Naval vessels participate in the 2011 BlackSeaFor exercises. (photo: Russian MoD)
A Black Sea-wide naval cooperation program in operation since 2001 is "frozen" due to the war in Ukraine, Russian media has reported. Given that the participants in the program, BlackSeaFor, include Russia, its post-Soviet foes Ukraine and Georgia, and NATO members Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania, it's probably more noteworthy that the program hasn't been canceled altogether. But anyway, Russian military sources have told ITAR-TASS that they managed to thwart Ukraine's efforts to kick Russia out of the organization:
"The Kiev authorities' attempts to garner the BlackSeaFor member-countries' support for its anti-Russian initiative failed. No BlackSeaFor state has upheld this initiative," the source told ITAR-TASS on Friday.
“From May to June the Ukrainian authorities were sending their envoys to Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey and Georgia for holding talks with their military and political leaders. Ukraine’s staff in Sofia, Bucharest, Ankara and Tbilisi were running around government offices. However, the attempts were vain,” it said. “The BlackSeaFor countries’ position was to preserve status quo, i.e. the existing format with Russia’s participation.
Ukraine was informed about the BlackSeaFor member-states’ view to freeze the organisation’s activity until the situation in Ukraine normalises,” the source said.
The government of Kyrgyzstan is complaining that the United States is reducing its military cooperation in the wake of the eviction of the air base that the Americans operated there until last month.
In an interview with Interfax, Deputy Defense Minister Zamir Suerkulov said that "recently, the intensity of contacts between our sides in the sphere of military cooperation is decreasing." Suerkulov added that Kyrgyzstan would like to maintain the level of cooperation "but the Americans do it their own way. For the continuation of contacts the Americans proposed creating a legal base similar to the one which was implemented during the time of the [Manas] Transit Center, but we didn't want that."
According to most recent data on U.S. security assistance to Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan's has decreased, but not any more than in any of the other countries of the region. I asked the State Department to clarify what happened, and they provided this statement:
Our security cooperation has historically included bilateral work on key, mutually-beneficial areas of counterterrorism, counter-narcotics,border security, and building peacekeeping capability. The termination of the 2009 Agreement for Cooperation in July 2014 severely inhibits the ability of the United States to continue its military assistance and cooperation with the defense and security ministries of the Kyrgyz Republic.
A German CH-53 helicopter flies between Termez, Uzbekistan, and Kunduz, Afghanistan. (photo: Ministry of Defense, Germany)
A helicopter from the German airbase in southern Uzbekistan had to make an emergency landing, accidentally setting a wheat field on fire, the German embassy in Tashkent told The Bug Pit.
The episode was first reported by Uzbek media on June 16. The website Union of Independent Journalists of Central Asia said that "a German military helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing after it began to smoke, and a spark from the engine started a field on fire. This caused a negative reaction in the local population."
In a statement to The Bug Pit, a representative of the German embassy in Tashkent confirmed that "a German helicopter experienced engine problems and had to perform an emergency landing. As the helicopter lost some hot parts of its engine, a nearby field of wheat caught fire. Competent authorities are investigating the causes of the accident. Germany is going to compensate the owners of the field." No one was injured, the embassy added.
Reporting on the German base in Termez has been very scant, but it was established in 2002 (shortly after the U.S.'s own base, a little north in Karshi-Khanabad) to support Germany's contributions to the war in Afghanistan, just across the river from Termez. Germany has been paying between 10 and 15 million Euros per year in rent to the Uzbekistan government for the use of the base. In 2006, Der Spiegel reported:
Two helicopters, built by Eurocopter Kazakhstan Engineering, at the KADEX 2014 exhibition. (photo: The Bug Pit)
When Kazakhstan opened its biennial defense expo, KADEX, in May it announced that it would sign over a billion dollars in deals during the event. "We will prepare and sign more than 32 agreements and memorandums totaling $1.2 billion on purchase of military equipment and international cooperation," said a senior defense official, Major General Talgat Zhanzhumenov, before the show. "We are looking at creating joint ventures of our enterprises with partners from Russia, [with] European partners, [and] we're looking at several projects with Turkish defense enterprises."
That $1.2 billion was a pretty remarkable figure, more than Kazakhstan's current defense procurement budget for a year. But Kazakhstan government officials would not give specifics about those deals, in spite of the apparently precise numbers they had available. First they told reporters that the package would be announced at the end of the show, then at a press conference two weeks after the show.
That didn't happen, but there were still some indications: a press release from Kazakhstan Engineering, the state defense manufacturer, mentioned deals related to American drones, French air defense radars, and Chinese naval vessels. But they wouldn't give details. (And officials from General Atomics, the drone manufacturer, declined to comment; apparently they weren't ready to make an announcement.)
China's foreign minister has suggested that Mongolia could become the next full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, even though Mongolia has appeared far less eager to join the organization than other aspirants like India, Iran, and Pakistan.
At an event marking the 13th anniversary of the organization, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said: “We have received a message from the Mongolian prime minister on the occasion. Although we have not scrutinized the contents of this message yet, we regard it as a good signal,” he added. “Ten years have passed, and it is time to consider preparations for granting Mongolia a status of a full-fledged member of the SCO.”
That's an odd statement, particularly regarding the Mongolian prime minister's message. And in the past, Mongolia hasn't shown too much interest in becoming a full member, although it's been an observer since 2004. There are a number of reasons for that, wrote local analyst Mendee Jargalsaikhan in a 2012 paper (pdf). For one, Mongolia's ties to Central Asia are not particularly strong. In addition, Mongolia is a relatively successful democracy, and "the SCO is perceived in Ulaanbaatar as an 'authoritarian club' whose members main concern is their own regime security," Mendee writes. And SCO membership also could diminish Mongolia's foreign policy independence, exemplified by its "third neighbor" strategy of courting allies other than its two massive geographic neighbors, China and Russia. "Joining the SCO could ... weaken both Mongolia's domestic democratization efforts, and its international image with the European Union or the United States," Mendee writes.
U.S. General Paul Selva gets a tour of Tbilisi's historic sites during a visit to discuss broadening Georgia's role in U.S. military logistics. (photo: USTRANSCOM)
The United States's top military logistics official has visited Georgia to discuss the country becoming a bigger part of U.S. military transportation network.
General Paul Selva, the head of U.S. Transportation Command, took a three-day trip to Georgia last week and met with President Giorgi Margvelashvili, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and military and defense ministry officials. Garibashvili discussed with Selva the "modernization plan of Georgian railway, Baku-Tbilisi-Kars and Anaklia port projects. As the head of the United States Transportation Command, General Paul Selva said during the meeting, Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway gives the new opportunities for shipment by railway," according to a release from Garibashvili's office.
In May, Georgian officials said that the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad, currently under construction by Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, would be finished by the end of 2015, several years behind schedule and seemingly too late to get much business from the U.S./NATO "retrograde" transit out of Afghanistan. Azerbaijani and Turkish officials have blamed Georgia for the delay. In late May, Turkey's Minister of Transport, Maritime and Communications, Lutfi Elvan said that "although the work on the railway's Turkish section has been completed by over 80 percent, work in the Georgian territory is delayed," Trend.az reported. "In particular, delays are observed in the construction of 2,700-2,800 meters long tunnels in Georgia," Elvan said. "He went on to add that Azerbaijan and Turkey have called on Georgia to complete the work in its territory."
An American sailor monitors the Breeze 2014 exercises from the USS Vella Gulf. (photo: U.S. Navy)
Competing Black Sea naval exercises by NATO and Russia have again raised tensions in the region as the once sleepy sea has become a venue for geopolitical competition.
Russia's exercise started July 4 and involves 20 ships and 20 aircraft. Its scenario was the "destruction of enemy ships in the sea and organization of air defense of naval groups and coastal infrastructure."
NATO's exercises, called "Breeze" and formally hosted by Bulgaria, also started July 4 and continue until July 13, with ships from Greece, Italy, Romania, Turkey, the U.K. and the U.S. also taking part, along with naval patrol planes from Turkey and the U.S. The exercises are "aimed at improving the tactical compatibility and collaboration among naval forces of the alliance's member states."
