The USS Porter transits the Bosphorus out of the Black Sea on February 13 after conducting exercises and, its commander said, being buzzed by Russian planes. (photo: U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams)
Russian planes buzzed a United States warship in the Black Sea as it was conducting NATO exercises, American officials said. Russian officials denied that they had done anything aggressive but still criticized the presence of U.S. ships in the sea, indicating that U.S.-Russia military tension is continuing even under the U.S.'s new, ostensibly Russia-friendly, leadership.
The incident took place on February 10, the last day of Romania-led naval exercises in the Black Sea. Four separate Russian planes made low passes over the USS Porter, which was participating in the exercise. The ship's commander described the actions as "unsafe and unprofessional," a U.S. military spokesman said.
Russia denied the charges. "All of our flights were conducted and are being conducted over the neutral waters of the Black Sea in accordance with international rules and safety requirements,” Major General Igor Konashenkov said in a statement.
But Konashenkov dropped a little shade on the U.S., as well. “If the U.S. destroyer, as the Pentagon official claims, conducted a 'regular' patrol mission in the vicinity of Russia, tens of thousands miles away from their own shores, it is strange to be surprised about the no less regular flights of our aircraft over the Black Sea,” he said.
The former NATO Central Asia liaison office in Tashkent. (photo: NATO)
Central Asians are more likely to see NATO as a threat rather than as a source of protection, according to a new survey.
The survey, by the American firm Gallup, polled residents of all the ex-Soviet republics except for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. All of the Central Asian states saw NATO as more of a threat than as protection. Tajikistan was the most anti-NATO state, with 34 percent seeing it as a threat and eight percent as protection. Next is Kyrgyzstan, at 19 percent protection and 30 percent threat; then Kazakhstan, 25 percent protection and 31 percent threat.
It's hard to imagine what NATO would possibly threaten in Central Asia. And while it's tempting to attribute this to exposure to Russian narratives about NATO, Tajikistan is the least Russian-speaking of all these countries, and Kazakhstan the most Russian-speaking, so that explanation isn't satisfying. (The Bug Pit is unable to come up with a better one, though.)
Note that NATO closed down its Central Asia liaison office in Tashkent last year, deciding that it would henceforth operate all of its modest cooperation programs in the region from Brussels.
Armenia also had a mostly negative response, with 20 percent saying NATO is a threat and only eight percent as a protection. Armenia's government makes not-insignificant efforts to maintain real cooperation with NATO, in spite of being a member of the NATO rival Collective Security Treaty Organization. But the fact that the only NATO country on Armenia's border is Turkey no doubt colors public opinion on the alliance.
The diplomatic brouhaha over a travel blogger has led to senior officials in Armenia calling for Belarus to be kicked out of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the security alliance to which they both belong.
Alexander Lapshin, the now-notorious Russian-Israeli travel blogger, was extradited from Belarus to Azerbaijan on February 8. He is facing charges in Baku related to his visit to Nagorno Karabakh, a de jure part of Azerbaijan that is de facto controlled by Armenian forces. Azerbaijan considers a visit to Karabakh to be an illegal border crossing.
Demanding Lapshin's extradition was a dramatic step for the relatively minor crime of an illegal border crossing, especially given that both Russia and Israel are two of Azerbaijan's most important partners, and both have strongly objected to the extradition.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev called his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko to personally thank him for the extradition, calling it a "manifestation of the Azerbaijan-Belarus friendship and strategic partnership."
The episode, correspondingly, resulted in outrage in Armenia, including protests at the Belarusian embassy in Yerevan, and there were calls to retaliate against Minsk in various ways, including withdrawing its ambassador and suspending relations. But the most commonly proposed retaliation was to try to kick Belarus out of the CSTO.
The USS Porter transits the Bosphorus Straits on February 2 en route to the Black Sea, where it is conducting joint exercises with NATO. (photo: US Navy, Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams)
NATO is conducting some of its biggest naval exercises ever in the Black Sea, even as a new administration in Washington has cast into doubt how much the United States is interested in confronting Russia.
The latest round of exercises, Sea Shield 2017, started February 1 and are scheduled to last until February 10. The exercises will include eight ships from Romania, two from Turkey, and one each from Bulgaria, Canada, Spain, and the U.S.
The drills are aimed at "demonstrating our continued commitment to security and stability in the region," said Commander Andria Slough, commanding officer of the USS Porter, the American ship in the exercises. "Our upcoming operations are meant to help us improve interoperability, sharing of information and experiences, and the ability to work together toward peace and prosperity."
That's pretty standard stuff for the past few years, since Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea prompted the U.S. and NATO to significantly step up their naval presence in the Black Sea. This is the third iteration of Sea Shield since the exercise started in 2015, and has been accompanied by a number of other such drills.
The "Georgian Legion" fighting in Ukraine, from the facebook page of its commander, Mamuka Mamulashvili.
Ukraine has released a Georgian soldier whose arrest -- under a Russian warrant -- sparked controversy and accusations that the pro-Western governments were colluding with Moscow.
The Kyiv city prosecutor's office announced January 27 that it released Giorgi Tsertsvadze, a retired Georgian lieutenant colonel. Tsertsvadze was arrested 12 days earlier at Kyiv's airport on an Interpol warrant.
That warrant was issued in Russia late last year based on a murder that Tsertsvadze was accused of committing in Russia in 2003. It was no doubt germane that, in the interim, Tsertsvadze also had fought in Georgia's war over South Ossetia and on the side of Ukraine's government against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The arrest quickly became a political issue: Georgia's United National Movement Party accused the ruling Georgian Dream government of secretly giving Russia information on Tsertsvadze. “The Georgian government is using tricks, as they can’t directly pass the soldiers on to Russia. They didn’t warn soldiers that there are criminal charges against them in Russia," said UNM spokeswoman Khatia Dekanoidze. "Tsertsvadze left the territory of Georgia and he was arrested in Ukraine. This is a very evil trick, which is being implemented against our soldiers." Former president and erstwhile UNM leader Mikheil Saakashvili echoed that sentiment, as did Tsertsvadze's Ukrainian lawyer.
A South Ossetian tank trains at the Tarskoe training grounds. (photo: MoD South Ossetia)
South Ossetia's armed forces will become part of the Russian armed forces but will retain separate units, the self-declared republic's authorities have announced. The plan appears to be a compromise worked out between the de facto leadership in Tskhinvali and their patrons in Moscow.
The fate of South Ossetia's modest military (numbering about 800 troops) has been at the center of negotiations on the level of autonomy that the small territory will retain. Most of the world considers South Ossetia to be part of Georgia, but Russia recognized it as an independent state in 2008 and has been cementing its control since then.
In 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his de facto South Ossetian counterpart Leonid Tibilov signed an agreement on "alliance and integration" which included a provision calling for "certain units of the armed forces of South Ossetia to enter the structure" of the Russian military.
But the specific implementation of that "entering the structure" remained unclear. Controversy broke out last year when some forces in parliament put forth a proposal to dissolve South Ossetia's armed forces and fold them into Russia's. Then some months later the de facto president, Leonid Tibilov, said that wouldn't happen and that South Ossetia would keep control of its armed forces, implying that they wouldn't be folded into Russia's.
The new arrangement seems to be a compromise between those two proposals, and was laid out by the de facto defense minister, Ibragim Gassayev, at an event in Tskhinvali on January 12.
Is the geopolitical conflict between the United States and Russia not the result – as it is usually portrayed – of fundamentally different values held by the two states? Is the problem really that their geopolitical values are in fact too similar?
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.