The number one topic of conversation among Washington's small band of Central Asia watchers -- and the much larger band of Central Asian Washington watchers -- is about what will happen to U.S. policy in the region after the U.S. pulls its forces out of Afghanistan. U.S. policy in Central Asia over the last decade has been so dominated by the war in Afghanistan that's it's hard to imagine any more what the U.S. interest in the region might be absent that. And a couple of recent discussions in Washington provide a view both of the public and the behind-the-scenes conversations that are going on about this -- and highlighted the huge divide between what the U.S. says officially about its future policies toward Central Asia and what it is really thinking about.
One discussion, at the think tank New America Foundation, featured newly appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Fatema Sumar discussing "Regional Connectivity in South-Central Asia." As that title implies, it was all about the U.S.'s New Silk Road Initiative. The U.S.'s New Silk Road has taken enough beatings in this blog and elsewhere that there is little need to kick it when it's down. (Still, another takedown piece was published recently by Eugene Imas in The Diplomat, "The New Silk Road to Nowhere.") But one part of Sumar's presentation stood out:
Russian President Vladimir Putin, during his December 19 press conference. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Georgians wanted Russian soldiers to "take" then-president Mikheil Saakashvili during the 2008 war over South Ossetia, Russian President Vladimir Putin said.
During his marathon press conference Thursday, Putin was asked by a reporter from Georgian television station Rustavi-2 about Russia-Georgia relations. As he did with many questions, Putin took the opportunity to hold forth at some length, and he described the very warm feelings he had for Georgian people, and that Georgians and Russians have for one another generally. Most intriguingly, he suggested that Georgians were rooting for Russia to defeat Georgia, or at least Saakashvili:
Even during the most difficult time, when fighting was underway in the Caucasus [reference to the August, 2008 war], relations with the Georgian people were very good. And it was confirmed even during those difficult days and hours and demonstrated in attitude of Georgians themselves towards Russia. Don’t remember if I have ever said it publicly, but in one of the towns a grandpa approached our soldiers and told him: ‘What do you want here? What are you looking for here? Go over there – Tbilisi and take Mishka [referring to then President Mikheil Saakashvili]’.”
“You know we had losses among our military servicemen. Aircraft was downed, a pilot ejected and landed somewhere; a Georgian babushka approached and told him: ‘Come here son’; she took him and fed him. Then he was sent towards the Russian military."
The agreement, signed by Presidents Vladimir Putin and Viktor Yanukovich on Tuesday, includes provisions for "development of the social-economic sphere of Sevastopol," the Crimean city where Russia's Black Sea Fleet is based. It also provides for the "resolution of problems of taxation" and customs control for equipment for the Russian forces aimed at "limiting border, customs, and other types of government control.
But probably the most important provision related to the Black Sea Fleet is that the two sides agree to "start negotiations on preparation of a bilateral agreement on replacement of weaponry and military equipment" of the fleet. This has been the most contentious issue between the two sides, whether Russia will be allowed improve the level of equipment for the fleet or simply replace old ships with newer versions of the same class. Russia has wanted to expand the fleet, while Ukraine wants Russia only to be able to replace like with like. Although there aren't specifics (at least in the version of the agreement publicly released), Russian military expert Dmitry Gorenburg told The Bug Pit that just the agreement to start discussing replacement of equipment is "potentially very significant" and that an agreement "would probably create an environment where subsequent presidents wouldn't be able to prevent replacement."
A sale of Turkish howitzers to Azerbaijan seems to be back on after the German company that made the weapon's engine blocked the sale because of restrictions related to its frozen conflict with Armenia.
Deliveries of Turkey's T-155 howitzer to Azerbaijan will start next year, the cannon's manufacturer told Azerbaijan news agency APA. But it's not yet clear who will provide the engine, given that Germany refused. Much speculation has centered around Ukraine, but another interesting possibility is Japan. Last month, a Japanese newspaper reported that Turkey and Japan were cooperating on an engine for Turkey's Altay tank, which had the same Azerbaijan-export problem with the same German enginemaker, MTU.
"[The joint development of defense equipment] is one issue that will be discussed within the relationship between Japan and Turkey," Japan's Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said at a press conference last week, following which Japan's Asahi Shimbun reported, based on anonymous sources, that the cooperation being considered by Japan and Turkey involves a joint venture between Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and a Turkish company to manufacture engines for tanks....
“If Germany wanted to introduce limitations on Turkey's exports regarding the engine, then Turkey may have wished to cooperate with Japan,” Erdoğan Karakuş, a retired three-star general, told Today's Zaman. Noting that the costs of production for Altay would be too high for Turkey if Turkey cannot export the tank, he underlined that the “contribution of the Altay project to the local defense industry would also remain rather limited in such a case.”
Khorog, the city in eastern Tajikistan which saw fighting last summer between residents and security forces from the central government, has again become the site of tension, highlighting the mistrust that locals and Dushanbe still have for one another.
The latest episode was sparked November 29, when police and officers from the State Committee on National Security (GKNB) attempted to arrest a Drug Control Agency officer, Sherik Abdulamidov. Police say around 10-20 associates of Abdulamidov interfered with the arrest; locals say the police provoked the incident. "The security forces did not present a warrant, broke down the door, and opened fire when people began to complain about the unlawful activities of the special services. The citizens' response was provoked by the behavior of the law enforcement officers," one resident, Muboriz Akhdodshoyev, told the BBC's Russian service.
In the resulting "riot" (to use the words of the state prosecutor's office) six law enforcement officers were injured and two of their cars were burned. And the prosecutor has opened a criminal case against the people who fought with the police, but a source in Khorog told The Bug Pit that locals are not cooperating with the investigation and so police and GKNB have not been able to locate the perpetrators.
"Trust in the authorities was badly undermined by the July events in the Pamirs, so now residents of the region respond very cautiously to any action by government officials. It's necessary to restore that lost trust," a local human rights activist, Nabot Dodikhudoeva, told the BBC.
A delegation from Uzbekistan visited Washington this week as the two countries try to figure out how the impending withdrawal from Afghanistan is going to affect their relationship. The content of the discussions, part of the annual high-level talks that the U.S. has with every Central Asian country, were kept very quiet, but no doubt focused heavily on security issues.
"No new deals, agreements, just heart-to-heart discussions between U.S. and Uzbekistan -- I hear Russia's pressure on Central Asia was a big topic," said Washington-based Voice of America Uzbek service reporter Navbahor Imamova on twitter (edited slightly to detwitterize).
The talks included Uzbekistan Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, as well as officials from the Pentagon, White House, and Congress. The State Department statement on the talks, naturally, didn't mention Russia. "The participants discussed all aspects of the U.S.-Uzbekistan relationship, including political developments, regional stability and security, human rights and labor, education and cultural exchanges, and economic development and trade. The United States looks forward to broadening and deepening its relationship with Uzbekistan on the basis of these candid and constructive conversations."
Russia's assessment of the prospects for a smooth transition in Afghanistan are dim -- and getting worse, the country's ambassador to Tajikistan said. Russian ambassadors from the Central Asian states and Afghanistan met in Tashkent and Igor Lyakin-Frolov, Moscow's envoy to Dushanbe, took the occasion to give an interview to Russian newspaper Kommersant.
Lyakin-Frolov's view was grim: "If a few months ago the prevailing view was that the situation in Afghanistan was more or less normal and a direct threat to Tajikistan wasn't seen, now the prognosis is becoming more and more pessimistic," he said.
The "threat" from Afghanistan has been the driver (or, perhaps, the pretext) for Russia's recent push to build up its security presence in Central Asia. It's been boosting the presence and capability of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, including building up a joint CSTO air force and using the CSTO to provide technical assistance to Tajikistan's border forces. And Lyakin-Frolov's comments are some of Russia's most explicitly pessimistic.
His "most favorable" scenario of how things may turn out is not actually very favorable: "The most favorable scenario supposes that the current government will barely hold on in Kabul and in the majority of provincial centers with the support of the U.S. and NATO contingents. There are also less favorable scenarios which suppose that a full-scale civil war can start, which would threaten the integrity of the Afghan government and likewise, the security of the countries of Central Asia... and, correspondingly, the security of Russia. So we need to prepare."
U.S. troops patrol the Torkham Gate on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. (photo: Spc. Hillary Rustine, Combined Joint Task Force 1)
While the U.S. has suspended its military transportation across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, that does not have any effect on traffic through Central Asia, a Pentagon spokesperson has told The Bug Pit.
In a protest against U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, supporters of Pakistani politician Imran Khan have imposed a sort of vigilante blockade of U.S. and NATO cargo across the border to Afghanistan. "Protesters have taken the law into their own hands deciding who can pass and go on to Afghanistan, and who can't," the BBC reported. "They have been harassing truck drivers and turning back vehicles carrying Nato provisions."
As a result, the U.S. has "voluntarily halted US shipments of retrograde cargo" through Pakistan, the Pentagon announced. In the past, that has meant a big boost for Central Asia: when Pakistan closed the border in 2011, it took close to two years to fully restore traffic. In the meantime, the U.S. was paying an extra $100 million a month to ship its goods via the longer, more difficult Northern Distribution Network.
But that's not happening this time (at least yet), Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright told The Bug Pit. He said that the small amount of traffic via the NDN has not been affected by this latest move:
Armenians may have been troubled by Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to their country, as it seemed to be an exhibition of Russia's tightening grip on Yerevan's foreign policy. But in Azerbaijan, the visit occasioned a different sort of fear: that Putin was confirming Russia's military support for Armenia in a potential conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
One military expert in Baku, Uzeyir Cafarov, said that Putin's support for Armenia would increase the risk of conflict. "We must be extra careful regarding the situation on the front line in January and February. It is possible that local clashes will take place on the front line. Russia continues to play double games. We must not give in to this and must bring into Russia's attention that its position on the Karabakh conflict is biased," Cafarov told the newspaper Azadliq, according to a BBC Monitoring report.
And member of parliament Zahid Oruc told sia.az (also via BBC Monitoring), "With this visit and by increasing the number of Russian troops in Armenia, Russia is stimulating the regional arms race and pushes others to this. This is a threat to the lasting peace in the region."
Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze meets with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (photo: NATO)
At this week's NATO foreign ministerial meetings in Brussels, the alliance's secretary general had effusive praise for aspiring member Georgia. Praising recent "free, fair and inclusive" elections, Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that "Georgia serves as a model for the wider region." And in his mostly widely quoted comments, he said that "In the five years since we created the NATO-Georgia Commission, Georgia has moved closer to NATO."
As one wag on twitter put it, Rasmussen's statement could as easily have been made in 2005 or 2007 as today. And indeed there is a bit of the Zeno's paradox to Georgia's NATO progress, continually getting "closer" while seemingly having to way to actually arrive.
And trying to play the spoiler, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was in Brussels as well. And in a press conference there he described NATO expansion as a continuation of the Cold War. Via Civil.ge:
Lavrov said that NATO enlargement, not only in the context of Georgia but in general, represents “continuation of Soviet-old inertial logic of the ‘cold war’.”
“It implies not only preserving the dividing lines, which we have all committed to remove, but it’s also implies moving them [these lines] further to the East, which fundamentally contravenes commitments that we have undertaken at the highest level on indivisibility of security,” Lavrov said. “No one should take steps creating risks to the security of partners.”