Kazakhstan troops march in the opening ceremony of the SCO Peace Mission 2016 military exercises in Kyrgyzstan. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is conducting its first joint military exercises in Kyrgyzstan, just weeks after a suicide bomber attacked the Chinese embassy in Bishkek.
The 2016 version of the SCO's Peace Mission exercise kicked off on Thursday at the Edelweiss training center near Lake Issyk-Kul. As is often the case, the scenario of the exercise involves an "anti-terror" operation with considerably heavier firepower than is usually employed against terrorists. Chinese helicopters, for example, practiced using air-to-air missiles.
"The need to conduct such exercises is dictated by modern realities," said Colonel Ruslan Mukambetov, the Kyrgyzstan officer commanding the exercises. "They have repeatedly proven their relevance and significance amid the current international situation, both in the SCO area of responsibility and in the world at large... In addition to its direct purpose - the fight against terrorism, extremism and separatism - they also promote closer military cooperation between our countries’ armed forces."
There seems to be some discrepancies in the reporting of how many troops are involved: The official Chinese People's Liberation Army news site said that it was 1,100, while Mukambetov said it was 2,000. The Russian contingent is reportedly 500 strong, and the Chinese, about 300.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led security bloc, is having trouble finding its first non-Russian secretary general, as the man who had apparently been tapped for the job has turned it down.
Last week, Interfax reported, citing unnamed Armenian government sources, that Armenian Defense Secretary Seyran Ohanian would be appointed as the new CSTO secretary general. Ohanian would replace Nikolay Bordyuzha, a Russian former KGB officer who has been the only head the organization has had, serving since 2003.
But on Friday, Ohanian said that he wouldn't take the job. "As concerns my appointment as the CSTO secretary general, there has been no such offer. Today I'm carrying out my duties as minister of defense and I don't have any plans to work in any sort of international structure," he said in an interview with the website news.am. Asked if he would turn down the job if offered it, he said: "Definitely."
Bordyuzha himself said that his successor would be named by October 14, when a CSTO summit is scheduled in Yerevan, and that it would be an Armenian.
This is not the first hiccup the CSTO has experienced in finding a successor for Bordyuzha. Last December Yuriy Ushakov, a senior adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said that a new appointment was imminent. But just a few days later the CSTO announced that it would instead be extending Bordyuzha's appointment for another year. At that point, too, it was also said that the replacement would be an Armenian.
Investigators from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are working on the case of the Chinese embassy bombing in Bishkek, which includes "Russian traces," a senior Russian security official said.
"Work on identifying the individuals who took part in the terror act in Bishkek continues with the coordination of SCO special services," said Sergey Smirnov, deputy director of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), at an SCO meeting in Almaty on Tuesday. "In this work, Tajik, Chinese, and Russian traces are being pursued."
A suicide bomber, whom Kyrgyzstan authorities described as a Uighur holding a Tajikistan passport, attacked the Chinese embassy in Bishkek in late August, killing himself and wounding three embassy employees. If the Uighur connection is confirmed, it would signify that the insurgency that the Uighurs -- a Turkic, Muslim people centered in China's northwest -- have been carrying out in China has expanded into Central Asia.
Smirnov's reference to "SCO special services" is unclear; he could be referring to special services of SCO member countries (which include China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) or organs of the SCO itself, like the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure. The former is not newsworthy but the latter would be, suggesting a deepening role of the SCO in regional security. But for now it seems more likely that Smirnov was referring to SCO member states, and phrased it that way because he was at an SCO meeting.
Uzbekistan's new president has signaled that he will continue the country's isolationist foreign policy, promising to not join any military alliances and to not allow any foreign military bases in the country.
Shavkat Mirziyoyev was confirmed on Thursday as Uzbekistan's interim president, following the death of Islam Karimov, who had ruled the country since before the Soviet Union collapsed.
The same day, Mirziyoyev addressed parliament and laid out the broad strokes of the policies he intends to follow. In the military/foreign policy section of the speech there were no surprises, and he explicitly confirmed that he intended to to pursue the isolationism that Karimov developed over the period of his rule.
"The firm position of our country, as before, is to not join any military-political bloc, to not allow the deployment of military bases and objects of any other state on the territory of Uzbekistan, or the deployment of our soldiers outside the borders of the country," Mirziyoyev said.
The reference to the "military-political bloc" would preclude Uzbekistan rejoining the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which it left in 2012. Russia (which leads the group) has held on to hopes that Uzbekistan would rejoin; Uzbekistan's absence -- as the biggest country in Central Asia -- has hampered the CSTO's credibility in the region.
Mirziyoyev did, though, praise the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a group that served the interests of Uzbekistan. The SCO could be called a "military-political bloc," but its military component is secondary (or tertiary) and Uzbekistan has mostly not participated in SCO military activities, anyway.
“Before Georgia actually joins NATO, the country has to take care that a U.S. military base is located on the territory of Georgia,” he said, the news website Democracy and Freedom Watch reported. “When they talk about non-bloc status and legalizing Russian military bases in Georgia, our response should be the following: to redirect the policy in another direction, the location of U.S. or any other NATO member states’ military base and we will fight for this.”
