NATO warships deploy to the Black Sea. (photo: NATO)
A six-ship NATO naval group is conducting joint exercises in the Black Sea, and the Russian military is taking advantage of the event to carry out war games of a sort.
The NATO group is led by an American admiral aboard the USS Vicksburg, and also includes warships from Canada, Germany, Italy, Romania, and Turkey. The training "will include simulated anti-air and anti-submarine warfare exercises, as well as simulated small boat attacks and basic ship handling manoeuvres," according to a release from NATO.
An anonymous source in the Russian naval base at Sevastopol, Crimea, told agency RIA Novosti that they are following the deployment and using it as an opportunity to practice testing the NATO forces' anti-aircraft systems. The probing is being carried out by Su-30 fighters and Su-24 bombers, the source said:
"Our pilots are mainly monitoring the direction of the NATO ships and monitoring the tasks that they are carrying out on their visit to the sea," the source said. "In addition, the ships' crews are no doubt conducting exercises with our planes to practice an air attack, which gives our pilots the opportunity to gain experience maneuvering and conducting aerial surveillance both in and outside of the range of the anti-aircraft systems."
The Taysoygan training grounds, which Russia currently leases from Kazakhstan, in a screenshot from a report on Astana TV.
Kazakhstan has reached an agreement with Russia to take over most of a Russian military training facility in far western Kazakhstan. The deal represents the latest step in Kazakhstan's efforts to regain control over the many Soviet-legacy military and other strategic facilities that Russia still operates in the country.
Under the agreement, Russia will hand over about 90 percent of the Taysoygan testing facility near Atyrau, Senator Sarsenbay Engsegenov told Astana TV. President Nursultan Nazarbayev instructed the Ministry of Defense to work out the details of the agreement, which should be ratified by parliament by the end of March, Engsegenov said. There hasn't yet been any comment from the Russian side.
The Taysoygan facility is currently used for Russian testing of pilots and aircraft, but in the Soviet era it was used for nuclear testing (it was reportedly subject to 24 nuclear explosions in the 1960s and 70s), and today residents still talk about the environmental impact of that: there have been calves born with five legs or one eye, children with a variety of developmental disabilities, and adults tend to have short lifespans.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Iranian envoy Ali Akbar Velayati in January. (photo: Kremlin)
Iran may be admitted into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization this summer if it makes progress in resolving disputes over its nuclear program, Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has said.
It already seems clear that India and Pakistan, who have both long sought SCO membership, will be admitted at the organization's summit this July in Ufa, Russia. Iran -- which also has been trying for years to enter the SCO -- has been hampered by the fact that it is under international sanctions related to its nuclear program.
But when a senior Iranian official, Ali Akbar Velayati, visited Moscow in late January, he reportedly gained the Kremlin's approval for SCO membership.
"Velayati’s Moscow trip might signal that some kind of a significant change in relations is about to take place. Iran’s Mehr News reported that in Moscow, Velayati was able to secure Putin’s approval for Iran to 'upgrade its status' in the SCO," noted regional analyst Alex Vatanka. "As an observer state in SCO, Iran has since 2005 unsuccessfully sought to obtain full membership in the organization, but perhaps the Russians are about to entertain the idea of Tehran joining the alliance. Along these lines, the state-run Iranian media have been busy hyping the prospects of an SCO membership for Iran."
Mikheil Saakashvili, now a Ukrainian government official. (photo: president.gov.ua)
Earlier this month, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was appointed to a post in the government of Ukraine, head of the Advisory International Council of Reforms. But while "reform" may be the international brand Saakashvili had adopted for himself, his efforts for Kiev so far have centered around more short-term goals: acquiring western arms.
"Mikheil will become a representative of Ukraine abroad and, simultaneously, a representative of the international community in Ukraine," said the president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, on the occasion of Saakashvili's official appointment. "We are confident that it is Mikheil who will establish a bilateral communication between Ukraine and the world on the issue of reforms. He will involve the best foreign experience and decently represent us abroad."
But since then, Saakashvili's focus has seemed to be elsewhere. "Helping Ukraine with weapons is the top priority right now," he told Ukrainian channel Espreso TV immediately after his appointment. "I will coordinate the issue in the coming days." He wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post this week in which he argued that (in addition to Kiev implementing unspecified "tough reforms") "the military cost for Putin must be raised by supplying Ukraine with defensive weapons, specifically antitank weapons that can halt the further advance of the Russian tanks and armored vehicles."
Just days after Turkey's defense minister said that its new, controversial air defense system would not be integrated with NATO's, the president's spokesman openly contradicted him.
"As one of the most important countries in NATO's security line, we will definitely ensure this integration and harmony," said Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Kalin did not address the other recent plot twist in this long-running saga -- that Ankara's decision on whether to continue as planned with a Chinese system, or instead switch to a Western one, would be based on how the bidding countries mark the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
But his statement does -- again -- make it appear likely that Ankara will eventually reverse course and decide to go with a Western, NATO-compatible system. NATO officials have repeatedly argued that they could not integrate a Chinese system into their own for security purposes, and failing to integrate NATO's system would be a big handicap for Turkey. By not integrating with NATO "Turkey will lose half of its radar capabilities,” one unnamed defense analyst told Hurriyet Daily News.
Turkey analyst Aaron Stein notes that Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz, whose remarks initially set all this off, may not know what he's talking about, and in any case the decision is not going to be made in the defense industry but in the presidential palace.
The gates of the Dastan factory in Bishkek in February 2015 (photo: twitter user @Bakai04)
Russia has apparently lost interest in a Soviet legacy torpedo factory in Kyrgyzstan that it has long sought to acquire, which officials in Bishkek say is the result of the Ukraine crisis.
The Dastan torpedo plant in Bishkek has been the source of extended negotiations between Kyrgyzstan and Russia. But the story seemed more or less over in 2013, when Kyrgyzstan announced that it would finally put the factory up for sale, and that Russia would be the buyer. Now, though, that seems to have fallen through.
According to Kyrgyzstan Deputy Prime Minister Valery Dil, Russia is no longer interested in buying Dastan because, in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, it's trying to reduce its dependency on other countries' defense businesses. (Ukraine has an extensive defense industry on which Russia has depended heavily even since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and now that cooperation has obviously been curtailed.)
"Dastan is a unique enterprise, the likes of which don't exist any more in the former USSR. Because of the crisis in Ukraine, when Russia lost its relationships with many foreign defense enterprises, they are limiting their entrance into third countries," Dil told journalists last week. "[So] Dastan can't find a place in the defense-industrial complex. But the potential of the factory is huge, it needs to work."
That explanation would be at odds with Russia's claim that the Ukraine crisis would have the opposite result, that its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization -- including Kyrgyzstan -- would gain business by replacing Ukrainian imports.
Turkey is reportedly linking its purchase a multi billion-dollar air-defense system to whether the bidder countries recognize the Armenian genocide.
That news, reported by a number of Turkish media, is the latest unexpected turn in the multi-year saga over the arms deal. The original bidders for the deal were companies representing the United States, Europe, China, and Russia, giving the program the air of a geopolitical litmus test. When Turkey announced that it planned to give the Chinese company the contract, it faced a barrage of pressure from its NATO allies who were concerned that linking that system with NATO air defense equipment already in Turkey could expose NATO secrets to China.
All along, Turkey has denied that there was any political subtext to its decision, saying that its choice of China was related solely to questions of price and the fact that China would hand over more of the technology to Turkey. Now, though, that appears to have changed. With the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide approaching in April, Ankara is reportedly waiting to see how the various bidders mark that event.
"Rumors in political circles in Ankara said that no decision will be made over the missile defense system winner before [April 24] since Turkey wants to first see France and the U.S.'s position on the 1915 incidents," reported the pro-government Daily Sabah. "An agreement may be made with China if the U.S. and French administrations take a 'pro-Armenian' stance."
Russia may soon be exporting its model of counterinsurgency across the globe, as Chechnya's president is building an international special operations training center with the aim of training elite troops both from Russia and abroad.
The center is already under construction in the town of Gudermes and should be finished by the end of the year, the president, Ramzan Kadyrov, told Russian newspaper Izvestia.
That seems like an ambitious timetable given what Kadyrov says he has planned (among many other things, facilities for training in "underwater combat"), but if it ends up actually being built, negotiations are underway with Belarus and Kazakhstan to train their forces at the center. Latin American, Arab, and other ex-Soviet countries are other potential customers, Izvestia reports.
"The complex isn't open yet, but work is going according to plan, and construction won't take more than a year," Kadyrov said in an interview. "As you know, we have enough experience -- our instructors, who have a lot of good work under their belts, will be teaching."
The center "could, of course, open anywhere, but we know very well that the Chechen Republic has great experience in the fight against international terror, they have figured this problem out and know all the current methods to deal with it," said Timur Akulov, a member of parliament who belongs to the ruling United Russia party and sits on the defense committee.
After a U.S. Congressional committee held a hearing critically examining U.S.-Azerbaijan relations, Azerbaijan's parliament responded with a retaliatory event of its own, accusing the U.S. of ignoring Baku's strategic cooperation with Washington.
On February 12, the House's Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats held a hearing, "Azerbaijan: U.S. Energy, Security, and Human Rights Interests." As expected, members of Congress and American experts on Azerbaijan criticized Baku for its accelerating crackdown on any opposing voices in the country, including the raid on and closure of the U.S. government-funded RFE/RL office.
Baku has been increasingly vocal in its criticism of the U.S., and this time took the step of organizing its own counter-hearing just two days later, "Energy and Security Cooperation: Partnership Based on Mutual Interests." Azerbaijani opposition website contact.az noted that government officials in Baku resent what they see as ingratitude for the contributions that they make to U.S. security interests:
The head of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Relations Samad Seyidov described relations between the two countries 'strategic partnership'. He further spoke about the support that Azerbaijan provides to Washington and how the US does not appreciate this.
Tajikistan's parliament has made it easier for its citizens to join the Russian armed forces in response to Russia's welcoming of foreigners into its ranks.
Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law allowing citizens of other countries to join the Russian military. While in theory the move would seem to pave the way for a Russian version of the French foreign legion, military analysts said that the real purpose was to make it easier to take on locals at Russia's military bases abroad, in particular in Armenia and Tajikistan. From the Moscow Times:
Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow-based defense think tank, explained to The Moscow Times that the change was finally implemented to provide legal status to locals already serving on Russian bases in Armenia and Tajikistan.
Furthermore, as salaries for Russian civilians continue to outpace those offered by military service contracts, the new law is seen as a way to fill the military with migrant workers, Pukhov said. The reported salary for a contract soldier in the Russian army is 30,000 rubles ($500) a month.