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.
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.