The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Serzh Sargsyan and Ilham Aliyev, meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Last month, Azerbaijan appeared to have made a significant concession in its struggle to regain its lost territory of Nagorno Karabakh: it agreed to expand the international mission monitoring the conflict. But Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, newly returned from Moscow where he discussed the plan with his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, is now walking back that promise.
Armenia, as well as the United States, had long pushed for strengthening the monitoring mission, run by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, because the understaffed, underresourced mission is unable to determine who is to blame for the increasingly common ceasefire violations. Azerbaijan, however, had previously argued that increasing monitoring would only serve to solidify a status quo it saw as illegitimate: an Armenian occupation of its land.
It wasn't clear why Azerbaijan had agreed to the concession, but an OSCE statement after last month's meeting in Vienna said the two sides agreed to implement an "investigative mechanism." It wasn't specified what that mechanism would be, but Armenians and other have pushed for devices that could record the origin of gunshots.
The heads of state of the SCO member states at their 2016 summit in Tashkent. (photo: president.uz)
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization's summit concluded with few concrete results and plenty of reminders that the group's members have different visions for where the would-be non-Western bloc should be heading.
At the SCO's 15th anniversary summit in Tashkent, there were plenty of vague declarations about the desirability of greater economic cooperation and stepping up the fight against terrorism, but no new initiatives as to how that might be achieved.
The concrete results of the summit were so meager that Russian President Vladimir Putin was reduced to touting the new SCO Youth Card, "which would offer students discounts on travel, accommodation, and visits to museums and other cultural and historical sites in the member countries."
The much-discussed accession of India and Pakistan as full members of the SCO progressed with the signing of a memorandum of obligation. "We hope that our partners will complete these steps as soon as possible, in time for our next meeting in Kazakhstan," Putin said in his speech. Putin also pushed for Iranian membership: "We think that now that the Iranian nuclear issue has been settled and the UN sanctions lifted, there are no obstacles in the way of a positive assessment of Tehran’s membership application."
South Ossetia will keep its army, its de facto president has said, apparently ending a contentious discussion about dissolving the territory's armed forces and subsuming them into the Russian military.
However, South Ossetia's armed forces will remain heavily dependent on their Russian patrons, who are funding a rearmament program that will make Tskhinvali's military the equal of Russian units, de facto president Leonid Tibilov said in an interview with Russian news agency Sputnik.
"The process of arms and equipment modernization of the Republic of South Ossetia will be launched to reach the level of the Russian Defense Ministry's 58th Army," Tibilov said. He added that the Russian military presence in the territory will not be increased: "Regarding an increase in the number of [Russian] military, I can say that the current contingent is capable of solving the tasks, therefore the issue of an expansion… is not on the agenda," he said.
The future of South Ossetia's armed forces emerged as a controversy earlier this year after the de facto defense minister accused some members of parliament of conniving to dissolve the armed forces. The issue of the military is one of the sharpest in the negotiations between Moscow and Tskhinvali over the level of autonomy that the territory will retain.
South Ossetia broke away from Georgia as the Soviet Union was collapsing, and has been propped up by arms and money from Moscow since then. Georgia attempted an ill-fated attack to get the territory back in 2008, and Russia responded by formally recognizing the territory's independence (though very few other countries followed Moscow's lead).
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov greets his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping upon the latter's arrival to Uzbekistan for the SCO summit. (photo: president.uz)
As the 15th summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is set to start on Thursday in Tashkent, the group is poised to continue its growth, with two new members and five new partners. The group's purpose, however, remains unclear, with its diverse members apparently unable to agree on a consistent agenda.
The biggest headline after last year's summit was that India and Pakistan were invited to join the organization as full members, the first expansion since the group was founded. (The SCO currently consists of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.)
But on the eve of this year's summit, it's not clear what the timetable for their accession is. Their final accession should take place next year, Yuriy Ushakov, a senior adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said. "The process of accepting India and Pakistan into the SCO will enter the final stage and we expect that at the next summit in Kazakhstan, India and Pakistan will be finally admitted into the SCO ranks," he said.
A senior Indian diplomat suggested that the timetable may be looser and hinted that it is dependent on the desires of current member states. “We need to work out what we need to do … As far as India’s pace of accession at the SCO being a function of Russia, China and the four countries of Central Asia, I would say we see ourselves as following fairly flexible multilateralism. So we are quite happy to engage in multiple processes. We have been working with other members of SCO on several other fields,” said the diplomat, Sujata Mehta, at a press conference Wednesday.
A Bulgarian minesweeper takes part in NATO exercises in 2014. (photo: NATO)
Bulgaria's prime minister has said the country will not participate in a proposed joint NATO naval fleet in the Black Sea, slowing the momentum of a project that had thus far received broad support from NATO members and partners.
The move would “turn the Black Sea into a territory of war,” Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said on Thursday, adding that he “wants to see cruising yachts, and tourists, rather than warships.”
“To send warships as a fleet against the Russian ships exceeds the limit of what I can allow,” Borissov told reporters in Sofia on Thursday, as quoted by Bloomberg. “To deploy destroyers, aircraft carriers near Bourgas or Varna during the tourist season is unacceptable.”
The Romanian-led proposal to create a sort of joint NATO Black Sea naval force has the support of Turkey, the United States, NATO headquarters, as well as non-NATO members Georgia and Ukraine.
Bulgaria's refusal could have several causes. For one, presidential elections are coming up and Borissov may be concerned that rival, more pro-Russia parties could use the move against him, said Dimitar Bechev, a Bulgarian political scientist and fellow at Harvard's Center for European Studies. "Most of all, I think he's concerned about domestic repurcussions," Bechev said in an interview with The Bug Pit. He added that Bulgaria could likely eventually join whatever NATO naval force emerges in an "under the radar" fashion
Kazakhstan has announced that it intends to buy new military transport aircraft in response to the militant attack in the western city of Aktobe last week.
Kazakhstan Prime Minister Karim Massimov announced the planned aircraft purchase as part of a series of measures including improving security in airports and train stations and creating an interagency working group on countering extremism and terrorism.
"The prime minister has ordered the Ministry of Defence together with the State Security Committee, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Finance to submit a proposal within a week on the acquisition of heavy-lift military transport aircraft," according to a statement on the government website. The statement didn't provide any more details.
This is a relatively unusual move for Kazakhstan, to announce a military procurement program so clearly in response to a single event, and it underscores the level of concern that Astana is clearly feeling about its ability to deal with these sorts of situations. The Aktobe attacks on June 5 (whose targets included a National Guard base) clearly caught the authorities wrongfooted, and the security services' response has been found wanting.
The U.S.'s primary interests in Central Asia are making sure the region doesn't become a terrorist sanctuary and protecting it from Russian influence, a senior State Department official has testified. The statement suggests a shift in Washington (rhetorically, at least) toward a Central Asia policy oriented toward security and away from political reforms and human rights.
U.S. official statements about Central Asia policy usually describe Washington's interests as threefold: promoting political and economic reform, developing the region's oil and gas resources, and improving security. The introduction to the testimony of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Daniel Rosenblum at a congressional hearing last year was typical:
Since the fall of the Soviet Union nearly 25 years ago, the United States has supported the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence of the states of Central Asia, while also promoting the political and economic reforms that can ensure their long-term stability and prosperity. U.S. security is directly tied to a stable Central Asia. Central Asia’s energy resources and transport corridors can help drive regional and global economic growth in the decades to come. And some of Central Asia’s most serious challenges – such as transnational crime, terrorism, violent extremism, and climate change – affect our national interests as well, and require us to work closely together with them.
Georgian soldiers take part in Exercise Noble Partner with the U.S. and UK in May 2016. (photo: U.S. Army)
Georgia has had to drop out of large-scale NATO military exercises because some of the soldiers slated to go were diagnosed with chicken pox.
This might not be a particularly newsworthy development for most countries but for Georgia, whose NATO membership aspirations are the foundation of its foreign policy, the episode has been controversial and embarrassing. Speculation arose that the chicken pox was just a cover story for Georgia's cold feet and fear of offending Russia, which government officials quickly tried to tamp down. Georgia's National Security Council has promised to take up the issue at its next meeting. And the Russian press eagerly seized on the event with headlines like "In Georgia, chicken pox turns out to be stronger than NATO."
The exercise, Anakonda 16, is taking place in Poland with 31,000 troops from 24 NATO and partner countries. NATO officials are framing the exercise as a "response to potential aggression from Russia against member states along the alliance’s eastern periphery." It will be followed by the alliance's summit in Warsaw, where the question of how to deal with Russia will be at the top of the agenda. Georgia, while not expecting to get an invitation for membership, nevertheless is hoping for "practical support" from NATO in its struggle against Russia.
Kazakhstani naval vessel "Oral" conducts exercises on the Caspian Sea in early June 2016. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan is teaming up with German, Turkish, and Spanish firms to boost its Caspian naval forces, the Ministry of Defense has announced.
The MoD signed a memorandum of intent with the German firm Abeking & Rasmussen for the delivery of corvettes for Kazakhstan's navy. The two sides also discussed establishing a ship-building facility in Kazakhstan. "We are ready to cooperate with the Armed Forces of Kazakhstan and support the establishment of shipbuilding. Our aim - to create in Kazakhstan a modern shipbuilding enterprise, so it can compete at the global level and contribute to quality production," said Thomas Haake, sales director of Abeking & Rasmussen, according to an MoD press release.
In addition, the MoD also signed a memorandum of understanding with Turkish shipbuilder Dearsan to provide corvettes, and with the Spanish company SEAS to jointly produce naval mines in Kazakhstan. It's not clear what the relationship between all of these deals is, in particular the apparent similarity between the German and Turkish deals; none of the companies or the MoD responded to requests for clarification.
Georgian soldiers on patrol in the Central African Republic. (photo: MoD Georgia)
Georgia is seeking to expand its small military contingent in the Central African Republic, even as it continues to wrestle with accusations that some of its soldiers sexually abused children during a previous deployment there.
The European Union has asked Georgia to provide a platoon, or about 20 soldiers, to its new military training mission in the CAR, which is intended to "work towards a modernised, effective, inclusive and democratically accountable Central African Armed Forces (FACA)" and "provide strategic advice to the CAR's Ministry of Defence and the general staff, as well as education and training to the FACA."