Russia's transit hub at Ulyanovsk is ready to go and is only awaiting NATO, said President Vladimir Putin's special representative for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov. The facility, which would help NATO move equipment in and out of Afghanistan, has been under discussion since the beginning of this year, and was finally approved by the Kremlin in June. Now it's ready for use, Kabulov said, according to Interfax:
"The Ulyanovsk transit-transshipment point is in principle already ready to handle cargo and transfers," Kabulov said... "We gave the NATO people permission, and now it depends on whether they want to use it."
Kabulov added that the transit through Russia would be more expensive for NATO than through Pakistan, but it would be more reliable: "Everything gets there [via Russia], but there [through Pakistan] it doesn't, as experience shows."
It remains unclear what role Ulyanovsk would play in U.S./NATO plans for Afghanistan transit. Its main virtue is that it is multimodal, meaning that goods can easily be transferred from airplane to truck or train (or vice versa). But the U.S. and NATO already have a backup to Pakistan -- the Northern Distribution Network, set up to ship everything by land via Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia. So is Ulyanovsk a backup plan in case things go south on the Central Asian portion of the NDN?
Officials in Washington believe that, in spite of irregularities during the run-up to Georgia's parliamentary elections, the vote will be competitive because the opposition has money to overcome obstacles erected by incumbent authorities, a US State Department official said.
EU monitors observe the de facto Georgia-South Ossetia border
For the past several days, South Ossetia's de facto government has been warning about a Georgian military buildup along its border. On Tuesday, South Ossetia's president said that "Georgia is preparing seriously for a war," building up fortifications and arms stores. The following day, an "analysis" by the de facto government's press service suggested that Georgian President Saakashvili was planning to provoke a war to boost his party's prospects in upcoming parliamentary elections. On Thursday, South Ossetia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned that Georgia was positioning heavy weaponry, including multiple-launch rocket systems and armored vehicles, along the border.
But now the European Union Monitoring Mission, which keeps track of events along the border, said there's no such thing -- and noted that in fact Russia is building up its own forces along the de facto border:
In recent days, there have been claims about a possible change in posture of Georgian security personnel at the South Ossetian Administrative Boundary Line. The EU Monitoring Mission has been intensively engaged in monitoring and assessing these reports with the deployment of extra patrols and has been checking the situation with the relevant authorities. The Mission has not observed any evidence to support these claims. However, EUMM has further increased its patrolling to actively monitor the situation on the ground.
The EUMM has at the same time observed a build-up of Russian Federation armed personnel along the South Ossetian Administrative Boundary Line. The Mission has raised its concerns about this activity with the relevant Russian command structures.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei speaks to military leaders in the Caspian city Nowshahr
While the U.S. leads countermine naval exercises in the Persian Gulf, Iran is practicing laying mines in the Caspian Sea, state media reports. Via Reuters:
[Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei visited the northern coastal city of Nowshahr on Tuesday to watch naval cadets practice planting mines, freeing hijacked ships, destroying enemy vessels and jumping from helicopters, his official website said.
“The armed forces must reach capabilities such that no one can attack the strong fence of the country and the dear people of Iran,” Khamenei told army commanders, according to the Iranian Students News Agency.
Iran has been building up its navy in the Caspian, but it's conducted a lot of training on the sea for a long time, even though almost all of its strategic interests are in the Persian Gulf. Since none of the countries around the Caspian want anything to do with an attack in Iran, the Caspian is unlikely to play much of a role in a potential war there -- except, perhaps, as a practice ground.
A Kazakhstan soldier takes part in the CSTO exercises in Armenia
The Collective Security Treaty Organization has wrapped up its annual military exercises, held this year in Armenia, with the group's general secretary saying the group needs to create its own military forces, including air forces, in Central Asia. But at a time of heightened tensions in the Caucasus, the drills took a relatively low profile.
Not much has been said about the scenario of the exercises, called "Interaction-2012," the first of the CSTO to be held in the Caucasus. The scale of these exercises was much smaller than last year's -- about 2,000 troops, compared to 24,000 last year spread out over several countries, half in Central Asia and the other half in Belarus. (The CSTO is led by Russia and also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.)
It was an interesting time for the exercises to be held in Armenia, just after tensions spiked as a result of the extradition and pardon of Ramil Safarov, the Azerbaijani soldier who killed an Armenian colleague at a NATO event in Hungary. There has been a lot of speculation about whether the CSTO would come to the aid of Armenia in the event of a war over Nagorno Karabakh. Armenia actually postponed the start of the exercises a week, from September 8 to September 15. No explanation for the delay was given, other than that it was due to "technical reasons," but it's no small matter to reschedule, at the last minute, a multi-country military exercise. The announcement of the delay was August 30 -- and the next day, Safarov was released. Was there a connection?
