sea, which has become more and more tense since Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. The question of Black Sea airspace, in particular, has become a heated issue in the last few weeks, as NATO is discussing strengthening its air presence in the region, and Russia has responded by moving its top-of-the-line air defense systems to Crimea.
In response, Russia criticized Nenchev for making the allegations on TV and not through diplomatic channels, and denied that any violations had taken place.
"We could not conceal our surprise when we heard Bulgarian Defense Minister Nikolay Nenchev saying in his speech on Nova TV that last month had seen the growing number of violations by Russian military planes, which had their ADS-B transponders off, of the Bulgarian zone of responsibility of NATO airspace," said Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov.
NATO put off a decision on creating an alliance Black Sea naval force, which had been promoted by several alliance members as a means of beefing up the NATO presence on its southeastern border with Russia.
The alliance, as expected, agreed to set up a multinational land brigade based in Romania, which is intended to "contribute to the Alliance’s strengthened deterrence and defence posture, situational awareness, and peacetime demonstration of NATO’s intent to operate without constraint" and "provide a strong signal of support to regional security," according to the final communique issued by the alliance at the conclusion of its summit on Saturday in Warsaw.
But as for increasing sea or air activities around the Black Sea, NATO agreed to keep discussing: "Options for a strengthened NATO air and maritime presence will be assessed." It continued: "We will continue to address the implications for NATO of developments in the region and take them into account in the Alliance’s approaches and policies. We will continue to support, as appropriate, regional efforts by the Black Sea littoral states aimed at ensuring security and stability. We will also strengthen our dialogue and cooperation with Georgia and Ukraine in this regard."
The NATO-Georgia Commission meets in Warsaw on July 8. (photo: NATO)
Georgia and NATO announced their new program for cooperation at the alliance's summit in Warsaw, and it appears to contain little new for Tbilisi.
Ahead of the summit, Georgian officials had said they were hoping for "instruments" for self-defense. “Indicator of success [at the summit] will be having more self-defense capabilities, which means being more secure and having more instruments for deterrence,” said Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli in April.
By that measure, the summit results appear to be a disappointment. On Friday, at the end of the first day of the summit, the NATO-Georgia Commission released a statement laying out their position and plans. The key paragraph in the statement describing what NATO will offer Georgia is pretty vague:
We have also decided on new steps to intensify our cooperation, to help strengthen Georgia’s defence capabilities, interoperability and resilience capabilities. These initiatives include increased support for Georgia’s Training and Education, including through a possible trust fund project, and Strategic Communications. Allies will provide support to the development of Georgia’s air defence and air surveillance. Allies bilaterally are implementing programmes to enhance Georgia’s self-defence and resilience. We will also deepen our focus on security in the Black Sea region.
U.S. soldiers training at Noble Partner exercises in Vaziani, Georgia, in May. (photo: U.S. Army Europe)
The United States is shifting its military assistance to Georgia to help the country defend itself instead of preparing it for international deployments, with a new agreement signed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Tbilisi.
The agreement "defines our security partnership and the steps we will take together to further Georgia’s reliance and its resilience and its self-defense capabilities," Kerry said Wednesday at a press conference with Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili.
U.S. military aid has until recently largely been focused on making the country interoperable with NATO members' militaries, as well as lighter and more efficient in order to be more readily deployable to U.S. and European military operations abroad. That meant, for example, American soldiers were training their Georgian counterparts on how to run a checkpoint or patrol a village rather than helping them get the anti-tank or anti-aircraft weapons they would need in a war in Georgia. This allowed Georgia to ingratiate itself with its American and NATO partners, but obviously carried risks given that the country believes it is at threat from Russian attack.
"There was a tacit understanding that Georgian participation in Afghanistan had combat training that made Georgian soldiers better equipped for territorial defense, but the training wasn't territorial defense per se, or even combined arms. They definitely got into combat situations in Afghanistan, but the transferability of skills was inexact," said Michael Cecire, a Caucasus defense analyst and associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, in an email interview with The Bug Pit.
