Russian Iskander-M theater ballistic missiles on parade. (photo: MoD of Russia)
Russia is planning to move missiles close to the border with Kazakhstan, ostensibly in preparation for instability coming from Afghanistan. But a number of analysts say that the move is instead a show of force occasioned by the crisis in Ukraine.
The Russian newspaper Izvestia reported, citing Ministry of Defense officials, that Russia is planning to deploy Iskander-M theater ballistic missiles to the Orenburg region, about 100 kilometers from the border of Kazakhstan. The rockets would be ready to quickly be deployed into Kazakhstan under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and "would protect Russia and former Soviet republics from possible external threats from Central Asia," Izvestia wrote. Construction is underway to build facilities for the missiles at the Totskoye-2 military base and the missiles are supposed to be deployed by the end of the year.
"Our government has said that the Central Asian vector is considered the most worrying, in connection with the reduced presence of the U.S. in Afghanistan. The exit of the Americans can lead to the destabilization of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan," Vasiliy Kashin, a military analyst with the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies told Izvestia. "In this case Russia's Central Military Region would need to be ready to move quickly to help Kazakhstan defense its borders. Kazakhstan's own forces are not very large."
The ethnic Armenian village of Kesab in 2010. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
An attack by Syrian rebels on an ethnic Armenian town has raised questions about Turkey's role in supporting the opposition and prompted claims by many Armenians that the attack was orchestrated by the Turkish government as an attack on Armenians.
The town, Kesab, is in Syria's far northwestern corner, on the border with Turkey and on the Mediterranean coast. It has been Armenian for centuries, unlike most of the Armenian communities in Syria which were settled by refugees from the 1915 genocide in Turkey.
Last week, Syrian rebels attacked Kesab, "part of an offensive aimed at opening up a rebel link to the sea," Reuters reported. And Syria's government blamed Turkey: "Syrian authorities accused Turkey of helping the fighters launch their attack on Kasab from Turkish territory, saying Ankara's army 'provided cover for this terrorist attack' on the wooded and hilly border region."
And a number of Armenian sources took that accusation further, and said that it was a deliberate Turkish attack on Armenians. The Armenian website Mediamax posted an interview with Mudar Barakat, a pro-government Syria commentator, in which he said that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arranged the attack as part of his campaign for Turkey's upcoming elections. "Erdogan is targeting Kassab’s symbolic importance as a peaceful Syrian cradle for the Armenian families who survived the massacres enforced by his Ottoman predecessors and it seems that this attack on Kassab is a reflection of Erdogan’s anger towards Armenia’s stand against his terrorism in Syria, and a reminder of the 1915 massacres and the historical Turkish animosity towards the Armenians."
In both the U.S. and Russia there has been a fair amount of talk about the possibility that as U.S.-Russia relations deteriorate, Russia could block the U.S.'s transportation of supplies to its forces in Afghanistan. But experts in Russia tell The Bug Pit that there is little incentive for the Kremlin to take such a step.
U.S. military planners say they have already been making contingency plans in case Russia shuts off the Afghanistan transit routes, known collectively as the Northern Distribution Network. In an interview with Russian newspaper Kommersant, NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow was asked about the possibility of Russia shutting down the NDN. "We hope that Russia, which has an interest in the long-term stability of Afghanistan, will continue cooperation on transit." And jingoistic Russians are licking their chops. "They understand this in the Kremlin: the agreement over the 'Northern Distribution Network' at NATO's disposal is one of the strongest trumps that Russia has in its conflict with the West," the website Military Review recently wrote.
Russia has hastened to assure its Central Asian allies that they will not be involved in any military moves in Ukraine, a sign that Moscow is aware of the growing worry about its new assertiveness.
The issue is the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led post-Soviet security bloc that includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The group thus far has seen a lot more talk than action, and plenty of questions remain about what it will actually do. On Monday, Kyrgyzstani MP Tursunbai Bakir Uulu expressed concern that the CSTO might embroil Kyrgyzstan in the conflict in Ukraine:
"The agreement was ratified, but before the events in Ukraine. I don't want to be a hostage to these agreements. You know, that the [Russian] Federation Council took a decision that, if the need arose, they could intervene militarily in Ukraine. If tomorrow war breaks out between Russia and Ukraine, we would be obliged to fight on Russia's side. We need to withdraw from these agreements so we don't get drawn into a war in Ukraine."
An American MRAP is loaded on to a Russian An-124 aircraft at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, in 2012. (photo: U.S. Air Force 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs)
Russia's potential blockage of the U.S. military's transportation corridors to Afghanistan has received a fair amount of attention as the U.S.-Russian relationship has collapsed over the crisis in Ukraine. Behind the scenes, however there is also discussion of suspending the substantial commercial cooperation that the U.S. military has with Russia over transport to and from Afghanistan.
At issue are the massive Antonov An-124 aircraft, the largest cargo plane in regular use. There are only three companies in the world that operate the 20 An-124s in commercial use, and only two of them -- the Russian company Volga-Dnepr and the Ukrainian company Antonov -- conduct military business, according to a 2012 article by Defense Media Network: "In the last dozen or so years, Russian and Ukrainian commercial carriers have flown thousands of missions in support of American and allied military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and all over the globe." The aircraft are useful in particular for carrying the Mine-Resistant, Armor-Protected (MRAP) vehicles in heavy use by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Volga-Dnepr has ten An-124s and Antonov seven, and Volga-Dnepr's director of North American operations, Colon Miller, said business is booming: “We’ll go from an oil mission out of Houston, Texas to something out of Africa, or a mission to Central Asia, then to Europe and back to the United States, a military mission leaving Charleston Air Force base, head over to CENTCOM area, offload its cargo in Afghanistan, pick up additional cargo while it’s there and fly it back to Kuwait and then reposition to South America for an oil job back to the United States, then Indonesia, Australia, Russia. They’re hot moving, pretty much all the time.”
