Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan meets with CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha in Yerevan. (photo: president.am)
The head of Russia's post-Soviet military bloc has made his first-ever visit to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, checking on the readiness of Armenian troops there. The show of support was made just before Armenia was scheduled to sign an agreement to become a member of Russia's other big Eurasian integration project, the Eurasian Union.
But Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan took the occasion of the visit to criticize the bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, for failing to consistently support Armenia's interests in its conflict with Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh, which Armenian forces control but which de jure belongs to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan's government has repeatedly threatened to take back the territory by force, and Armenia's alliance with Russia and the CSTO is its strongest security guarantee.
"The president underscored that the positions of a number of CSTO partners on issues being of paramount importance to allies, particularly on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, expressed in different international platforms, do not correspond to the common spirit of the negotiation process, contradict the statements and proposals of the OSCE Minsk Group, as well as to the documents endorsed within the framework of the CSTO," Sargsyan's office said in a statement. "[Azerbaijan President] Ilham Aliyev’s bellicose and Armenophobic statements do not rouse a keen response among our CSTO partners which could have suppressed the adventurous desires of the Azeri leadership."
A group photo of the presidents of the six SCO member states, at the 2014 summit in Dushanbe. Will the 2015 photo have two more presidents? (photo: SCO)
After last month's summit in Dushanbe, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization appears poised to finally expand its membership after years of discussion and speculation. SCO members signed protocols for admitting new members, and various officials from member countries have signaled that India and Pakistan will be invited to join at next year's summit in Ufa, Russia.
This would be a watershed move for the organization, which has captured the geopolitical imagination of many around the world who see it as a growing counterweight to Western dominance. That mystique has grown in spite (or perhaps because) of the fact that the group has thus far been more about talk than action.
The SCO is now dominated by two powers, Russia and China, and also includes the Central Asian republics Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Those were the original six members when the group was founded in 2001, and despite many entreaties to join -- in particular by India, Pakistan, and Iran -- the group has never expanded. So why is it doing so now? And will expansion add to the group's clout, or dilute its ability to act?
Russia's interest in SCO expansion is relatively obvious: in the wake of the collapse of its relations with the West, the Kremlin is eager to make it appear as if it has plenty of friends around the world and so doesn't need Europe or the U.S. That's resulted in a renewed enthusiasm in Moscow for the SCO; Russia had previously mistrusted the group as being a possible stalking horse for Chinese expansion into what it considers its own strategic backyard, Central Asia.
A MiG-29 fighter jet and an icon of Mercurius of Smolensk. (Wikimedia Commons; Bug Pit composite image)
The Russian air force has decorated three of its MiG-29 fighter jets based in Armenia with images of medieval Christian saints. "The pilots are sure that the faces of the holy men on the fuselages of the military machines will not only protect them, but will strengthen their martial spirit," the press service of the Southern Military District announced.
One can't help but notice that the three heroes so honored -- Alexander Nevsky, Dmitry Donskoy, and St. Mercurius of Smolensk -- are known for their struggles and martyrdom fighting against the Tatar-Mongol yoke.
"The earthly journey of Prince Alexander Nevsky, Dmitry Donskoy, and the martyr Mercurius of Smolensk was marked with military glory and honor and they became Christian saints. The pilots consider them to be their heavenly protecters," the Russian military announcement continued.
Dmitry Donskoy is best known for his victory in the Battle of Kulikovo, a decisive moment in Russia's throwing off Mongol rule. Russian forces in that battle were famously inspired by an icon of Alexander Nevsky. And Mercurius was martyred after an icon of the Virgin Mary instructed him to attack the forces of Batu Khan which were nearing Smolensk.
That sort of historical reference may gladden the hearts of the MiGs' Armenian hosts, whose enemy, Azerbaijan, are kin to the Tatars. But one wonders how it will be received by Russia's Turkic Muslim allies in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Regrettably, the press service didn't release any photos of the decorated planes.
