Screenshot from YouTube video from Azerbaijani television showing captivity of alleged Armenian saboteur Mamiko Khojayan.
Two weeks after tensions spiked on the line of contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, much information about what is actually happening there remains unclear. A spokesman for Azerbaijan's defense ministry said on February 3 that "dozens" of Armenian soldiers had been killed, while the Armenian authorities in the de facto Nagorno Karabakh government denied that. And many of the first-reported claims about the upsurge in fighting -- an Armenian vehicle destroyed, attempted incursions by both sides -- remain murky.
One initial report has proven especially embarrassing for the Azerbaijani side. Citing the defense ministry, Azerbaijani media reported that on January 28, an Armenian "saboteur" was captured by Azerbaijani soldiers: "Armed and injured leader of an enemy intelligence-sabotage group Mamiko Khojayan was captured by our soldiers after a brief firefight."
But when Azerbaijani television stations aired footage of Khojayan, the image was not of an elite special ops commando, but of a disheveled, disoriented old man. And soon after, neighbors and relatives of the man in Armenia identified him as a 77-year-old mentally ill man.
Russia has agreed to give Kazakhstan S-300 air defense systems, as well as to share a Russian missile-testing range in the country with Kazakhstani troops, the two countries' defense ministers announced.
The S-300 gift had been announced some time ago, but nothing had been said about it for years, leading to speculation that Russia had rescinded the offer. But on a visit to Astana on January 31, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said that Moscow would deliver five "divisions" of S-300PS (consisting of 12 units per division) this year.
A paramilitary band led by a veteran of the Tajikistan civil war has reportedly been deployed to the border with Kyrgyzstan, prompting Bishkek to send an official note of protest to Dushanbe. Arkady Dubnov, the top Russian journalist covering Central Asia, reported this week that Shoh Iskandarov, a former opposition commander who later joined the government, is leading a paramilitary group of about 150 men in the Isfara region. That's near the Kyrgyzstan border, which was recently the site of fighting that included heavy weaponry. Although the situation has calmed somewhat since the fighting on January 11, and both sides have agreed to pull back their forces, the alleged arrival of Iskandarov adds a potentially dramatic new element into the tense situation.
Tajikistan has yet to officially comment on whether or not Iskandarov is in fact getting involved in the border conflict, but Kyrgyzstani website 24.kg reported that the Kyrgyzstan Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent an official note of protest to Dushanbe over his arrival, complaining about the "unacceptable massing of armed forces in the border region."
The United States intelligence community has released its annual "worldwide threat assessment," which for the first time highlights Central Asia's "unclear political succession plans" and Georgia's prosecutions of former government officials. The 27-page report (pdf) contains three paragraphs on the Caucasus and Central Asia, as it has for the last several years. Last year's report was notable for not even mentioning the possibility of "spillover" of instability from Afghanistan, the favorite bugaboo of regional leaders, Russia, and many parts of the U.S. government. This year's report does mention the possibility, but says that still represents a smaller threat than those generated within Central Asia itself. It also somewhat downplays the threat of interstate conflict compared to last year, the recent flareup of violence on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border notwithstanding.
Central Asia continues to host US supply lines that support operations in Afghanistan, and its leaders remain concerned about regional instability after the Coalition drawdown in 2014. Central Asian militants fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan will likely continue to pose a threat, but sources of potential internal instability in Central Asia will probably remain more acute than external threats. Unclear political succession plans, endemic corruption, weak economies, ethnic tensions, and political repression are long-term sources of instability in Central Asia. Relations among the Central Asian states remain tense due to personal rivalries and disputes over water, borders, and energy. However, Central Asian leaders’ focus on internal control reduces the risk of interstate conflict in the region.
U.S. soldiers construct new facilities in Romania to prepare for the U.S. shifting operations from Kyrgyzstan. (photo: Staff Sgt. Warren W. Wright Jr., 21st TSC Public Affairs)
The U.S. military will start shifting operations away from the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan to a new facility in February as it gradually winds down its presence in Central Asia. The U.S. presence at the new base in Romania, Mihail Kogalniceanu on the Black Sea coast, will also be significantly smaller than that in Kyrgyzstan. That's according to Maj. Gen. John O'Connor, commander of the Army's 21st Theater Sustainment Command, who gave an interview to Foreign Policy about the move.
The mission at MK won't be quite as large as the one at Manas -- a reflection, in part, that the size of the war in Afghanistan already has shrunk. Still, some 400 troops under O'Connor's command will be based there this year to process troops in transit, with the work beginning in days. A team of three colonels will be leading the transit mission at MK. In return for allowing the U.S. transit mission, the Romanian government will get an undisclosed amount of fuel, O'Connor said.
Manas has typically had a permanent staff of roughly 1,400 troops and 200 civilians and contractors working for the Defense Department. Between February and July, when the lease at Manas runs out, U.S. forces in transit could be sent through either Romania or Kyrgyzstan, with the mission eventually shifting entirely to Romania, O'Connor said.
Conflict along the front line between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces has escalated dramatically over the last two days, with Azerbaijani air forces crossing into the air space of the self-declared Nagorno Karabakh republic. Azerbaijan also claims to have destroyed an Armenian vehicle and to have repelled an atempted Armenian incursion across the line of contact. And the Azerbaijani defense ministry has claimed that they overheard commands being given to Armenian forces in a language other than Armenian, suggesting a foreign hand (though what the language was was not specified.) Meanwhile, there are reported civilian casualties on both sides.
All of this has occurred as the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan prepare to meet in Paris, the latest such meeting in a recent renewal of diplomatic efforts between the two sides.
Most of the news from this recent escalation has been coming from Azerbaijani sources, and Armenia has been quiet about the Azerbaijani claims. And Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan on Friday played down the threat of war between the two sides, “I find it less likely as the Azerbaijani leadership has once again got convinced of Armenian soldier’s invincibility and clearly understands that Armenian Armed Forces are always ready to overcome the challenges they face," Ohanyan said.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization, Russia's post-Soviet security bloc, has laid out its priorities for the upcoming year, and it appears that the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan conflict -- the year's most pressing security issue -- remains low on the agenda.
On January 21, CSTO General Secretary Nikolay Bordyuzha gave a press conference in Moscow with the intention of summarizing the organization's goals for 2014. And tellingly, the CSTO's official account of the event contains no mention of the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan conflict. He did, however, speak about it. A report in the Russian official military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda said that Bordyuzha "spoke out against the use of force by CSTO units for the settlement of the conflict between member states of the organization. Speaking of the recent Tajik-Kyrgyz border incident, he expressed the opinion that this is an issue between the two countries and no one, except for them, can resolve it."
And according to ITAR-TASS, Boryuzha said that the organization's involvement has been limited to phone consultations: "We are in constant contact with the heads of government, discussed measures for the containment of this conflict. Today there remain several unresolved questions such as the closure of checkpoints from the Kyrgyz side and the presence on the border of military forces of both republics," he said.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Turkish President Abdullah Gul inspect an Israeli UAV during the KADEX defense exposition in Astana in 2010. (photo: The Bug Pit)
Kazakhstan's defense minister has visited Israel, where he met with officials including President Shimon Peres and discussed what seemed to be an ambitious expansion of military cooperation between the two countries. The focus of the cooperation would be training -- including Israeli soldiers conducting drills in Kazakhstan -- and Israeli technical expertise for Kazakhstan's nascent defense industry. From a Kazakhstan Ministry of Defense press release:
In the sphere of military interaction the President of Israel offered to conduct joint exercises of the Armed Forces of two countries on Kazakhstan firing fields.
In turn, [Kazakhstan Defense Minister] Adilbek Dzhaksybekov noted that Kazakhstan gives special importance to the expansion of investment and technical cooperation with Israel in military industry....
“Today the defining tendency of development of the Armed Forces of Kazakhstan is its professionalization. At the present stage changed forms and methods of warfare and applied them in armaments and military equipment require highly skilled experts - military professionals. In this context, we attach particular importance to the possibility of studying the experience of combat training of the Armed Forces of Israel,” the Minister of Defence of Kazakhstan noted.
An arms cache that Russian and Abkhazian security forces said they discovered in 2012, part of a plot to attack the upcoming Winter Olympic games. (photo: Russian Antiterrorism Committee)
A swathe of Abkhazian territory will be included in part of the large "security zone" being set up in advance of the Winter Olympics taking place in Sochi, Russia, next month. Starting today, anyone entering the zone will have to produce documents to police, according to a report by the Abkhazian news agency Apsny (and translated into English by civil.ge).
“[A] stationary checkpoint” will be established at the village of Bagripshi on the edge of the 11km zone, which will be manned by officers from the Abkhaz security service, interior ministry and migration service.
At this checkpoint the officers will be authorized to check identification cards of persons entering into the extended ‘border zone’ or heading towards the Russian border, as well as to inspect vehicles. Abkhaz law enforcement officers will be carrying out round-the-clock patrols in the villages falling within the zone, according to the decree.
This is a previously unannounced expansion of the already very extensive security zone that Russian security forces have imposed around Sochi. Security fears have mounted as the games approach; Islamist groups from the North Caucasus have vowed to attack the games and last month carried out suicide attacks in the city of Volgograd.
In a peace offering to its erstwhile countrymen, Georgia has renamed its ministry in charge of relations with its breakaway republics to emphasize "reconciliation" rather than "reintegration." While the move has gained praise from Georgia's Western partners, the de facto authorities of the breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, have been less impressed.
In renaming the ministry from "Office of State Minister for Reintegration of Georgia" to "State Minister for Reconciliation and Civil Equality of Georgia." "The term "reintegration" within the title held back communication with Abkhazian and Ossetian communities. The new title is both neutral and inclusive of those two directions and we hope that through introducing a new title, one of the arguments of our opponents will lose relevance," said Minister Paata Zakareishvili in announcing the move. Zakareishvili said that he had been trying to change the name for some time, but that former President Mikheil Saakashvili blocked the change.
The move was intended to help encourage the de facto authorities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to communicate directly to Georgian authorities. But the response from Tskhinvali and Sukhumi, unsurprisingly, was that the move was merely cosmetic, and that a change of tone was not what they were looking for. Boris Chochiev, a senior South Ossetian government official, told the BBC: