Russian President Vladimir Putin has modestly understated the number of military bases that Russia operates outside its borders, apparently forgetting about the several bases Russia has in the Caucasus and elsewhere.
In his big annual press conference on December 18, the BBC's John Simpson asked Putin about the breakout of a "new Cold War" and Russia's aggressive moves around its Western borders. Putin said that it was in fact the West who was aggressive:
We have basically only two bases abroad, and those are in terroristically dangerous directions: in Kyrgyzstan after militants from Afghanistan entered that country, at the reqyest of the Kyrgyz authorities, then President Akayev, and in Tajikistan -- also on the border with Afghanistan. I think you also would be interested in everything being stable there, too.
American bases are all over the globe. And you want to say that we're acting aggressively? Does that make sense? What are American armed forces, including tactical nuclear weapons, doing in Europe? What are they doing there?
Georgian Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze sees off troops on their way to Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. (photo: MoD Georgia)
The Georgian armed forces have begun their new mission in northern Afghanistan, serving as the rapid-reaction force under German command in Mazar-e-Sharif.
A reconnaissance company totaling about 170 soldiers was sent off at a ceremony in Georgia December 16. It will take part in NATO's new Resolute Support mission, which is set to formally begin on January 1. While the mission will no longer be oriented toward combat, the rapid-reaction forces will be there to protect coalition troops.
And so Georgia, again, has taken on one of the "tip-of-the-spear" (as the U.S. military might put it) roles in Afghanistan. For four years Georgian troops conducted combat missions in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold. Now, in addition to the company in Mazar-e-Sharif (where they'll be serving alongside neighbors Armenia), a Georgian battalion has been deployed to Bagram since November, under U.S. command, guarding the base there.
Georgia will have a total of 750 soldiers serving in Resolute Support, remaining the largest non-NATO contributor of troops to Afghanistan. The send-off ceremony was attended by Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze, as well as representatives from NATO and the German armed forces.
Echoing a string of Georgian officials across several changes of government, Janelidze explicitly tied Georgia's contribution in Afghanistan to its aspirations to join NATO.
The United States Congress has passed a bill authorizing lethal military aid to Ukraine and additional sanctions on Russia, as well as additional measures to support Georgia and Moldova. It declined, however, to give Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine "major non-NATO ally status," which would have made it easier for those countries to get American military equipment.
The bill, the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014, passed both houses of Congress on December 13. It would apply sanctions to Rosoboronexport, the major state arms exporter, or any other country deemed to be involved in transferring weapons to Syria, or "Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova; and ... any other country designated by the President as a country of significant concern ... such as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and the Central Asia republics" against the will of the "internationally recognized governments" of those countries.
It also calls for sanctions if the Russian state gas company Gazprom withholds gas from those countries and "prioritizes" broadcasting into Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova by the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
“This legislation sends a very direct message to President [Vladimir] Putin who must change his calculus in Ukraine and abandon this disruptive path,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez.
Russian President Vladimir Putin discusses weapons sales with his Uzbekistan counterpart Islam Karimov. (photo: Kremlin)
Uzbekistan appears to be increasingly relying on Russia for military equipment as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan without -- as Tashkent had hoped -- handing over some of its secondhand gear.
During Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Tashkent this week, the big news was that Russia would forgive almost $1 billion of Uzbekistan's debt in order to free up new credits for Uzbekistan to buy Russian military equipment.
What equipment might be under consideration isn't yet known, but Interfax suggested that "because of the existing security threats in Uzbekistan, the country may be interested in purchasing helicopters, armoured vehicles, air-defence weapons and small arms made in Russia." Information about arms purchases by Uzbekistan are very hard to come by; the think tank SIPRI, the most authoritative source on arms sales around the world, doesn't list Uzbekistan as having bought anything in the last 12 years.
An anonymous source "close to the Russian delegation" told Deutsche Welle's Russian service that "during the negotiations in Tashkent the expansion of military-technical cooperation was discussed by the delegations in detail." And part of the reason, the source said, is that Uzbekistan isn't getting what it hoped for from the U.S.:
A mysterious explosion on a pipeline in Turkey just before the Georgia-Russia war broke out in 2008 may have been a Russian cyberattack, a new investigation argues, citing United States intelligence officials.
According to the investigation, by Bloomberg, the explosion on August 5, 2008, at Refahiye in eastern Turkey, was the result of a hack on the computers managing the pipeline. Surveillance footage captured two men in "black military-style uniforms without insignias, similar to the garb worn by special forces troops," shortly before the explosion. Software planted in the pipeline system shut down alarms and raised the pressure in the pipeline to such a high level that it exploded, four western intelligence officials told the agency.
The connection to Russia is solely circumstantial. "U.S. intelligence agencies believe the Russian government was behind the Refahiye explosion, according to two of the people briefed on the investigation. The evidence is circumstantial, they said, based on the possible motive and the level of sophistication."
Russia certainly has the means to carry out such an attack, as well as the motive. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, carrying oil from the Caspian Sea to Turkey's Mediterranean coast, was the greatest geopolitical victory by the U.S. in post-Cold War Eurasia, breaking Russia's monopoly on energy exports from the Caspian. And U.S. intelligence officials appear to be thinking that way:
The chief suspect, according to U.S. intelligence officials, is Russia.
