French military logisticians at the Dushanbe airport. (photo: http://www.defense.gouv.fr/)
The small French air detachment in Dushanbe is leaving Tajikistan, as France carries out its withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Operational Transport Group started pulling out on April 15, and will complete its withdrawal from the airport by July. A small engineering unit working on the resurfacing of the airport's runway will remain until next year, according to a statement from the French Ministry of Defense.
The small base has operated since 2002. (And small means small: 50 meters by 250 meters, as EurasiaNet's David Trilling noted in a 2009 photo essay on the detachment.) It has hosted between 170 and 230 French soldiers who work on supply and logistics for their compatriots in Afghanistan, and occasionally French multirole fighter jets used for operations in Afghanistan.
The French departure from Tajikistan is, not surprisingly, the result of the French disengagement from Afghanistan, said Florent de Saint Victor, a French military blogger, in an email interview with The Bug Pit. "The closure is linked to the end of the last step for the French troops withdrawal from Afghanistan (there are still some French troops - less than 800 troops - for logistics and training mission with the Afghan National Army)," de Saint Victor said.
KC-135s on the tarmac at the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan. (photo: U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Brett Clashman)
A U.S. Air Force refueling jet has crashed in Kyrgyzstan near the Manas air base, according to Kyrgyzstan's Ministry of Emergency Situations (MChS).
The plane exploded in mid-air, said a local official, reports Kloop.kg: "The former mayor of the Panfilov region Taalaybek Sydykov said in an interview with Kloop.kg, that... 'Residents of the region who were working in the fields say that there was an explosion in the air and the plane fell behind the mountains.'" A couple of twitterusers reported the same.
An MChS official told AFP that the plane, apparently KC-135 Stratotanker, crashed after taking off:
"According to my information, the plane broke up into three pieces. Information on the dead or wounded is being clarified. All the rescue services have gone to the scene," the ministry's press secretary Abdisharip Bekilov said.
The plane crashed near the mountain village of Chaldybar, around 200 kilometres from the capital Bishkek and close to the border with Kazakhstan, the emergency ministry spokesman said.
Information about who may have been on board is still sketchy, but CA-News reports, citing MChS sources, that there were five crew members on the flight.
Georgia is in discussions with Azerbaijan to jointly produce Su-25 close air support jets, Azerbaijani military sources have told the news agency APA:
Military sources told APA that Georgia plans to produce the modernized versions of SU-25 aircrafts at the Tbilisi Aerospace Manufacturing Company (TAM). Tbilisi has addressed Azerbaijan for financing the project and establishing joint production. The Azerbaijani military circles welcomed the proposal, but the government will make a final decision.
If the project is implemented, certain part of the aircrafts may be produced at the military plants of Azerbaijan.
There doesn't seem to be any news on this from any Georgian sources. (The last reports about Georgia-Azerbaijan defense deals, about Azerbaijan possibly buying Georgian APCs, came only from Georgian sources, for what it's worth.)
TAM was renationalized by the Georgian government in 2010 after having been privatized in 2004. And it was the original manufacturer of the Su-25 during the Soviet era.
This news, of course, comes as a number of reports suggest that Moscow may be stopping the sale of military aircraft that Azerbaijan had been trying to buy from Russia. But those deals were for Su-27, Su-30 and MiG-31s, and the Su-25 carries out a different mission than those. And it's also not made clear here whether or not Azerbaijan is the intended customer or not. So it may or may not be connected. But it does seem evidence of slowly growing ties between Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Georgia's prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has said that he intends to get a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) next year. Getting MAP -- which would be a substantial step towards eventually gaining membership in the alliance -- has been the Holy Grail for Ivanishvili's foe, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. But Saakashvili and his allies have spared no effort to tar Ivanishvili as a crypto-Russian agent who will lead Georgia away from its Western geopolitical orientation. And while Ivanishvili has repeatedly declared his intention to continue to work towards NATO integration, this is the first time that Ivanishvili has laid out such a specific goal vis-a-vis the alliance. He made his comments at an event celebrating Georgian Armed Forces Day on Tuesday, reports Civil.ge:
“Next year we should undertake a very vigorous step and get at least MAP,” PM Ivanishvili told the audience...
“We probably won’t be able to get more than that, but we have strictly set MAP as a target and next year when there is a gathering of NATO [leaders] we should undertake a powerful step in this direction,” Ivanishvili said drawing applause from the audience.
Saakashvili's United National Movement party, of course, couldn't disagree with that:
“Receiving MAP would really be a step forward and we fully share and support what the Prime Minister has stated,” UNM MP Giorgi Gabashvili said on May 1. “The country should do everything possible both in internal and foreign policy… in order to get membership action plan in 2014.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and SCO Secretary General Dmitry Mezentsev sign an agreement on Turkey's accession to dialogue partner status in the SCO. (photo: MFA of Turkey)
Turkey has formally become a "dialogue partner" of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a step with unclear practical consequences but substantial symbolic import. Turkey is the first NATO member with any sort of formal relationship with the SCO, which is often represented as an Eastern "anti-NATO." All the cliches about Turkey being "caught between East and West" -- here they are, codified in agreements with political-military blocs.
During the signing ceremony in Almaty on Friday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu used some lofty rhetoric about his country's new partners, saying that Turkey "shares the same fate" as SCO member states: Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. From Hurriyet Daily News:
“Now we declare that Turkey also shares the same fate as Shanghai Cooperation Organization countries.
We are thankful for being accepted as a member of this family,” Davutoğlu said. “This is only a start.
Maybe [it only seems like] a complementation of a process but [in fact] it is the start of a long way we will walk together hand by hand. This is our point of view on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and we will move in this direction,” he continued.