Georgian soldiers take part in Exercise Noble Partner with the U.S. and UK in May 2016. (photo: U.S. Army)
Georgia has had to drop out of large-scale NATO military exercises because some of the soldiers slated to go were diagnosed with chicken pox.
This might not be a particularly newsworthy development for most countries but for Georgia, whose NATO membership aspirations are the foundation of its foreign policy, the episode has been controversial and embarrassing. Speculation arose that the chicken pox was just a cover story for Georgia's cold feet and fear of offending Russia, which government officials quickly tried to tamp down. Georgia's National Security Council has promised to take up the issue at its next meeting. And the Russian press eagerly seized on the event with headlines like "In Georgia, chicken pox turns out to be stronger than NATO."
The exercise, Anakonda 16, is taking place in Poland with 31,000 troops from 24 NATO and partner countries. NATO officials are framing the exercise as a "response to potential aggression from Russia against member states along the alliance’s eastern periphery." It will be followed by the alliance's summit in Warsaw, where the question of how to deal with Russia will be at the top of the agenda. Georgia, while not expecting to get an invitation for membership, nevertheless is hoping for "practical support" from NATO in its struggle against Russia.
Ongoing NATO war games in Georgia have elicited not just fears of a vindictive reaction from Russia, but also a healthy dose of homegrown sexism.
“You can’t give a woman a gun or let her make decisions,” proclaimed parliamentarian Tamaz Mechiauri, chairperson of the budget and finance committee, and a member of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.
He was referring to one particular woman, who packs more guns than anybody else in Georgia, 42-year-old Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli.
Khidasheli is the main host of the May 11-25 US-UK-Georgia drills, marked by columns of US tanks shipped by sea and paratroopers raining down from the sky. Moscow, as always, is warily watching this Western military show close to its borders; essentially a gunshot away from Russian military bases in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Mechiauri is worried that Russia is worried. Following an angry statement by the Kremlin, Mechiauri, 61, came out to say on the eve of the drills that they spell danger for Georgia and the country should keep the Alliance at arm’s length lest it incur Moscow’s wrath.
He called for firing Khidasheli because a) she will get Georgia into trouble and; b) defense ain’t a woman’s job. “This country is a not a toy. You can’t have her drag tanks in and out,” he fumed, proposing that Khidasheli play computer war games instead.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for a greater NATO presence in the Black Sea to counter Russia, potentially representing a policy shift for Ankara, which has traditionally jealously guarded its role as the sole Western power on the sea.
Speaking at a Balkan security conference in Istanbul, Erdogan complained that the sea has become a "Russian lake":
We should enhance our coordination and cooperation in the Black Sea. We hope for concrete results from the NATO summit in Warsaw on July 8, 9… The Black Sea should be turned into the sea of stability. I told the NATO secretary general that you are absent in the Black Sea and that is why it has nearly become a Russian lake. We should perform our duty as we are the countries with access to the Black Sea. If we do not take action, history will not forgive us.
The South Caucasus country of Georgia marked May 9, the day former Soviet republics celebrate the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany, with a debate about its Stalinist past and its NATO future.
As per tradition, elderly communists dusted off photos of their favorite Soviet dictator, wartime leader Joseph Stalin, as well as Soviet flags and World War II medals. Demanding the return of a monument to the Great Leader, they paraded Stalin’s bust through his hometown of Gori.
But this year they faced a rival rally, in which several rock bands performed to prove that Stalin is not the only rock star in town.
Just as the Communists marched with slogans proclaiming “Glory to Stalin!,” young activists gathered nearby with slogans declaring “Totalitarianism Kills!” and “Gori Is Not Red.” The red stars were pitted against the stars of the European Union, the place where Georgia, at least most of it, hopes to be in the future.
“The victory over fascism was undoubtedly a momentous event. Nobody denies that,” activist Nino Dalakishvili told Netgazeti.ge. “However, today when we see that [World War II] veterans are being used by political forces and these forces are being sponsored by Russia, we believe this is detrimental to our country. This is what we rally against. We want to defend our nation’s progressive, pro-Western policy.”
There are widespread concerns that Moscow, seeking a political foothold in Georgia, is enabling the growing, but still relatively marginal anti-Western rhetoric in the country.
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.