An MRAP vehicle, of the type the U.S. is donating to Uzbekistan, undergoes testing. (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
The United States is donating over 300 armored vehicles to Uzbekistan's military, American officials have announced. The deal, the largest ever transfer of military hardware from the U.S. to an ex-Soviet Central Asian states, comes just three years after Washington lifted a ban on weapons exports to Uzbekistan because of the country's poor record on human rights.
In an interview with the Voice of America's Uzbek service, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia Daniel Rosenblum said that the U.S. is giving Uzbekistan 308 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, along with an additional 20 support vehicles.
The possibility of the U.S. donating MRAPs has been discussed for some time now, but it's usually been framed in terms of getting equipment the U.S. discards as it pulls out from Afghanistan. That won't be the case with these vehicles, however, they are instead being delivered from the U.S. and other American military bases abroad under the Excess Defense Articles program, the standard way that the U.S. military gives leftover equipment to allies. Uzbekistan's government is paying the cost to ship them to Uzbekistan, Rosenblum said.
The U.S. has given Central Asian states some used gear under the EDA program in the past, notably patrol ships to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and utility helicopters to Kazakhstan. But this dwarfs any of those transfers. It's not yet clear what variant of the MRAP Uzbekistan will be getting, but the DoD has valued most of the MRAPs it's given away lately at about $100,000 each, which would make this deal worth over $30 million.
There are no camps of terrorists gathering in northern Afghanistan near the borders of Central Asia, an Afghan security official said, in response to a series of claims recently by Russian and Central Asian officials to that effect.
The official, the border service's commander in the north Mir Naim Haydari, added that his agency intends to establish regular contacts with its Central Asian counterparts to exchange operational information about developing issues. He made the comments to Ariana-TV, reported the news agency AfTag. Haydari just returned from a visit to Tajikistan, where he also discussed the issue of the four Tajikistan border guards who were seized by militants in December and are still being held in Afghanistan.
In December, Russia's special envoy to Afghanistan gave detailed information about the supposed existence of ISIS training camps on the borders of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan and the massing of thousands of militants there. That was followed by similar statements by anonymous sources of security services of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to the Russian press, and last week, the head of Tajikistan's Interior Ministry publicly claimed that militants from the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan were massing at Tajikistan's borders.
The defense ministers of Russia and Iran, Sergey Shoigu and Hossein Dehghan, sign an agreement in Tehran. (photo: MoD Iran)
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu has made a rare visit to Tehran, where he and his Iranian counterpart promised "accelerated" military cooperation between the two countries.
Shoigu's visit was the first to Iran by a Russian defense minister in 15 years, and both sides played up the potential geopolitical import of the trip. "Iran and Russia are able to confront the expansionist intervention and greed of the United States through cooperation, synergy and activating strategic potential capacities," said Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan. "The visit to Tehran is a geopolitical movement towards an alliance between Russia and Iran," wrote Rossiya Segodnya analyst Aleksandr Khrolenko. "It's not just the development of military relations between the two countries, but a continuation of Russia's pivot to the East."
The two sides signed an agreement on defense cooperation, which called for joint exercises, port visits by naval vessels, and a joint fight against piracy in the Caspian. But those things were already going on, and it's not clear what new forms of cooperation might be in the works.
Kazakhstani soldiers take part in exercises against "extremist, terrorist and separatist organizations." (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan's armed forces are carrying out exercises against "separatists," citing "geopolitical shifts" as the justification. But while the reference to separatists may make the Kremlin a bit uneasy, the scenario seems to be oriented toward Chinese separatists, rather than Ukrainian.
The exercise is being conducted from January 15-17 by land forces command staff. "According to the scenario of the joint staff training, groups from extremist, terrorist and separatist organizations, disguised as refugees, infiltrate the territory of a hypothetical government," according to a release from the Ministry of Defense. "During the course of the training the soldiers blocked and destroyed illegal armed formations and repelled the invasion."
The "relevance of the training" was the result of "contemporary geopolitical shifts," the MoD added. So what geopolitical shifts is Astana worried about?
The last line seems to point to a Ukraine scenario; as Ukrainian website depo.ua suggests, "ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan complain about 'oppression' and eagerly await the arrival of 'little green men' from Russia." While Kazakhstan has clearly been rattled by the events in Ukraine, and has undertaken serious efforts to shore up its statehood as a result, ethnic Russians are hardly begging for Moscow's intervention.
The move by the U.S. Congress to deny secondhand warships to Turkey could portend an "arms embargo" from Washington, some military officials in Ankara are warning.
Last month, Congress approved the transfer of several naval frigates to Mexico and Taiwan, excluding Turkey -- which had been slated as one of the original recipients -- over concerns about its policies toward Israel and Cyrpus.
While the ships would have been of use to Turkey only as the source for spare parts, the move nevertheless has raised alarm in Ankara, according to Hurriyet Daily News.
“These are almost useless vessels of no strategic importance for the Turkish Navy,” one senior defense official in Ankara told the newspaper. “The Americans know that the ships would not be great naval assets for Turkey. We think the decision not to transfer the ships to Turkey may be reflecting the likelihood of a broader embargo in the future.”
Another official, also speaking anonymously, suggested that the reprisal could go the other way:
A defense procurement official in Ankara said any further U.S. move “that may look like an embargo due to political rifts” would trigger reaction and risk U.S. defense business in Turkey.
“The unfriendly U.S. move came at a time when our U.S. [and European] allies are trying to convince us that going for a Chinese solution in our air defense program is not a good idea. The timing of the frigate decision is puzzling. The Americans know very well which contracts potentially involving U.S. defense business in Turkey could be jeopardized and how much harm that may make to U.S. industry,” said the official.
The Russian soldier accused of killing six members of an Armenian family was captured and will be prosecuted under Russian jurisdiction, in spite of the fact that the base agreement between the two countries appears to give Armenia that right.
Valery Permyakov, a Russian conscript, deserted his guard post at the 102nd military base in Gyumri, Armenia, and shot six members of the Avetsiyan family while they slept. About 24 hours, he was captured near the Armenia-Turkey border and reportedly confessed to the crime.
Russian border guards patrol the border between Armenia and Turkey, and it was officers from that force who arrested Permyakov. Armenian authorities announced shortly thereafter that he would be prosecuted by Russia, not by them:
“Valery Permyakov suspected of the crime is a Russian citizen and has been placed under the control of Russian law enforcement agencies, that is under the Russian jurisdiction. Thus, handing over Valery Permyakov to Armenian law enforcement bodies is not discussed considering the ban enshrined in paragraph 1 of Article 61 of the Russian Constitution, which speculates that the Russian citizen cannot be handed over to another country," according to a press release from the office of the General Prosecutor of Armenia.
Valery Permyakov, a Russian conscript soldier suspected of killing six members of a family in Gyumri, Armenia, in a photo released by the Armenian authorities.
A Russian soldier is suspected of killing six members of an Armenian family after deserting his guard post.
In the early morning hours of January 12, six members of the Avetisyan family were shot and killed in their home. The suspect, Valery Permyakov, was a conscript soldier serving at Russia's 102nd military base in Gyumri, Armenia's second city. Thus far, the authorities have not explained what connection Permyakov had to the family. By evening Armenia time, Permyakov remained at large.
Permyakov's boots, imprinted with his name, were reportedly found at the scene of the crime. Permyakov is from Chita and had earlier served at a military base there, where he tried to escape, one of his fellow soldiers there told newspaper Moskovskiy Komsomolets, adding that Permyakov was a "normal, friendly guy."
