A cake commemorating the Northern Distribution Network at a 2013 ceremony in Riga, Latvia. Might the Russian flag be removed from future cakes? (photo: The Bug Pit)
The U.S. is already making plans to redirect cargo to Afghanistan if Russia no longer allows the Pentagon to use its territory, a top U.S. military official has said. And it appears that Georgia and Azerbaijan may be poised to benefit if that happens.
U.S. Air Force General Paul Selva is currently the head of Air Mobility Command and the nominee to be the new chief of U.S. Transportation Command, which operates the Northern Distribution Network of supply lines through Russia and other former Soviet states. General Selva had his confirmation hearing this week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, and among the issues he was asked about was contingency plans for the NDN.
"In light of what's happening in the Ukraine, we are -- the president, many of us -- are pushing us for further economic sanctions, other types of sanctions against Russia for their invasion of Crimea," said Senator Kelly Ayotte, a Republican from New Hampshire. "And if the Russians were to take retaliatory action as a result of that to shut down the Northern Distribution Network... what impact would that have to us and how would we address it?"
"That is a priority," Selva said. "If the Russians were to take action to constrain our access to the Russian segments of the Northern Distribution Network, we have other options to move that cargo in and out of Afghanistan," he said. "I'm told about 20 percent of the subsistence cargoes [e.g. food] move through that network, so we'd have to use another option to get it in. We do have several options in the Northern Distribution Network that do not include transiting Russia."
Members of Crimea's "self-defense forces" in Simferopol. (photos: The Bug Pit)
The de facto Crimean government has sworn in its first armed forces, formalizing the "self-defense forces" that sprung up as a result of the peninsula's autonomous government breaking with the Ukrainian central government in Kiev.
The force is commanded by Alexander Bochkarev, a retired Ukrainian Interior Ministry colonel. Estimates of the size of the force vary: Bloomberg cites Bochkarev saying that "their numbers rose to about 15,000 on March 7, when a local hunting club joined with 4,500 members, guns and ammunition." And then:
“We have several arsenals in reserve that are guarded by our Crimean guys,” said Bochkarev, who has 2,800 people under his command. Many of them may join the regular Crimea army that is being formed now, he said.
Crimean authorities started recruiting last week and 186 soldiers have already taken an oath, the Interfax news service reported, citing premier Aksenov. There will be a 1,500-strong army with guns guarding polling stations at the March 16 referendum, he said.
Bochkarev told Russian press, meanwhile, that the size of the force is only 1,500, "and we don't need more."
All of the recruits were “carefully checked because they will be handed weapons,” Aleksandr Bochkarev, head of the Crimean self-defense forces, told RIA-Novosti.
“They have already proven themselves in the people’s militia of Crimea. Each of them had previously served either in the military or in the law enforcement agencies. All of them are fit for military service and possess the necessary skills,” he said...
U.S. sailors aboard the USS Truxtun as it visits Romania during joint exercises in the Black Sea (photo: U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd class Scott Barnes)
In response to the crisis in Crimea, the U.S. has undertaken a number of military moves around the region. While Washington's military deployments are still far from a direct involvement in the conflict in Ukraine, they do raise the stakes, as the U,S, tries to walk a narrow line, reassuring its allies in the region while avoiding provoking Russia into widening the conflict.
In recent days the U.S. has sent 12 F-16 fighter jets to Poland and Lithuania for joint exercises. NATO has started reconnaissance flights over Poland and Romania, NATO members that border Ukraine. “What we are doing is reassuring our allies that we are there for them,” said U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, explaining the F-16 deployment. “This is an important time for us to make it crystal clear to all our allies and partners in the region that the United States of America stands by them.”
Nevertheless, as aviation analyst David Cenciotti noted on his blog, the reconnaissance planes NATO has sent are intended for monitoring air activity, and that has been a relatively minor element of the conflict thus far. "The news would have been much more relevant if platform specialized in mapping ground targets (as the E-8C Joint Stars or the RAF Sentinel R1) were involved in the operation: so far Moscow has mainly employed ultra-low-level flying helicopters that could be difficult to detect even for an E-3 at that distance," he wrote.
