President-elect Donald Trump's nominees for his top foreign policy, defense, and intelligence posts testified before Congress this week, and expressed hardline positions on Russia that contrast markedly with their boss's more ambiguous opinions.
Trump's views on Russia, NATO, and associated issues have received substantial scrutiny, given that they are fairly far from the mainstream in Washington. But other than a personal admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a skepticism -- supposedly rooted in his busisnessman's dealmaking instincts -- of the U.S.'s alliances, Trump hasn't been very detailed about what he will actually do when in power.
So the Senate confirmation hearings for Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, and Mike Pompeo -- to head the State Department, Pentagon, and CIA, respectively -- were highly anticipated events, as senators can grill Trump's lieutenants in detail about the administration's foreign policy direction.
And what emerged was that their opinions on Russia and its neighborhood are far more conventional than their boss's. All described Russia as a threat rather than as a partner (as Trump has), expressed trust in the U.S.'s allies (Trump has suggested they weigh the U.S. down), and said they took seriously allegations that Russia meddled in the presidential elections (Trump has repeatedly played down the accusations).
Of particular interest was Tillerson's testimony: as CEO of Exxon/Mobil he had done substantial business in Russia, worked personally with Putin, and got the Order of Friendship award from Russia. All that made many in the U.S. and Russia suspect that he may be a pro-Russia voice in the administration.
The gate at Tajikistan's Ayni air base. (photo: The Bug Pit)
Russia is seeking to expand its military presence in Tajikistan by renting the Ayni airbase, Moscow's ambassador to Dushanbe has said.
Tajikistan already hosts the 201st military base, Russia's largest base outside its borders, but the base "needs an air component," said Igor Lyakin-Frolov at a December 27 news conference in Dushanbe. Russia is currently in talks with Tajikistan about the base, which lies on the outskirts of Dushanbe, Lyakin-Frolov added.
Russian media reported in 2013 that Moscow had started negotiations with Dushanbe over the base. "Signing of an additional agreement on the Ayni air force base, which Moscow also intends to rent and to consider part of the 201st military base, is expected," Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported at the time, citing unnamed officials, though that apparently went nowhere. That Lyakin-Frolov said this on the record gives it a bit more credibility, but the recent history of Ayni has featured a lot of disappointed expectations.
In the 2000s India renovated the base at a cost of $70 million, obviously intending to use it themselves, but that never came to pass, as by 2010 Russia had apparently thwarted India's designs. The Indian press still consistently promotes Ayni as India's military foothold in Central Asia, though Delhi officially seems to have given up.
Heads of state of CSTO member countries meet at a summit in St. Petersburg. There was a bit more room at the table than planned as Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko skipped the event. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Dissension among the nominal allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led post-Soviet security bloc, continued to deepen at this week's summit, where Belarus was conspicuously absent and accusations were raised of a conspiracy against Armenia.
The CSTO summit was held in St. Petersburg on December 26, and the big news was that Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko was absent. Lukashenko gave no public explanation for his absence though Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitriy Peskov, played it down saying that "our Belarussian colleagues warned us that Lukashenko may not be able to take part in the summit."
There were two potential explanations for Lukashenko's move, not necessarily mutually exclusive. One was that it had to do with Russia-Belarus bilateral relations, and that this was just the latest expression of Lukashenko's discomfort with Russia's tight embrace. "This move seems to be yet another caprice by the Belarusian leader, demonstrating his attitude toward the integration projects that Russia is trying to create in the post-Soviet space," said Bogdan Bezpalko, the deputy head of the Center for Ukrainian and Belarusian studies at Moscow State University. (The CSTO summit was held concurrently with one of the Eurasian Economic Union, the Russia-led economic bloc; the rosters of the two organizations substantially overlap.)
The Iron Dome air defense system in action in Israel. (photo: Israeli Defense Forces)
Azerbaijan has reached a deal with Israel to buy the Iron Dome air defense system, a senior Azerbaijani government official has announced. But questions remain over how useful the celebrated system really is for Azerbaijan and whether it would be worth the cost.
Over the last couple of months, there have been a number of reports that a deal like this was in the works, and last month this blog featured a post on how those reports probably weren't true. There are technical reasons that the Iron Dome won't do what Azerbaijan wants. And the state-of-the-art system would be a budget buster for Azerbaijan, which has been forced by falling oil prices to slash expenditures, not least on the military.
But on December 17, the Minister of Defense Industry Yaver Jamalov gave a press conference and announced that the deal had been made. "The Azerbaijani Defense Industry Ministry and the relevant Israeli body have reached the agreement on procurement of the Israeli Iron Dome air defense system," Jamalov said.
Soldiers from Kazakhstan take part in the opening ceremony of "Cooperation-2016," the CSTO military exercises taking part near the borders of Estonia and Latvia. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Russia will try to enlist its post-Soviet allies in shoring up its western border against NATO, a senior security official has said. Those allies, however, have shown little interest in getting dragged into Russia's fight with the West, setting the stage for a rupture between Moscow and its ostensible partners.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led military alliance, will discuss how to respond to NATO's buildup in Eastern Europe at its next summit, scheduled for December 26. That's according to Nikolay Bordyuzha, the CSTO's general secretary, in an interview with Russian newspaper Izvestiya.