A Russian pilot and his Su-25SM, newly relocated to the Kant air base in Kyrgyzstan. (photo: mil.ru)
Russia has reinforced its air base in Kyrgyzstan with five new aircraft, as Russian officials said the base's role would "only increase" in light of the Western military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
On December 8, Russia transferred five Su-25SM close air support/ground attack jets to the Kant base, outside Bishkek. This would appear to be the reinforcement that Russia promised, in October 2013, to have carried out by December of that year.
In spite of the delay, it would appear that Russia is advancing in its effort to turn Kant into the Central Asian base for the nascent joint air forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Ahead of the transfer the commander of Russia's Central Military District, Vladimir Zarudnitskiy, met with the chief of general staff of Kyrgyzstan's armed forces, General-Major Asanbek Alymkozhoyev.
The two "discussed regional security in light of the withdrawal of NATO coalition forces from Afghanistan. The sides agreed that the role of the Kant base in the region would only grow," according to a Russian military release.
Russia has been carrying out technical upgrades like renovating the runway at Kant for the last several years. In October, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu connected the upgrades at Kant to a general buildup of Russian forces in CSTO countries. “We keep developing our bases abroad: in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Armenia. We are developing them rather actively,” Shoigu said.
Senior United States diplomats have visited Tashkent for their regular consultations with the government of Uzbekistan, and in spite of continuing tension over Afghanistan and human rights, the Americans were unusually positive in their assessment of ties with Uzbekistan.
"Had a very productive meeting with President Karimov on the growing bilateral relationship and cooperation on regional and global challenges," tweeted Nisha Biswal, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia. "Very impressed by the candid conversations with govt of Uzbekistan and civil society on subject of prison management and prison conditions," she added later. The delegation included 22 American officials from seven different government agencies.
Interestingly, in her public remarks Biswal appeared to have not uttered the words "human rights." The U.S. government has come under frequent criticism from human rights groups for overlooking the country's appalling record on human rights for the sake of strategic considerations. But U.S. officials nearly always meet with human rights activists when they visit the country, and at least mention the issue of human rights in their public statements. (Also unusually, while Biswal held a press conference in Tashkent the transcript wasn't released. The State Department didn't respond to a request for comment.)
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and NATO Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia James Appathurai meet in Tbilisi. (photo: Georgian Ministry of Defense)
NATO officials are in Georgia doing the preliminary work to set up a training facility, an official from the alliance said on a visit to Tbilisi.
The establishment of the joint training facility, announced in September, was the main component of the "substantial package" that NATO had long promised Georgia for continuing to be a good ally. James Appathurai, NATO's special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, was in Tbilisi this week meeting with officials including Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili to discuss the implementation of the package.
“We welcome very much the speed with which Georgia has been working to define this new joint training center,” Appathurai said, according to Civil.ge, and he added that NATO defense planning experts are already in Georgia, working closely with the Georgian colleagues on this issue.
"NATO is already participating very actively and we are already identifying the people who will be coming in here, defining where the joint training center will be – that’s a Georgian decision of course, hopefully we can define it together," Appathurai said. "There will be further high-level visits to focus on implementation.”
Appathurai's visit followed a visit two weeks ago by Garibashvili to NATO headquarters in Brussels, where NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that the package will "move Georgia closer to NATO":
Russia's Grad Slavyansk corvette, to be used for the first time in joint exercises on the Caspian Sea next year. (photo: mil.ru)
The Caspian Sea will see its first -- and probably the world's first -- naval biathlon next summer, with all five littoral states taking part, the Russian Defense Ministry has announced.
The naval biathlon appears to be a spin-off of the tank biathlon that Russia inaugurated in 2013 and expanded into a blockbuster event this year. And the principle will be the same, with ships racing and shooting at targets. Missing a target will result in a penalty lap.
"Such a naval competition is unparalleled in the world," said Russian Caspian Flotilla Commander, Captain 1st Class Ildar Akhmerov, according to TASS.
Each country will compete with one ship and one reserve vessel. Armored personnel carriers will also be part of the competition (it's not clear how) and there will be an athletic portion of the contest, as well, with sailors competing in rowing, weightlifting, swimming, and tug-of-war. The competition will take place over several months, starting in March and ending in August.
Also not yet clear: which ships will be used and what they will shoot with. The naval capabilities of the five countries on the Caspian -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- vary widely. In the tank biathlon almost all participating countries used Russian-provided tanks, but that wouldn't seem to be a workable solution here; it's unlikely the Russian navy would just hand over the keys of one of its ships to Turkmenistan, for example.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signs the book at the mausoleum of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Monday. And while the two are often seen as having much in common -- perhaps the two world leaders making the most ambitious efforts to challenge the global dominance of the West -- Putin's Ankara visit illustrated how far apart the two countries still remain.
The visit was especially intriguing since Putin, in the wake of the crisis over Ukraine and the collapse in relations with Europe and the United States, is eagerly seeking non-Western allies. And Erdogan, too, has flirted with his own turns to the East.
In an interview with Turkish state news agency Anadolu ahead of his visit, Putin alluded to that coalition-of-the-unwilling affinity: "We highly value independent decisions by Turkey, including on economic cooperation with Russia," he said, in a clear reference to Western sanctions which Turkey has not joined. "Our Turkish partners refused to sacrifice their interests for somebody else's political ambitions. I consider that to be a really well-weighed and far‑sighted policy."
But unlike Putin's recent visit to China, where his hosts at least pretended to treat Putin like an ally, in Turkey his visit was greeted by protesters, and Erdogan publicly criticized Russia's position on Syria and on the Crimean Tatars.