President-elect Donald Trump's nominees for his top foreign policy, defense, and intelligence posts testified before Congress this week, and expressed hardline positions on Russia that contrast markedly with their boss's more ambiguous opinions.
Trump's views on Russia, NATO, and associated issues have received substantial scrutiny, given that they are fairly far from the mainstream in Washington. But other than a personal admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a skepticism -- supposedly rooted in his busisnessman's dealmaking instincts -- of the U.S.'s alliances, Trump hasn't been very detailed about what he will actually do when in power.
So the Senate confirmation hearings for Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, and Mike Pompeo -- to head the State Department, Pentagon, and CIA, respectively -- were highly anticipated events, as senators can grill Trump's lieutenants in detail about the administration's foreign policy direction.
And what emerged was that their opinions on Russia and its neighborhood are far more conventional than their boss's. All described Russia as a threat rather than as a partner (as Trump has), expressed trust in the U.S.'s allies (Trump has suggested they weigh the U.S. down), and said they took seriously allegations that Russia meddled in the presidential elections (Trump has repeatedly played down the accusations).
Of particular interest was Tillerson's testimony: as CEO of Exxon/Mobil he had done substantial business in Russia, worked personally with Putin, and got the Order of Friendship award from Russia. All that made many in the U.S. and Russia suspect that he may be a pro-Russia voice in the administration.
Soldiers from Kazakhstan take part in the opening ceremony of "Cooperation-2016," the CSTO military exercises taking part near the borders of Estonia and Latvia. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Russia will try to enlist its post-Soviet allies in shoring up its western border against NATO, a senior security official has said. Those allies, however, have shown little interest in getting dragged into Russia's fight with the West, setting the stage for a rupture between Moscow and its ostensible partners.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led military alliance, will discuss how to respond to NATO's buildup in Eastern Europe at its next summit, scheduled for December 26. That's according to Nikolay Bordyuzha, the CSTO's general secretary, in an interview with Russian newspaper Izvestiya.
"We should understand precisely what is happening around our borders, why NATO is bringing in weapons, creating infrastructure," Boryuzha said. "It's transferring an additional four battalions [toward Russia's borders], why are they doing this? And how is the security situation changing in general? How to react, so as to not be too late... This is what the conversation will be about. We shouldn't be quiet and do nothing, seeing how the countries around us are crammed with weapons, units are being deployed."
It's not clear what response Bordyuzha had in mind, as he said it would not entail a military buildup. "We have sufficient forces," he said.
It's also not possible to tell how out of context these statements are, and how high a priority NATO will in fact be for the CSTO. But it's also perhaps telling that on the same day that Bordyuzha's interview was published, the CSTO's own website republished another article from a Russian news website -- a rare thing to see on the CSTO site -- headlined "Is the CSTO Turning Into a NATO Opponent?"
"This decision is the result of internal budget considerations and doesn't have any political character," Puglisi said. "There has been no pressure from Uzbekistan or from other states working with our office. On the contrary, we've always had a warm reception in the region."
NATO opened the Tashkent office in 2013, and used it to coordinate the alliance's activities in the region. That meant, primarily, the logistics of moving war materiel in and out of Afghanistan, the then-special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, James Appathurai, said at the time.
The office was tiny -- only four staff members, including two local administrative assistants -- but its departure still seems to represent a further Western military retreat in Central Asia that has been going on for several years.
The American guided-missile destroyer USS Carney enters the Black Sea via Istanbul. (photo: Yörük Işık)
NATO has agreed to come up with a "coordination body" to manage activity in the Black Sea, a step toward formalizing a NATO presence in the region that Russia considers to be its sphere of influence.
Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey -- the three NATO members on the Black Sea -- have been tasked with coming up with a plan to increase the alliance's naval and sea patrols in the region, Romanian Defense Minister Mihnea Motoc said on October 27. That decision was made following a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels.
“The political decision is to task the allied forces to come up by the end of January with proposals on two basic elements for the maritime component – a strengthened training framework and a coordination body for the Black Sea that reports to the specialized NATO command,” Motoc said.
Turkey has reportedly invited Russia to bid on an air defense system that has become a sort of geopolitical bellwether, suggesting that Ankara may be using its rapprochement with Moscow to send a message to its Western partners.
On October 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin made his first visit to Turkey since the two countries fell out over Turkey's shooting down of a Russian jet on the Syrian border last year. And after Putin met with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russia was "invited" to take part in the air defense tender, Defense News reported, citing Turkish diplomatic and procurement sources.
