The White House is getting soft on Uzbekistan for the sake of access to military transport routes to Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch charges:
According to congressional sources, the administration wants Congress to adopt language that would allow the secretary of state to waive existing human rights-based restrictions on US assistance, including military aid, to the Uzbek government. The waiver would be intended to help secure a deal the United States is negotiating with the Uzbek government to provide the US enhanced military access to Uzbekistan to support its operations in Afghanistan...
“The US has an interest in enhancing its supply routes to Afghanistan, and the Uzbek government profits handsomely from existing transit agreements, so both have strong reasons to continue and expand them,” Williamson said. “The United States should not be sacrificing human rights conditions to reach an agreement on access that both sides ultimately want.”
The U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi believed that the Georgian government was "overly focused" on getting American weapons, according to a cable written in February 2010, in advance of then-Afghanistan envoy Richard Holbrooke's visit to the country, and released by Wikileaks:
It is hard to overestimate the extent to which an intense climate of insecurity permeates Georgian society and political culture. Russian forces, located as close as 25 miles outside of Tbilisi, are building permanent bases and Georgians hear a steady drip of Russian statements alleging Georgian aggression or announcing the latest step in incorporating Abkhazia into Russia's economy. Moscow's statements suggesting that Georgia is planning provocations in the North Caucasus have raised fears among Georgian officials that Russia is looking for another pretext. Tbilisi, in turn, is overly focused on weapons acquisition as an antidote to its jitters. It fears our approach to defense cooperation (heavily focused on developing the structures and processes to assess threats, develop appropriate responses and make informed decisions about use of force before moving to acquisition) is a trade-off to secure Russian cooperation on other issues, such as Iran. ... Your discussion of our broader efforts with Moscow will help reinforce with Saakashvili that we do not see this as a zero-sum equation - and that Georgia also benefits from Moscow's cooperation on the wider agenda.
Azerbaijan's defense minister told U.S. officials that the country was interested in "active cooperation with NATO up to full membership" but couldn't say so publicly, according to a diplomatic cable recently released by Wikileaks. The cable recounts a 2007 meeting between Defense Minister Safar Abiyev and a U.S. delegation from the Pentagon and State Department headed by then-Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Peter Rodman:
Abiyev said that Azerbaijan's cooperation with NATO had a goal in mind. He said that this goal "could not be announced, for certain reasons" at present, but that Azerbaijan sought "active cooperation with NATO up to full membership". He said that the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was the only inhibitor of Azerbaijan moving even more quickly with NATO: "It is time for more serious, more active steps by the US in Minsk Group. Our cooperation with the US and NATO would be more open and more decisive in this case."
There is ample reason for suspicion here. It's not clear what the "certain reasons" for Baku's reticence were, perhaps the fear of a bad Iranian or Russian reaction, an issue that's frequently cited in the cables from Baku. There is reason to doubt the sincerity of that fear (see below). But even if you take the Azerbaijanis at their word, if you can't even announce publicly that you want to join NATO, the obstacles are so daunting as to make any such wish meaningless.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has visited Tajikistan, and with his counterpart Emomali Rahmon, announced that the lease on Russia's military base in the Central Asian country will be extended for 49 years. Said Medvedev at a joint press event:
We discussed today the completion of work on extending the agreement between our countries on the presence of a Russian military base on Tajikistan’s territory. We agreed to instruct our relevant agencies to have a new forward-looking agreement extending the base’s presence for 49 years, ready for signing in the first quarter of 2012.
I think that this kind of agreement must be carefully put together, and at the same time needs to reflect the balance of interests between the two sides. In any case, Mr Rahmon and I reaffirmed our desire today to reach a final agreement on this matter within the timeframe I just named.