Davutoglu didn't address the relationship between Turkey's NATO membership and SCO partnership, but Itar-Tass asked SCO Secretary General Dmitry Mezentsev to comment on it and he basically said, we don't know:
Members of the U.S. Congress visit Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov in February 2013 (photo: president.uz)
The bombing of the Boston marathon has appeared to whet the appetites of some members of Congress to increase cooperation with post-Soviet governments in taking a strong hand against the threat of Islamist radicals.The House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing on Friday, "Islamist Extremism in Chechnya: A Threat to the U.S. Homeland?" And it provided the opportunity for several members of Congress to tout not just greater security cooperation with Russia vis-a-vis Chechnya, but across the post-Soviet space.
In his opening statement, Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican and chair of the subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats, promoted the idea of closer security ties to Russia and Central Asia:
What outside forces have sought to transform the North Caucasus and Central Asia into a region of Muslin extremism which did not exist before?
Greater cooperation with Russia and the governments Central Asia should be explored in order to properly respond to this emerging threat. This part of the world is critical to the future of the human race. If it becomes dominated by a radical version of Islam, it will change the course of history in an extremely negative way.
Later in the hearing, Rohrabacher returned to a theme he is fond of, the notion that the Uzbekistan government's violations of human rights are necessary to maintain security there:
Azerbaijan's air force on display. Re-equipping could be in jeopardy if Russia cuts off sales to Baku. (Photo: Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan)
For some time now, there have been unofficial reports that Russia has cut off arms sales to Azerbaijan, in particular of military aircraft that Baku has been seeking. There has been no comment from Moscow, either formally or via anonymous sources, and it's not clear why Russia would have made this move. Possible motives include Azerbaijan's hard bargaining over the Gabala radar station or a more general desire to punish Baku for refusing to take part in its various post-Soviet integration schemes. But a new report in Azerbaijan's APA news service simultaneously provides some compelling evidence that the reports are true and proposes the most unlikely motive: the machinations of the Armenian lobby in Russia. From APA:
Persons of Armenian descent, who lead the Russian aviation industry, have impeded the negotiations between Azerbaijan and Russia on the purchase of combat aircrafts, military sources told APA.
According to the information obtained by the Azerbaijani side, as a result of the efforts made by the persons of Armenian descent in the leadership of Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation, as well as MIG and Sukhoi companies, the negotiations with Russia on the purchase of combat aircrafts Su-27, Su-30 and MiG-31 have not produced results. Except for YaK-130 advanced training aircraft, Russia refused to sell warplanes to Azerbaijan.
Karimov and Putin meet in Moscow (photo: Kremlin.ru)
When Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, visited Moscow earlier this month, was he trying to shore up his relations with the Kremlin at the expense of Washington? That seems to be the expert consensus that is emerging in the wake of the meeting between Karimov and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
Russia's reaction to Karimov's growing ties with the U.S. generally oscillates between two poles: alarmism that Uzbekistan is falling into the Western geopolitical camp, and confidence that Karimov -- who has repeatedly and dramatically shifted his superpower allegiances -- will eventually return to Moscow's fold. On the eve of Karimov's visit, a report in the Russian newspaper Kommersant quoted an alarmist:
The Uzbekistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment on the situation. But Kommersant's sources in the Russian government admit that the situation worries Moscow. "The Uzbek authorities confirm their interest in strengthening military-technical cooperation with Russia, reassuring [Moscow] that there will not be any American military infrastructure on their territory," said Kommersant's source. "But with deliveries of Western weapons and equipment to Uzbekistan will come Western instructors and technicians, and then the establishment of a base is not far away."
And some commentators say that Karimov's goal in coming to Moscow was to assuage such fears. Russian analyst Andrei Grozin told CA-News that "the Uzbek side decided to dispel Russian concern regarding his excessively pro-American position":
U.S. officials have long expressed the hope that its web of military transport lines through Central Asia to Afghanistan, the Northern Distribution Network, would eventually spur non-military trade as well. But what they probably didn't have in mind was that it would help in the transit of Afghanistan's most profitable export: opium. Nevertheless, that's what's happening on the newly built, CENTCOM-brokered railroad between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, according to the United Nations. In a report (pdf), "Misuse of Licit Trade for Opiate Trafficking in Western and Central Asia: A Threat Assessment" by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, one of the key findings is that:
The rail network links a number of dry ports in Central Asia and plays a vital role in the region. In recent years, the Central Asian rail network has been extended to Afghanistan. Since this extension, several important heroin seizures have reportedly taken place along the network, suggesting that traffickers are abusing the lack of efficient law enforcement control along it.
(Yes, the report is from October 2012, but I only just came across it.)
That rail extension to Afghanistan, recall, has been a key project of U.S. military logisticians seeking to make the cargo route through Central Asia in and out of Afghanistan much smoother. As the report notes, "The road and railway link from Termez to Hairatan runs along the northern trade route and is part of the Northern Distribution Network." However, most of the recent drug seizures made on Uzbekistan's rail network have been on trains that originated in Tajikistan, rather than in Afghanistan, the report says:
A Russian unmanned aerial vehicle crashed in western Kazakhstan. The drone measured 12 meters long and appeared to have been launched from the Ashuluk military facility near Astrakhan before crashing in the village of Balkuduk, reports Kazinform:
Representatives of Kazakhstan's Prosecutor's Office, Border Guard and Emergency Situations Ministry attended the crash scene. According to the information provided by them, the drone fell in a deserted place, exploding and breaking into three pieces as a result of falling.
Radiation background in the crash area is normal.
There does not appear to be any word yet from Russia on what the drone was doing over the border in Kazakhstan. But Kazakhstan's authorities have handed over the wreckage to Russia. Kazakhstan seems to not be too alarmed about the incident, unlike the last time a foreign drone allegedly violated its airspace.