Economist Farrukh Akhmedov pointed out that a lot has changed for Russia since last year, now embroiled in a war with Ukraine and a confrontation with NATO, and so is in no position to deliver the aid it promised.
"Therefore I don't see any prospect now for the military aid for Tajikistan... It's possible that in time Russia will carry out all its obligations in the plan for economic and military aid, but with the changes in the political arena it's very hard to judge."
The head of the opposition Social-Democratic Party of Tajikistan, Rahmatullo Zoyirov, said that "the agreement only favors Russia, not Tajkistan. Of the announced military aid, only a tenth has been carried out." (It should be noted that the aid was scheduled to be disbursed over a period ending in 2025, so if in fact a tenth has been delivered, that may be ahead of schedule.)
The biggest headline to come out of the weekend's Caspian Sea summit in Astrakhan, Russia, was that the five countries along the sea agreed to prevent any outside military presence from the sea. This has been a longstanding goal of the sea's two biggest powers, Russia and Iran, the result of worries that the U.S. and/or NATO would somehow gain a military foothold on the sea via security cooperation programs with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, or Turkmenistan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, summing up the summit's results and formal declaration, said:
The declaration sets out a fundamental principle for guaranteeing stability and security, namely, that only the Caspian littoral states have the right to have their armed forces present on the Caspian. This was the way the situation developed over history, and we do not seek to change it now. In general, only the five Caspian countries that have sovereign rights over the Caspian Sea and its resources will resolve all matters pertaining to the region.
Turkey has denied claims from a German expert that the country is secretly developing a nuclear weapons program.
The claim, made by Hans Ruhle in the German newspaper Die Welt, is based on circumstantial evidence. But Ruhle, a former senior German defense ministry and NATO official, writes in the piece that Western intelligence circles are "largely in agreement about it."
Ruhle notes that Turkey, working with French, Japanese, and Russian companies to set up nuclear power plants, didn't specify in the contract the terms for delivery of uranium and removal of waste. "The intention behind it is
easy to see: The Turkish leadership wants to keep these parts of the
nuclear program in their own hands - and they are crucial to any State
that wants to develop nuclear weapons... there's just one reasonable explanation: [Turkey] wants to gather material for a [plutonium] bomb." (translation via Google Translate)
The report caused a stir in the Turkish press and the Turkish government, unsurprisingly, quickly disputed the allegations. "The allegation published in the German press on 21 September 2014 that Turkey works on nuclear weapon production has no basis in reality whatsoever," the foreign ministry said in a statement. "Moreover, it is surprising that such reports have been published by the press of a country which, like Turkey, is a NATO member and part of NATO's collective defense system."
Delta's armored vehicle, undergoing testing in Saudi Arabia. (photo: Delta)
A Georgian armored vehicle is a finalist in a tender for the Saudi Arabian military, potentially marking a big step forward for Georgia's young arms industry.
The vehicle is produced by the state arms manufacturer Delta and would be used for medical evacuation. Delta officials say that the contract would be for 600 vehicles in the first year and "a few thousand" over a ten-year period. (Which seems like a lot of medevac vehicles for Saudi Arabia, but...)
And a report Monday in Tbilisi newspaper Kviris Palitra "announced with pride" that Delta's entry beat out several other competitors in trials in Saudi Arabia and is now up against a vehicle from the American company Lenco (presumably this one). From Kviris Palitra:
Aside from the Georgian vehicle, three American and one Saudi Arabian and one United Arab Emirates vehicles “were hammered” in the Arab desert.
In the trial’s first stage, four participants – among them, the famous American OshKosh – gave up fighting, and only the Georgian and American armored vehicles remained for a face-off.
The trials are fairly complicated – in high-temperature conditions, it was necessary not only to cross the desert at high speed, but a mountainous track, too. Delta’s Rapid Armored Vehicle crossed the 300 kilometers with an average speed of 120 kilometers per hour.
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.