Russia has been thinking long-term with its military presence abroad, signing deals of similar length with Armenia and Ukraine. But the real story between Russia and Tajikistan will be whether the former is willing to pay to keep the base. Tajikistan's government has said it now expects Russia to pay for the base, but Russian analyst Arkady Dubnov, in a recent interview with IWPR, says he doesn't think Russia will agree to that:
The railroad connecting Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, with the Uzbekistan border town of Hairatan, has opened, putting into operation a key node of the U.S. military's overland transport route through Central Asia to Afghanistan. reports Central Asia Online:
TASHKENT – Service began last weekend on the long-awaited Hairatan-to-Mazar-i-Sharif railway.
Uzbekistan Railways (UTY) built the route, which was scheduled to open in July before contingencies forced a postponement.
“We have been working out the route’s status as well as who will run it and how (since early July),” said Rasul Holikov of UTY.
Uzbekistan and Afghanistan signed a three-year cortract August 4 under which Uzbekistan will provide commercial services and operate the 75km railway.
Curiously, the report doesn't mention the military origins of the railroad, even though the website is run by US Central Command. It does, at the end, refer lightly to the security issues related to operating a train in Afghanistan:
“I drove a locomotive through all of the stations up to Mazar-i-Sharif,” said Umid Hursandov, a UTY engineer. “Like all other the new railways built by our company, (it) is reliable and meets all standards. Many railway workers in our country are worried about their safety if they work this route. Of course, it would be foolish not to recognise that tension in the region persists, but I saw sound security along the entire railway and soldiers were guarding every crossing and important railway yard.”
It's also curious that no one else seems to be reporting this, but anyway, for more on the military aspect, see this previous post.
A Russian military expert has argued that Russia should completely scrap its Caspian Sea Flotilla, saying there is no practical purpose for the military presence there and that Russia's thinly spread resources would be better used elsewhere. Mihkeil Barabanov, editor of the Moscow Defense Brief, argues that Russia needs to rethink its entire naval structure, in an article in the Journal of Slavic Military Studies (behind a paywall). And that means getting rid of the Caspian Fleet, he writes:
At present, the existence of the Caspian Flotilla does not make any practical sense because of the weakness of the naval forces of all the other Caspian states and the absence of any real missions with respect to the combat use of the flotilla. If necessary, Russia will be capable of transferring the necessary forces and means to the Caspian from all three fleets in the European part of the country or calling on border forces and aviation.
Russia can transport ships of a certain size from the Black Sea via the Volga-Don canal, and Barabanov recommends keeping the Black Sea Fleet. His logic is, Russia is most likely to fight conflicts with the U.S. or its Western partners, and/or with anti-Russian governments in former Soviet states. Those are conceivable in the Black Sea (with Georgia, of course, but also possibly Ukraine) but not really the Caspian.
I asked Dmitry Gorenburg about that idea for the Caspian, and he disagrees with Barabanov:
With Azerbaijan's confirmation of its purchase of a new air defense system from Russia, the S-300, by displaying it at its Armed Forces Day parade in Baku a few weeks ago, it "instantly becomes the most capable SAM [surface-to-air missile] system in the region," writes air defense analyst Sean O'Connor in the latest edition of the IMINT & Analysis newsletter.
The most intriguing part of the sale is that Azerbaijan's foe, Armenia, is a strong military ally of Russia; Russia stations troops at a big base in Gyumri, Armenia, and supplies heavily discounted weapons to the Armenian forces (and by extension, the Armenians who control the breakaway Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno Karabakh). All that, no doubt, was part of the reason that Russia denied that the sale had taken place, only to be proven wrong in a flashy parade in central Baku:
Regardless of Russia’s motivations for keeping the sale out of the public eye, Rosoboronexport’s public denial of the contract represents an interesting occurrence. On one hand, Rosoboronexport’s implications may have been completely accurate if a complete contract did not exist at the time of announcement. Finalization of the contract and subsequent non-announcement to temper Armenian concerns represents a logical course of action in that regard. On the other hand, however, the following statement represents a factual description of the Azeri Favorit situation: the press reported a sale, Rosoboronexport denied a sale, and Rosoboronexport then delivered Favorit components to Azerbaijan.
