"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.
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.