U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is interviewed by Kazakhstan's Mir TV in Astana. (photo: State Department)
As United States Secretary of State John Kerry heads home after an unpecedented five-country tour of Central Asia, the U.S. role in the region remains more uncertain than it's been since the 1990s.
The mere fact that the trip happened was the biggest news to come out of it. It was the first time a high-ranking U.S. official had done this five-country tour that has of late become the standard for world leaders (though Japan, India, and China have all sent their presidents, rather than their top diplomat as the U.S. did).
The tour came at a time when U.S. interest in the region seems to be waning as a result of the (albeit now delayed) drawdown from Afghanistan, and so appeared to be an attempt to demonstrate that no, the U.S. isn't gone just quite yet. Also noteworthy -- throughout the entire trip Kerry barely mentioned the much-derided New Silk Road Initiative, which had been the supposed centerpiece of the State Department's post-Afghanistan Central Asia policy.
Kerry's trip also inagurated the "C5+1" format of talks, with the foreign ministers of all five Central Asian states plus the U.S. In an area with remarkably little interregional cooperation, that is actually a genuinely novel and potentially important new platform. But what might it be used for?
Iran's Damavand frigate, which made its first visit to Russia, but skipped a planned trip to Baku without explanation. (photo: MoD Iran)
Iran's navy appears to have quietly scrapped plans to make its first-ever visit to Azerbaijan.
Iranian officials announced earlier this month that a three-ship contingent from their Caspian fleet would be visiting Baku after a stop in Astrakhan for joint exercises with Russia's Caspian Flotilla. The stop in Russia seems to have gone as planned, but on Friday Iranian military officials announced that the ships had returned home to Iran, with no mention of the previous Azerbaijani plans.
"The Iranian fleet of warships comprising Joshan (Shield) and Peykan (Arrow) warships and the hi-tech Damavand destroyer which embarked on a 12-day voyage in the Caspian Sea on October 18 and after conducting joint naval drills with the Russian Navy and berthing at Russia's Astrakhan port returned home today," Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari told the Fars news agency. (It's worth noting that the tour was originally said to be 14 days.)
So what happened to Baku? Although the planned visit was reported in the Azerbaijani media at the start of the trip, there seems to have been no mention since then about the visit or that it had been canceled.
Screenshot of Russian MoD-produced video of launch of Kalibr rocket from the Caspian Sea.
Less than a month after its first-ever launch of a cruise missile from the Caspian Sea, the Russian navy has done it again, this time as part of a large-scale test.
The test, which Russia's military said was aimed at testing its system of its missile command system, involved simultaneous launches of various sorts of missiles from land, aircraft and warships from Kamchatka to Komi to southern Russia.
For Caspian watchers, the most interesting element of the exercise was the launch of a Kalibr missile from the ship Velikiy Ustyug of the Caspian Flotilla. This, recall, was one of the ships -- using the same type of missile -- that participated in the long-range strikes against Syrian targets earlier this month.
That test was widely interpreted as a demonstration of Russia's growing ability to strike targets from long distances. One American naval analyst said the test showed Russia's capacity for "distributed lethality," or dispersing its strike capability around many small sources.
"The Russians are adopting distributed lethality faster than the US,” said the analyst, Bryan Clark, a naval analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, in an interview with Defense News. “The arguments made for distributed lethality are to put firepower on a bunch of smaller ships, have them disperse, in turn increase targeting problems for the enemy, and you may be able to generate the same kind of firepower if you concentrate the platforms."
Tajikistan's government provided the Taliban in Afghanistan with weapons in exchange for the release of four soldiers who had been captured by the Taliban on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, a Taliban official has said.
The four Tajikistani soldiers were captured last December after they got lost hunting for firewood, and were released in June with the help of Qatari mediation. The terms of the exchange weren't announced at the time, but now an unnamed senior Taliban leader, in an interview with the American website The Daily Beast, said that it involved a shipment of weapons from Dushanbe.