The Dniestr River, dividing Transnistria from Chisinau-controlled Moldova (photo: The Bug Pit)
Fears that the crisis in Ukraine could be spreading to Moldova have sharpened as American and European leaders warn that the Russian military may be casting its eyes further West.
"There is absolutely sufficient force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Trans-Dniester if the decision was made to do that. That is very worrisome," said U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO's supreme allied commander. Strobe Talbott, one of the U.S.'s top diplomats in the ex-Soviet world, tweeted: "[N]ow that we've had crash course on Crimea, read ahead about Transnistria, a likely target for Putin next move."
Added Nicu Popescu, an analyst at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris" “What happened to Crimea in two weeks, most of that had happened to Trans Dnestr in the last 22 years, except for what happened to Crimea in the last 24 hours: recognition by Russia and annexation. That could happen in Trans Dnestr.”
Russian officials denied they had any expansionist aims: “Russian armed forces are not involved in any manner of unannounced military manoeuvres that would endanger the security of neighbouring states,” said Russia’s deputy defence minister, Anatoly Antonov. “We have nothing to hide.”
Belarus has been increasing its military cooperation with Russia during the period of the crisis in Ukraine, but analysts argue that is as much as a way to keep Moscow at arm's length as a desire for closer ties.
Earlier this month, Russia sent six Su-27 fighter jets to Belarus's Babruisk airfield, which Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said was prompted by the U.S. sending its own fighter jets to neighboring Poland and Lithuania. “We reacted calmly until large-scale exercises began ... in Poland,” Lukashenko said. “There is a clear escalation of the situation near our borders.”
Meanwhile, however, Belarus's government has been noticeably reluctant to toe Moscow's line on Russian policy in Ukraine. Its foreign ministry has not endorsed the Crimean annexation, unlike many of its fellow Collective Security Treaty Organization members like Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.
As the Belarus Security Blog argued, Belarus considers its military to be a low priority. "In this case, official Minsk decided to demonstrate its loyalty on defense issues in order to neutralize the effect from refusing to follow Russian policy," a recent post said.
Poster promoting a referendum in Transniester. (photo: Odnoklassniki)
With Russia's annexation of Crimea accomplished breathtakingly quickly, is Russia's land grab over? Anyone listening to President Vladimir Putin's speech on Tuesday, with its soaring appeals to restoring Russian greatness might think that Crimea is too small a prize to right all the wrongs that Russia has suffered. And while just two weeks ago further changes to the map of Europe seemed unthinkable, now they seem a very real possibility. "Russian annexation of Crimea is likely to initiate a pernicious cascade within Ukraine and further deepen the conflict," wrote analysts Samuel Charap and Keith Darden in an analysis for Reuters. "It is not a stable end-point for the crisis."
Concern has been raised anywhere that ethnic Russians live, from Estonia to Kazakhstan. Both those are unlikely to be Moscow's next targets, however, Estonia because it's a NATO member and Kazakhstan because its government has been a relatively compliant Russian partner, especially lately.
The new leadership in Azerbaijan's Ministry of Defense has been undertaking a thorough housecleaning of the ministry in the months since the new minister, Zakir Hasanov, took over.
Earlier this month, it was reported that several senior officers were "sent to reserve," meaning they were removed from active duty service. Among those number were former Defense Minister Safar Abiyev and at least seven other high-ranking officers. Jasur Mammadov Sumerinli, a Baku-based defense analyst, told The Bug Pit that the way this usually works is that because many high-ranking officers formally serve only in a temporary capacity, they are not formally fired. In the case of these several generals, they were all removed from their posts in November and December 2013, and just now moved to the reserve.
Separately, President Ilham Aliyev dismissed the commander of Azerbaijan's navy, Vice Admiral Shahin Sultanov and replaced him with Captain 1st Rank Yunus Mammadov, who had been serving as Chief of Naval Operations. (Not long before, interestingly, there were media reports that Sultanov had been arrested, though the MoD denied them)
Members of the Turkish Barbaros naval task group before their departure around Africa. (photo: Barbaros Task Group)
A small Turkish naval flotilla is setting out on a three-month, 28-country circumnavigation of Africa. It will be the first time in 148 years that Turkish ships have rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and an ambitious demonstration of Turkey's rising ambitions in Africa. But the timing of the deployment is awkward, coming just as the security situation around the Black Sea is becoming more precarious.
The blog Bosphorus Naval News has a thorough rundown of what is known so far about the expedition. It will include joint exercises with African navies and coast guards in Nigeria, Congo, Angola, South Africa, and Kenya, as well as with the U.S. in the Gulf of Guinea. Turkish doctors will conduct medical clinics along the way, Turkish military bands will play, and Turkish defense companies will put on exhibits of their products in Ghana, Nigeria, Angola, Tanzania and Kenya.
The deployment, in particular its timing, has raised criticism. One former high-ranking admiral, Nusret Güner, told Hurriyet Daily News: "The Black Sea waters are boiling because of what's happening in Crimea and Ukraine. The United States and Russia are playing chess. They make moves one after another. When there is an imminent risk of clash, it's an unacceptable situation that the Turkish Naval Forces are engaged in an African campaign in a way that they weaken their presence in the region."