U.S. officers give the Russian counterparts from the Kant air base a tour of the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan in 2011. (photo: Transit Center at Manas)
With the Pentagon's announcement that the U.S. is leaving its air base in Kyrgyzstan, one would think Russians would be gloating: after finally succeeding in rousting the Americans out of their back yard, Moscow has scored an undeniable geopolitical victory.
Or, perhaps, that's just what they want you to think. The Russian press and Moscow-friendly analysts appear to believe that the Pentagon's announcement that they are moving operations out of the Manas base near Bishkek to the Romanian Black Sea coast is just a bluff. And they have developed a set of elaborate conspiracy theories to explain what is really going on with the Americans in Kyrgyzstan.
The prevailing theory is that the Pentagon is in cahoots with Turkey, and that under the cover of a Turkish-operated "civilian" transportation hub at Manas, Americans will continue to carry out military missions there as subletters from the Turks. But the mission will change, from supporting logistics in Afghanistan, to supporting a NATO air defense/surveillance system that will cover all of Central Asia, as well as parts of China. In addition, a new U.S. embassy building in Bishkek will include a secret, 30-meter-deep underground facility that will be used by American intelligence specialists working on the notorious Echelon spying program.
The source for this version of events seems to be a report on a Kazakhstani website, Radio Tochka. It was then picked up by analyst Aleksandr Knyazev, who was quoted extensively in a piece in Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta espousing much the same theory, but adding a few of his own elements (or, if you prefer, scoops). And the story then spread even more widely from there.
The Radio Tochka report, which got things kicked off, even cites named sources:
As criticism from NATO allies continues to pour in, Turkey appears to be reconsidering its decision to buy a Chinese air defense system. Last week, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who made the final call to buy the Chinese system over American, European and Russian competitors, suggested there were some conditions under which Turkey would change its mind:
Despite criticism from its NATO allies, Turkey would only give up co-producing a long-range air and missile defense system with a Chinese firm currently under US sanctions if the company were to decide to pull out of the deal, leading Turkey to talk to other bidders, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said...
"The Chinese system will be checked to see if it fits NATO standards,” Erdoğan said.
And on Tuesday, Reuters reported that Turkey has asked the American bidder, Raytheon, to not give up quite yet.
The sources familiar with the US proposal to supply a Raytheon-built Patriot missile defense system said Turkish officials had requested an extension of the pricing included in the bid while their talks continued with China.
"It's clear that they are trying to hedge their bets," said one of the sources.
Following quickly on the announcement of the U.S.'s departure from its air base in Kyrgyzstan, Russia has promised that it will double the number of aircraft at its base in the country, Kant. Over the weekend, during tenth-anniversary celebrations the Kant base, a senior Russian air force official said that the number of aircraft at Kant would "at least double" by December, and that the number of personnel would increase as well.
It's not clear what exactly Russia has at Kant now. While AFP and RT both report that Kant hosts "10 Sukhoi fighters, two Mi-8 helicopters and about a dozen other transport and training airplanes." But this more detailed Russian report says that there are only five Su-25s (along with the two Mi-8s).
Anyway, the symbolic import of Kant has always been greater than its operational significance. It was set up just after the U.S. established Manas, in what seemed an obvious attempt by Russia to respond to the Americans' gaining a foothold on "their" terrain. And according to a short history of the base just published by the Russian military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, over its ten-year history it has served primarily as a base for exercises involving other Central Asian countries. (This is a sort of continuation of the base's Soviet history as a place to train air force pilots from friendly Third World countries, including Hafez al-Assad and Hosni Mubarak, before they became presidents of Syria and Egypt, respectively.)
Human rights groups in Tajikistan have released their long-awaited study looking at last year's military operation in the eastern city of Khorog. And while the overall findings are not surprising to anyone who has followed the story closely, having a public, authoritative description of how the operation happened -- that it was not a targeted operation against criminals, but a broad attack on the town -- will make it more difficult for the government and its supporters to promote their narrative.
In particular, it will likely give additional urgency to investigations currently going on inside the U.S. government about what should be done about the train-and-equip programs that the U.S. military has been conducting with the special forces units of Tajikistan -- the forces which carried out the Khorog operation. U.S. officials have been very tight-lipped about this question; a State Department spokesperson declined to comment on the report's release. But according to several people who have been following the question, the State Department's bureaus of South and Central Asia and Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor have both been very actively looking at U.S. security cooperation programs in Tajikistan in the wake of Khorog. That effort is being resisted, however, by the U.S. embassy in Dushanbe, which strongly supports the military's aid programs.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on October 21. (photo: office of the prime minister of India)
On a visit to Moscow this week, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called for increased cooperation between his country and Russia in Central Asia. In a speech to the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Singh named Central Asia as the first region in which the two giant countries should cooperate. And he focused on security:
As India revitalizes its historic links with Central Asia, we look forward to working more closely with Russia in the region. Our cooperation can play an important role in advancing peace, stability and economic development in Afghanistan. It can be equally effective in combating the shared challenges of extremism, terrorism and narco-trafficking. Coordination of our policies in this shared neighbourhood has served us both well and we should continue to pursue it more closely in the future.
This is interesting rhetoric, but it's not clear what sort of things Russia and India could do together in Central Asia. Russia has consistently supported India's membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (along with that of India's rival, Pakistan). But Russia also effectively forced India out of the Ayni air base in Tajikistan, after India had spent tens of millions of dollars renovating it in the hope that it would become their first military base in Central Asia.
Zakir Hasanov, Azerbaijan's new defense minister (photo: Azerbaijan Ministry of Internal Affairs)
Azerbaijan's newly re-elected president Ilham Aliyev has announced his new cabinet, and it contains one surprise: long-serving Defense Minister Safar Abiyev has been let go. Abiyev was a controversial figure, holding his post since 1995 and widely seen as the source of much corruption in the MoD. The conventional wisdom for some time has held that if Abiyev were replaced, that would be a signal that Azerbaijan was getting ready to move to try to take back the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh. So is that what's happening?
Yerevan-based analyst Richard Giragosian says so; he posted on his social media sites that "the risk of war over Karabakh has just increased three-fold, as this move may signal the start of real defense reform and adoption of serious offensive posture, as well as a possible end to corruption within the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense."
But a source in Baku, who asked not to be named, said that internal considerations may be more at play in Abiyev's removal. For one, he was the target of recent protests over poor conditions for Azerbaijani soldiers. Secondly, he was at the center of a dispute this month between the U.S. embassy in Baku and the Azerbaijani government over criticism of the presidential vote. And Abiyev reportedly had a bad reputation among allies.
The monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had to suspend its activities last week because of an as-yet unexplained shooting:
Following the usual exchange of security guarantees by local commanders on both sides of the Line of Contact, members of both OSCE teams heard shooting as they approached their observation points. It was not possible to determine from where the shots were fired. Safety and security concerns prompted the Personal Representative to abandon the exercise.
Naturally, both sides blamed the other. Azerbaijan's APA reported:
The Armenians violated ceasefire while the contact line was being monitored by the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office.
Defense Ministry Spokesman Eldar Sabiroghlu told APA that today the Armenian Army units violated ceasefire..
A planned monitoring of the Line of Contact between the armed forces of Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan to be conducted by the OSCE Mission in the Hadrut direction, scheduled for October 17, was stopped because of the submachine gun shots from the Azerbaijani side towards the positions of the NKR Defense Army.
U.S. troops patrol the Torkham Gate on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. (photo: Spc. Hillary Rustine, Combined Joint Task Force 1)
The United States military is reducing its usage of Central Asian supply routes for Afghanistan as Pakistan's shorter, simpler routes have again fully opened to U.S. traffic. That's according to the deputy commander of U.S. Transportation Command, Lt. Gen. Kathleen Gainey, in an interview with Defense News. In the interview, Lt. Gen. Gainey declines to give any specific numbers, but it's clear that the Central Asian routes -- known as the Northern Distribution Network -- are too bureaucratically arduous to use regularly, and are useful only as a backup to Pakistan.
Recall that two years ago, Pakistan abruptly shut off its roads to U.S. and NATO transport after a NATO attack over the border from Afghanistan killed more than 20 Pakistani soldiers. About a six months later Pakistan reopened the border, but it's taken until now for the Pakistan routes to get fully up to speed. And with that, Central Asia has taken a back seat, Lt. Gen. Gainey said:
Q. Speaking of Pakistan, what’s the current status of the supply routes? How are things flowing in comparison to before the shutdown?
A. We are almost back to normal levels for Pakistan. There are some different processes that we’re using, different security, different customs documentation, different review and screening requirement of excess cargo that’s exiting country, etc. So there are some additional tasks that we have to perform. It’s not as simple as it was before.
Q. Are you continuing to expand the Northern Distribution Network?
U.S. airmen handle cargo en route to Afghanistan at Romania's Mihail Kogalniceanu air base, now reportedly the U.S.'s new troop transit center.
The U,S, is working out a deal to move part of its operations at the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan to Romania, AFP has reported, citing U.S. defense officials. The U.S. was forced to look at options for replacing Manas after the Kyrgyzstan government demanded that the Americans finish up their operations there by July 2014. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is hosting his Romanian counterpart Corneliu Dobritoiu at the Pentagon on Friday, where the issue is expected to be on the agenda. From AFP:
Representatives from both governments in recent months have been negotiating the terms for use of the Mihail Kogalniceanu air base in eastern Romania, which would serve as the main hub for flying troops out of Afghanistan back to the United States.
Some equipment also would be flown from Afghanistan to the base, officials said.
Five US military personnel are currently stationed at the air base and the number of American troops and contractors would dramatically increase if the agreement goes ahead. In Kyrgyzstan, about 1,500 US troops and contractors work at the air base.
Russia's food safety czar has again claimed that a U.S.-funded biological research lab is in fact a secret bioweapons facility, and has warned that imports of Georgian food to Russia could be in danger if Georgia does not shut down the facility.
This is of course not the first time that chief sanitary inspector Gennady Onishchenko has made such a claim, issuing a similar threat in July. In between then and now he's been busy warning of the health dangers of other products like Moldovan wine and Lithuanian cheese. But he hasn't forgotten about the biolab -- known formally as the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research -- and the grave threat it poses to Russia. He addressed the issue again on Monday:
"We are pointing out again that we are extremely concerned about the activity of the laboratory that the Georgian authorities are not in control of," Gennady Onishchenko said.
"According to our estimates, the laboratory is an important element of the offensive part of the US military-biological potential," the Head of the Russian Service on Surveillance for Consumer Rights Protection said...