An Azerbaijan coast guard vessel patrolling the Baku harbor, 2012. (photo: The Bug Pit)
The presidents of the five countries on the Caspian Sea are meeting in Astrakhan, Russia, on Sunday and will agree to "prevent" the military presence of non-littoral countries on the sea, a Russian official has said.
Russia and Iran, the two largest powers on the sea, have long been trying to exclude external powers -- read, the United States -- from establishing a military presence on the sea. The negotiations on this have gone on very much behind the scenes, but the newly independent Caspian countries -- Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan -- have relied to varying degrees on the U.S. to get their new navies up and running. And Azerbaijan, in particular, seemed to be resisting this push to exclude external forces.
"Yes, there are some [American] programs, according to which rearmament of the naval and coast guard forces are being carried out, but this is no cause for alarm that some Caspian country could be a corridor for the military presence of other countries in the Caspian region," said pro-government Baku analyst and journalist, Tofik Abbsov, in an interview in April. He added that reports to the contrary were common in the Russian media and served to "escalate the atmosphere of non-existent trends of tension."
But now Russia and Iran seem to have worn down Baku's resistance. "A political statement was prepared for the summit containing a provision about preventing military presence of non-regional states in the Caspian Sea. There were difficult consultations on the issue, but the sides managed to agree on this principle," said Yuri Ushakov, a Russian presidential aide, on Friday.
Two Russian soldiers accused of killing a taxi driver in Tajikistan have been sent to Moscow for psychological testing. And while the commander of the Russian military base has personally apologized to the family of the victim, his relatives are concerned that the suspects' return to Russia may mean they won't face justice in Tajikistan.
Rahimjon Teshaboev, a 36-year-old taxi driver, was killed in August; his body was discovered near a lake with his throat slashed. Police arrested two suspects, both soldiers at the Russian military base, Fyodor Basimov and Ildar Sakhapov.
An unnamed source told the Tajik service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that: "They committed the crime according to a prearranged plan after ... Basimov became indebted to Teshaboev, owing him 50,000 rubles [about $1,300], but couldn't repay the money. Consulting with his comrade Ildar, they tried to 'solve the problem' August 16. But the first time they didn't succeed, and on August 18 they offered Teshaboev 'to go fishing.' Next to a lake at the village of Chimtep, Fyodor held the driver while Ildar cut his throat."
(It's perhaps worth noting that this story seems to have not been heavily covered in either the Russian or Tajikistan press, but that BBC Russian and RFE/RL have been leading the coverage.)
Georgia has offered to host a training base for anti-ISIS Syrian rebels, marking a dramatic new step in Tbilisi's efforts to contribute to American-led military operations in the Middle East. That's according to Foreign Policy magazine, citing American and Georgian sources. But the Georgian government denied the report, saying it has no plans either to host a base or commit troops.
"[The training center] was something we offered, but is still under consideration," Georgian Ambassador Archil Gegeshidze told Foreign Policy...
The potential scale of the Georgia-based training program remains unclear, but Gegeshidze noted that it could host anti-IS fighters from multiple countries, not just Syria. "It's a counterterrorism training center for any nationality," he said.
U.S. troops board an aircraft headed to Afghanistan at the Mihail Kogalniceanu air base in Romania, which this year replaced the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan. (photo: U.S. Army Europe)
Kyrgyzstan's truck drivers say they are suffering because the U.S. military has shifted traffic to Uzbekistan in the wake of the closure of the Manas air base, which operated in Kyrgyzstan until earlier this year. But the U.S. military denies that any decrease in traffic is connected to the base closure.
The director of Kyrgyzstan's Truck Drivers' Association, Temirbek Shabdanaliyev, told website KNews that as a result of the Manas closure, 2,000 truckers are now out of a job:
"After the departure of the Manas Transit Center our truck drivers were left without work. Shipments through our territory to and from Afghanistan immediately stopped, for some reason traffic now goes through Uzbekistan. Before, every week our drivers carried out 300-400 trips to Afghanistan and back, now they sit idle."
"Now these 2,000 drivers are left without work, unemployment increased. Very many drivers are parked without work, and tension and dissatisfaction among the drivers is growing."
Spanish troops exercise with their Patriot missile defense systems. (photo: Spanish Ministry of Defense)
The Netherlands is pulling out its air defense troops from Turkey but Spain will take its place, ensuring that the NATO deployment of Patriot systems will remain on the Turkey-Syria border.
Last month, the Netherlands announced that it would end its deployment in Turkey in January 2015. The Dutch were part of a NATO deployment, also including the United States and Germany, which has operated the Patriot missile defense systems since December 2012. There had been media reports that the entire NATO mission was in peril because the Patriot units of the contributing members were becoming overextended.
But on September 17, Spain announced that it will step in and deploy about 130 soldiers and two Patriot batteries, averting that threat. An unnamed senior Turkish diplomat said the decision "denoted critical help from an ally at a most critical time," wrote Defense News. “Our southern [Syrian] and southeastern [Iraqi] borders are under serious threat, and the deployment will help us better counter any attack from across these borders,” the diplomat said.
The move represents a bit of a departure from Spain, which Reuters notes "has not been an major participant in these types of international initiatives in recent years."
Turkmenistan's armed forces have entered the territory of Afghanistan in an apparent effort to drive back Taliban forces that had settled on the border between the two countries, Afghan residents have told the Turkmen service of RFE/RL.
The report is in Turkmen but has been translated into Russian by Alternative Turkmenistan News. It quotes residents of the Qaisar region of Afghanistan's Faryab province saying that Turkmenistan soldiers crossed the border about three months ago and have dug trenches and built fences.
This would seem to be the latest escalation in an increasingly tense situation on the Afghanistan-Turkmenistan border. Earlier, there had been reports of Turkmenistan border guards making incursions in Afghanistan, and the Turkmenistan armed forces carrying out exercises close to the border. But now they seem to be going even farther.
"The Turkmenistanis came here, dug trenches, set up wire fences," one resident told RFE/RL. "No one asked them what they were doing here. The trenches they dug are four meters wide and five meters deep. Besides that, in the same place they are paving a road."
And the Turkmenistan soldiers have apparently blocked access to the area where the villagers had previously grazed their animals. "Now we can't use our pastures like before. We don't have anywhere to graze our livestock, the animals are starving. Turkmenistan has taken what really belongs to us."
Another resident echoed that complaint: "We had grazed our sheep on this land, we had grazed all our livestock there. Let them open a road for us and let us graze our livestock there again."
Screen shot of video of the opening ceremony of the Rapid Trident 2014 U.S.-led military exercises in western Ukraine.
Georgia and Azerbaijan are among the participants at U.S.-organized military exercises now underway in western Ukraine, while Armenia -- which was originally scheduled to take part -- is absent.
The exercises, Rapid Trident, have been held every year since 1995 and this year involve about 1,300 soldiers and are being held in Yavoriv, in Lviv province. Obviously this year's exercises are being held under very different circumstances than previous iterations have been. And naturally they are being seen by the Kremlin as yet another way in which the U.S. and its European partners are carrying out an anti-Russian agenda using Ukraine as a proxy.
For Bug Pit readers, the most interesting element of Rapid Trident 2014 is the participation of the South Caucasus states. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia have all taken part in previous versions of the exercise. Unsurprisingly, given its firm pro-West, anti-Russia stance, Georgia has taken part again, sending a platoon to Ukraine for the drills.
Also unsurprisingly, Armenia is not taking part. As a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led post-Soviet military bloc, it would be awkward if Armenian troops were training alongside NATO forces. (Interestingly, though, as late as March Armenia was still being listed as among the scheduled participants in Rapid Trident 2014; apparently they changed their minds between then and now.)
South African Marauder armored vehicles at a military parade in Baku. (photo: gulustan, Wikimedia Commons)
The government of South Africa is facing criticism for allowing arms exports to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan.
South Africa's National Conventional Arms Control Committee has recently released reports detailing the country's weapons exports over the past three years. MP David Maynier, the country's shadow defense minister, has in the past criticized the government for arming Iran, Libya, Zimbabwe and North Korea; now he has set his sights on post-Soviet countries.
In the case of Turkmenistan, South Africa allowed the export of 50 sniper rifles earlier this year. Maynier said that such a sale would seem to violate South Africa's law requiring companies to "avoid transfers of conventional arms to governments that systematically violate or suppress human rights and fundamental freedoms." On similar grounds, he objected to two airborne observation stations being sold to Russia.
And in 2012, South African companies sold sniper rifles and ammunition to Azerbaijan, and submachine guns to Armenia. That would seem to violate South African laws requiring companies to "avoid transfers of conventional arms that are likely to contribute to the escalation of regional military conflicts, endanger peace by introducing destabilizing military capabilities into a region or otherwise contribute to regional instability."
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev visits the country's first defense expo, ADEX. (photo: president.az)
Azerbaijan has held the country's first international defense exposition, showing off the wares of its military-industrial complex and attracting foreign companies hoping to profit off Baku's rapidly growing military budget.
The expo, ADEX, was held in Baku this week and featured 200 companies from 34 countries. The profile was somewhat similar to the region's other defense expo, Kazakhstan's KADEX, with foreign exhibitors dominated by Russia, Turkey, Israel, and Belarus, along with a smattering of European, American, and Asian companies.
Azerbaijan, like Kazakhstan, is putting a lot of effort into building a local defense industry by attracting bigger, more experienced foreign partners to set up joint ventures with Azerbaijani companies. It's doing so to reduce its dependence on foreign weaponry, said Deputy Defense Minister Yahya Musaev said at the show. “It is no secret that this [foreign purchasing] leads to a one-sided dependence. Therefore, we conduct scientific research, train specialists to create the technology for national defense industry."
There seem to have been a lot of shipbuilders and navy-related companies at ADEX; Dutch shipbuilder Damen was the "platinum sponsor" of the show and Chinese and Turkish shipbuilders also exhibited, suggesting they think there is naval business to be had in Azerbaijan.
When outsiders look at the various new post-Soviet integration projects they often see an attempt by Russia to impose its will on its neighbors; in Hillary Clinton's formulation, a move to "re-Sovietize" the region. The U.S., by contrast, likes to say that its policy in the former Soviet space are directed at allowing those states to maintain their "sovereignty and independence."
But that has it backwards, Russia is increasingly arguing. In a piece published Wednesday in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov argues that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and other post-Soviet security blocs allow members "a choice of their own pattern of development" while NATO demands strict "bloc discipline" of its members.
That Lavrov wrote an op-ed praising the SCO is already interesting enough: Russia has not always been so enthusiastic about the organization, which tends to carry more of a Chinese influence (the other members are the smaller Central Asian states in between the two powers: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan). But since the crisis in Ukraine resulted in a huge rupture between Russia and the West, Moscow has sought to revive its ties to China and as a result has become noticeably more enthusiastic about the SCO.