And the U.S. participation, with the guided missile cruiser USS Vella Gulf is intended to "reassure" allies in the region, a thinly veiled reference to Russia: "It is important to support and reassure our partners, we hope our presence in the Black Sea continues to strengthen those bonds," the USS Vella Gulf's commander said.
U.S., Mongolian, and other militaries take part in Khaan Quest 2014 exercises in Mongolia. From top: U.S. Marines hold back simulated protesters in riot control training; Mongolian and U.S. troops practice riverine training; traditional Mongolian wrestling; soldiers from Tajikistan take part in riot-control exercises. (photos: U.S. military public affairs)
Over 1,000 soldiers, including about 300 Americans, took part in joint military exercises in Mongolia aimed at preparing for international peacekeeping missions. The annual exercise, known as Khaan Quest, is the biggest event in the U.S.-Mongolia military relationship, which has been gaining importance as Mongolia tries to diversify its foreign relations beyond its two immediate neighbors, China and Russia, and as the U.S. is happy to help.
In addition to Americans and Mongolians the participants in this year's version of Khaan Quest include troops from South Korea, India, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, France, United Kingdom and Germany. Several more countries sent observers, including Belarus, China, India, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. The exercises were held from June 20-July 1.
The military scenarios drilled include riot control, response to an improvised explosive device, and community outreach programs like renovating a school and operating health clinics.
Russia's turn will come in a few weeks; its annual joint military exercises with Mongolia, called Selenga, will this year take place in mid-August and will involve about 500 Russian soldiers.
Ties between Afghanistan and its Central Asian neighbors to the north, in spite of years of encouragement by Western officials, remain at a very low level, with the conspicuous exception being the cross-border drug trade. That's the conclusion of a comprehensive new report, Between Cooperation And Insulation: Afghanistan's Relations with the Central Asian Republics.
"The trans-border narcotics trade between Afghanistan and Central Asia – supported, managed and/or protected by government officials and security forces on both sides of the border – is the one enduring economic connection that has demonstrated resilience since the fall of the Taleban, as well as promise for the future. It is the only true cross-border economic activity that is truly supported by all relevant state and non-state actors," write the report's authors, Christian Bleuer and Said Reza Kazemi.
And so, they argue, Western policies aimed at stemming the drug trade suffer from the fatal flaw that their partners in this effort, the Central Asian governments, benefit from the trafficking:=
"[S]ecurity risks that link Afghanistan to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia are often highly exaggerated, especially so the alleged link between narcotics trafficking and radical Islamist groups. In reality, throughout Central Asia the main players in narcotics trafficking are government employees, security officers and mafia figures," the report says. "Throughout Central Asia the narcotics trade has deeply penetrated the economic, social, political and security structures and created mutually beneficial relations. Powerful government and security figures use state resources and structures to actively assist and/or control this trade in cooperation with powerful mafia leaders."
Kazakhstan has again publicly criticized Russia's operation of the Baikonur space launch facility, suggesting that Astana continues to keep up the pressure on Moscow to take more control over the facility.
One of the most contentious issues has been Russia's use of the Proton launcher, which uses an especially toxic fuel. A crash of a Russian Proton rocket last year over Kazakhstan caused an estimated $90 million in damages and spurred a growing environmental protest movement in the country. But the alternative, the Zenit launcher, needs more technical work to achieve the same power as Proton.
Last week, the head of Kazakhstan's space agency KazCosmos, Talgat Musabayev , told the country's parliament that Kazakhstan would foot the bill for that modernization itself. From TengriNews:
“We would like to replace it [Proton] with Zenit rocket launcher. Of course, Proton is one of a kind technological achievement; there are practically no rockets of such good quality in the world. But you are right: this rocket uses terribly toxic fuel components. This is why I supported and support its replacement,” Musabayev said during the meeting in the lower chamber of the Parliament....
“Russia does not want to do it, I am telling you openly. That is why, it appears, that our country will bear all the costs. If there is a political will, then we are ready to act on it,” Musabayev added.