Russian President Vladimir Putin inspects the Russia-Abkhazia de facto border during a May 2012 visit to Sochi. (photo: kremlin.ru)
The upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, are an event of enormous symbolic importance for the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin. So any sort of attack on the games -- like the one that Chechen Islamist leade Doku Umarov recenrly called for -- would come as a huge blow to Russia.
So in that regard, it's interesting that Putin has reached out to Georgia to propose some sort of cooperation on security for the Olympics, which will be held just five miles from the border of the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia. Putin was recently asked about Georgian help regarding Olympic security:
“Of course, we are absolutely ready for such help,” Putin said, when asked whether a Georgian security contribution would be accepted.
“We want to repair our relationships. We have a very warm attitude to Georgia. We are very close peoples."
He did not specify whether such help could include Georgian police on the ground.
And Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili responded positively, saying that “The Georgian side will provide maximum assistance; we should ensure that no incident takes place during the Olympics."
What might the form of this competition take? It's not yet clear. Caucasus analyst Tom de Waal is skeptical that cooperation will amount to much. But Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania said that the specifics would be worked out with Moscow soon.
Kyrgyzstan news media have reported that the U.S. has agreed to close the Manas air base it operates there, and U.S. officials have declined to deny the reports, making it seem more likely than ever that this is in fact the end of the line for the beleaguered base.
Last week, a U.S. State Department team headed by Ambassador Eric John, Senior Advisor for Security Negotiations and Agreements in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, visited Bishkek. The U.S. embassy statement about his visit only mentioned Manas in passing: "Kyrgyzstan’s support of international efforts in Afghanistan through its hosting of the Transit Center at Manas International Airport is one facet of this overall cooperation."
Today, news agency KyrTag reported that the Kyrgyzstan side informed the U.S. that their last day would be 11 July, 2014:
"We discussed this in the recent meeting with the working group from the U.S. The discussion was conducted in the framework of the well known position of Kyrgyzstan on this question," said [Erines Otorbayev, deputy minister of foreign affairs].
Otorbayev added that the American side must start removing military objects and personal equipment by 11 July, because after that day there should not be any U.S. military presence at the Manas airport."
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov meets NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen during the former's visit to Brussels in 2011. (photo: NATO)
A recent piece in Uzbekistan's state-sanctioned media has advocated joining NATO and taking over the territory of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and most of the rest of Eurasia. The piece, published on 12news.uz, was taken down shortly after being published, but was preserved on inoSMI.ru.
The piece, at nearly 9,000 words, offers a number of controversial (to put it kindly) claims: that Tajiks are merely Persian-speaking Uzbeks, that Uzbekistan is the successor state to the Mongol Golden Horde, that the agreement between Russia and Kyrgyzstan to develop hydropower plants is invalid because it misspells "Kyrgyzstan," among many others. Its main thesis, however, is that the "threats of a natural-technical character" -- namely proposed hydropower plants in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan -- are the gravest security threats facing Uzbekistan, comparable to a nuclear bomb. And the solution is that Uzbekistan should join NATO.
The piece is a bit out there, but Uzbek analysts point out that it must have been officially sanctioned. “This site [12news.uz] is not just semi-official, it’s official,” dissident political analyst Tashpulat Yuldashev told uznews.net. "It's curated by Dilshod Nurullaev, former Security Commission chairman and advisor to the President," he said. "There is total censorship in Uzbekistan, and such a politically charged article would not have been allowed to be published without permission from the very top." That assertion was backed up by another Uzbek analyst to The Bug Pit.
Azerbaijan is complaining about reports that Armenia has required French/German anti-tank missiles in apparent violation of European sanctions against the two countries. The controversy began when an Armenian website published photos of an Armenian Ministroy of Defense exposition last year. On display, apparently, was a MILAN anti-tank missile, jointly produced by France and Germany.
And Azerbaijan has objected, reports APA: "The embassies of [France and Germany] in Azerbaijan were demanded to clarify how these countries that imposed an embargo on the sale of weapons to the conflicting parties could deliver these systems to Armenia."
Both the French and German ambassadors have responded publicly, saying they didn't do it. The French ambassador:
“I have no precise information about this sale which is very highly improbable, because the export of military equipment would be in contradiction with these sanctions. The French side is now investigating the information and the source it came from.”
"Germany is in compliance with OSCE embargoes on arms sales to Armenia and Azerbaijan. Exports of military equipment would be contrary to the sanctions. The federal government doesn’t have additional information," the embassy said.
Meanwhile, the Armenian Ministry of Defense is staying quiet on the matter.
Russia is going to start sending $1 billion in weapons to Kyrgyzstan this year, said Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. That appears to be an acceleration of earlier plans; just the day before Shoigu had said that the shipments would start next year.
Igor Korotchenko, the editor of a Kremlin-affiliated defense magazine, said that the shipments would likely include: "tanks, armored vehicles and personnel carriers, as well as rocket launchers, artillery, small arms, and surveillance and communication systems."
Possibly relatedly, Kyrgyzstan's government announced that it would sell its shares in the Soviet-legacy Dastan torpedo factory and that "Kyrgyzstan's government said Russian investors would be given priority in purchasing the shares in the factory ... at an auction in the fall."
