Screen shot of video of the opening ceremony of the Rapid Trident 2014 U.S.-led military exercises in western Ukraine.
Georgia and Azerbaijan are among the participants at U.S.-organized military exercises now underway in western Ukraine, while Armenia -- which was originally scheduled to take part -- is absent.
The exercises, Rapid Trident, have been held every year since 1995 and this year involve about 1,300 soldiers and are being held in Yavoriv, in Lviv province. Obviously this year's exercises are being held under very different circumstances than previous iterations have been. And naturally they are being seen by the Kremlin as yet another way in which the U.S. and its European partners are carrying out an anti-Russian agenda using Ukraine as a proxy.
For Bug Pit readers, the most interesting element of Rapid Trident 2014 is the participation of the South Caucasus states. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia have all taken part in previous versions of the exercise. Unsurprisingly, given its firm pro-West, anti-Russia stance, Georgia has taken part again, sending a platoon to Ukraine for the drills.
Also unsurprisingly, Armenia is not taking part. As a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led post-Soviet military bloc, it would be awkward if Armenian troops were training alongside NATO forces. (Interestingly, though, as late as March Armenia was still being listed as among the scheduled participants in Rapid Trident 2014; apparently they changed their minds between then and now.)
South African Marauder armored vehicles at a military parade in Baku. (photo: gulustan, Wikimedia Commons)
The government of South Africa is facing criticism for allowing arms exports to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan.
South Africa's National Conventional Arms Control Committee has recently released reports detailing the country's weapons exports over the past three years. MP David Maynier, the country's shadow defense minister, has in the past criticized the government for arming Iran, Libya, Zimbabwe and North Korea; now he has set his sights on post-Soviet countries.
In the case of Turkmenistan, South Africa allowed the export of 50 sniper rifles earlier this year. Maynier said that such a sale would seem to violate South Africa's law requiring companies to "avoid transfers of conventional arms to governments that systematically violate or suppress human rights and fundamental freedoms." On similar grounds, he objected to two airborne observation stations being sold to Russia.
And in 2012, South African companies sold sniper rifles and ammunition to Azerbaijan, and submachine guns to Armenia. That would seem to violate South African laws requiring companies to "avoid transfers of conventional arms that are likely to contribute to the escalation of regional military conflicts, endanger peace by introducing destabilizing military capabilities into a region or otherwise contribute to regional instability."
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev visits the country's first defense expo, ADEX. (photo: president.az)
Azerbaijan has held the country's first international defense exposition, showing off the wares of its military-industrial complex and attracting foreign companies hoping to profit off Baku's rapidly growing military budget.
The expo, ADEX, was held in Baku this week and featured 200 companies from 34 countries. The profile was somewhat similar to the region's other defense expo, Kazakhstan's KADEX, with foreign exhibitors dominated by Russia, Turkey, Israel, and Belarus, along with a smattering of European, American, and Asian companies.
Azerbaijan, like Kazakhstan, is putting a lot of effort into building a local defense industry by attracting bigger, more experienced foreign partners to set up joint ventures with Azerbaijani companies. It's doing so to reduce its dependence on foreign weaponry, said Deputy Defense Minister Yahya Musaev said at the show. “It is no secret that this [foreign purchasing] leads to a one-sided dependence. Therefore, we conduct scientific research, train specialists to create the technology for national defense industry."
There seem to have been a lot of shipbuilders and navy-related companies at ADEX; Dutch shipbuilder Damen was the "platinum sponsor" of the show and Chinese and Turkish shipbuilders also exhibited, suggesting they think there is naval business to be had in Azerbaijan.
When outsiders look at the various new post-Soviet integration projects they often see an attempt by Russia to impose its will on its neighbors; in Hillary Clinton's formulation, a move to "re-Sovietize" the region. The U.S., by contrast, likes to say that its policy in the former Soviet space are directed at allowing those states to maintain their "sovereignty and independence."
But that has it backwards, Russia is increasingly arguing. In a piece published Wednesday in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov argues that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and other post-Soviet security blocs allow members "a choice of their own pattern of development" while NATO demands strict "bloc discipline" of its members.
That Lavrov wrote an op-ed praising the SCO is already interesting enough: Russia has not always been so enthusiastic about the organization, which tends to carry more of a Chinese influence (the other members are the smaller Central Asian states in between the two powers: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan). But since the crisis in Ukraine resulted in a huge rupture between Russia and the West, Moscow has sought to revive its ties to China and as a result has become noticeably more enthusiastic about the SCO.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that "disagreements" have arisen with China over the two countries' controversial deal on air defense systems. And it appears that a French offer -- which would be the much-preferred option for Turkey's NATO partners -- is gaining momentum.
Ever since Turkey announced last September that it was picking a Chinese system over American, French, and Russian competitors, U.S. and NATO officials have been pressuring Ankara to change its mind. They have argued that it would be impossible to integrate Turkey's NATO-compatible air defense systems with the Chinese system without the risk of leaking sensitive data to China. For some time there have been indications that Ankara is rethinking its decision, but Erdogan's comments on Sunday make that explicit.
"Some disagreements have emerged with China on the issues of joint production and know-how during negotiations over the missile defense system," Erdoğan told reporters as he returned from the NATO summit in Wales, private television channel NTV said on Sunday.
