Abdul Rashid Dostum and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu meet in Moscow. (photo: Dostum's facebook page)
After the Taliban took over the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, Russia has responded by taking a number of measures aimed at shoring up security in the region, strengthening both their own and partner armed forces.
Taliban forces seized Kunduz at the end of September, marking the first time the group has controlled a major city since being driven out of power in 2001. Afghan government forces retook the town days later, but the episode nevertheless highlighted the deteriorating security situation in the northern part of the country.
While the Taliban's goals still appear limited to Afghanistan's borders, their growing strength in the region has worried Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, which lie just over Afghanistan's northern border. And Russia, in spite of already being militarily engaged on multiple fronts, is trying to increase its engagement in Central Asia, as well.
First, Russia announced that it would bolster its military base in Tajikistan with a new air group and additional Mi-24P attack and Mi-8 MTV transport helicopters. (This announcement, incidentally, let us learn a little more about the murky situation around the Ayni air force base outside the capital of Dushanbe. Russia has reportedly been trying to gain control of the base, but this week the Tajikistan's Ministry of Defense issued a statement clarifying that they owned the base and were merely allowing Russia to use it.)
Screenshot of Russian MoD-produced video of strikes against Syrian targets fired from ships on the Caspian Sea.
Russian cruise missiles launched from ships on the Caspian Sea have struck targets inside Syria, adding a dramatic exclamation to what had been a slow, quiet militarization of the sea.
The strikes took place Monday and Tuesday and were announced with great fanfare on Wednesday, including comments from Russian President Vladimir Putin and a slickly produced video detailing the strike.
In total, 26 missiles were fired against 11 targets inside Syria from four ships from Russia's Caspian Flotilla. The 3M14 Kalibr missiles were used in combat for the first time, Russian defense industry sources told news site Lenta.ru. They flew over Iranian and Iraqi airspace en route to Syria, and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu emphasized that Russia had gotten permission beforehand from those "partners."
Putin's comments praised the soldiers and military staff involved the strikes, but also Russia's defense industry. "The fact that these strikes were carried out using high-precision weapons launched from the Caspian Sea’s waters, around 1,500 kilometres away, and all of the planned targets were destroyed is evidence of our defence industry’s good preparation," Putin said. The strikes, and the large amount of publicity they were given, likely served two interests: demonstrating the Russian military's ability to strike from a long distance, and demonstrating the ability of Russian weaponry -- a key element in Russia's strategy for economic recovery -- to carry out such strikes.
Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus, meets road workers at an event where he denied plans to allow a Russian air base in the country. (photo: president.gov.by)
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko spoke out strongly against the establishment of a Russian air base in his country, less than a month after Russian officials presented it as a done deal. The extensive comments throw a significant wrench into the negotiations over the base, which have been going on for at least two years.
Lukashenko faces an election Sunday and so he's on the hustings, and at a campaign event in Minsk he addressed the issue of the base. "Talks about establishing a Russian air base on the territory of Belarus have never been conducted," he said, addressing road workers at the opening of a new ring road in Minsk. "I don't know anything about it."
For others who haven't heard anything about the base, either: Russian officials have been publicly talking about it for two years. Russian President Vladimir Putin "signed an instruction on signing an agreement" between the two countries on the base on September 18. Some days before that, the Russian government published a draft of the base agreement that they said had been "preliminarily worked out" with Belarus.
Russia's allies need to get ready for peacekeeping missions because there are so many "hot spots" around the world, the head of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization said Saturday. But he added that he didn't see a need for the other CSTO members to get involved militarily in Syria -- yet.
"The situation is getting worse in every direction," said Nikolay Bordyuzha, the secretary general of the CSTO. "And in many existing 'hot spots' in the world it's today already clear that peacekeeping forces are needed. So working out practical military tasks of the Collective Peacekeeping Forces of the CSTO in military exercises is preparation for possible operations. I don't think they will be in the near future but in any case the CSTO needs to be ready to use its peacekeeping forces." Bordyuzha was speaking in Armenia at the conclusion of exercises of the organization's joint peacekeeping force.
Russian and CSTO officials have consistently said that the alliance will only deploy forces outside the CSTO area with a mandate from the UN Security Council. And it's difficult to fathom a circumstance when such a mandate might be granted, including in the current Syria crisis.
But Bordyuzha curiously seemed to want to leave the door open for the possibility that the other CSTO states -- Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- might somehow get involved in Syria.
Military transport aircraft lined up on the runway at Termez, Uzbekistan. (photo: Google Earth)
Germany's air base in Uzbekistan is now used only as a backup facility and is manned by a minimal crew, the German ambassador to Tashkent has said.
That news comes less than a year after Uzbekistan succeeded in raising the rent for the base to 35 million Euros a year, from a previous 10 to 15 million. Uzbekistan has operated the base, at Termez on the border with Afghanistan, since February 2002 as a rear logistics base for its military mission in Afghanistan.
"At the current time Termez serves primarily as a reserve airfield and isn't used actively," said Neithart Höfer-Wissing in an interview with news website ca-news.org. "All particpants were aware from the start that our deployment to Termez wouldn't last longer than the military presence of the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan." Germany's combat mission in Afghanistan ended in December 2014.
While the base has in the past been manned by around 300 German troops, it now is maintained only by "the core team," Höfer-Wissing said.
News on the German base is rare, and the last time we heard about it was in April, when German media reported that Uzbekistan was trying to raise the rent again, to 72.5 million Euros annually. Höfer-Wissing was asked about the terms of the current agreement, and he declined to comment. So is Germany paying 35 million Euros, or more, for a base it doesn't use?