The Republicans are part of the current ruling Georgian Dream coalition, but are competing separately in the upcoming elections. It's also worth noting that Usupashvili's wife and fellow party member is Tinatin Khidasheli, the recently departed defense minister.
An image of the alleged suicide bomber who attacked the Chinese embassy in Bishkek last week, as he entered Kyrgyzstan on August 20 on an Istanbul-Osh flight. (photo: GKNB Kyrgyzstan)
Kyrgyzstan's authorities have released details of several people it accuses of organizing last week's attack on the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, describing an international plot involving Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Uighurs with connections to Turkey and Syria.
The State Committee on National Security (GKNB) identified the suicide bomber as a Uighur holding a Tajikistan passport who was a member of the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan. It wasn't clear of which country the man was a citizen or resident, or if the authorities knew the man's real identity.
The GKNB said that the attack was organized by "Uighur terrorist groups" based in Syria and allied with Tawhid wal-Jihod, an Uzbek-led group aligned with the al-Nusra Front.
The suicide bomber attacked the Chinese embassy on August 30 using a car bomb, killing himself and injuring three embassy employees. If it was in fact organized by Uighur groups, it would represent an expansion of the insurgency that some Uighurs have been carrying out in Xinjiang, the Chinese province across the border from Kyrgyzstan, in protest against the Chinese authorities repression against them.
Russian President Vladimir Putin with his Uzbekistan counterpart Islam Karimov this April at the Kremlin. (photo: Kremlin)
Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to visit Uzbekistan on Tuesday, inserting himself into an ongoing presidential succession after the death of President Islam Karimov, the only president Uzbekistan has known.
Putin will stop over in Samarkand on his way back from China, where he attended the G20 summit (and as a result missed Karimov's funeral; Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev represented Russia). "I think I have to stop over tomorrow to pay my respects," Putin said. Putin's spokesman later emphasized that Putin's visit would be personal, but there will certainly be more to it than that. A report on the Uzbekistan news site anhor.uz initially said that Putin would also meet there with "possible successors," though that was subsequently edited to say he would meet with "the leadership of the country."
Most analysts, and this blog, are skeptical that whoever succeeds Karimov will do much to change Uzbekistan's foreign policy, which was characterized by isolationism bolstered by playing various powers off of one another. So it's unlikely Putin believes he can tip the scales on the ongoing succession process.
"Putin's visit is symbolic, to show that Russia will be highly involved in Uzbekistan's future, but also an attempt to reset relations," said Erica Marat, , an assistant professor at the National Defense University and Central Asia expert, in an email interview with The Bug Pit. "I don't think the Kremlin is able to influence the succession process itself, but this is an opening for Russia nevertheless."
Germany's government is planning to concede to Turkish demands on the country's recognition of the Armenian genocide in exchange for the German military's continued access to a Turkish airbase, a German magazine has reported.
The compromise is aimed at resolving a crisis that began in June when the German Bundestag adopted a resolution recognizing the mass killings ot Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 as genocide. In response, Turkey recalled its ambassador and blocked the visits of German members of parliament to German troops serving at the Incirlik air base.
Germany has deployed about 250 German troops, six surveillance jets and a refueling tanker to Incirlik as part of the international coalition fighting ISIS in Syria. Germany threatened to pull out of that operation if its parliamentarians weren't allowed to visit. "The German army answers to parliament," Social Democrat leader and Deputy Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel told the regional newspaper Mitteldeutsche Zeitung in July. "And if parliament cannot visit its army, then the army cannot stay there. This is absolutely clear," Gabriel said.
Turkey has laid out two conditions for German MP visits to Incirlik: stronger statements of support for the Turkish government in wake of the coup attempt in July, and stepping back from the Armenian genocide recognition.
While attention in Central Asia in late August was fixated on the looming leadership transition in Uzbekistan, another event with even greater potential to reshape the region occurred in Kyrgyzstan: an apparent suicide bomber attacked the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, killing himself and wounding at least three others.
The United States and Bulgaria will conduct joint air patrols for the first time under the NATO aegis, a new (albeit relatively mild) show of force by Washington in the Black Sea region.
The patrols will take place in mid-September, with two American F-15s patrolling alongside Bulgarian MiG-29s. “NATO takes its responsibility to ensure the safety and integrity of our airspace very seriously. This mission is a demonstration of solidarity and support for our ally Bulgaria,” NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow said in a statement.
Recall that earlier this month Russia deployed S-400 air defense systems to Crimea in order to deter what some Russian officials called NATO's "air hooligans." That, in turn, followed a statement made at NATO's July summit in NATO that it would implement "appropriate measures, tailored to the Black Sea region" and that "options for a strengthened NATO air and maritime presence will be assessed."
And just last week, Russian air, sea, and land forces took part in snap drills around the Black and Caspian seas, which focused on air defense.