Some good context for these moves can be found in a useful new paper (pdf) published by two of the best scholars dealing with Central Asian geopolitical issues, Alex Cooley and Marlene Laruelle. The paper, titled "The Changing Logic of Russian Strategy in Central Asia: From Privileged Sphere to Divide and Rule?" details how the Kremlin has recently moved towards prioritizing its ties with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as client states:
A ceremony honoring military dogs; Sheila, who worked at Manas, is on the right. (photo: Micah Garbarino, US Air Force)
At a U.S. Air Force ceremony last week honoring retiring military dogs, two of the dogs achieved distinction for their service at the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan. From a report in Stars and Stripes:
Arras, a German shepherd born Aug. 26, 2006, was assigned to Tinker on Dec. 10, 2008, the start of his military career. Arras was deployed in support of Manas Air Base, Kyrgyzstan and Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. He used his keen detection ability to locate explosives and deter terrorist attacks against the bases....
Sheila, a Belgian Malinois born on Sept. 10, 2006, was assigned to Tinker on July 30, 2008, the start of her military career. Sheila deployed twice to Manas Air Force Base, Kyrgyzstan. She used her keen detection ability to locate explosives and deter terrorist acts.
Wait, attempted terrorist attacks against Manas? Why are we only hearing about this now -- and from a dog retirement ceremony of all places?! Well, it turns out that, like many proud pet owners, the Air Force may have exaggerated the accomplishments of Arras and Sheila a bit. A Manas spokesman tells The Bug Pit:
[T]he dogs succeeded in their mission to deter attacks because of their capabilities. They did not literally locate explosives, nor were there any actual terrorist attacks they foiled. Instead, their capabilities and their presence prevented people from attempting such actions.
Ah well. I often claim that my cat can play fetch, when in fact he only very occasionally brings back what I throw him. And I'm sure that had there really been a attempted terror attack, Arras and Sheila would have helped foil it (unfortunately, I don't think I can say the same for my cat). So let's wish Arras and Sheila a happy retirement.
Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps is establishing a naval presence on the Caspian Sea, suggesting that Tehran is placing a greater emphasis on security in the Caspian region. An Iranian naval official announced on Saturday that the IGRC Navy is setting up a training center on the Caspian, "tasked with training the IRGC Navy vessel crews to enable them conduct the necessary maneuvers in the Caspian Sea waters," the official said, according to the Fars News Agency.
As Fars points out, security in the Caspian has previously been entrusted to the regular navy, while the IRGC Navy has had responsibility for the Persian Gulf. But that looks to be changing: "The IRGC Navy which is now responsible for defending the country's territorial waters in the Persian Gulf is also expanding its activities in the Caspian Sea, although security of Iran's Caspian waters has been entrusted on the Army's naval force."
This announcement comes soon after Iran and Russia announced their intention to conduct joint exercises on the Caspian, and as Iran is conducting its own drills on the sea "to display Iran's power of safeguarding the country's territorial waters."
Alex Vatanka, an Iran security expert at the Middle East Institute, told The Bug Pit that the move is likely targeted toward Azerbaijan, which has a quiet dispute with Iran over the two countries' boundaries in the sea -- in particular the hydrocarbon resources in the disputed region:
Russia has promised to upgrade its military base in Armenia, while also helping to bolster Armenia's own air forces, as controversy continues to brew in Armenia over Moscow's huge weapons delivery to foe Azerbaijan. It's not clear to what extent the former is tied to the latter, but Armenian analysts say that Russia does appear to be trying to assuage public opinion among Armenians stung by Russia's apparent betrayal.
Secretary General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization Nikolay Bordyuzha was in Armenia last week, and though details were scarce, he appeared to endorse a CSTO base in that country, as well as creating a Caucasus-based CSTO air force. Reported RIA Novosti:
Modernization of Russia’s 102nd Military Base at Gyumri, in northern Armenia near its border with Turkey, and the airbase at Yerevan’s Erebuni Airport will begin this year and continue for several years, Artur Bagdasaryan, head of the National Security Council, said after a meeting with Nikolai Bordyuzha.
“Collective security forces are being formed in the South Caucasus region where Armenia is the sole CSTO member state. Joint air forces will also be set up here,” explained Baghdasarian.
“Armenia’s air force will be expanded,” he told a joint news conference with Bordyuzha. “Not only the air force but also the air-defense system in general will be modernized and re-equipped. The Russian military base [in Armenia] will also re-equipped. In terms of modernization, 2014 will be a very important year.”
A Russian vessel takes part in 2011 exercises on the Caspian Sea. (photo: mil.ru)
Russia and Iran will conduct joint naval exercises on the Caspian Sea some time this year, Russian and Iranian military officials have announced. Iran sent a small naval flotilla last week to Astrakhan, the base of Russia's Caspian fleet, and on Saturday Nikolay Yabukovsky, deputy commander of Russia's Caspian Fleet, said that "Port calls and joint exercises with the forces of the Caspian Fleet are planned for the second half of this year."
Particularly interesting was the statement of Iran's military attache to Moscow, Colonel Soleiman Adeli, who told the Fars News Agency: "Iran and Russia want the Caspian Sea littoral states to protect the security of the Sea without the foreign powers' interference and they consider the presence of the aliens as a cause of tension and strife."
So now that Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev has signed the law annulling the agreement with the U.S. to host the Manas air base, what's the future of the base? It's still not clear that the law will have any legal impact, as the date it specifies for the U.S. departure was the date that the current agreement was supposed to expire anyway. While the law seems an obvious political signal, what is the government trying to say?
In a must-read analysis for the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Erica Marat notes that until recently, Kyrgyzstan's parliament was poised to defeat the bill calling for the annulment of the base agreement. But then a number of events changed their calculation. From the U.S. side, the Department of Justice dropped charges against former first-son Maxim Bakiyev, to the dismay of many in the new government. Meanwhile, Russia -- which has long opposed the base's existence -- agreed to fund a strategic hydropower plant and to forgive $500 million of Kyrgyzstan's debt. Thus, the 91-5 vote in parliament in favor of annulment.