The reported route of Russian military flights to Syria. (photo: twitter, @cencio4)
New flight-tracking data suggests that Russia is sending military equipment to Syria over the Caspian Sea, taking a lengthy detour to bypass the entire Caucasus isthmus. The circuitous route suggests that Moscow has failed to gain overflight permission from either Georgia or Azerbaijan in its new top foreign policy priority, the intervention in Syria.
The new data was reported by the blog The Aviationist citing the open-source flight-tracking website FlightRadar24. It suggests that Russia sent six Su-34 bomber aircraft to Syria via a route southward to the North Caucasus, veering to the east just north of Grozny and crossing into the airspace over the Caspian Sea north of Makhachkala. It then crosses the Caspian taking a route roughly parallel to the coastline of Azerbaijan, about 50 miles away. It then enters Iranian airspace roughly 50 miles south of the Azerbaijani border, the continues through Iraq before reaching Syria.
The United States had been trying to get countries in between Russia and Syria to block their airspace to Russian military flights, and succeeded in the case of Bulgaria, while Greece confirmed that they had gotten a similar request. If the U.S. has made any such requests to the Caucasus countries it hasn't been announced. Turkey, a firm opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- whom the Russian intervention seeks to prop up -- doesn't allow the flights of its own accord.
After Azerbaijani artillery fire killed three Armenian civilians last week, Armenia's defense ministry has threatened to escalate the conflict.
In a statement issued September 26, Yerevan said that "n order to quiet and deter the adversary, and thereby support the negotiation process, the Armed Forces of the Republic of Armenia will hereafter apply adequate artillery and rocket striking means, continuously targeting permanent deployment areas, military movements, military equipment and manpower."
The statement was prompted by the deaths of three Armenian women, and then the deaths of four Armenian soldiers, after artillery fire from the Azerbaijani side of the border. The shelling of civilian villages has been a relatively new development in the conflict.
Armenia's first statement after the civilian deaths criticized Azerbaijan for trying to scuttle potential upcoming talks between officials of the two countries in New York at this week's United Nations General Assembly: "The Azerbaijani side always resorts to provocative actions ahead of negotiations and meetings on resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and intentionally create tension."
That episode, however, was followed the next day by the deaths of four Armenian soldiers in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh. (The territory, de jure part of Azerbaijan, has de facto been controlled by Armenian forces since a war between the two countries in the early 1990s.)
Azerbaijani shelling killed three Armenian civilian women living near the border between the two countries, the highest one-day death toll of civilians in recent memory.
The victims, in the Tavush region in northeastern Armenia, were killed by mortar and gunfire the evening of September 24, the Armenian Defense Ministry said in a statement. Two of the women were elderly; one was 94 and another 83.
That death toll "is the most civilians killed in one day that I can recall since the cease-fire," said Emil Sanamyan, an Armenian journalist who keeps data on casualties in the conflict, in an interview with The Bug Pit. Civilian deaths in the conflict have been steadily increasing: according to Sanamyan's records, five Armenian civilians have been killed this year, while no Azerbaijani civilians have been killed. In 2014, those figures were six Armenians and two Azerbaijanis; in 2013 one Armenian and one Azerbaijani; and in 2012 no Armenians and one Azerbaijani.
In previous years, most of the civilian deaths have been the result of stepping on land mines; this mortar fire at villages is "something that's been rarely seen since 1994," Sanamyan said.
The presidents of both countries are scheduled to be in New York next week for the meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations, and there have been some reports that the two were planning to meet.
Tajikistan's defense minister has said that the country will conscript only "educated and healthy" young men into the army, which would be a remarkable turnaround for a military notorious for its violent press ganging of recruits.
The annual military recruitment season in Tajikistan is scheduled to start October 1, and Defense Minister Sherali Mirzo addressed MoD officials who are preparing for it, reported the newspaper Asia Plus. In his remarks, Mirzo saidthe number of conscripts exceeds "by many times" the needs of the armed forces, and "that allows us to conscript into the ranks only educated and healthy conscripts."
Selectivity has not been the hallmark of Tajikistan's military recruitment practices in the past. The country is notorious for press ganging recruits, violently kidnapping young men in order to fill the ranks of the underfunded military where conscripts serve two years in miserable conditions and subject to the extreme bullying endemic to the post-Soviet world.
The MoD press secretary, Faridun Makhmadaliyev, alluded to some "violations" in past conscription campaigns and said they aren't to be repeated. "It has been noted, that in previous conscription campaigns it was documented that some recruits were not correctly identified, some had unreliable medical examinations, there were corruption crimes." Recruiters, Makhmadaliyev added, were to "organize the coming fall conscription lawfully."
Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the final stage of the Center-2015 military exercise in Orenburg. (photo: Mod Russia)
Nearly 100,000 Russian soldiers have wrapped up the country's biggest military exercise of the year, practicing to "contain" a conflict in Central Asia.
The scenario of the exercise, said Colonel-General Vladimir Rudnitskiy, the commander of Russia's Central Military District, was the "containment of an international armed conflict in the Central Asian strategic direction."
But for an exercise supposedly oriented toward Central Asia, it included very little participation by Russia's Central Asian allies. The Russian Ministry of Defense, in its account of the exercise, repeatedly referred to the participants as "the armed forces of the member states of the Collective Security Treaty Organization," but the vast majority of the 95,000 soldiers who took part were Russian; the only other participant was Kazakhstan, which sent a handful of units. (The CSTO is a Russia-led military alliance also including Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.)
The exercise was called Center-2015, and the Center name has been in the past used for joint CSTO exercises; it's not clear why no other Central Asian states were involved this time.
In one evocative touch, Russian President Vladimir Putin watched the final stage of the exercise from Orenburg. Orenburg is best known as the garrison town from which the Russian empire conquered Central Asia in the 19th century.