Conflict along the front line between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces has escalated dramatically over the last two days, with Azerbaijani air forces crossing into the air space of the self-declared Nagorno Karabakh republic. Azerbaijan also claims to have destroyed an Armenian vehicle and to have repelled an atempted Armenian incursion across the line of contact. And the Azerbaijani defense ministry has claimed that they overheard commands being given to Armenian forces in a language other than Armenian, suggesting a foreign hand (though what the language was was not specified.) Meanwhile, there are reported civilian casualties on both sides.
All of this has occurred as the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan prepare to meet in Paris, the latest such meeting in a recent renewal of diplomatic efforts between the two sides.
Most of the news from this recent escalation has been coming from Azerbaijani sources, and Armenia has been quiet about the Azerbaijani claims. And Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan on Friday played down the threat of war between the two sides, “I find it less likely as the Azerbaijani leadership has once again got convinced of Armenian soldier’s invincibility and clearly understands that Armenian Armed Forces are always ready to overcome the challenges they face," Ohanyan said.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization, Russia's post-Soviet security bloc, has laid out its priorities for the upcoming year, and it appears that the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan conflict -- the year's most pressing security issue -- remains low on the agenda.
On January 21, CSTO General Secretary Nikolay Bordyuzha gave a press conference in Moscow with the intention of summarizing the organization's goals for 2014. And tellingly, the CSTO's official account of the event contains no mention of the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan conflict. He did, however, speak about it. A report in the Russian official military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda said that Bordyuzha "spoke out against the use of force by CSTO units for the settlement of the conflict between member states of the organization. Speaking of the recent Tajik-Kyrgyz border incident, he expressed the opinion that this is an issue between the two countries and no one, except for them, can resolve it."
And according to ITAR-TASS, Boryuzha said that the organization's involvement has been limited to phone consultations: "We are in constant contact with the heads of government, discussed measures for the containment of this conflict. Today there remain several unresolved questions such as the closure of checkpoints from the Kyrgyz side and the presence on the border of military forces of both republics," he said.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Turkish President Abdullah Gul inspect an Israeli UAV during the KADEX defense exposition in Astana in 2010. (photo: The Bug Pit)
Kazakhstan's defense minister has visited Israel, where he met with officials including President Shimon Peres and discussed what seemed to be an ambitious expansion of military cooperation between the two countries. The focus of the cooperation would be training -- including Israeli soldiers conducting drills in Kazakhstan -- and Israeli technical expertise for Kazakhstan's nascent defense industry. From a Kazakhstan Ministry of Defense press release:
In the sphere of military interaction the President of Israel offered to conduct joint exercises of the Armed Forces of two countries on Kazakhstan firing fields.
In turn, [Kazakhstan Defense Minister] Adilbek Dzhaksybekov noted that Kazakhstan gives special importance to the expansion of investment and technical cooperation with Israel in military industry....
“Today the defining tendency of development of the Armed Forces of Kazakhstan is its professionalization. At the present stage changed forms and methods of warfare and applied them in armaments and military equipment require highly skilled experts - military professionals. In this context, we attach particular importance to the possibility of studying the experience of combat training of the Armed Forces of Israel,” the Minister of Defence of Kazakhstan noted.
An arms cache that Russian and Abkhazian security forces said they discovered in 2012, part of a plot to attack the upcoming Winter Olympic games. (photo: Russian Antiterrorism Committee)
A swathe of Abkhazian territory will be included in part of the large "security zone" being set up in advance of the Winter Olympics taking place in Sochi, Russia, next month. Starting today, anyone entering the zone will have to produce documents to police, according to a report by the Abkhazian news agency Apsny (and translated into English by civil.ge).
“[A] stationary checkpoint” will be established at the village of Bagripshi on the edge of the 11km zone, which will be manned by officers from the Abkhaz security service, interior ministry and migration service.
At this checkpoint the officers will be authorized to check identification cards of persons entering into the extended ‘border zone’ or heading towards the Russian border, as well as to inspect vehicles. Abkhaz law enforcement officers will be carrying out round-the-clock patrols in the villages falling within the zone, according to the decree.
This is a previously unannounced expansion of the already very extensive security zone that Russian security forces have imposed around Sochi. Security fears have mounted as the games approach; Islamist groups from the North Caucasus have vowed to attack the games and last month carried out suicide attacks in the city of Volgograd.
In a peace offering to its erstwhile countrymen, Georgia has renamed its ministry in charge of relations with its breakaway republics to emphasize "reconciliation" rather than "reintegration." While the move has gained praise from Georgia's Western partners, the de facto authorities of the breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, have been less impressed.
In renaming the ministry from "Office of State Minister for Reintegration of Georgia" to "State Minister for Reconciliation and Civil Equality of Georgia." "The term "reintegration" within the title held back communication with Abkhazian and Ossetian communities. The new title is both neutral and inclusive of those two directions and we hope that through introducing a new title, one of the arguments of our opponents will lose relevance," said Minister Paata Zakareishvili in announcing the move. Zakareishvili said that he had been trying to change the name for some time, but that former President Mikheil Saakashvili blocked the change.
The move was intended to help encourage the de facto authorities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to communicate directly to Georgian authorities. But the response from Tskhinvali and Sukhumi, unsurprisingly, was that the move was merely cosmetic, and that a change of tone was not what they were looking for. Boris Chochiev, a senior South Ossetian government official, told the BBC:
As tensions continue to simmer between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan after a border clash over the weekend, it's looking like the two countries are being left to resolve their differences by themselves. A particularly noteworthy absence: Russia's nascent political-military bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which has declared for itself the lead role in providing security in Central Asia but which has so far taken a low-profile approach so far to the conflict between two of its member states.
