Georgian defense officials say they would not welcome a potential request from Russia to use Georgian airspace for military and humanitarian overflights to Syria. “If such a request is made, the position of the Georgian Ministry of Defense . . . will be negative,” the ministry emailed EurasiaNet.org on September 14.
Last week, EurasiaNet.org examined the possibility that US pressure to block Russian flights to Syria via Bulgaria and Greece could prompt Moscow to consider the Caucasus as a possible alternative route for these air shipments. Russia regularly airlifts military supplies to Armenia, where it has an army base, and the two countries, longtime strategic allies, plan to share an air defense system.
Air navigation authorities in both Armenia and neighboring Georgia underlined that Russian military planes currently do not use their countries' airspace for transit to Syria and that, in Georgia’s case, such transit would require the foreign ministry’s consent.
The Georgian foreign ministry only responded to questions on the topic after EurasiaNet.org’s report was published on September 11. “Russia has not been in touch with requests to use Georgian airspace for Syria-bound flights, neither now, nor at any stage of the conflict” in Syria, the ministry stated in a September 14 email.
The ministry noted that Georgia is engaged in a “general dialogue and coordination on security issues with the US, Georgia’s strategic partner,” but said that there has not been any discussion with Washington about Russian flights to Syria.
The US embassy in Tbilisi commented that it has "encouraged our allies and partners to ask tough questions" about Russia's deployment to Syria, but declined to go into details.
Amidst mounting concerns in Washington about Russia’s military presence in war-ravaged Syria, one question persists — if existing air routes for Russian flights to Syria are closed, what will be Moscow’s backup plan? Long a corridor between Russia and fellow Syrian ally Iran, the South Caucasus countries of Georgia and Armenia appear an option to some.
It is unclear, however, what exact role US ally Georgia, to Russia's south, and Russian ally Armenia, to Iran's north, play or could play in any such corridor.
So far, government agencies in both Caucasus countries and US diplomats have equivocated on the matter.
On September 11, Georgian aviation officials announced that Russia, its northern neighbor, has not asked to use Georgia’s airspace for Syria-bound flights “in recent days or in the past two months.” Whether it did so before “the past two months” was not specified in the statement to GHN newswire.
In Armenia, with which Russia has just announced plans for a joint air defense union, the foreign ministry deferred questions on Russian military flights to Armenia’s Civil Aviation Authority.
Armenian Civil Aviation Authority Spokesperson Rouben Grdzelian told EurasiaNet.org that “there isn’t any restriction” on Russian military flights “as Russia can freely use Armenian airspace . . .” Russian military flights come into Erebuni, a military airport just outside of the capital, Yerevan, almost every day, he added.
Invariably, NATO is seen as either the cause or cure of all security ills in the South Caucasus. So, it was only predictable that Russia described as provocative the August 27 opening of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization training center in Georgia. And Tbilisi, in response, emphasized it as an expansion of “the frontier of freedom.”
For his part, NATO Secretary General Jen Stoltenberg, on his first trip to Georgia, appeared to try to play things in the center.
“There is more Georgia in NATO and more NATO in Georgia,” he added, in case anyone hadn’t noticed.
Georgia, NATO’s only eager ally in the South Caucasus, has heard this line before, albeit in the future tense. In December 2014, NATO promised that “there will be a lot more Georgia in NATO and lot of NATO in Georgia.”
The catchphrase refers to the so-called Substantial Package, a military-reform collaboration program that NATO adopted at its summit in Wales last September. The program also includes sending “embedded” NATO trainers to Georgia and holding joint exercises.
As far as Moscow is concerned, though, there is too much NATO in Georgia.
“Those, who in such a situation continue to actively drag Tbilisi into NATO, must be aware of their responsibility, especially given the regrettable experience in the region in 2008,” observed Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Interfax reported.
NATO could get involved in protecting a potential trans-Caspian gas pipeline, which Russia strongly opposes, an alliance official has said.
The idea of building a pipeline across the Caspian Sea to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan's massive reserves to Azerbaijan and then further on to Europe has been on the drawing board for a long time, but has been held back for a number of reasons, not least Russia's strong opposition.
In May, a senior EU official said on a visit to Ashgabat that a "political decision" had been made to build the pipeline and that the EU expects to start receiving gas from it by 2019. It's still not clear who would build the pipeline, however.
But now a NATO official has said that the alliance would play a part in protecting it. In an interview with Azerbaijani news website AzVision, NATO's South Caucasus Liaison Officer William Lahue weighed in on the pipeline and made some surprisingly bold endorsements of it:
“It is important that countries have multiple sources of supply in order to protect themselves from fluctuations in available sources of supply,” he said. “In this process Azerbaijan is going to be important, and its importance is growing.”
“Technically, it is possible to build Trans-Caspian Pipeline as I was told by businessmen from different countries,” said Lahue, adding that the politics is lining up the way that it is eventually going to happen....
“What NATO will be able to do is to pull partners looking for protection of critical energy infrastructure and in that way, we can help facilitate trainings, education for the national organizations working in this sphere for protection of infrastructure,” said Lahue.
Romanian and Georgian soldiers practice clearing a room during NATO exercises in Georgia. (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
NATO militaries wrapped up joint exercises in Georgia this week, as the alliance tries to strengthen its position in the Caucasus as a counterweight to Russia, and Tbilisi tries to leverage NATO's newly sharpened confrontation with Russia to achieve its long-held goal of membership in the alliance.
The exercise, Agile Spirit, involved about 250 soldiers from Bulgaria, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. It was the first NATO exercise held at the Vaziani base outside Tbilisi as a result of the decision, made at last year's NATO summit in Wales, to open a training base in Georgia. (Exercises named Agile Spirit have been held in Georgia in the past, but those were bilateral U.S.-Georgia exercises; those now have a new name. Noble Partner.)