This would appear to revive the epic saga of Ankara's multibillion dollar T-LORAMIDS air defense program. In 2013, Turkey surprised everyone by choosing a Chinese system for the program, but after its NATO partners strongly objected, eventually abandoned the procurement and last year announced that it would instead work on building the system in Turkey.
Since then, though, Ankara has been quietly negotiating with the original American and European bidders, Defense News reported. And now Russia makes it a three-way competition.
Russia was one of the bidders in the original competition, with an export version of the S-300VM, but it was the least attractive of the four options: it shared the high price of the Western systems (reportedly double the price the Chinese offered) with the security risk of the Chinese. The crux of NATO's objection to the Chinese system was that it couldn't be securely intregrated with NATO's system; a Russian system would surely be just as dangerous from that perspective.
Russia's top military officer has said that the country's Black Sea fleet is now stronger than Turkey's navy, and emphasized that Russia is now capable of easily striking the Bosphorus straits, statements that highlight the tenuous nature of the rapprochement between the two states.
"Several years ago the capability of the fleet was sharply contrasted, in particular, with the Turkish navy, when it was said that Turkey is virtually the master of the Black Sea. Now everything is different," said General Valeriy Gerasimov, chief of general staff of the Russian armed forces, at the conclusion of military exercises conducted in southern Russia earlier this month.
Gerasimov highlighted several of the fleet's new acquisitions, including submarines capable of firing Kalibr cruise missiles, new aircraft, and the Bastion coastal defense missiles that Russia deployed to Crimea shortly after annexing the territory.
"For [destroying a potential enemy] the Black Sea Fleet today has everything: reconnaissance assets, which locate targets at a distance of 500 kilometers, strike assets. One Bastion complex has a range of 350 kilometers, including to the Bosphorus," he said.
“Before Georgia actually joins NATO, the country has to take care that a U.S. military base is located on the territory of Georgia,” he said, the news website Democracy and Freedom Watch reported. “When they talk about non-bloc status and legalizing Russian military bases in Georgia, our response should be the following: to redirect the policy in another direction, the location of U.S. or any other NATO member states’ military base and we will fight for this.”
The Republicans are part of the current ruling Georgian Dream coalition, but are competing separately in the upcoming elections. It's also worth noting that Usupashvili's wife and fellow party member is Tinatin Khidasheli, the recently departed defense minister.
The United States and Bulgaria will conduct joint air patrols for the first time under the NATO aegis, a new (albeit relatively mild) show of force by Washington in the Black Sea region.
The patrols will take place in mid-September, with two American F-15s patrolling alongside Bulgarian MiG-29s. “NATO takes its responsibility to ensure the safety and integrity of our airspace very seriously. This mission is a demonstration of solidarity and support for our ally Bulgaria,” NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow said in a statement.
Recall that earlier this month Russia deployed S-400 air defense systems to Crimea in order to deter what some Russian officials called NATO's "air hooligans." That, in turn, followed a statement made at NATO's July summit in NATO that it would implement "appropriate measures, tailored to the Black Sea region" and that "options for a strengthened NATO air and maritime presence will be assessed."
And just last week, Russian air, sea, and land forces took part in snap drills around the Black and Caspian seas, which focused on air defense.
Screenshot of a television ad, aired by Georgia's Centrist Party on state television, advocating for the legalization of Russian military bases in Georgia.
Geopolitics has taken center stage in Georgia's election campaign, with one party calling to legalize Russian military bases in the country, another calling for the constitution to enshrine Georgia's "non-bloc" status, and another calling for the constitution to reflect the country's NATO aspirations.
At the end of June, the Democratic Movement party called for Georgia to be officially neutral. The party leader, Nino Burjanadze, was once a leader of Georgia's pro-Western Rose Revolution but has since developed close ties with Russia.
“We believe that a clause should be added to the Georgian constitution, which would stipulate non-bloc status for Georgia,” she said, according to Civil.ge. “It means that Georgia should reject joining any kind of military bloc be it NATO or any other military alliance. There should be no troops of any foreign country or a bloc on the Georgian soil." She argued that Georgia's “authorities and significant part of country’s political elite act pursuant to NATO and the U.S. interests, instead of Georgia’s interests.”
Then, in response, the pro-NATO Republican Party introduced a counterproposal, to amend the constiution so that its preamble included the direction "to establish a full-fledged place in the Euro-Atlantic system of security and cooperation of democratic states."
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.