The CSTO has yet to make any public statement on the event, during which several troops on each side of the border and which (according to Kyrgyzstan) involved some heavy weaponry. All that we know is that the "leadership structures of the CSTO" have been in contact with the security services in each country. This, while the CSTO has been taking on such ambitious missions for itself as creating a joint air force, joint rapid-reaction forces, capabilities to defeat cyberterrorism and even "color revolutions."
The Buyan-class Grad Sviazhsk warship, in trials on the Caspian Sea. (photo: Russian MoD)
Russia plans to add an additional five warships to its Caspian Flotilla in 2014, as well as a number of support ships, setting the stage for this year to be the largest yet for Russian naval expansion in the sea.
The flotilla will gain two Buyan-class ships (classified either as corvettes or small missile boats), the Grad Sviazhsk and Uglich, and one anti-terror ship, the Grachonok, which successfully completed naval trials in December. In addition, a third Buyan-clas ship, the Velikiy Ustyug, as well as another anti-terror ship will be completed in 2014. In addition, the Caspian Flotilla is expected to gain seven auxiliary ships, like fire and rescue ships. "Currently, the command of the flotilla has begun work on formation of the crew for the [new] ships. Sailors are being sent to Zelenodolsk for training on the new weaponry and technology," according to a release from the Russian Ministry of Defense.
This may actually be a step back in the pace of expansion: according to one recent schedule, the flotilla should be gaining a fourth Buyan-class ship in 2014, but the MoD release doesn't mention that. In any case, the three Buyan-class ships would double the presence of those ships on the sea, part of a steady naval buildup by all five Caspian littoral states.
Officers taking part in joint Russia-Belarus military exercises in 2013. (photo: mil.ru)
Russia has taken the first steps toward establishing its first air base in Belarus, but questions remain over how much Moscow will have to pay for the privilege.
Last month, four Russian Su-27 fighter jets and their support personnel arrived at the Baranovichi air base, near Belarus's borders with Poland and Lithiania (both NATO members). The move is part of a plan to set up a Russian fighter jet regiment, likely at another base in Belarus, by 2015. RIA Novosti writes that the new base would be "Russia’s first on Belarusian territory in modern times."
The terms of the base agreement, however, are yet to be worked out, which holds the promise of some interesting times ahead in Russia-Belarus relations. At the end of December, Russia's ambassador to Minsk said that the two sides would work out the terms together, saying that "these things don't happen for free."
RIA Novosti sums up the international implications of the new Russian base:
Plans for the airbase come amid continued irritation in Moscow over combat air patrols from NATO members states Latvia and Lithuania, which lie near Belarus, wandering into areas close to Russian airspace.
European defense officials have bristled at evidence of Russia’s increased military deployments close to NATO’s border, arguing that it fuels tension with former Communist bloc countries in Central Europe and the Baltic States.
Kazakhstan wants more control over the town and cosmodrome of Baikonur, now largely controlled by Russia, the country's space agency chief said in an interview. His comments are the latest move in the effort by an increasingly assertive Kazakhstan to renegotiate the terms of its ties with Russia, of which the most symbolic manifestation has been the wrangling over the legendary Baikonur site.
Baikonur was the Soviet Union's main space launch site, and continues to play that role for the Russian space program although it lies within the territory of Kazakhstan. And as a legacy of the Soviet era, Moscow continues to control Baikonur. But Talgat Musabayev, the head of Kazakhstan's National Space Agency, told Russian newspaper Izvestia that his country wanted more control over Baikonur. Musabayev said that under the previous leadership of the Russian space agency, he didn't even have permission to go to Baikonur, but that the situation has recently gotten better. Still, he said, Kazakhstan wants to formalize its rights so it doesn't depend on who is in charge in Russia:
Finally, we are able to visit the territory of our own cosmodrome, located in our country. Until this the conversation was short: "We won't let you and that's final; it's a secret 'object.'" But what is so secret there? If there was something, everyone knows about it by now. We heard phrases about maintaining the regime of nonproliferation of rocket technology, but that is for the most part just an excuse.
The two countries recently signed a "road map" laying out the plans for the city and cosmodrome for the period 2014-2016, and it includes some extension of Kazakhstan's sovereignty into Baikonur:
The U.S. is "appreciative" of Russia's help in transiting military goods to and from Afghanistan, but the Russian (and Central Asian) route is still too expensive, a senior U.S. military officer has said.
The head of U.S. Transportation Command, General William Fraser, gave an interview to Russian news agency ITAR-TASS, and a major theme of the interview was why the U.S. was using the Russian route so little. Fraser said that, for the last several months, less than one percent of U.S. cargo exiting Afghanistan is carried by the Northern Distribution Network through the former Soviet states. By comparison, about 30 percent goes through Pakistan and the rest via air.
And in total, since 2009, 74,600 containers have gone into Afghanistan through Russia, while just 355 containers going out of Afghanistan have passed through Russia. (Note: the U.S. embassy in Riga this summer held a ceremony marking the 100,000th NDN container to pass through that port, and there's no way to get to Afghanistan from Riga without passing through Russia, so...)
Fraser doesn't give specific prices, but says the NDN route is "two to three times more expensive" than going through Pakistan. Nevertheless, he is more diplomatic than was his deputy, who in an interview in October emphasized the excess bureaucracy of Afghanistan's northern neighbors. Fraser makes no mention of that, noting only that since U.S. forces are concentrated in the south and еаst of Afghanistan, the Pakistan route is shorter.