The U.S. ambassador to Georgia has sparked controversy with comments that criticized Georgia's policy, in the early days of independence, toward the minority populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Ambassador Richard Norland was speaking to a group of students at Tbilisi State University on November 15, and was asked about the possibility of Georgia regaining control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. His comments, apparently recorded by someone at the event, included the following:
If you ask me about my personal opinion I can tell you that when I was in Georgia 20 years ago I saw that Georgians were treating Abkhazians and Ossetians the same way as Russians were treating Georgians and Georgia will have to apologize for the mistakes of the past.
This isn't an especially controversial statement; Georgians frequently express similar sentiments as they rue the mistakes that were made in the 1990s that contributed to the loss of those territories. But it's apparently too sensitive for the U.S. ambassador to say such a thing in public. In American politics Norland's statement would be called a "gaffe," which is when a political figure accidentally tells the truth. And the predictable result was that Georgian officials lined up to criticize Norland's remarks, and Norland was forced to backtrack.
Some of the Georgian responses, from a report on Georgian television station Rustavi-2 (via BBC Monitoring):
Azerbaijan naval vessels on parade in 2011. (photo: Wikimedia commons)
Azerbaijan will start building a warship next year, military sources told the news agency APA. No details were given, including what sort of ships were under consideration, or who Azerbaijan might be partnering with. Just: "Baku Shipbuilding Plant has already submitted the projects of some ships for Navy for different purposes and the ships will be constructed after the projects are agreed."
While Azerbaijan has been the relative laggard in the Caspian Sea arms race (instead prioritizing equipment oriented toward war with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh), recently it has evinced a bit more interest in its navy. As part of the blockbuster arms deal with Israel it is buying Gabriel anti-ship missiles, and just last month it said it would soon start receiving Uran-E naval missiles from Russia.
Azerbaijan has never before produced a military vessel, so it's safe to assume that it's not doing this by itself. So the big question is, who's the partner? I asked several sources in Baku and Moscow, and no one knew (or would say). The most likely partner would seem to be Turkey, which has been fairly active in helping Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan build up their navies from scratch. And the news came out as Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev was visiting Turkey (though the only defense contractor Aliyev seems to have visited was Turkish Aerospace Industries, where he looked at helicopters and training aircraft). I happened to meet Turkey's top government defense industry official, Murad Bayar, this week and asked him if Turkey was participating, and he answered noncommittally, saying the two sides had "had some consultations, but there is nothing definite."
Russia will fully upgrade the equipment at its military base in Tajikistan ahead of the U.S.'s withdrawal from Afghanistan, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu has said. That will also entail making the unit based there into a division again, after it was downgraded to a brigade in 2009, Shoigu said in remarks on Russian television:
"We are moving [the base] to a division structure, by December we will complete this division to about 80 percent, and by the time of elections in Afghanistan and the departure of the coalition forces we will complete it 100 percent with the newest weaponry and military equipment."
Shoigu didn't give any information about whether or not the base, known as the 201st, would receive any new soldiers, but it stands to reason that the upgrade to a division (which usually consists of two brigades) would involve such a move.
Russian officials have in the past given some indication of the equipment upgrades that are intended for the 201st. An unnamed, high-ranking military official told Izvestia last year that most of the base's equipment dated from the 1980s and that all of the vehicles would be upgraded (except for tanks, which are already relatively up-to-date T-72s). The new equipment would include Tigr and Rys all-terrain vehicles and Tor air defense systems, among other equipment.
But according to that story the timeline for the upgrades was 2015, so Shoigu's announcement means that they are intending to accelerate that by a year. And this just after the announcement that Russia would double its footprint at its main base in Kyrgyzstan, as well.
The Iran-Azerbaijan border in Nakhcivan (photo: The Bug Pit)
A shooting on the Iran-Azerbaijan border has led to the border being closed for several days, the latest episode of tension between the two countries. The controversy began last week, when an unidentified gunman (in military uniforms, according to Azerbaijan) fired shots at a tractor working on the shore of the Araz River that forms the border between the two countries.
