When Foreign Policy magazine reported this spring that Israel was in talks with Azerbaijan over the use of the latter's airfields in order to carry out an attack on Iran, the bombshell report was vociferously denied by officials in Baku and derided by regional analysts. Azerbaijan would seem to not have any interest in such cooperation, and the Foreign Policy report was correctly described as "Washington-centric."
But now Reuters has come out with the same story, but their sources are Azerbaijani and Russian:
[T]wo Azeri former military officers with links to serving personnel and two Russian intelligence sources all told Reuters that Azerbaijan and Israel have been looking at how Azeri bases and intelligence could serve in a possible strike on Iran.
"Where planes would fly from - from here, from there, to where? - that's what's being planned now," a security consultant with contacts at Azeri defense headquarters in Baku said. "The Israelis ... would like to gain access to bases in Azerbaijan."
Rasim Musabayov, an independent Azeri lawmaker and a member of parliament's foreign affairs committee, said that, while he had no definitive information, he understood that Azerbaijan would probably feature in any Israeli plans against Iran, at least as a contingency for refueling its attack force:
"Israel has a problem in that if it is going to bomb Iran, its nuclear sites, it lacks refueling," Musabayov told Reuters.
"I think their plan includes some use of Azerbaijan access.
Russia and Azerbaijan have come to a short-term agreement on the Gabala radar station that Russia operates in Azerbaijan, a "source close to the negotiations" told RIA Novosti.
The new agreement will extend the current lease, currently scheduled to run out in December, for another two to three years under the current terms. Azerbaijan has been playing hardball with Russia, reportedly asking for the rent to be raised from the current $7 million a year to $300 million. Russia, meanwhile, wanted to extend the lease to 2025.
Azerbaijan really holds all the cards in this scenario: it has no use for the radar and mistrusts Russia, which backs Armenia in the conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh. But Russia, of course, is the more powerful country and still has various means of throwing its weight around in Baku should it want to. This new arrangement seems to suggest that Russia is planning to leave Gabala after this brief extension expires. But Russia needs the Gabala radar a bit longer, while tension around Iran is high (Gabala covers the airspace over Iran) and newer radars are still under construction. Russian analyst Alexander Karavaev tells RIA Novosti:
"Judging from this announcement, Russia can still refuse to prolong the rent after this period, in two-three years. Most likely, [the radar] will remain while there is a high degree of tension around Iran, and while a new generation of radar stations are being deployed to the south," said Karavaev, referring to new, more capable radars that Russia is in the process of setting up in the North Caucasus.
Photographer Mari Bastashevski has started an ambitious new investigative project, "State Business," which she calls "an art project about the conflict arms trade." And her first subject is a series of arms shipments which appeared to be headed for Nagorno-Karabakh:
In the spring of 2010 the arms tracking community had picked up on a number of suspicious flights headed for Armenia, 39 in total. The flights continued at even intervals well into February 2011. All of them were Ilyushin IL-76s. The planes left Podgorica [Montenegro] airport for Armenia’s ‘Erebuni’ military airport. It was estimated that the arms were intended for the troubled Nagorno-Karabakh region, which saw a wave of border incidents and heightened tensions at the time.
The flights didn’t simply tip-toe past the guards in the middle of the night. Because… well- not Hollywood. There was obviously a ton of paperwork to get these off the ground. Although airports and aviation authorities keep copies of flight documentation for a period of time, in Montenegro (not exceptionally) such documentation is rather well hidden under the umbrella of “National Security,” which is evoked each time secrecy is convenient.
Over the past few years, military aid has taken up an increasingly large portion of total U.S. aid to Central Asia, from around 5 percent throughout the 1990s to more than 30 percent since 2007. But that aid hasn't been closely examined, a situation I attempt to rectify in a new report (pdf), "U.S. Military Aid to Central Asia: Who Beneﬁts?" The report focuses on aid to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Among the findings:
-- U.S. training and equipping aid focuses on special forces, including OMON and Alfas, and on occasions when those forces may have acted in ways contrary to stated U.S. interests, U.S. officials have tended to not take an active role in investigating those incidents and continue to support those units.
-- The pattern of aid shows a clear pattern in which the aid increases when Afghanistan is a high priority in Washington, right after the September 11, 2001 attacks and in 2007-8, when U.S. focus again began to turn from Iraq to Afghanistan. That (among other evidence) suggests the aid is intended less as assistance for Central Asian security forces, than as a form of payment for those countries' cooperation in the war in Afghanistan.
-- U.S. claims that the aid is intended to foster the promotion of human rights by Central Asian security forces has been undercut by the decision to resume military aid to Uzbekistan. “It makes the people mad that we do anything with them. They say, ‘Really? Here [in Kyrgyzstan] you talk about human rights, they’re [in Uzbekistan] not so good at it,’” said a U.S. military official currently working on security cooperation with Central Asia. “The desire
to work with people outweighs the desire to do the right thing sometimes.”
Georgia says a Russian military buildup on the de facto border between South Ossetia and Georgia proper is intended to destabilize the country ahead of October 1 parliamentary elections. Georgia accusing Russia of nefarious deeds is nothing new, of course, including in connection with its elections. But over the last few days those accusations have become more specific and pointed.