A former Soviet submarine base at Balaclava in Crimea. (photo: The Bug Pit)
Russia's Black Sea Fleet base in Sevastopol has long been Moscow's top strategic priority in Crimea. So did the base play a role in Russia's decision to intervene in Crimea?
In 2010, just a couple of months after taking office, then-President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych extended Russia's lease of the Sevastopol base until 2042. And in December 2013, when Russia agreed to a big economic aid package for Ukraine following Yanukovych's decision to drop negotiations with the European Union, Yanukovych appeared poised to accept a long-time Russian demand, that Ukraine drop restrictions on Russia expanding the size and power of the fleet. Russian military expert Dmitry Gorenburg told The Bug Pit at the time that the move was "potentially very significant" and that an agreement "would probably create an environment where subsequent presidents wouldn't be able to prevent replacement."
Yanukovych's acquiescence stood in contrast to that of his pro-Western predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, who had been reluctant to extend the base agreement (which had been valid until 2017), So Russian President Vladimir Putin no doubt was concerned that the new pro-Western authorities who ousted Yanukovych would be less accommodating to the base.
With the crisis in Ukraine showing no sign of abating, the U.S.'s ties with Russia are at their lowest level since the Cold War. But some in the U.S. military are apparently advocating restraint in dealing with Russia for the sake of Afghanistan military logistics. That's according to a piece in the Christian Science Monitor, which quotes U.S. military officials discussing the potential impact of political problems with Russia on the transit to Afghanistan.
The U.S.'s military transit route through Russia and Central Asia to Afghanistan, the Northern Distribution Network, has been a key backup to the shorter, cheaper land routes via Pakistan. For a variety of reasons, the NDN has become a much less busy route over the last year or so. There have been various figures given for the percentage of cargo now transiting Russia from Afghanistan (including as little as less than one percent). But even at a small volume, the NDN plays an important role:
As the US military prepares to draw down in Afghanistan, the NDN – through which some five percent of US military materials are currently being moved out of the country – likely will continue to grow in importance, particularly if President Obama pursues a “zero option” and pulls all US troops from the war by the end of the year.
“That’s why we want to keep the NDN open,” [a] senior defense official says. “We can surge more material up and out through the network if we need to do that.”
However, Russia maintains a financial interest in keeping the NDN going, even despite political problems:
In a time of economic uncertainty, the NDN offers Russia a considerable source of income, in the neighborhood of $1 billion a year.
A Russian soldier launches a "Leer" drone. (photo: Russian Ministry of Defense)
Russian troops in Tajikistan have received surveillance drones designed for "terrain reconnaissance and detection of radioactivity," the Russian military has announced. "The UAVs have substantially raised the military capability of the units carrying out the surveillance mission during day and night," the report said. The UAVs in question are the "Granat," "Zastava," and "Leer." All are relatively small -- the Granat and Zastava are portable. And the Leer is apparently especially designed for "detecting radiation, creating interference for radio signals and suppressing specific frequencies."
It's not clear what radiation threat there may be in Tajikistan, but the small surveillance drones would be consistent with Russia's stated mission of trying to stop the spillover of militants from Afghanistan into Tajikistan. It's also possible that the drones are just for show. As regional security expert Mark Galeotti wrote in a recent analysis in openDemocracy, Russia's belated enthusiasm for drones is partly for show: "Of course, this is the age of the drone, and Moscow must be wanting to achieve parity with its rivals... [I]n 2012, Putin acknowledged that ‘unpiloted aircraft are being used more and more actively in armed conflicts; and I must say, they are being used effectively’ and so ‘we need the full line, including automated strike aircraft, reconnaissance drones and other systems… It is imperative to involve best engineering and science bureaus and centres in this effort.'" But Galeotti notes that Russia is far behind other countries like the U.S. -- by as much as two decades -- and is fast trying to catch up.
While foreign military aid to the countries of Central Asia is unlikely to have a large impact on security in the region, it's unclear whether the positive effects will outweigh the negative ones. That's according to a comprehensive new report (pdf), "External Support for Central Asian Military and Security Forces," written by Dmitry Gorenburg for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (and supported by the Open Society Foundations, which also funds EurasiaNet).