This incident will serve to cast doubt upon any future denials of Russian military sales to foreign states, leaving observers to ask the question: “what is really going on?”
A top Indian Air Force official visited Tajikistan last week and announced that "India is ready to build and equip a modern hospital for Tajik military officers," Asia Plus reports. When we used to discuss India's military and Tajikistan it was about the prospect of India setting up an airbase at Ayni. But Russia appears to have put the kibosh on those plans, and Tajikistan officials said that Ayni was not a topic of discussion during the Indian delegation's visit:
Tajik Foreign Ministry said current visit of India’s top military officials to Tajikistan is not connected to possible transfer of Tajikistan’s Ayni military airdrome to India.
Davlat Nazriev, Head of the Tajik Foreign Ministry’s Information Department, said this issue will not be discussed during India’s top air force officials visit to Tajikistan.
Setting up a military hospital, though, seems to be in line with the Indian military's new soft power strategy in Central Asia. A few weeks ago, India's defense minister announced that the country would be establishing a high-altitude military research center in Kyrgyzstan, as well as to begin training Kyrgyzstan's soldiers for United Nations peacekeeping missions. That seems to be a smart tack for India: they'll build relationships with the region's militaries without provoking Russia into reacting against them. It's not as splashy as an airbase, but in the long run it will probably be more productive for them.
South Ossetia's president has invited the legendary warriors of the Russian steppe, the Cossacks, to settle in the breakaway Georgian republic. According to PIK TV, Eduard Kokoity told a youth forum last week that he wants to rent out land to the Cossacks for 99 years:
According to Kokoity, the project foresees renting out land plots to the Cossacks in order to have settlements in empty districts and develop agriculture and defense structures. Moreover, he hopes to attract “additional investment and begin to restore the republic’s economy,” Kokoity said.
And naturally, the Cossacks would be expected to help protect South Ossetia from Georgia, added Elbrus Sattsaev, political analyst at South Ossetia State University:
"The Cossacks can quickly adapt to the current South Ossetian conditions. They have extensive experience of managing. They can become an example for people who have put his arms, who are passive. And besides, the Cossacks could exercise protection: South Ossetia needs protection because Georgia does not sign an agreement on nonuse of force"
(Incidentally, Sattsaev adds that the issue shouldn't be discussed until after South Ossetia's presidential elections in November, implicitly criticizing Kokoity's statement, a fairly rare case of open political dissent there.)
In other Cossack news, Time reports on a youth camp for Cossacks in Crimea, which included participants from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I suspect, though, that Georgia won't be too concerned about the Cossacks' military power, if this priceless photo of their armored personnel carrier is anything to go by.
Kyrgyzstan's Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev has declared that the U.S. will have to leave its air base at Manas in 2014. In some comments to Russian journalists, reported by 24.kg, he said the government will fulfill the current agreement it has with the U.S., but then no more:
“You know, the former leadership of [the Kyrgyz Republic] with their biased attitude towards the undertaken international obligations has already spoiled outside image of Kyrgyzstan. In order to break that image somehow, we just have to execute an already concluded agreement. The contract for the Transit Center will expire in 2014. Our position is the following: we will notify in six months the U.S. side of the termination of the contract in full compliance with assumed obligations and from 2014 there will be the first major civilian international transport junction. Any capital can participate in the formation of his transport junction even though the Russian although the western.”
(That last comment appears to reference his previously stated plan to turn Manas into an international cargo transit facility.)
Needless to say, this shouldn't be taken as the final word. 2014 is three years away, who knows if Atambayev will still be in the government, and the U.S. hasn't had a chance to negotiate. Still it's an interesting statement by Atambayev, one of the leading candidates in Kyrgyzstan's October presidential elections. He seems to be trying to position himself as the pro-Russia candidate, so this is a natural political position for him to stake out.