The question of what motivates Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, is key to U.S. policy in Central Asia, which relies heavily on Uzbekistan as a staging ground for military equipment being shipped to Afghanistan. What does Karimov want in return for his cooperation for this Northern Distribution Network? The most plausible explanation is that he is looking for some sort of geopolitical support against Russia, and the military equipment that the U.S. is in the process of giving Uzbekistan is meant as an explicit symbol of that support.
This is in marked contrast to Uzbekistan's neighbors Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, who by all accounts are just out for money, and see military cooperation with foreign countries as a cash cow. Karimov, for all his faults, is generally believed to be relatively uncorrupt (his daughters, of course, are a different story...)
But might Karimov be more motivated by money than we usually think? A reader passes on a very interesting report, which I missed when it was first released (yes, in 2006). The report discusses the fate of the Karshi-Khanabad air base that the U.S. operated in the early years of the war in Afghanistan. And the experience of K2 is probably our best look into what Karimov wants, and doesn't want, out of his military ties with the U.S.
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon, and U. S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez at a ceremony at the opening of a U.S.-funded bridge connecting Afghanistan and Tajikistan in 2007
An underreported and underappreciated aspect of international security in Central Asia is the fight against drug trafficking. As everyone knows, Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium, and it reaches world markets through Central Asia and Russia. Central Asian countries' western partners have been increasingly focusing on drug trafficking in their security assistance to the region, but thus far to little effect.
In a paper presented on Friday at a conference at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University, Sebastien Peyrouse divided the Central Asian drug trade into three types: "green" refers to trade by Islamist networks to raise money for militant activities, "black" refers to small-time criminals who smuggle drugs on their person to supply local markets, and "red" describes the trade by large, organized crime networks, with the collaboration of government officials. Peyrouse notes that Central Asian governments, in their rhetoric to the international community, focuses on the green and black drug trade, while by far the greatest amount of trafficking is red. But the international (US, European, UN) efforts tend to follow the lead of the Central Asian governments, focusing on the small-scale trafficking while ignoring -- and even unintentionally abetting -- the red trade.
Tajikistan and Russia have reportedly agreed on the terms of the continued presence of Russia's 201st Division in Tajikistan. The term of the agreement is 30 years, and Russia will continue to not pay Tajikistan for the base's presence, CA-News has reported, citing "sources close to the negotiations" (so proceed with the appropriate amount of skepticism).
According to the report, the 30-year term was a compromise between the 10 years Tajikistan wanted and the 49 years that Russia wanted. And though Russia will still not pay cash for the base (its second largest outside its borders, behind the Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Ukraine), Tajikistan will get additional in-kind aid, like additional spots in Russian military academies and "modern technology and weapons." So if the report is true, Tajikistan failed to force Russia to pay rent for the base, as Kyrgyzstan managed earlier this year.
The deal will reportedly be officially signed during Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's trip to Tajikistan in October.
The U.S., U.K., and Kazakhstan are conducting their annual military exercise, Steppe Eagle, at the Ilisky Training Center in Kazakhstan. The focus of the exercise, as it has been in previous years, is to help prepare Kazakhstan's nascent peacekeeping brigade, KAZBRIG, for deployments abroad. Helping Kazakhstan become capable of deploying its military in international missions has been one of the top goals of U.S. and Western military cooperation with the country, though Kazakhstan is now several years -- and counting -- behind in meeting that goal. Kazakhstan has yet to deploy any sort of military unit abroad as part of a United Nations peacekeeping mission, and has had only one brief role in a NATO/U.S.-led mission, with a small group of military engineers in the early days of the Iraq war. Kazakhstan's proposal to send a small group of military officers to Afghanistan was quickly abandoned, adding to the skepticism of how serious Kazakhstan was about deploying its military abroad.
Analyst Roger McDermott, who has closely followed KAZBRIG and Kazakhstan's military modernization generally, has a good analysis of Steppe Eagle 2012 in Jamestown's Eurasia Daily Monitor, in which he reports on the current state of KAZBRIG:
The operation against militants in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge two weeks ago may not be quite what the government in Tbilisi claims. That's according to some on-the-ground reporting by Nicholas Clayton for GlobalPost:
Tbilisi has blamed a deadly shootout last week on "armed subversives" it said took hostages after crossing the Caucasus Mountains from Russia.
However, interviews in this remote valley near the site of the gun battle with families of some of the 11 men reported killed by special forces troops indicate most and possibly all of them may have been Georgian residents.
They say the authorities are intimidating residents into keeping quiet about what may have been a sting operation gone wrong. Some believe the accusations against Russia may be part of an attempt to boost poll numbers ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections.
From the accounts of the locals with whom Clayton spoke, it seems that Islamist radicalism, which bedeviled the Pankisi gorge in the early part of the 2000s, hasn't really disappeared.
In the village of Duisi, Vano Margoshvili said that he learned on Friday that his 22-year-old nephew Aslan was among those killed. He said government officials informed family members on Sunday that Aslan had already been buried in an empty lot in their village and that they could visit his grave only at night. They were forbidden to gather people for a funeral, and were not allowed to see or prepare the body for Muslim burial rites....