A U.S. warship launches Tomahawk missiles against targets in Syria on April 7. The strikes have been seen in the Caucasus as a sign of the Trump administration's resolve to stand up to Russia. (photo: U.S. Department of Defense)
The United States missile strikes on Syria have gladdened pro-Western hearts among in the Caucasus, where they have been seen as a sign that the new Trump administration is willing to act tough against Russia.
“I think what happened April 7 in Syria, the launching of the Tomahawk missiles, changed the situation very dramatically," said David Shahnazaryan, a senior analyst at the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center and a former senior Armenian security official. "The Kremlin now must be much more careful. Maybe this will slow down, a little bit, the possibility of another war" in the Caucasus, he said.
Shahnazaryan was speaking at the South Caucasus Security Forum, held April 20-21 in Tbilisi, a gathering of Atlanticist foreign policy wonks from around the region. The uncertain foreign policy of the Trump administration was, naturally, a running theme throughout the event. And if there had been any worries that Trump might be soft on Russia, the Syrian missile strikes appear to have dispelled them.
“We saw how lost and how frightened Russians were" after the strikes, said Nodar Kharshiladze, the founder of the Georgian Strategic Analysis Centre and a former deputy minister of both defense and internal affairs. "Yes, they [the Russians] will come up with something nasty, but the initial reaction, they were very confused, they simply didn't know what to do. That shows that, when it's done properly, deterrence works very well. They recognize force when they see it, and they recognize weakness when they see it.”
Another speaker, former Georgian ambassador to Washington Batu Kutelia, even saw traces of legendary cold warrior Ronald Reagan in Trump's emerging foreign policy. (This is high praise in Tbilisi, which features the only statue to Reagan in the former Soviet Union.)
Sailors from Kazakhstan and Iran at a welcoming event for a flotilla of Iranian warships to Kazakhstan. (Photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Iran's navy has made its first formal visit to Kazakhstan as Tehran continues to slowly build military ties with its Caspian neighbors.
Two Iranian warships, the destroyer Damavand and corvette Paykan, berthed at Kazakhstan's Caspian port of Aktau on April 12. It is the Iranian navy's first such visit to Kazakhstan, and follows 2015's first-ever visit to Azerbaijan. Iranian warships have made at least three visits to Russia's Caspian coast, the first in 2013 and the most recent in March.
In Aktau, the Iranians were greeted by the rocket-artillery ship Saryarka; the two sides will exchange visits to one another's ships and take part in some sort of joint exercise.
"The aim of the visit is the establishment of cooperation between the navies of the two countries, the role of which is significantly rising amid the need to ensure regional security, in particular in the Caspian Sea," the Kazakhstan Ministry of Defense said in a statement.
"The Iranian Navy's flotilla ... is slated to convey Iran's message of peace and friendship to Kazakhstan," Iran's Fars News Agency reported.
The area around the Emba missile test site in Kazakhstan, which Kazakhstan is taking over from the Russian military. (image: Google Maps)
Kazakhstan has shut down another Russian military testing site, as it steadily removes Moscow's Soviet-legacy military footprint.
On April 5, President Nursultan Nazarbayev ratified an agreement to take over the Emba missile testing site, in the Aktobe region of western Kazakhstan, from Russia.
When the agreement was first signed in October, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoliy Antonov presented it as just a bit of housekeeping: "After all, the weapons and equipment that are tested at these facilities, protect not only Russia, but Kazakhstan as well," he said. He described the move as an "optimization" of the use of Kazakhstan's land by the Russian military.
But there is an unmistakeable trend: in 2015 Kazakhstan got Russia to hand over another missile testing site in western Kazakhstan, Taysogan; in 2014 it got Russia to agree to the joint usage of another site, Balkhash, which had previously only been used by Russia. Astana also has gotten Moscow to cede more control over the Baikonur space launch facility. Russia now operates only three test facilities in Kazakhstan.
At a Kazakhstan parliamentary hearing last year, MPs complained that Russia was paying a pittance for the use of the various test sites it operates, about $24 million.
"I think that price is very low," MP Kuanysh Aitakhanov said at the time. "In theory, it should be no less than the price of the land that Kazakhs use for agriculture. Farmers pay 2,000 tenge per hectare to rent a plot, while Russia just 424 tenge. How is that possible? After all, in the current crisis Kazakhstan could be getting tens of billions in profit for this rent."
Nursultan Nazarbayev and Ilham Aliyev, the presidents of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, respectively, at an April 3 press conference in Baku. (photo: president.az)
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev traveled across the Caspian on an official visit to Azerbaijan, where the agenda focused on trade. The dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, meanwhile, loomed large, albeit behind the scenes.
Nazarbayev was supposed to visit Baku last October, and on the same trip go to the summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Yerevan. But he canceled, citing illness, though many suspected that he in fact skipped the whole thing in order not to have to go to Yerevan. And it's telling that this time around, he went only to Baku with no visit to Yerevan on the horizon.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev warmly welcomed Nazarbayev on April 3, calling him a "dear friend" of Azerbaijan and praising Kazakhstan as a "brotherly" country. At the same time, Kazakhstan is increasingly seen in Yerevan as hostile to Armenia, which is awkward as Armenia and Kazakhstan are supposed to be treaty allies in the CSTO. And there is an ongoing drama about a change of leadership in the CSTO: the organization has promised that the next secretary general will be an Armenian, but many Armenians have accused Kazakhstan (along with Belarus) of doing Azerbaijan's bidding by blocking that move.
At a joint appearance, Aliyev suggested that Kazakhstan had signed on to its version of the Karabakh conflict -- that it should be resolved on the principle of the inviolability of borders. "These basic points are reflected in the declaration that we signed today," he said. "This is another sign of the principled position of Kazakhstan on the resolution of the conflict." (The declaration was not made public.)
The United States has stepped up its trainings of elite military units in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Azerbaijan over the last two years, U.S. government records show. At the same time, the U.S. has suspended training of units from Kyrgyzstan, previously one of the biggest recipients of such aid.
The United States and Romanian navies practiced storming the beaches of the Black Sea, a relatively rare example of practicing an attack in the region that Russia considers its own and where it increasingly feels under siege.
The USS Carter Hall, an amphibious dock landing ship, exited the Black Sea on March 22 after taking part in the exercises, Spring Storm 2017. U.S. or NATO exercises in the Black Sea have become fairly dog-bites-man news -- and NATO has promised to conduct them even more frequently -- but these are novel in that they are practicing an explicitly offensive scenario.
The U.S. Navy didn't say much about the goals of the exercises, except that they were " to enhance tactical unit and staff interoperability between Romanian and U.S. naval forces." But images and video of the exercise depicted U.S. Marines and Romanian troops storming the beach with amphibious armored vehicles and hovercraft known as LCACs, Landing Craft Air Cushion. They were accompanied by air support.
"We're going to conduct an assault from ship to shore and attack their position," explained one unidentified Marine in the video.
Russia has been relatively quiet officially about these particular exercises, particularly considering their potentially provocative scenario. "Of course we're following them and we're ready for any developments," one anonymous source in Russia's Black Sea Fleet told Pravda.
An hour into an interview, Eynulla Fatullayev pulls out a cigarette and – making sure the interviewer does not mind – lights up. Azerbaijan has laws prohibiting smoking in offices, but Fatullayev says with a laugh, “We’re journalists – the law isn’t for us.”
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev at a 2014 ceremony inaugurating the Southern Gas Corridor. The project is a linchpin of the country's long-term economic strategy, but it's future has become less certain now that Azerbaijan has dropped out of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. (photo: president.az)
Azerbaijan has decided to leave the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) after being suspended by the group for failure to meet the EITI board's demands to ease restrictions on civil society groups.
The dramatic move by Baku will force international financial institutions into a difficult choice: either abide by their promises to condition financial support on the human rights guarantees of the EITI, or put geopolitically important energy projects at risk.
At an EITI meeting in October, the group's board of directors said that Azerbaijan would have to carry out a number of reforms over the following four months in order to avoid suspension from the group.
On March 9, after another board meeting, the EITI said that Azerbaijan's progress had been unsatisfactory and that it would be suspended: "While the Board welcomed that Azerbaijan had taken further steps to meet the EITI Standard, it was assessed not to have fully met the corrective actions related to civil society space set by the Board in October."
Shortly afterwards, the State Oil Fund of the Republic of Azerbaijan issued a statement calling the EITI's move "unfair" and that it was dropping out of the initiative. The statement suggested that the EITI had shifted the goalposts by expanding its demands from transparency in the energy sector: "The irrelevant facts introduced by different advocacy groups on various occasions show that the Initiative failed to stick to its original mission and objectives." The statement continued:
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a speech last October in Rize, less than 100 miles from the Georgian border, to justify Turkey’s military actions in Syria and Iraq. During the address, he evoked the Ottoman Empire, arguing that Ankara’s interests coincide, at least emotionally, with those of the Golden Porte.
A Georgian coast guard vessel at its base in Poti. (photo: Ministry of Internal Affairs.)
When NATO officials announced last month that they were planning to increase the alliance's presence on the Black Sea, they noted that the details of what that would look like are still being worked out. Since then, Georgia and Ukraine have offered creative solutions about how they might chip in -- with NATO's help, of course.
The Black Sea has become one of the most dynamic sites of confrontation between Russia and NATO since Russia's annexation of Crimea, with both sides substantially stepping up their military activities in, around, and over the sea. But one limitation to an expanded NATO presence in the sea is the Montreux Convention, the 1936 international agreement that regulates the use of the Bosphorus straits. It restricts the presence of warships from non-littoral states to 21 days in the Black Sea. That affects all NATO countries other than Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey. But NATO aspirant Georgia had one idea.
"One of the possibilities for strengthening the capabilities of NATO in the Black Sea is frequent visits of alliance warships, but there is a restraining factor here -- the Montreux Convention," said Brigadier General Vladimir Chachibaia, Georgia's chief of general staff. "One possibility is if NATO helps Georgia and Ukraine strengthen their military fleets, which costs a lot of money. Or, for example, create a coast guard base on Georgia's coast." He suggested that such a base could be "near Poti -- a port with strategic significance."