While attention in Central Asia in late August was fixated on the looming leadership transition in Uzbekistan, another event with even greater potential to reshape the region occurred in Kyrgyzstan: an apparent suicide bomber attacked the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, killing himself and wounding at least three others.
The United States and Bulgaria will conduct joint air patrols for the first time under the NATO aegis, a new (albeit relatively mild) show of force by Washington in the Black Sea region.
The patrols will take place in mid-September, with two American F-15s patrolling alongside Bulgarian MiG-29s. “NATO takes its responsibility to ensure the safety and integrity of our airspace very seriously. This mission is a demonstration of solidarity and support for our ally Bulgaria,” NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow said in a statement.
Recall that earlier this month Russia deployed S-400 air defense systems to Crimea in order to deter what some Russian officials called NATO's "air hooligans." That, in turn, followed a statement made at NATO's July summit in NATO that it would implement "appropriate measures, tailored to the Black Sea region" and that "options for a strengthened NATO air and maritime presence will be assessed."
And just last week, Russian air, sea, and land forces took part in snap drills around the Black and Caspian seas, which focused on air defense.
Soldiers from CSTO member states practice carrying out a UN peacekeeping mission in Belarus. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Russia and its allies have for the first time carried out exercises simulating a United Nations peacekeeping mission, signaliing -- at least from Russia's side -- an expanded vision of how it and its allies might deploy in the future.
The five-day exercises, "Unbreakable Brotherhood 2016," took place in Belarus and ended Saturday. About 1,000 troops from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (which also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) took part.
This is the fifth iteration of these exercises, but the first which envisaged a UN peacekeeping scenario, and in a non-CSTO country at that. In the scenario, the UN has given the CSTO a mandate to send its peacekeeping units to the fictional country of Angoria, where ethnic conflict has broken out:
The Gorniks have bad relations with the Belnyaks as a result of the June 2016 parliamentary elections in Angoria, where the representatives of the Belnyaks got the majority of votes, unsanctioned rallies took place in large cities during which pogroms took place in Belnyak areas. In response, Belnyaks took to the street to demand that the government take measures to protect them. Interior Ministry units took measures to stabilize the situation. However these measures did not stabilize the situation in the country. Being unable to restore constitutional order in Angoria, the organs of government power completely lost control over the situation.
The Belnyak forces began to form self-defense units responding to the actions of the Gorniks. Armed clashes between the Gorniks and Belnyaks became more common. Streams of civilians who had abandoned their homes flowed to regions where armed conflict had not broken out.
A Russian soldier who killed six members of an Armenian family after deserting his military base has been found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. But questions remain over where he will serve his sentence, setting the stage for another conflict between the two allies over Russia's increasingly contentious military presence in Armenia.
The soldier, Valeriy Permyakov, wandered off the 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, Armenia's second city, last January 12, broke into the house of the Avetsiyan family and shot six of them to death. He was captured trying to cross the border into Turkey.
The case shocked Armenia and led to unprecedented protests in Gyumri and Yerevan against the Russian military presence in the country. The Russian presence is largely welcomed in Armenia, as protection against Turkey and Azerbaijan, but lately there has been increasing resentment of Russia's heavyhanded behavior in Armenia. Russia wanted to try Permyakov in a military court on the base, but the protests led Moscow to back down and allow him to be tried in an Armenian court.
Now the conflict could turn to where Permyakov serves his sentence. The judge, apparently contrary to standard procedure, declined to say where he would be sent. Some Armenian media reported that a deal is in the works to exchange Permyakov for an Armenian prisoner currently serving time in Russia.
A screenshot of a video released by the State Security Service of Georgia, showing the questioning of a suspect alleged to have plotted to blow up a gas pipeline between Russia and Armenia.
Georgia's security services have arrested five men they claim were planning to blow up a gas pipeline between Russia and Armenia, setting off speculation about who could have been behind the alleged plot.
The State Security Service of Georgia announced that it had broken up the plot and released a video showing the explosives they seized, the accused men being taken into custody and questioned, and schemes of the attempted plan. Two others were also arrested in connection with the plot, a police officer accused of "abuse of power" and someone accused of not reporting the plot.
So the question immediately became: who would want to blow up the pipeline? Taken together, Russia and Armenia -- the likely targets of the plot -- have plenty of foes. At a press conference, the authorities alluded to an intriguing Ukraine connection. From Civil.ge:
One of the journalists at the briefing asked the State Security Service official if the arrested men had “links to Ukraine” – the journalist said that his question was stemming from a post on a social media by one of the Georgian volunteer fighters in Ukraine, who wrote that their supporters had been arrested in Georgia.
An investigator from the State Security Service, Savle Motiashvili, responded: “According to available information, one of the arrested men was visiting Ukraine often, but it is not yet clear whether this criminal group was directed from Ukraine.”
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)
Russian military exercises near its western borders have become de rigeur over the last couple of years, as tension between Russia and NATO has spiked. But exercises that kicked off this week are novel in that Russia has brought along its allies from the Caucasus and Central Asia, which have for the most part sought to avoid getting drawn into Russia's conflict with the West.
The exercise kicked off August 16 in the Pskov oblast, which borders Estonia and Latvia. About 5,000 Russian soldiers are taking part, along with about 1,000 from the other countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
These exercises, under the rubric "Cooperation," are the annual cornerstone of the CSTO military exercise program. But there are some new twists this time. For the first time in the history of the exercises, Russia's ambassador to NATO Aleksandr Grushko is observing them. "Obviously, in the situation where NATO countries are pursuing a course of military containment of Russia, we have to undertake efforts to ensure that Russia's safety is secured," he said at a press conference there. "I'm sure that the NATO countries are carefully following" the CSTO exercises, he added. "The art of war is an extremely competitive field."
The Russian corvette Makhachkala, taking part in ongoing exercises -- and more? -- in the Caspian Sea. (photo: Russian MoD)
Russia asked Iran and Iraq for permission to to use their airspace for ballistic missiles against Syrian targets, apparently from the Caspian Sea, part of a new offensive against ISIS from the East.
"The Russian Defense Ministry last week sent a request to Iraq and Iran for the use of the airspace of these countries for the flight of ballistic missiles," a military source told the Russian news agency Interfax on Monday.
The request coincides with naval exercises, which also started Monday, of the Caspian Flotilla in the "southwest part of the sea," i.e. the part closest to Syria. "The plan of the exercises envisages testing the readiness of the forces of the Caspian Flotilla in resolving crisis situations presenting a threat to the military security of the country, including of a terrorist nature," the MoD said in a release.
Russia last year senttwo salvos of Kalibr cruise missiles against ISIS targets in Syria from ships in the Caspian Sea, the first ever combat use of those missiles and an unprecedented step in the militarization of the Caspian. The events caused some consternation among Russia's Caspian neighbors, most notably Kazakhstan, which rerouted flights across the sea and apparently complained behind the scenes.
Screenshot of a television ad, aired by Georgia's Centrist Party on state television, advocating for the legalization of Russian military bases in Georgia.
Geopolitics has taken center stage in Georgia's election campaign, with one party calling to legalize Russian military bases in the country, another calling for the constitution to enshrine Georgia's "non-bloc" status, and another calling for the constitution to reflect the country's NATO aspirations.
At the end of June, the Democratic Movement party called for Georgia to be officially neutral. The party leader, Nino Burjanadze, was once a leader of Georgia's pro-Western Rose Revolution but has since developed close ties with Russia.
“We believe that a clause should be added to the Georgian constitution, which would stipulate non-bloc status for Georgia,” she said, according to Civil.ge. “It means that Georgia should reject joining any kind of military bloc be it NATO or any other military alliance. There should be no troops of any foreign country or a bloc on the Georgian soil." She argued that Georgia's “authorities and significant part of country’s political elite act pursuant to NATO and the U.S. interests, instead of Georgia’s interests.”
Then, in response, the pro-NATO Republican Party introduced a counterproposal, to amend the constiution so that its preamble included the direction "to establish a full-fledged place in the Euro-Atlantic system of security and cooperation of democratic states."
The Kyrgyzstan government is investigating the apparent theft of equipment from the former United States air base there, which the departing Americans had handed over to the Kyrgyzstan armed forces.
A criminal case was opened in February, deputy military prosecutor Belek Mamatbayev told RFE/RL. "This is a strategic object," he said. "In the interests of the investigation I can't say anything now. After the investigation is finished we will give more information about who is accused, what are the losses to the state, and what court will look at the case."
When the base formally closed in 2014, the U.S. handed over the equipment, valued at $30 million, to Kyrgyzstan's National Guard, which was going to use the base. RFE/RL described the equipment as consisting of dozens of cars, mobile barracks, tents, generators, televisions, refrigerators, air conditioners, washing mashines and other home and office electronics.
A government commission then distributed the equipment to various ministries and agencies, and the National Guard was allocated some, as well, but some remained in storage at Manas. When a new commander was named to the battalion assigned to Manas, he discovered that some of the equipment was missing, National Guard official Taalai Myrzabayev told RFE/RL.
"After everything was handed over to the National Guard, we conducted checks from time to time," said Abdyrakhman Mamataliyev, who was vice premier for security affairs when the base was handed over, in an interview with RFE/RL. "The government should have controlled it. If you take into account our mentality, you need checks. This was very good equipment. If the theft is confirmed, it's a shame."
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev hosts his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for tea at his house. (photo: president.az)
The presidents of Russia, Iran, and Azerbaijan met in Baku this week, for the first time in this trilateral format, part of a week of heavy diplomatic activity that highlighted the shifting international relations around the South Caucasus.
The Baku meeting took place on Monday, and was taken on the initiative of Azerbaijan. The top agenda item was a railroad project that could connect Russia and Eastern Europe to the Persian Gulf.
That project would bring not only economic benefits to the three countries, but could be a geostrategic boon for Azerbaijan, as well, said Zaur Shiriyev, a Baku-based political analyst. He noted that this project would compete with another Russia-initiated North-South railroad project, that would go from Russia through Abkhazia, Georgia, and Armenia.
"This transport corridor bypasses Armenia, thereby eliminating the possibility of reopening the Russian-Georgian railway though Abkhazia, or any kind of discussion that was used a threat [against] Baku," Shiriyev said in an email interview with The Bug Pit. He noted that that Armenia project also could have competed with another Azerbaijani rail priority, the currently under-construction Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway that will connect Azerbaijan to Turkey and Europe.