The deal was done by the son of a Taliban leader and a scrap metal dealer in Dushanbe, the official said. "In exchange for the guards’ release, the Taliban wanted weapons," the Daily Beast reported. “'Dr. Tahir Shamalzai [the Taliban envoy] traveled from Kabul airport to Dushanbe, inspected the weapons, and crossed with the weapons from Tajikistan into Afghanistan,' a senior Taliban leader tells The Daily Beast."
The details about the arms shipment are unclear: "Our sources use words like 'big' and 'significant,' but won’t go into details," the website reported. "A Taliban sub-commander in Kunduz who goes by the name Qari Omar tells The Daily Beast that the then-commander of forces there, Mullah Rahmatullah, was pleased with the deal."
The Daily Beast frames the event as part of a larger Russian-Taliban cooperation, which seems improbable; the much simpler explanation is that Tajikistan had access to weapons that the Taliban wanted, and needed to get its soldiers back. The Taliban official made no mention of the Qatari role.
A series of airspace violations related to Russian airstrikes in Syria has raised tensions between Russia and Turkey, adding a military dimension to what has long been a political disagreement over how to deal with the violence in the Middle East.
The controversies began shortly after Russia began its air campaign in support of the Syrian government. Turkish authorities said that Russian jets had entered its airspace from Syria on two occasions, on October 3 and 4. Russia claimed the incursion was an accident caused by the weather but Turkish, NATO, and American officials argued that it was intentional.
The point, said Turkish military expert Aaron Stein, was a warning to Turkey to not challenge Russia in Syria. "Turkey's historical adversary [Russia] is intentionally breaching Turkish air space, obviously to send a message to Turkey," he told RFE/RL.
Days later, Turkish military transport helicopters crossed into Armenian air space on two occasions, October 6 and 7. As in the earlier Russian case, Ankara explained the situation by bad weather, but it was widely interpreted as being a retaliatory measure, albeit an understated one, by Ankara. "Armenia was the least challenging place to respond in a deescalated way," said Emil Sanamyan, a regional security analyst, in an email interview with the Bug Pit. "The Russians and Armenians got the point and just ignored it."
Afghanistan's Uzbek leader and vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum has kicked off an offensive in the northern part of the country, just two weeks after traveling to Russia to arrange an increase in military aid.
On Wednesday, Afghanistan's security forces started an operation in the province of Jawzjan, which borders Turkmenistan, led personally by Dostum. The offensive is meant to beat back recent Taliban gains in the north, both in Jawzjan and in neighboring Faryab, which also borders Turkmenistan. Dostum led another offensive in Faryab in August, but his advances were quickly reversed.
Dostum's increasing involvement in the fighting in northern Afghanistan comes as he has also apparently sought to strengthen his ties to the former Soviet states to the north. He visited Grozny and Moscow earlier this month, meeting with officials including Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, to arrange increased Russian military aid.
After arriving in the north, Dostum appeared on Afghan television and publicly thanked his northern neighbors. "The countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, from Russia to Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, all of these states are ready to stand with us against [the Islamic State], against extremism, against the bloody Taliban," he said.
Iran's Damavand frigate, which is making its first visit to Russia. (photo: MoD Iran)
Iranian warships are on a rare trip around the Caspian, calling on their neighbors in Russia and Azerbaijan in a period of new uncertainty for the sea.
Three Iranian vessels are scheduled to berth in Astrakhan, the home of Russia's Caspian Flotilla, on Wednesday. After three days in Astrakhan, the ships will head to Baku and then back to Iran. According to Iranian media it is only Iran's second naval visit to Russia and apparently its first to Azerbaijan.
Russia, the dominant power in the Caspian, makes these sorts of small, friendly naval visits around the sea somewhat regularly. In August, a small contingent of Russian ships visited the Iranian coast and conducted joint exercises.
