CSTO Rapid Reaction Forces drill in Kazakhstan. (photo: CSTO)
Russia and its allies are practicing military drills involving a "separatist" force supported by sympathetic co-ethnics across the border, trying to provoke the central government into a disproportionate use of force, justifying an invasion by the bordering country.
That scenario may sound a lot like what's going on in Ukraine. But in the ongoing exercises, Russia is on the otherside: fighting against the separatists, carrying out what might be called an "Anti-Terror Operation" to regain control of the border territory.
The exercises, of the Collective Security Treaty Organization's rapid reaction forces, took place this week in Kazakhstan, and involved about 3,000 soldiers from CSTO members Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. And the public description of the scenario for the exercises is much more detailed than it has been in past years, providing an intriguing look into what Russia (the dominant power in the group) sees as the threats it could be facing in its region.
The parallels to Ukraine are far from exact -- in the CSTO exercises, the conflict is in Central Asia and there is fighting on both sides of the border. And here, the separatists are supported by the West and are known as the "brown" forces, presumably an allusion to the fascists that Russia believes it's fighting in Ukraine. The scenario, published on the CSTO website, is worth quoting at length:
A joint operation [is undertaken] to localize an armed conflict on the territory of a CSTO member state, 'Karania,' which according to the scenario of the exercise, has appealed to the CSTO with a request for military assistance."
The defense ministers of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey visit an Azerbaijani military unit in Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan. (photo: mod.gov.az)
The nascent alliance between Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey took a big step forward this week when the defense ministers of the three countries met trilaterally for the first time and promised to carry out joint military exercises.
The three ministers, meeting in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan on August 19, agreed to work on "tripartite exercises to enhance the combat capability of the armed forces of the three countries and the achievement of mutual understanding during joint military operations, including the organization of joint seminars and conferences, cooperation in military education, development of military technology, the exercises for the protection of oil and gas pipelines," said Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov after the meeting.
While the specific results of the meeting may have had to do with protecting joint infrastructure like the pipelines and railroad projects that the three countries work on together, the geopolitical import of the meeting was undeniable. With Russia's new assertiveness and the recent spike in tensions in Nagorno Karabakh, Georgia and Azerbaijan are keen to get support wherever they can. "Georgia is very fortunate to have such great neighbors and strategic allies like Azerbaijan and Turkey," said Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania. "And these challenging times from the security standpoint in the wider region we need to cooperate more closely and we need to be very tightly in touch with each other to defend the critical infrastructure that is very integral to our development."
A Russian tank en route to victory in the 2014 international tank biathlon. (photo: mil.ru)
Russia hosted -- and won -- the second international tank biathlon competition, an event Moscow appears to be trying to turn into a major forum for military cooperation with friendly customers/potential weapons customers.
While last year's inaugural event featured just three other competitors -- fellow Collective Security Treaty Organization members Armenia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan -- this year saw an additional eight countries taking part: Angola, China, India, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Serbia, and Venezuela.
Tank biathlon is about what you would imagine, a tank race combined with shooting; teams that miss targets have to do a penalty lap. Russia won (as it did last year), with Armenia coming second, China third, and Kazakhstan fourth -- at least according to the Russian tabulation of results. In the Kazakhstan Ministry of Defense's statement about the event, they said they got second, with China third and Armenia fourth. (The Russian sources compare the teams based on time, the Kazakhstan one on points; it's not clear what the relationship is between the two.)
Map of NDN routes, including those through Russia. (photo: U.S. Transportation Command)
Russia does not intend to block U.S. and NATO military transit routes to Afghanistan, President Vladimir Putin said, in spite of the recent spike in tensions with the West.
The U.S.'s Northern Distribution Network has been the quiet success of U.S.-Russia relations over the past several years; as of last year 100,000 containers of U.S. and NATO had been shipped to and from Afghanistan through Russia (and Central Asia and the Baltic states). The U.S. set up the route so as to not be dependent on its volatile relations with Pakistan, a decision that was vindicated in 2011 when Pakistan -- shut down its territory to U.S. and NATO military cargo. And even while NATO and Russia have suspended nearly all cooperation, the NDN keeps operating.
When the Shanghai Cooperation Organization exercises kick off August 24, the organization that is often promoted as an "alternative to the West" will be benefitting from American and European contributions.
Kazakhstan will be transporting its troops on the C-295 it bought from Airbus. And Kyrgyzstan's contribution will be made up largely of soldiers from the 'Scorpions' and 'Ilbirs' special forces units that the U.S. has spent a lot of money and time training.
In 2009, for example, the U.S. ambassador to Bishkek opened a brand-new base for the Scorpions, built with $9 million of U.S. Central Command's money. "The compound, which consists of 12 buildings, landscaping and accompanying infrastructure, is truly the gold standard in Central Asian construction and far exceeds any other facility the Kyrgyz currently have," according to a U.S. diplomatic cable describing the event. The U.S. also has spent millions to both train and equip the Scorpions and Ilbirs.
This isn't exactly news: The Scorpions and Ilbirs units have participated in several SCO exercises in the past, including drills in 2007, 2010, and 2012.
Russia has settled on a location for its planned air base in Belarus scheduled to start operating next year, the head of the air force has said.
The base will be located in Baranovichi, in western Belarus, said Lieutenant General Viktor Bondarev. “We will set up a base in Baranovichi. We are only waiting for an intergovernmental agreement to be signed,” he said.
The base will host Russian Su-27 aircraft, four of which were deployed to Baranovichi in December. But it hadn't been clear where the base would ultimately be located. When Russian officials announced plans for the base last summer they said it would be at a base in Lida; by November they were saying that "several potential locations have been identified in Belarus, but that further consultations were needed with the neighboring former Soviet nation's authorities."
"We never planned this in Lida, everything will be in Baranovichi," Bondarev said Monday, despite the fact that it was Bondarev himself who had originally identified Lida as the site.
The joint military exercises of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will involve about 7,000 troops, the largest number in an SCO exercise in many years, as the organization seems to be taking on a new prominence in the wake of collapsing Russia-West relations.
The bulk of the troops exercising, as in past years, appear to be from China. Russia announced that it is sending about 900 troops, as well as hardware including four Su-25 jets and eight Mi-8MT helicopters. Kazakhstan said it is participating with about 300 troops from an air-mobile unit. From Tajikistan, more than 200 soldiers are participating, including members of an unnamed "rapid reaction unit." (An aside: one wonders if it is one of the special forces units that the U.S. has trained.) Uzbekistan, as usual, does not seem to be participating at all. Kyrgyzstan is sending about 500 soldiers. So if it's 7,000 total, that's about 5,000 from China.
The exercises, Peace Mission 2014, will be held August 24 to 29 in China's Inner Mongolia region. But participating countries have already started moving their troops toward China. "Loading up -- that's already a stage of the exercise. We're trying to improve, getting used to loading up our equipment," said Ruslan Muzdybayev, the deputy commander of Kazakhstan's air mobile forces for military readiness.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev visits frontline troops August 6. (photo: president.az)
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev made a morale-raising visit to troops along the front lines of fighting with Armenia, escalating the rhetoric around the recent conflict even while the shooting appears to have died down.
On Wednesday, Aliyev visited troops near the Aghdam region (which overeager Azerbaijani media had reported that its forces had already won back) and, in a military uniform, delivered a stemwinder of a speech, which he the next day summarized on twitter.
"We are not living in peace, we are living in a state of war. Everyone must know this," he said. "The war is not over. Only the first stage of it is. But the second stage may start too."
He also seemed to support the theory that the uptick in fighting was intended to sharpen international attention on the conflict. "Azerbaijani citizens are not pleased with the activity of mediators because the main mission of mediators is to settle the conflict, not to keep it in a frozen state and conduct confidence building measures," he said. "The Azerbaijani army is showing its strength, which is having an impact on the talks... If the Azerbaijani army starts an offensive, the enemy will find itself in a very difficult situation. This is known to us, the enemy and the mediators. Therefore, I believe that the developments of recent days will prompt mediators to take some action."
Nevertheless, fighting appears to have died down and Aliyev is scheduled to meet with his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan in Sochi, Russia, on Friday and Saturday.
Uzbekistan is asking Germany for an increase in rent paid for the use of the air base at Termez, on the Afghanistan border, which the Germans have operated since 2002, according to local media reports. Reports also suggest that Germany is considering helping Uzbekistan expand the airport at Termez.
"Since November of last year there have been negotiations between Tashkent and Berlin on reexamining the status of the agreement on Germany's use of the transit hub at the Termez airport," according to a piece on CentrAsia.ru, widely republished in the Uzbekistani media. "In particular, according to informed experts, the Uzbek side, with the aim of maintaining the infrastructure of this important military-strategic object in good condition, proposes increasing the rent paid for Germany's use of the Termez airport."
The piece concludes: "Continuing to prolong the resolution of the 'Termez question,' Germany risks not only being left with nothing, but also ruining its relations with Uzbekistan, the key government of Central Asia playing an important role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. It seems the Germans don't realize that the money they are trying to save on the rent paid for the use of the Termez airport is not worth the strategic importance that this object has for Germany."
Uzbekistan has taken the rare step of commenting publicly to deny reports that it plans to allow the United States to set up a military base in the country.
The rumors arose after the recent visit to Uzbekistan by the head of U.S. Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, and the report on a website with good sources in Uzbekistan's government saying that the Austin was discussing setting up a base in Termez, on the Afghanistan border.
The report was implausible in many ways -- it said the U.S. was going to pay $1 billion a year in rent -- but Uzbekistan's government nevertheless saw fit to deny it. "Uzbekistan's laws do not allow to host any foreign military bases on its territory," Adilbek Kaipbergenov, spokesman for Uzbekistan's foreign ministry, told AFP.
The U.S. also denied it: “Gen. Austin has no knowledge of any plans for a possible U.S. base in Uzbekistan,” a CENTCOM spokesman told the Army Times. “He did not discuss any such options with the Uzbeks during his trip.”
The Uzbekistan opposition website uznews suggests that it was Russia's negative reaction to the rumors that may have spooked Tashkent.
Speaking on Russian radio station Govorit Moskva, Ilya Drozdov, a member of the Russian parliament and a CIS and Eurasian integration committee member, stated that if Uzbekistan really did allow the U.S. to re-open a military base, then Russia should throw out all Uzbek migrant workers from Russia. “I think then we need to take strong action at the highest level of government.” says Drozdov,