The United States State Department has laid out a new policy vision for Central Asia, with a greater focus on "countering violent extremism," harsh words for Russia, and a newly conciliatory line towards Iran.
The new vision was explained by two senior diplomats in speeches in Washington this week: one by Richard Hoagland, a longtime diplomat in Central Asia and now Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs; and another by Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
In terms of details or specific new policies, the speeches contained little new: there was still an emphasis on the New Silk Road vision of promoting regional trade and transportation, still an focus on promoting security while also pushing for greater respect for human rights.
Perhaps the most newsworthy part of the new policy is that such a high-ranking official as Blinken laid it out; Central Asia's profile has markedly decreased in Washington over the last few years as the U.S. has begun to wrap up the war in Afghanistan.
And while there weren't new policies laid out, the speech did signal some new emphases for the U.S. in Central Asia, which may be reflected in new initiatives in the future. The essence of Blinken's speech was probably these two paragraphs:
Screenshot of a Georgia Ministry of Defense video report on the sendoff of Georgian peacekeepers serving in the EU mission in the Central African Republic.
Georgian troops have returned home from the completed European Union peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, the country's first substantial troop deployment to Africa and to an EU military mission.
The EU mission formally ended on March 15, and the Georgian soldiers were sent home with a ceremony at the airport at Bangui, where they had been based. "During the mission, the Georgian contingent was tasked with providing security in the operational area," the Georgian Ministry of Defense said in a press release. "They carried out infantry and motorized patrolling within their area of responsibility. The Georgian peacekeeping unit accomplished the mission successfully and came back home without casualties."
Georgia was the second-largest troop contributor (behind France) to the 750-soldier EU force, and regional analyst Thierry Tardy said that the mission was, at least by the standards of its limited mandate, a success. "When measured against its restricted mandate, EUFOR RCA has been a successful mission" and "has contributed to the stabilisation of the situation in its area of deployment," Tardy wrote, while noting that "even if the general security situation has improved in the area of deployment, large-scale human rights violations have taken place in Bangui, violent groups have not been disarmed, and many trouble spots remain."
For Georgia, as with its deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, the goal was to show Europe that it was a reliable partner.
Turkmenistan has approached the United States asking for military aid to help the country address instability on its border with Afghanistan, and Washington is trying to support the requests, a senior American military official has said.
The head of U.S. Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, testified before Congress this week and gave CENTCOM's annual "posture statement," which includes rare public pronouncements of the U.S.'s official military policy toward Central Asia. This year probably the most newsworthy statement was about Turkmenistan.
While noting that "Turkmenistan’s declared policy of positive neutrality limits our opportunities for substantive military-to-military collaboration," Austin also reported that "[t]he Turkmens recently expressed a desire to acquire U.S. military equipment and technology to address threats to their security along their southern border with Afghanistan. We will do what we can to support those requests." Austin did not provide details about what sort of equipment was being considered. There have been several recent reports of increased Islamist militant activity in the northern regions of Afghanistan bordering Turkmenistan, and Russia has been pressing Turkmenistan to allow it to provide military assistance.
Austin also pointed to the growing military relationship with Uzbekistan, highlighted by the decision to give more than 300 armored vehicles to the country's armed forces. "The U.S. military relationship with Uzbekistan has strengthened considerably over the past year," Austin testified. "And, expanded U.S. Special Forces training will further improve the Uzbek military’s capacity to meet security challenges."
Indian and Kyrgyzstani soldiers at a ceremony opening joint military exercises in Kyrgyzstan. (photo: Indian embassy, Bishkek(
Special operations forces from India and Kyrgyzstan have wrapped up joint military exercises near Bishkek, the first time Indian soldiers have carried out such drills in the country.