But Iran's first such visit was in the summer of 2013, and then only to Russia. The visit to Baku isn't the only novelty; this time Iran is sending its new frigate, the Damavand, Iran's most powerful ship on the Caspian which was launched earlier this year.
Although the Caspian is the site of much greater attention these days as a result of Russia's surprise missile launch to Syria, this visit was no doubt planned well in advance. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu visited Tehran in January and on the agenda was more naval port calls.
Flights transiting the Caspian Sea region on Friday, October 16. (photo: flightradar24)
Kazakhstan's Air Astana and other airlines are altering their flight routes over the Caspian Sea after Russian missiles launches from the sea have created an unpredictable security situation.
Earlier this week, Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific announced that it was suspending flights over the Caspian. “In view of the situation in the region Cathay Pacific suspended all flights over Iran and Caspian Sea since last Thursday until further notice,” the airline said in a statement.
But the announcement by Air Astana, the flagship airline of a close Russian ally, is much more significant. The airline announced Friday that it was changing the route of its Almaty-Baku route. "We are now flying by a more northerly route, in the area of Aktau," said company spokesman Tlek Abdrakhimov, local media reported. The route change would add 15 minutes to the flight time. Flights to Tbilisi and Istanbul could be similarly affected, the company said. The rerouting via Aktau suggests that Kazakhstan doesn't see the entire Caspian as a risk, but only the southern part.
On October 9, the European Aviation Safety Agency issued a safety bulletin alerting airlines that there had been "several launches of missiles from warships, located in the Caspian Sea, to Syria on 06 and 07 October 2015. Before reaching Syria, such missiles are necessarily crossing the airspace above Caspian Sea, Iran and Iraq, below flight routes which are used by commercial transport aeroplanes." The agency did not issue a specific recommendation to avoid the sea, however.
Germany's base at Termez, Uzbekistan. (photo: Bundeswehr)
Germany will close its air base in Uzbekistan by the end of the year, German officials have said, marking the end of the fourteen-year military presence in Central Asia.
Earlier this month, Germany's ambassador to Uzbekistan said that the base was only being used as backup and wasn't being used actively. The base, in Termez on the border with Afghanistan, had been used to supply German troops in Afghanistan. Germany's combat mission ended at the end of 2014 (though Germany still has 850 troops in Afghanistan as part of NATO's now training-only mission).
"All particpants were aware from the start that our deployment to Termez wouldn't last longer than the military presence of the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan," Ambassador Neithart Höfer-Wissing said then.
That news was hard to square with the fact that Uzbekistan had just raised the rent of the base last year to 35 million Euros a year, more than double what it had been charging, and was now trying to raise the rent to 72.5 million Euros.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev meets with Chinese defense minister Chang Wanquan in Astana. (photo: akorda.kz)
China is giving new military aid to Kazakhstan and the two countries are planning joint special forces training, as Beijing slowly but steadily increases its military presence in Central Asia.
Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan visited Astana on Monday and met with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Kazakhstani defense officials. There, Chang announced that China was donating some military trucks to Kazakhstan, according to Kazakhstan's Ministry of Defense.
Especially intriguing was the discussion of special forces training: "Training and exchange of experience in the sphere of combating asymmetric threats (training special forces units) is an important aspect of cooperation," the MoD announced. ("Asymmetric threats" is a military euphemism for unconventional warfare like terrorism and guerrillas.) "Kazakhstan is interested in organizing joint events on mountain training, training of military swimmers, actions in urban environments for special forces. In the near future joint tactical antiterror exercises are planned on the territory of China and Kazakhstan."
Kazakhstan has carried out these kinds of training exercises before with China, but it's almost always been within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. These exercises appear to be purely bilateral.
The press release from Nazarbayev's office announced that ties with China are "at a new level of cooperation," and Chang laid on the praise for the president: "We consider you to be a great politician and strategist. You have made a great contribution to the formation and development of Kazakhstan, enjoying enormous authority among the population."