The 90-page paper is the most exhaustive accounting of military aid given to the Central Asian countries. While "Russia remains the main source of military and security assistance for most Central Asian states" the report also looks at American and other countries' military aid, Both the U.S. and Russian aid is based primarily on quid pro quos, Gorenburg argues: for Russia it is for the sake of "basing rights and a certain level of acquiescence on Russian foreign policy priorities" while for the U.S. it's been "assuring continued access for transferring supplies and personnel to Afghanistan."'
Gorenburg notes that the possibility of Central Asian militaries receiving excess U.S. military equipment from Afghanistan is insignificant relative to the amount of attention it gets:
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili in Washington on February 26. (photo: U.S. State Department)
The U.S. State Department has endorsed granting Georgia its long-coveted status as an aspiring NATO member, the Membership Action Plan, on the heels of Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili'shigh-profile trip to Washington. It's not clear whether this represents a substantive policy shift, but it is the first time in recent memory that the U.S. has explicitly come out in favor of MAP.
In response to a recent letter by 40 members of Congress urging the State Department to "advocate granting MAP to Georgia, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State of Legislative Affairs Julia Frifield wrote:
We believe Georgia deserves credit at the upcoming NATO Summit for the progress it has made and its demonstrated commitment to NATO operations and standards. We stand ready to support Georgia's own efforts to build a consensus within the Alliance for granting it a Membership Action Plan.
Now, that isn't the strongest statement ever, and Secretary of State John Kerry's remarks with Gharibashvili repeated what has been the standard Washington line that "We stand by the Bucharest decision and all subsequent decisions that Georgia will become a member of NATO," adding that: "The United States will work to make sure that Georgia’s progress is acknowledged by all members of this year’s NATO Summit."
(It was the 2008 Bucharest summit, recall, where NATO declined to give Georgia MAP but instead said that Georgia and Ukraine "will become members of NATO." And we see how that worked out in Ukraine...)
Georgia's government has quickly approved a proposal to send a contingent of peacekeeping troops on a European Union mission to the Central African Republic, while Turkey is taking its time on making a decision about whether to send its own soldiers.
A little more than a week ago, Georgia and Turkey both began considering participation in the EU mission, which is being quickly put together for deployment some time in March. In that time the Georgian government made a decision to send a company to the CAR and the parliament approved it on a 106-1 vote. The company will deploy in March for a six-month period, Defense Minister Irakli Alasania said in announcing the decision. (It's not clear how big a company in the Georgian armed forces is, but internationally a company is generally on the order of 100 soldiers.)
Turkey, meanwhile, is taking a more deliberate approach. It is sending a "special representative and a humanitarian assessment team" to the CAR this week and will make a decision after that trip. Turkey is sending the assessment team “in order to elaborate how we can contribute effectively to the situation and what has to be done,” said Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu at a meeting Thursday of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Ukraine's post-Soviet neighbors have been closely watching the events in Kiev -- in particular, to see how Russia responds. The spark for the protests was an unusually geopolitical one, President Viktor Yanukovych's abrupt decision to slow down negotiations with the European Union in favor of the Russia-led Customs Union. The "loss" of Ukraine, from the Kremlin's perspective, would be a huge blow to Vladimir Putin's dream of post-Soviet integration, as exemplified by the Customs Union, the Eurasian Union, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. So how might Russia's policies toward the other countries in its orbit change as a result of what happened in Ukraine?
Putin sees the events in Ukraine as the result of destabilization (albeit possibly accidentally) by the West, writes Fyodor Lyukanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs in a trenchant analysis of how the Kremlin is likely looking at the situation in Kiev:
In his view, unrest must be suppressed before it turns into a huge fire. Unrest produces nothing but chaos. A weak state drives itself into a trap. Once a state falters, external forces will charge through the breach and start shattering it until it falls. The West is destructive. It is either unable to understand the complexity of the situation and acts in a primitive way, designating "good" and "bad" players, or it deliberately destroys undesirable systems. The result is always the same - things get worse. The desire to limit Russian influence and hinder Moscow's initiatives is the invariable imperative of the Western policy.