No one was injured, but in response, "The Azerbaijani side accused the Iranian military of the fire and demanded an explanation. Not having received them, the Azerbaijani authorities closed the nearest border crossing point Shahtakhti," near the site of the incident in Azerbaijan's Nakhcivan exclave. And then Iran retaliated by closing off the other two border crossings in Nakhvican, citing "Baku's refusal to negotiate over the issue." From Press TV:
[Iranian embassy in Baku press secretary Mohammad] Ayatollahi said Azerbaijan sealed the border crossing in an “unconventional move” on Wednesday after an unidentified assailant opened fire on a tractor in the border region without causing any casualties.
He stated that the border closure has created serious problems for Iranian passengers and drivers....
He stated that an Iranian border guard was killed by Azeri security forces in Bileh-Savar two years ago, but Iran did not close the border and pursued the issue through the relevant authorities.
Nearly every day, the exact same headline pops up in the news feeds of those who follow conflict n the Caucasus: "Armenian Armed Forces violate ceasefire in several directions." And with only slightly less frequency, and only slightly more variation, another headline appears: Azerbaijan Violates Ceasefire over X times Last Week."
The stories -- reprinted press releases from the respective ministries of defense -- follow the same numbing pattern. From the Azerbaijani side, after a couple of paragraphs saying where the alleged shooting took place, the exact same four paragraphs close out the piece:
The conflict between the two South Caucasus countries began in 1988 when Armenia made territorial claims against Azerbaijan.
Armenian armed forces have occupied 20 per cent of Azerbaijan since 1992, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding districts.
Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a ceasefire agreement in 1994. The co-chairs of the The OSCE Minsk Group, Russia, France and the U.S. are currently holding peace negotiations.
Armenia has not yet implemented the U.N. Security Council's four resolutions on the liberation of the Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding regions.
The Armenian press releases are even more repetitive, not bothering to name the sites of the alleged violation. They all follow this form, nearly verbatim, the only variation being the number of violations over the past week:
The adversary violated the ceasefire, at the line of contact between the Karabakh-Azerbaijani opposing forces, around 200 times past week.
As a result of a U.S. attack that killed the head of the Pakistani Taliban, there are renewed threats in Pakistan to shut down the border with Afghanistan to U.S. and NATO forces. This, of course, would have a direct impact on Central Asia, by forcing the U.S. military to again shift its supply routes back to the Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia and Russia. And this just as American military officials have managed to get away from the more expensive, difficult northern route and back to Pakistan.
The political party that rules the province that borders Afghanistan "passed a resolution that threatened to block the supply lines through the region in response to a C.I.A. missile strike that killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, on Friday," the New York Times reported. It set a deadline of November 20 for the U.S. to stop drone attacks, after which they promised to shut the border. The resolution, the Times says, "was a means of building pressure on the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to end American drone strikes, while buying time to avoid a tricky confrontation with Mr. Sharif’s administration, which does not favor blocking NATO lines."
And also, crucially, the Pakistani military appears to favor the strike and to oppose closing the border. From an analysis of the political fallout by Ariq Rafiq in Foreign Policy:
Presidents Alexander Lukashenko and Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in Ashgabat. (photo: press service of the president of Belarus)
Belarus will help build a factory for drone aircraft in Turkmenistan, the two countries announced during a visit by President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko to the Central Asian country:
The unmanned aerial vehicles are needed for Turkmenistan “to monitor its territory, its borders and drug-trafficking,” Lukashenko said after a meeting with his Turkmen counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.
From Belarus's perspective, this would appear to be part of a recent effort to take advantage of its substantial defense insustry to set up joint ventures in other countries, including Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, and Bangladesh.
This is not Turkmenistan's first acquisition of drones: in 2009, it bought a number of small tactical UAVs from Russian company Zala Aero to be "operated by special units of Ministry of Internal Affairs of Turkmenistan to provide support in surveillance missions and on counterterrorist operations." But this new venture would appear to be the first time that Turkmenistan itself is building drones -- and indeed, almost any defense equipment at all. Turkmenistan has no defense industry to speak of, and the fact that it is trying to start out with something so flashy as drones is suggestive of a tendency that some have noticed in Turkmenistan's military buildup, that it is motivated as much by a drive for prestige as by genuine operational needs.