The exercises, Kanzhar 2015, involved about 100 soldiers overall, including Kyrgyzstan's "Scorpions" special operations forces and 30 of their Indian colleagues. They covered "joint special operations to destroy illegal armed formations in mountainous terrain," according to a Kyrgyzstan military spokesman. "There were also practical exercises and training including at night, and also exchanges of experience in military medicine, mountain, tactical and firearms training."
As is de rigeur, Kyrgyzstan framed the event as an anti-terrorism exercise: "The provocative, insidious activities of international terrorist organizations, pursuing the goal of seizing government power, have recently become stronger," said Kyrgyzstan's deputy chief of the general staff, Zhanybek Kaparov, at a ceremony opening the exercise. "So for us, it's very important to cooperate with the armed forces of India to fight together against extremism and terrorism."
Troops from Russia and Uzbekistan are helping Turkmenistan guard its border against militant incursions from Afghanistan, an Turkmenistani exile website reports, citing residents of border areas.
According to the report on Chronicles of Turkmenistan, "residents of Afghan border villages have recently noticed the presence on Turkmen territory border units from Uzbekistan." And it added: "About a month ago military instructors from Russia also appeared on the border. Obviously, the Turkmen authorities appealed to the Russian leadership for help guarding the border with Afghanistan, a situation where, with the arrival of warm weather, has begun to heat up."
Turkmenistan has been taking various aggressive steps to address the rise of Taliban and (some claim) ISIS units in the northern provinces of Afghanistan bordering Turkmenistan. Those steps reportedly include mobilizing reserve troops and carrying out incursions into Afghan territory. However, they have seemed to be trying to prosecute the fight on their own, without any other country's help.
The report of Uzbekistani and Russian troops is obviously sketchy information, and there's nothing to corroborate it. But the news comes as Turkmenistan has begun to come under some public (and undoubtedly private) Russian cajoling to let Moscow help. Just last week, a top Russian security official complained about Ashgabat's refusal to cooperate with Moscow on Afghanistan security issues.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev meets with CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha in 2014. (photo: akorda.kz)
Russia is disappointed in the unwillingness of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to cooperate with its collective security bloc, and considers Iran to be a model those countries could follow, a senior Russian security official has said.
Uzbekistan quit the bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, three years ago. Turkmenistan, avowedly neutral, has never been a member. (The other three ex-Soviet Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan – all are, as are Armenia and Belarus.) But Russia continues to make overtures, said CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha.
“To my great disappointment, today we have practically no working relationship with either Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, although from our side there have been repeated proposals to cooperate,” Bordyuzha said in an interview with Kazakhstani journalists. “We're not talking about the need to join the CSTO, about giving up their sovereignty. We're only talking about one thing: let's unite the efforts of the special services to jointly fight against common threats, which we're confronting today, let's talk about the possibility of offering aid from the CSTO collective forces in case it's needed. But there has been no response from either Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.”
“Why not cooperate with an organization that contains respected governments: the Russian Federation, with its military potential and military-industrial complex, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan -- all countries which are always ready to provide help?” Bordyuzha continued. "To me, we simply have to cooperate, especially considering the processes going on in the world.”
Azerbaijan was the second-largest arms importer in Europe over the past five years, according to a new report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, an arms trade research group.
Azerbaijan accounted for fully 13 percent of all of Europe's arms imports over the last five years, SIPRI reported, behind only the U.K. (The report doesn't list dollar values for the imports.)
While overall arms imports have been decreasing across Europe, Azerbaijan is bucking the trend: its imports of weaponry increased 249 percent in the period 2010-2014 when compared to the previous five-year period, 2005-2009.
SIPRI also tabulated the world trade in drones ("unmanned aerial vehicles" in military-speak) and Azerbaijan also ended up near the top of that list, as the fourth-largest importer of drones in the world since 1985, trailing only the U.K., India, and Italy. It also scored impressively in another SIPRI survey from last year, tallying the second-largest increase in defense budgets in the world over the past ten years.