"Talks are continuing despite that, but France, which is second on the list, has come up with new offers. Right now, our talks with France are continuing. For us, joint production is very, very important," he said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meets a Georgian soldier during his visit to Tbilisi. (photo: MoD Georgia)
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Georgia, and on the agenda was Georgia's planned purchase of American military helicopters and Georgia's joining the emerging U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition.
The deal for Blackhawk utility helicopters has been in the works since at least 2012. But this is the first time it seems to have been discussed very publicly, and the two sides seem to be getting close: "One of the things that I noted here is that [Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania] and I discussed as to how we go forward on Georgia's request for helicopters and pricing and availability -- that being the next step as to how that works," Hagel said at a press conference in Tbilisi.
It wasn't announced how these would be financed, but this variant -- the Sikorsky S-70i, produced in Poland -- cost about $5 million each. Georgia's defense budget for this year is under $400 million -- that is, about 80 Blackhawks -- and that has to cover troops' pay and care in addition to any new equipment procurement. Alasania has previously said that Russian-type helicopters are too expensive to maintain given the difficulty Georgia has getting spare parts. Those are "credible complaints," said Michael Cecire, a Washington-based Georgia analyst, in an email interview with The Bug Pit. "But why US platforms, specifically? Partially for the prestige and symbolism, but also likely with an eye on reinforcing bilateral ties and building those prized business relationships with US defense companies," he said.
The USS Ross enters the port of Constanta, Romania, ahead of joint U.S.-Ukraine naval exercises in the Black Sea. (photo: U.S. Navy)
United States-led, Ukraine-hosted naval exercises will start this week in the Black Sea, ahead of NATO exercises in Western Ukraine later this month. While both exercises are iterations of annual drills and so not directly in response to the events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the fact that they're going ahead is nevertheless a signal of U.S. support for Kiev.
The naval exercises, Sea Breeze, are usually held in July but were put off until September this year. They'll be led by the U.S. destroyer USS Ross and also include ships from Ukraine, Georgia, Romania, Turkey, Canada, and Spain. One apparent concession to the heightened tension in the region this year: unlike in previous years, no U.S. or NATO ships will dock in Ukraine this time.
"Much of the exercise will focus on maritime interdiction operations as a primary means to enhance maritime security," announced U.S. European Command in a statement. "The other key components of the exercise focus on communications, search and rescue, force protection and navigation."
Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev, along with other officials from Kyrgyzstan and China, open Chinese-built officers quarters in Bishkek. (photo: president.kg)
China has built officers quarters in Kyrgyzstan and has promised Kyrgyzstan an additional $16 million in military aid, as the military elements of China's relations with Central Asia gradually grows.
On Tuesday, the Kyrgyzstan armed forces announced that China was providing 100 million yuan, or about $16 million, in aid: "This money will be directed toward military-technical upgrading of weapons and equipment. In addition, the grant will include special and transport vehicles. The Chinese grant will begin to be implemented this year."
And the following day, Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev formally opened the 108-unit apartment building in Bishkek. The new quarters got a glowing review in the press, which raved about the modern conditions and emphasized how happy the Kyrgyzstani officers were to get new apartments. (But there was an aside: "However, the new apartments have one peculiarity. For some reason the floors of all rooms, including the living room and bedroom, are tiled. Probably the Chinese consider this comfortable. However, one shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, and we're not going to.")
South Ossetia is poised to join a "unified defense space" along with Russia and Abkhazia, further extending Russia's military presence into what is still legally Georgian territory. This budding alliance will both "follow the example of and oppose NATO," South Ossetia's ambassador to Abkhazia told the Russian newspaper Izvestia.
Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin met the newly elected de facto president of Abkhazia, Raul Khajimba, and one of the things they discussed was the creation of a unified defense space, i.e. the Russian military taking joint control of security in Abkhazia along with the Abkhazian security forces. Fellow Georgian breakaway republic South Ossetia is going to be part of that process as well, the ambassador, Oleg Botsiev, told Izvestia.
"Currently our side is working out the possibility with the Abkhazian side of concluding an agreement with Russia on joining South Ossetia to the single defense contour," Botsiev said, adding that it wasn't yet clear whether the agreement would be trilateral or if South Ossetia's agreement with Russia would be separate.
And he said South Ossetia's agreement with Russia would differ from Abkhazia's (though his explanation of how wasn't entirely clear): "Its creation is still being discussed, though it's already clear that included in it will be first of all a military component, and then the conditions for economic and information security of our region will be drawn up."
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev inspects an Israeli-built coast guard vessel built in Baku. (photo: president.az)
Azerbaijan is acquiring 12 new coast guard vessels from Israel and is discussing the possibility of buying naval corvettes, as well.
The news emerged after Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev formally opened a new shipyard for the coast guard. No mention was made publicly of the Israeli provenance of the ships, but online weapons enthusiasts and the experts at Jane's examined the photos that were released on the president's official site and came to the conclusion that these were warships -- six Shaldag Mk V patrol boats and six Saar 62 offshore patrol vessels -- that Israel had announced it was building for an anonymous customer.
In addition, posters exhibited at the event suggested that Azerbaijan was looking at a more heavily armed Israeli ship, the Saar 72 corvette.
Azerbaijan has already made other naval purchases from Israel, notably some Gabriel-5 anti-ship missiles, which became a source of tension between Azerbaijan and Iran: Tehran, fixated on Israel, mistrusts Baku's close military ties with its enemy.