The exercises took place in an atmosphere of heightened tension between Russia and Georgia; while the exercises were going on the former moved the border a bit in a possible attempt to provoke the latter or at least to visibly throw its weight around.
Russia announced this week that it has formally cut off the transit of NATO military cargo through Russian territory. But in theory, Moscow remains open to cooperation on Afghanistan: it annulled the agreement only after NATO quietly allowed the agreement to lapse after the formal combat mission in Afghanistan ended at the end of 2014. And the comparable military transit agreement with the United States remains in effect, though the Pentagon isn't currently using Russian territory for its Afghan transit.
On May 18, the Russian government announced that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had signed a decree annulling the NATO transit agreement. Russia has allowed NATO countries to transport equipment to Afghanistan since 2008, and even allowed NATO to set up a controversial logistics facility in Ulyanovsk in 2012, though the latter, in the end, was rarely used.
In general, the transit routes through the former Soviet Union -- collectively known as the Northern Distribution Network -- have declined in significance over the last few years. The main reason is that Pakistan, which offers a much closer route to the sea from Afghanistan, has become a more reliable partner, making it a much more economical option and Russia and the rest of the NDN effectively a backup.
As NATO officials gathered last week in the Turkish beach city of Antalya, Turkish officials used the occasion to make unusually strong commitments affirming their support of the alliance in its growing conflict with Russia.
Turkey announced that it would head the alliance's new Spearhead Force in 2021. Plans for the Spearhead Force, a rapid reaction unit staffed from NATO member militaries, were drawn up last year explicitly to combat potential Russian attempts to destabilize NATO countries.
In remarks at the meeting, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Cavusoglu explicitly criticized Russian policy in the region. AFP reported that Cavusoglu said "Ankara was prepared to play a 'constructive role' in the disputes between Russia and the West over Ukraine. But he said: 'Nothing can justify what Russia has been doing in its neighbourhood.... Ukraine. Crimea. Georgia.'"
And Cavusoglu also called for the next NATO summit in Warsaw in 2016 to accept new members. "We favour NATO expansion. Currently we have four candidate countries – Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Georgia. And we would like to see the 2016 Summit aimed at expansion,” he said.
U.S. Army vehicles and soldiers arrive in Georgia for joint military exercises Noble Partner. The heavy equipment was ferried from Bulgaria across the Black Sea. (photos: U.S. Army)
The United States Army is conducting first-of-their-kind joint military exercises in Georgia to train for NATO rapid-response missions.
While the U.S. and Georgia have conducted plenty of joint military exercises befofe, this one will be the "most robust" one to date, according to Pentagon officials. One innovation: the U.S. shipped 14 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles across the Black Sea from Bulgaria to Georgia, along with several other support vehicles. While U.S. military officials reportedly thought that the presence of Bradleys on the Black Sea "might provoke a reaction by the Kremlin," so far that doesn't seem to have happened. (One also wonders whether they crossed paths with the two Chinese frigates now in the Black Sea.)
"This is the first time that the U.S. Army has deployed a mechanized company worth of equipment across the Black Sea," the U.S. Army said in a press release. As the old military cliche goes, amateurs talk about strategy, professionals talk about logistics. "[This] movement from Varna, Bulgaria, across the Black Sea to the port of Batumi in Georgia, opens new avenues for transport with partner nations. Expanding freedom of movement enables easier access to training with allies as well as responding quickly to contingency operations," said one American logistics officer, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Mark Shawen.
U.S. Marines and Georgian soldiers conduct joint military exercises in 2014 at the Vaziani military base. (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
NATO appears to have settled on a site for its planned training facility in Georgia, where the alliance plans to start conducting military exercises by the end of this year.
NATO's Deputy Secretary General, Alexander Vershbow, wrote in a letter to Georgian Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze that the alliance favors the Vaziani military base, about 20 kilometers outside the capital, Tbilisi, in the vicinity of the international airport.
"From my point of view, Vaziani military base is a strong candidate for locating a joint training and assessment centre,” Vershbow wrote in the letter, reported agenda.ge. Vershbow further "expresses hope that the Georgian side will make a decision about the training centre’s location together with NATO experts in the near future," agenda.ge wrote.
Vaziani is a former Soviet base that remained in the hands of the Russian military until 2001. Russia bombed it during the 2008 war with Georgia over the breakaway territory of South Ossetia.
All things considered Russia has responded with relative equanimity to the news of the new NATO facility in Georgia. But Moscow naturally objects; Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained last month in a meeting with his de facto South Ossetian counterpart David Sanakoyev about “the non-stop process to drag Georgia into NATO... Naturally, if these measures start to take practical shape – evidently, this process has already begun – we will take measures to prevent negative effects of these developments."
Just days after Turkey's defense minister said that its new, controversial air defense system would not be integrated with NATO's, the president's spokesman openly contradicted him.
"As one of the most important countries in NATO's security line, we will definitely ensure this integration and harmony," said Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Kalin did not address the other recent plot twist in this long-running saga -- that Ankara's decision on whether to continue as planned with a Chinese system, or instead switch to a Western one, would be based on how the bidding countries mark the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
But his statement does -- again -- make it appear likely that Ankara will eventually reverse course and decide to go with a Western, NATO-compatible system. NATO officials have repeatedly argued that they could not integrate a Chinese system into their own for security purposes, and failing to integrate NATO's system would be a big handicap for Turkey. By not integrating with NATO "Turkey will lose half of its radar capabilities,” one unnamed defense analyst told Hurriyet Daily News.
Turkey analyst Aaron Stein notes that Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz, whose remarks initially set all this off, may not know what he's talking about, and in any case the decision is not going to be made in the defense industry but in the presidential palace.