Russian defense minister Sergey Shoigu called his Armenian counterpart Seyran Ohanian and expressed his "deep condolences for the family and loved ones of those killed," emphasized that "nothing can justify this kind of violence against innocent people," and promised "all possible help and support of the family of those killed," RIA Novosti reported. Russia's MoD also formed a commission, headed by First Deputy Minister Arkady Bakhin, to investigate the crime.
Tajikistan's armed forces are setting up a new base near the Afghanistan border in response to the apparent massing of fighters on the Afghan side of the border.
The base, to be called "Khomiyon," will be in the Kulyab region. "Tanks, armored vehicles and other weaponry" will be deployed to the base, which "units of all security structures of the country will be able to use for conducting maneuvers," reported RFE/RL, citing a source in Tajikistan's Ministry of Defense. While there is no "immediate threat" from the Taliban fighters apparently massing near the Tajikistan border, Dushanbe still chose to take "preventative measures," the official said.
(Technically, the facility is not a "base" but a "polygon," a Russian word suggesting something smaller than a base, though the report also noted that the polygon would operate "under the regime of a military base.")
An unnamed source in Tajikistan's State Committee on National Security (GKNB) told the Russian news agency TASS that "groups not controlled by Kabul" have massed on the Afghanistan side of the border.
"We are closely tracking the situation close to the border of Afghanistan, especially in the Badakhshan and Pyanj areas, where intelligence has noted a gathering of armed individuals, coming from various extremist and terrorist communities like the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan," the source said.
A senior Kremlin official has warned that the Islamist group ISIS is gathering its forces in northern Afghanistan in preparation for an attack against Central Asia and Russia, and that a wide array of military measures are required to prevent that. But in spite of the alarmist rhetoric, he suggested that the Russian military would not be heavily involved in Central Asia's fight against ISIS.
The official, Zamir Kabulov, is Russian President Vladimir Putin's special representative for Afghanistan, and he gave a long interview to Interfax on the occasion of the end of the Western combat mission in Afghanistan. The ginning up of the ISIS threat isn't new for Russian officials, but Kabulov's interview is noteworthy for its unusual amount of detail. (Whether or not that detail corresponds to reality is another matter.)
According to Russia's information, Kabulov said, a "small group -- maybe a bit more than a hundred fighters" -- was redeployed from ISIS's main base in Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan. But they supplement local fighters loyal to ISIS, he says:
A "spillover" into Central Asia is inevitable, especially considering that all the foundations are there. They have created two beachheads in Afghanistan: one on the border of Tajikistan, and the other of Turkmenistan. There they have concentrated fairly large forces. Let's say on the Tajikistan beachhead there are 4-5,000 fighters concentrated. And on the beachhead opposite Turkmenistan, 2,500 fighters. They have deployed camps for two-month preparation courses for fighters. We know of three such camps, and there may be more. They are training 50 fighters in every course, so if you take at least three camps that we know about, that's 150 fighters every two months. What's interesting is that they are mostly natives of Central Asia.
The USS Halyburton, a guided missile frigate that the U.S. Congress refused to give to Turkey. (photo: U.S. Navy)
The U.S. Congress has approved the handover of some leftover naval vessels to allies, pointedly excluding Turkey from the list of recipients.
In late December, the U.S. finally approved the long-delayed handover of six naval frigates to Mexico and Taiwan. But the bill passed Congress only after Turkey (along with Pakistan and Thailand) were eliminated as potential recipients, for a variety of political reasons.
In the 2012 version of the "Naval Transfer Act," Turkey was to receive two Oliver Hazard Perry class guided missile frigates, the USS Halyburton and the USS Thach, which are being decommissioned by the U.S. Navy.
But the inclusion of Turkey proved controversial, as members of Congress pointed out Turkey's increasingly hostile stance toward Israel and its threats against natural gas exploration by American companies near Cyprus. "I believe we should hold off on sending powerful warships to Turkey and encourage the government in Ankara to take a less belligerent approach to their neighbors," said Representative Eliot Engel during that debate.