For one, there are the Kavkaz-2012 military exercises, which Saakashvili said were timed in order to interfere with Georgia's elections:
“I know well what is happening in respect of Georgia in the condition when there is Russian money, Russian methods, Russian compromising materials and Russian army, deployed near our borders holding very dangerous military exercises, under conditions when the occupant of our territories has vowed to accomplish in next few weeks and months what it failed to do in 2008 and to use elections for this purpose,” Saakashvili said.
(For what it's worth, when Thomas Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, testified before a Congressional committee last week, he was asked if he thought the Kavkaz-2012 exercises were intended by Russia to influence Georgia's elections, and he said he didn't.)
Russia's transit hub at Ulyanovsk is ready to go and is only awaiting NATO, said President Vladimir Putin's special representative for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov. The facility, which would help NATO move equipment in and out of Afghanistan, has been under discussion since the beginning of this year, and was finally approved by the Kremlin in June. Now it's ready for use, Kabulov said, according to Interfax:
"The Ulyanovsk transit-transshipment point is in principle already ready to handle cargo and transfers," Kabulov said... "We gave the NATO people permission, and now it depends on whether they want to use it."
Kabulov added that the transit through Russia would be more expensive for NATO than through Pakistan, but it would be more reliable: "Everything gets there [via Russia], but there [through Pakistan] it doesn't, as experience shows."
It remains unclear what role Ulyanovsk would play in U.S./NATO plans for Afghanistan transit. Its main virtue is that it is multimodal, meaning that goods can easily be transferred from airplane to truck or train (or vice versa). But the U.S. and NATO already have a backup to Pakistan -- the Northern Distribution Network, set up to ship everything by land via Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia. So is Ulyanovsk a backup plan in case things go south on the Central Asian portion of the NDN?
Officials in Washington believe that, in spite of irregularities during the run-up to Georgia's parliamentary elections, the vote will be competitive because the opposition has money to overcome obstacles erected by incumbent authorities, a US State Department official said.
EU monitors observe the de facto Georgia-South Ossetia border
For the past several days, South Ossetia's de facto government has been warning about a Georgian military buildup along its border. On Tuesday, South Ossetia's president said that "Georgia is preparing seriously for a war," building up fortifications and arms stores. The following day, an "analysis" by the de facto government's press service suggested that Georgian President Saakashvili was planning to provoke a war to boost his party's prospects in upcoming parliamentary elections. On Thursday, South Ossetia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned that Georgia was positioning heavy weaponry, including multiple-launch rocket systems and armored vehicles, along the border.
But now the European Union Monitoring Mission, which keeps track of events along the border, said there's no such thing -- and noted that in fact Russia is building up its own forces along the de facto border:
In recent days, there have been claims about a possible change in posture of Georgian security personnel at the South Ossetian Administrative Boundary Line. The EU Monitoring Mission has been intensively engaged in monitoring and assessing these reports with the deployment of extra patrols and has been checking the situation with the relevant authorities. The Mission has not observed any evidence to support these claims. However, EUMM has further increased its patrolling to actively monitor the situation on the ground.
The EUMM has at the same time observed a build-up of Russian Federation armed personnel along the South Ossetian Administrative Boundary Line. The Mission has raised its concerns about this activity with the relevant Russian command structures.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei speaks to military leaders in the Caspian city Nowshahr
While the U.S. leads countermine naval exercises in the Persian Gulf, Iran is practicing laying mines in the Caspian Sea, state media reports. Via Reuters:
[Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei visited the northern coastal city of Nowshahr on Tuesday to watch naval cadets practice planting mines, freeing hijacked ships, destroying enemy vessels and jumping from helicopters, his official website said.
“The armed forces must reach capabilities such that no one can attack the strong fence of the country and the dear people of Iran,” Khamenei told army commanders, according to the Iranian Students News Agency.
Iran has been building up its navy in the Caspian, but it's conducted a lot of training on the sea for a long time, even though almost all of its strategic interests are in the Persian Gulf. Since none of the countries around the Caspian want anything to do with an attack in Iran, the Caspian is unlikely to play much of a role in a potential war there -- except, perhaps, as a practice ground.
A Kazakhstan soldier takes part in the CSTO exercises in Armenia
The Collective Security Treaty Organization has wrapped up its annual military exercises, held this year in Armenia, with the group's general secretary saying the group needs to create its own military forces, including air forces, in Central Asia. But at a time of heightened tensions in the Caucasus, the drills took a relatively low profile.
Not much has been said about the scenario of the exercises, called "Interaction-2012," the first of the CSTO to be held in the Caucasus. The scale of these exercises was much smaller than last year's -- about 2,000 troops, compared to 24,000 last year spread out over several countries, half in Central Asia and the other half in Belarus. (The CSTO is led by Russia and also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.)
It was an interesting time for the exercises to be held in Armenia, just after tensions spiked as a result of the extradition and pardon of Ramil Safarov, the Azerbaijani soldier who killed an Armenian colleague at a NATO event in Hungary. There has been a lot of speculation about whether the CSTO would come to the aid of Armenia in the event of a war over Nagorno Karabakh. Armenia actually postponed the start of the exercises a week, from September 8 to September 15. No explanation for the delay was given, other than that it was due to "technical reasons," but it's no small matter to reschedule, at the last minute, a multi-country military exercise. The announcement of the delay was August 30 -- and the next day, Safarov was released. Was there a connection?