Recent reports that Russian military vehicles were appearing in Georgia have raised complaints in neighboring Azerbaijan that Tbilisi is “betraying” Baku by allowing the Russian military to ship military supplies into Armenia via its territory or airspace.
The story of the Russian vehicles in Georgia is almost certainly a tempest in a teapot – after footage surfaced of Russian-made ZIL 131 military trucks on Georgian streets, various theories quickly emerged. Georgia's opposition claimed the trucks were evidence that the current government was in cahoots with Moscow, while some suggested they may be on the way to Armenia, where Russia both has its own large military base and provides substantial military aid to the armed forces there. But it didn't take long for another, more banal explanation to come out: the vehicles were decommissioned in Russia and are being sold on the commercial market.
There's no indication that the Russian trucks were in fact destined for Armenia, but the question of how Russia supplies its base in Armenia, as well as delivers military aid there, has long been a secretive and contentious one. Armenia is separated from Russia by Azerbaijan and Turkey, which are hostile to Armenia, and Georgia, which is hostile to Russia. Georgia nevertheless did allow overflights of Russian military shipments to Armenia until 2011, when it publicly annulled the agreement with Russia allowing for that transit. The status of that transit is now unclear, though there have been various unconfirmed reports that it was reinstated even while former president Mikheil Saakashvili was in power.
U.S. Marines and Georgian soldiers conduct joint military exercises in 2014 at the Vaziani military base. (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
NATO appears to have settled on a site for its planned training facility in Georgia, where the alliance plans to start conducting military exercises by the end of this year.
NATO's Deputy Secretary General, Alexander Vershbow, wrote in a letter to Georgian Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze that the alliance favors the Vaziani military base, about 20 kilometers outside the capital, Tbilisi, in the vicinity of the international airport.
"From my point of view, Vaziani military base is a strong candidate for locating a joint training and assessment centre,” Vershbow wrote in the letter, reported agenda.ge. Vershbow further "expresses hope that the Georgian side will make a decision about the training centre’s location together with NATO experts in the near future," agenda.ge wrote.
Vaziani is a former Soviet base that remained in the hands of the Russian military until 2001. Russia bombed it during the 2008 war with Georgia over the breakaway territory of South Ossetia.
All things considered Russia has responded with relative equanimity to the news of the new NATO facility in Georgia. But Moscow naturally objects; Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained last month in a meeting with his de facto South Ossetian counterpart David Sanakoyev about “the non-stop process to drag Georgia into NATO... Naturally, if these measures start to take practical shape – evidently, this process has already begun – we will take measures to prevent negative effects of these developments."
The Damavand destroyer, which formally entered service in Iran's Caspian sea fleet on March 9, 2015. (photo: MoD Iran)
Iran's newest, most capable warship in the Caspian Sea has formally entered service following a March 9 ceremony at the port of Bandar-e-Anzali.
While Iranian officials played up the technical capabilities of the new ship, they also noted that one of its missions would be training, highlighting the fact that the Caspian remains a very secondary strategic priority for Tehran.
The ship, the Damavand, is a Jamaran-class destroyer with more sophisticated weapons than the original Jamaran, with "highly advanced anti-aircraft, anti-surface and anti-subsurface missile systems" and "capable of tracking and targeting aerial, surface and sub-surface targets simultaneously," Press TV reported. It entered sea trials in 2013.
"The operational radius of Damavand is so vast that it can sufficiently be used for all naval missions in the Caspian Sea," Head of the Self-Sufficiency Jihad Department of the Iranian Navy Rear Admiral Ali Qolamzadeh told Fars News Agency. But he added that it also could be used for "training missions," suggesting a rather less strategic focus. (The Caspian has traditionally been a site for Iranian naval training; during the Soviet era that was the sea's sole purpose for the Iranian navy.)
The Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, attended the inauguration and called the Caspian a "sea of peace, friendship and security." And he repeated the oft-made claim that "outside powers" (read: the United States) are trying to sow dischord on the sea.