The commander of Kazakhstan's navy last week paid a visit to the country's neighbor across the Caspian Sea, Iran. And if you believe Iran's media, at least, Rear Admiral Zhandarbek Zhanzakov's trip cemented the firm, brotherly relationship between the two countries and their navies. In the space of three days, Iran's Fars News Agency carried six stories on the visit, during which Admiral Zhnzakov visited Tehran as well as Iran's Caspian Sea naval base of Bandar Anzali, and expressed interest in widening naval cooperation in various ways:
“We hope that Kazakhstan's experts come to Iran to undergo training and this is feasible,” Admiral Zhanzakov said.
Admiral Zhanzakov pointed to his visits to the military training centers of many countries, and said, “Iran has the best military training centers among the world states.”
The Kazakh navy commander reiterated that Iran’s military training centers are more capable than other countries.
On Tuesday, Admiral Zhanzakov asked Tehran to provide his country with its experiences in building warships.
Speaking to reporters after meeting his Iranian counterpart Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, Admiral Zhanzakov said Kazakhstan’s Navy is a rather new force, “and Iran’s experiences in the field of military industries and building warships are very important to us”.
The commander of Russia's troops in Armenia has said those troops could be used in a conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh, the first time that a Russian officer has publicly made such a claim. The commander of Russia's 102nd military base, Colonel Andrey Ruzinsky, made the comments in an interview with the Russian military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (via RFE/RL):
“If Azerbaijan decides to restore jurisdiction over Nagorno-Karabakh by force the [Russian] military base may join in the armed conflict in accordance with the Russian Federation’s obligations within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)."
It's never been entirely clear how Russia would see the collective security provisions of the CSTO in the event of a conflict over Karabakh. While they would seem to clearly obtain if Azerbaijan attacked Armenia itself, since Karabakh is in de jure Azerbaijani territory, one could easily imagine Russia saying that a conflict restricted to that territory would be none of its business. But there really isn't any room for interpretation there, and this seems like a clear Russian shot across Azerbaijan's bow.
Azerbaijan took a while to respond, prompting the opposition news agency Turan to criticize official Baku for ignoring Col. Ruzinsky's statement. But when Baku finally did respond, it naturally, blamed Armenia:
“No treaty envisages the involvement of the Russian base into the hostilities in Nagorno Karabakh on Armenian part”, MP and political scientist Rasim Musabayov....
U.S. officers give the Russian counterparts from the Kant air base a tour of the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan in 2011. (photo: Transit Center at Manas)
With the Pentagon's announcement that the U.S. is leaving its air base in Kyrgyzstan, one would think Russians would be gloating: after finally succeeding in rousting the Americans out of their back yard, Moscow has scored an undeniable geopolitical victory.
Or, perhaps, that's just what they want you to think. The Russian press and Moscow-friendly analysts appear to believe that the Pentagon's announcement that they are moving operations out of the Manas base near Bishkek to the Romanian Black Sea coast is just a bluff. And they have developed a set of elaborate conspiracy theories to explain what is really going on with the Americans in Kyrgyzstan.
The prevailing theory is that the Pentagon is in cahoots with Turkey, and that under the cover of a Turkish-operated "civilian" transportation hub at Manas, Americans will continue to carry out military missions there as subletters from the Turks. But the mission will change, from supporting logistics in Afghanistan, to supporting a NATO air defense/surveillance system that will cover all of Central Asia, as well as parts of China. In addition, a new U.S. embassy building in Bishkek will include a secret, 30-meter-deep underground facility that will be used by American intelligence specialists working on the notorious Echelon spying program.
The source for this version of events seems to be a report on a Kazakhstani website, Radio Tochka. It was then picked up by analyst Aleksandr Knyazev, who was quoted extensively in a piece in Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta espousing much the same theory, but adding a few of his own elements (or, if you prefer, scoops). And the story then spread even more widely from there.
The Radio Tochka report, which got things kicked off, even cites named sources: