The Iran-Azerbaijan border in Nakhcivan (photo: The Bug Pit)
A shooting on the Iran-Azerbaijan border has led to the border being closed for several days, the latest episode of tension between the two countries. The controversy began last week, when an unidentified gunman (in military uniforms, according to Azerbaijan) fired shots at a tractor working on the shore of the Araz River that forms the border between the two countries.
No one was injured, but in response, "The Azerbaijani side accused the Iranian military of the fire and demanded an explanation. Not having received them, the Azerbaijani authorities closed the nearest border crossing point Shahtakhti," near the site of the incident in Azerbaijan's Nakhcivan exclave. And then Iran retaliated by closing off the other two border crossings in Nakhvican, citing "Baku's refusal to negotiate over the issue." From Press TV:
[Iranian embassy in Baku press secretary Mohammad] Ayatollahi said Azerbaijan sealed the border crossing in an “unconventional move” on Wednesday after an unidentified assailant opened fire on a tractor in the border region without causing any casualties.
He stated that the border closure has created serious problems for Iranian passengers and drivers....
He stated that an Iranian border guard was killed by Azeri security forces in Bileh-Savar two years ago, but Iran did not close the border and pursued the issue through the relevant authorities.
Nearly every day, the exact same headline pops up in the news feeds of those who follow conflict n the Caucasus: "Armenian Armed Forces violate ceasefire in several directions." And with only slightly less frequency, and only slightly more variation, another headline appears: Azerbaijan Violates Ceasefire over X times Last Week."
The stories -- reprinted press releases from the respective ministries of defense -- follow the same numbing pattern. From the Azerbaijani side, after a couple of paragraphs saying where the alleged shooting took place, the exact same four paragraphs close out the piece:
The conflict between the two South Caucasus countries began in 1988 when Armenia made territorial claims against Azerbaijan.
Armenian armed forces have occupied 20 per cent of Azerbaijan since 1992, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding districts.
Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a ceasefire agreement in 1994. The co-chairs of the The OSCE Minsk Group, Russia, France and the U.S. are currently holding peace negotiations.
Armenia has not yet implemented the U.N. Security Council's four resolutions on the liberation of the Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding regions.
The Armenian press releases are even more repetitive, not bothering to name the sites of the alleged violation. They all follow this form, nearly verbatim, the only variation being the number of violations over the past week:
The adversary violated the ceasefire, at the line of contact between the Karabakh-Azerbaijani opposing forces, around 200 times past week.
As a result of a U.S. attack that killed the head of the Pakistani Taliban, there are renewed threats in Pakistan to shut down the border with Afghanistan to U.S. and NATO forces. This, of course, would have a direct impact on Central Asia, by forcing the U.S. military to again shift its supply routes back to the Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia and Russia. And this just as American military officials have managed to get away from the more expensive, difficult northern route and back to Pakistan.
The political party that rules the province that borders Afghanistan "passed a resolution that threatened to block the supply lines through the region in response to a C.I.A. missile strike that killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, on Friday," the New York Times reported. It set a deadline of November 20 for the U.S. to stop drone attacks, after which they promised to shut the border. The resolution, the Times says, "was a means of building pressure on the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to end American drone strikes, while buying time to avoid a tricky confrontation with Mr. Sharif’s administration, which does not favor blocking NATO lines."
And also, crucially, the Pakistani military appears to favor the strike and to oppose closing the border. From an analysis of the political fallout by Ariq Rafiq in Foreign Policy:
Presidents Alexander Lukashenko and Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in Ashgabat. (photo: press service of the president of Belarus)
Belarus will help build a factory for drone aircraft in Turkmenistan, the two countries announced during a visit by President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko to the Central Asian country:
The unmanned aerial vehicles are needed for Turkmenistan “to monitor its territory, its borders and drug-trafficking,” Lukashenko said after a meeting with his Turkmen counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.
From Belarus's perspective, this would appear to be part of a recent effort to take advantage of its substantial defense insustry to set up joint ventures in other countries, including Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, and Bangladesh.
This is not Turkmenistan's first acquisition of drones: in 2009, it bought a number of small tactical UAVs from Russian company Zala Aero to be "operated by special units of Ministry of Internal Affairs of Turkmenistan to provide support in surveillance missions and on counterterrorist operations." But this new venture would appear to be the first time that Turkmenistan itself is building drones -- and indeed, almost any defense equipment at all. Turkmenistan has no defense industry to speak of, and the fact that it is trying to start out with something so flashy as drones is suggestive of a tendency that some have noticed in Turkmenistan's military buildup, that it is motivated as much by a drive for prestige as by genuine operational needs.
The commander of Kazakhstan's navy last week paid a visit to the country's neighbor across the Caspian Sea, Iran. And if you believe Iran's media, at least, Rear Admiral Zhandarbek Zhanzakov's trip cemented the firm, brotherly relationship between the two countries and their navies. In the space of three days, Iran's Fars News Agency carried six stories on the visit, during which Admiral Zhnzakov visited Tehran as well as Iran's Caspian Sea naval base of Bandar Anzali, and expressed interest in widening naval cooperation in various ways:
“We hope that Kazakhstan's experts come to Iran to undergo training and this is feasible,” Admiral Zhanzakov said.
Admiral Zhanzakov pointed to his visits to the military training centers of many countries, and said, “Iran has the best military training centers among the world states.”
The Kazakh navy commander reiterated that Iran’s military training centers are more capable than other countries.
On Tuesday, Admiral Zhanzakov asked Tehran to provide his country with its experiences in building warships.
Speaking to reporters after meeting his Iranian counterpart Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, Admiral Zhanzakov said Kazakhstan’s Navy is a rather new force, “and Iran’s experiences in the field of military industries and building warships are very important to us”.
The commander of Russia's troops in Armenia has said those troops could be used in a conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh, the first time that a Russian officer has publicly made such a claim. The commander of Russia's 102nd military base, Colonel Andrey Ruzinsky, made the comments in an interview with the Russian military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (via RFE/RL):
“If Azerbaijan decides to restore jurisdiction over Nagorno-Karabakh by force the [Russian] military base may join in the armed conflict in accordance with the Russian Federation’s obligations within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)."
It's never been entirely clear how Russia would see the collective security provisions of the CSTO in the event of a conflict over Karabakh. While they would seem to clearly obtain if Azerbaijan attacked Armenia itself, since Karabakh is in de jure Azerbaijani territory, one could easily imagine Russia saying that a conflict restricted to that territory would be none of its business. But there really isn't any room for interpretation there, and this seems like a clear Russian shot across Azerbaijan's bow.
Azerbaijan took a while to respond, prompting the opposition news agency Turan to criticize official Baku for ignoring Col. Ruzinsky's statement. But when Baku finally did respond, it naturally, blamed Armenia:
“No treaty envisages the involvement of the Russian base into the hostilities in Nagorno Karabakh on Armenian part”, MP and political scientist Rasim Musabayov....
U.S. officers give the Russian counterparts from the Kant air base a tour of the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan in 2011. (photo: Transit Center at Manas)
With the Pentagon's announcement that the U.S. is leaving its air base in Kyrgyzstan, one would think Russians would be gloating: after finally succeeding in rousting the Americans out of their back yard, Moscow has scored an undeniable geopolitical victory.
Or, perhaps, that's just what they want you to think. The Russian press and Moscow-friendly analysts appear to believe that the Pentagon's announcement that they are moving operations out of the Manas base near Bishkek to the Romanian Black Sea coast is just a bluff. And they have developed a set of elaborate conspiracy theories to explain what is really going on with the Americans in Kyrgyzstan.
The prevailing theory is that the Pentagon is in cahoots with Turkey, and that under the cover of a Turkish-operated "civilian" transportation hub at Manas, Americans will continue to carry out military missions there as subletters from the Turks. But the mission will change, from supporting logistics in Afghanistan, to supporting a NATO air defense/surveillance system that will cover all of Central Asia, as well as parts of China. In addition, a new U.S. embassy building in Bishkek will include a secret, 30-meter-deep underground facility that will be used by American intelligence specialists working on the notorious Echelon spying program.
The source for this version of events seems to be a report on a Kazakhstani website, Radio Tochka. It was then picked up by analyst Aleksandr Knyazev, who was quoted extensively in a piece in Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta espousing much the same theory, but adding a few of his own elements (or, if you prefer, scoops). And the story then spread even more widely from there.
The Radio Tochka report, which got things kicked off, even cites named sources:
As criticism from NATO allies continues to pour in, Turkey appears to be reconsidering its decision to buy a Chinese air defense system. Last week, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who made the final call to buy the Chinese system over American, European and Russian competitors, suggested there were some conditions under which Turkey would change its mind:
Despite criticism from its NATO allies, Turkey would only give up co-producing a long-range air and missile defense system with a Chinese firm currently under US sanctions if the company were to decide to pull out of the deal, leading Turkey to talk to other bidders, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said...
"The Chinese system will be checked to see if it fits NATO standards,” Erdoğan said.
And on Tuesday, Reuters reported that Turkey has asked the American bidder, Raytheon, to not give up quite yet.
The sources familiar with the US proposal to supply a Raytheon-built Patriot missile defense system said Turkish officials had requested an extension of the pricing included in the bid while their talks continued with China.
"It's clear that they are trying to hedge their bets," said one of the sources.
Following quickly on the announcement of the U.S.'s departure from its air base in Kyrgyzstan, Russia has promised that it will double the number of aircraft at its base in the country, Kant. Over the weekend, during tenth-anniversary celebrations the Kant base, a senior Russian air force official said that the number of aircraft at Kant would "at least double" by December, and that the number of personnel would increase as well.
It's not clear what exactly Russia has at Kant now. While AFP and RT both report that Kant hosts "10 Sukhoi fighters, two Mi-8 helicopters and about a dozen other transport and training airplanes." But this more detailed Russian report says that there are only five Su-25s (along with the two Mi-8s).
Anyway, the symbolic import of Kant has always been greater than its operational significance. It was set up just after the U.S. established Manas, in what seemed an obvious attempt by Russia to respond to the Americans' gaining a foothold on "their" terrain. And according to a short history of the base just published by the Russian military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, over its ten-year history it has served primarily as a base for exercises involving other Central Asian countries. (This is a sort of continuation of the base's Soviet history as a place to train air force pilots from friendly Third World countries, including Hafez al-Assad and Hosni Mubarak, before they became presidents of Syria and Egypt, respectively.)
Human rights groups in Tajikistan have released their long-awaited study looking at last year's military operation in the eastern city of Khorog. And while the overall findings are not surprising to anyone who has followed the story closely, having a public, authoritative description of how the operation happened -- that it was not a targeted operation against criminals, but a broad attack on the town -- will make it more difficult for the government and its supporters to promote their narrative.
In particular, it will likely give additional urgency to investigations currently going on inside the U.S. government about what should be done about the train-and-equip programs that the U.S. military has been conducting with the special forces units of Tajikistan -- the forces which carried out the Khorog operation. U.S. officials have been very tight-lipped about this question; a State Department spokesperson declined to comment on the report's release. But according to several people who have been following the question, the State Department's bureaus of South and Central Asia and Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor have both been very actively looking at U.S. security cooperation programs in Tajikistan in the wake of Khorog. That effort is being resisted, however, by the U.S. embassy in Dushanbe, which strongly supports the military's aid programs.