Belarus has been increasing its military cooperation with Russia during the period of the crisis in Ukraine, but analysts argue that is as much as a way to keep Moscow at arm's length as a desire for closer ties.
Earlier this month, Russia sent six Su-27 fighter jets to Belarus's Babruisk airfield, which Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said was prompted by the U.S. sending its own fighter jets to neighboring Poland and Lithuania. “We reacted calmly until large-scale exercises began ... in Poland,” Lukashenko said. “There is a clear escalation of the situation near our borders.”
Meanwhile, however, Belarus's government has been noticeably reluctant to toe Moscow's line on Russian policy in Ukraine. Its foreign ministry has not endorsed the Crimean annexation, unlike many of its fellow Collective Security Treaty Organization members like Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.
As the Belarus Security Blog argued, Belarus considers its military to be a low priority. "In this case, official Minsk decided to demonstrate its loyalty on defense issues in order to neutralize the effect from refusing to follow Russian policy," a recent post said.
Poster promoting a referendum in Transniester. (photo: Odnoklassniki)
With Russia's annexation of Crimea accomplished breathtakingly quickly, is Russia's land grab over? Anyone listening to President Vladimir Putin's speech on Tuesday, with its soaring appeals to restoring Russian greatness might think that Crimea is too small a prize to right all the wrongs that Russia has suffered. And while just two weeks ago further changes to the map of Europe seemed unthinkable, now they seem a very real possibility. "Russian annexation of Crimea is likely to initiate a pernicious cascade within Ukraine and further deepen the conflict," wrote analysts Samuel Charap and Keith Darden in an analysis for Reuters. "It is not a stable end-point for the crisis."
Concern has been raised anywhere that ethnic Russians live, from Estonia to Kazakhstan. Both those are unlikely to be Moscow's next targets, however, Estonia because it's a NATO member and Kazakhstan because its government has been a relatively compliant Russian partner, especially lately.
The new leadership in Azerbaijan's Ministry of Defense has been undertaking a thorough housecleaning of the ministry in the months since the new minister, Zakir Hasanov, took over.
Earlier this month, it was reported that several senior officers were "sent to reserve," meaning they were removed from active duty service. Among those number were former Defense Minister Safar Abiyev and at least seven other high-ranking officers. Jasur Mammadov Sumerinli, a Baku-based defense analyst, told The Bug Pit that the way this usually works is that because many high-ranking officers formally serve only in a temporary capacity, they are not formally fired. In the case of these several generals, they were all removed from their posts in November and December 2013, and just now moved to the reserve.
Separately, President Ilham Aliyev dismissed the commander of Azerbaijan's navy, Vice Admiral Shahin Sultanov and replaced him with Captain 1st Rank Yunus Mammadov, who had been serving as Chief of Naval Operations. (Not long before, interestingly, there were media reports that Sultanov had been arrested, though the MoD denied them)
Members of the Turkish Barbaros naval task group before their departure around Africa. (photo: Barbaros Task Group)
A small Turkish naval flotilla is setting out on a three-month, 28-country circumnavigation of Africa. It will be the first time in 148 years that Turkish ships have rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and an ambitious demonstration of Turkey's rising ambitions in Africa. But the timing of the deployment is awkward, coming just as the security situation around the Black Sea is becoming more precarious.
The blog Bosphorus Naval News has a thorough rundown of what is known so far about the expedition. It will include joint exercises with African navies and coast guards in Nigeria, Congo, Angola, South Africa, and Kenya, as well as with the U.S. in the Gulf of Guinea. Turkish doctors will conduct medical clinics along the way, Turkish military bands will play, and Turkish defense companies will put on exhibits of their products in Ghana, Nigeria, Angola, Tanzania and Kenya.
The deployment, in particular its timing, has raised criticism. One former high-ranking admiral, Nusret Güner, told Hurriyet Daily News: "The Black Sea waters are boiling because of what's happening in Crimea and Ukraine. The United States and Russia are playing chess. They make moves one after another. When there is an imminent risk of clash, it's an unacceptable situation that the Turkish Naval Forces are engaged in an African campaign in a way that they weaken their presence in the region."
Now that Sunday's referendum in Crimea approved the peninsula's annexation to Russia, the authorities in Moscow and Simferopol appear to be on the fast track to changing Crimea's borders, introducing the Russian ruble in Crimea as early as next week (though they say full incorporation into Russia may take up to a year). The opponents of annexation, meanwhile, are working on various fronts, preparing legal defenses and international sanctions.
For now, Kiev and Moscow have apparently agreed on a weeklong truce: "An agreement has been reached with (Russia's) Black Sea Fleet and the Russian Defence Ministry on a truce in Crimea until March 21," Ukrainian Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh told journalists. "No measures will be taken against our military facilities in Crimea during that time. Our military sites are therefore proceeding with a replenishment of reserves."
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.