"We should understand precisely what is happening around our borders, why NATO is bringing in weapons, creating infrastructure," Boryuzha said. "It's transferring an additional four battalions [toward Russia's borders], why are they doing this? And how is the security situation changing in general? How to react, so as to not be too late... This is what the conversation will be about. We shouldn't be quiet and do nothing, seeing how the countries around us are crammed with weapons, units are being deployed."
It's not clear what response Bordyuzha had in mind, as he said it would not entail a military buildup. "We have sufficient forces," he said.
It's also not possible to tell how out of context these statements are, and how high a priority NATO will in fact be for the CSTO. But it's also perhaps telling that on the same day that Bordyuzha's interview was published, the CSTO's own website republished another article from a Russian news website -- a rare thing to see on the CSTO site -- headlined "Is the CSTO Turning Into a NATO Opponent?"
The defense ministers of Russia and Tajikistan, Sergey Shoigu and Sherali Mirzo, respectively, sign a military aid agreement in Moscow. (photo: mil.ru)
Russia has promised a "large quantity" of military aircraft to Tajikistan over the next year. The aid is part of a deal that the two countries signed in 2012, but which has taken on more urgency since Moscow began worrying about China's military/diplomatic advances in Tajikistan.
The deal was announced on November 30 at a meeting of defense ministers of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow.
“Next year the key phase of our military-technical cooperation will begin, the delivery of weaponry and military equipment,” said Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said after a meeting with his Tajikistan counterpart, Sherali Mirzo. “In particular, this is a large quantity of aviation equipment, airplanes and helicopters. I think this will be implemented according to plan and on schedule.”
Shoigu didn't provide any additional information about the aircraft. On December 2, the newspaper Asia Plus, citing an unnamed Tajikistan defense ministry source, said that all of the equipment would be new, not used. And it wouldn't be only aircraft. “The forthcoming Russia’s armament supplies to Tajikistan will include a large number of aviation equipment, including combat aircraft, as well as armored vehicles and communication means,” the source said.
Michael Flynn, then director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testifies before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in 2014. (photo: DIA)
President-elect Donald Trump's top national security adviser has expressed a variety of contradictory opinions about affairs in the former Soviet Union, making it difficult to assess what policies the next White House administration may pursue in the region.
Trump has appointed Michael Flynn, a retired three-star general and former top intelligence official, as his national security adviser. Flynn has been Trump's closest foreign policy adviser since early in the presidential campaign. Other key posts like the heads of the Pentagon and State Department have yet to be named, but Flynn seems to enjoy a high level of Trump's trust and appears likely to be the most influential White House voice on foreign policy.
Flynn, as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012-4, was obliged to give an annual tour d'horizon of the perceived military threats to the U.S., but these tended to reflect Washington conventional wisdom. After being fired from that job, an unleashed Flynn became significantly more extreme -- and erratic -- in his views.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Collective Security Treaty Organization meets November 24 in St Petersburg. (photo: CSTO PA)
Armenia has blocked Pakistan from becoming an observer in the Collective Security Treaty Organization's parliamentary wing, the latest in a series of signs that Yerevan seeks to take a more assertive role in the Russia-led organization.
The CSTO Parliamentary Assembly is an association of mostly rubber-stamp parliaments to an organization that is mostly a shell of an alliance, so it doesn't often offer much drama.
But last week saw some rare conflict in the CSTO PA as it met for a session in St Petersburg. During the event, Armenia's representative submitted a formal letter opposing a proposal to allow Pakistan to join as an observer. As a result the question was removed from the agenda, the Armenian representative, Eduard Sharmazanov, told Sputnik Armenia.
Armenia and Pakistan have a long-standing dispute: Pakistan not only supports Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh, but goes so far as refusing to recognize Armenia's existence until it gives Karabakh back to Azerbaijan. "This position contradicts the approach both of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as well as of the CSTO," Sharmazanov said.
"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 Iron Dome air defense system in action in Israel. (photo: Israeli Defense Forces)
Azerbaijani officials and several media sources have reported that Baku is working on a deal with Israel to buy the "Iron Dome" air defense system. The deal would be a blockbuster, as the legendary Iron Dome is a state-of-the-art system that has dramatically reduced the number of rocket attacks on Israel but has yet to be exported anywhere else.
In spite of the widespread reports, Azerbaijan is highly unlikely to actually purchase the Iron Dome, a very costly system that is technically incapable of meeting Azerbaijan's needs. The prevalance of the reports, however, seems to speak to a continuing concern within Azerbaijan that its foe, Armenia, may have gained a step on it in the arms race.
Last month, Azerbaijani member of parliament Yedva Abramov reported that the Iron Dome was "ready for delivery" to Azerbaijan. Abramov said that the system would render ineffective the Iskander missiles that Armenia recently acquired from Russia. "This system will not allow the Iskander rockets to hit the ground," Abramov said.