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.
It appears that the Pentagon's propaganda outlet in Central Asia is going out of business. The recently passed U.S. defense budget bill eliminated funding for the Trans Regional Web Initiative, a program that published a variety of regional "news" websites, including Central Asia Online. American newspaper USA Today, which has done a lot of investigations into the TRWI, reports:
"None of the funds authorized to be appropriated for fiscal year 2014 for the Department of Defense may be obligated or expended for the Trans Regional Web Initiative," the annual defense law says. It makes an exception for a $2 million payment to pay for the termination of the program by the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and to transfer some capabilities to other parts of the military.
EurasiaNet's David Trilling wrote the definitive piece on Central Asia Online for Foreign Policy in 2011, noting that its Uzbekistan coverage "has shown a disturbing tendency to downplay the autocracy's rights abuses and uncritically promote its claims of terrorist threats." He added that the website sometimes "downplays abuses even contrary to concerns expressed by the U.S. government.":
In discussions of Eurasian security, "2014" has become a byword for a turning point in the region. WIth the planned pullout of U.S. and NATO combat troops from Afghanistan, Central Asia (and to a lesser extent the Caucasus) is entering an uncertain future. Predicting the future is obviously a futile endeavor, but for the sake of discussion, here's what The Bug Pit expects to be covering over the next 12 months:
1. Nagorno Karabakh. This is a no-brainer. There were some positive signs toward the end of 2013, with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan meeting for the first time in two years. Nevertheless, the cross-border skirmishes continued, and the large forces that have made things between the two countries so tense -- like Azerbaijan's rapid military buildup and each country's dehumanization of the people on the other side of the border -- have not abated. So the renewal of conflict seems only a matter of time.
2. The Pamirs. After Tajikistan's central government suffered a humiliating defeat in its attempt to bring the region under its control in the July 2012 military operation in Khorog, it has been the conventional wisdom that the government will eventually try again. Now the presidential elections have passed, and tensions have risen again.
Georgian Mi-8 helicopters perform during recent military drills. (photo: Ministry of Defense, Georgia)
Georgia is planning to "get rid" of its Soviet-legacy helicopter fleet and replace it with Western models, the country's defense minister, Irakli Alasania, told reporters at an end-of-the-year press conference in Tbilisi. From a Georgia Ministry of Defense press release:
According to Irakli Alasania, Defence Ministry plans to get rid of the Soviet, Russian military transport and attack helicopters. "We are planning to renovate and develop the U.S. utility helicopter fleet. We have negotiations with other countries and some opportunities also appeared after my visit to the Republic of France."
Defence Minister explained the reason for replacement of the Soviet helicopter fleet by the U.S. ones. "It is very expensive to maintain the Soviet helicopters. Procurement of the spare parts is problematic and in most cases it is practically impossible to get this service without corruption deals. Considering all the above-mentioned facts we took a hard but right and logical decision," declared Irakli Alasania.
Georgia's armed forces currently operate Mi-24 attack helicopters and Mi-8 utility helicopters of Soviet origin, as well as American UH-1H utility helicopters. It had already been announced that Georgia and the U.S. were discussing further utility helicopter deals, but Alasania's statement suggests a much more ambitious agenda.
The U.S.'s foreign policy panjandrums have determined what are the most likely global crises facing the U.S. in 2014 and have found that the Caucasus and Central Asia pose almost no threat to U.S. interests.
The Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S.'s most prestigious foreign policy think tank, has released its annual Preventative Priorities Survey for 2014. The survey, CFR says, "seeks to help policymakers choose among competing conflict prevention demands by offering what is essentially a risk assessment of the United States’ geopolitical environment over the next twelve months." It does so by first crowdsourcing a list of 30 potential crisis scenarios, then polling experts and policymakers as to how likely the threat of a crisis is, and how much of a threat to U.S. interests the crisis would be. The only Eurasian scenario to make the top 30 is "an outbreak of military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh," and that was ranked in the lowest possible tier as both a low risk of happening and posing a minor threat to U.S. interests.
The survey also asked the respondents to suggest other possible scenarios, and of the handful that CFR said were mentioned more than others included some more Eurasian scenarios: "rising political instability in Russia," "possible Russian intervention in Georgia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet states," and "rising political instability in Kyrgyzstan."
With a combination of the kitsch of Eurovision and the lofty sentiments of pan-Turkic brotherhood, the Turkic-speaking world’s first international song contest, Turkvision, made its debut. Azerbaijan won the inaugural contest, besting 23 other competitors from across the Turkic world – from the powerhouse host Turkey to tiny Shoria, a region of 14,000 in western Siberia.
Obviously spooked by developments in Ukraine, Russia's new political-military bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, held a roundtable discussion discussing how the organization can better fight against the "color revolutions" that, in the mind of many in Moscow, are orchestrated by Western governments.
Russian newspaper Kommersant reported on the meeting, which took place last week:
Participants came to the conclusion that "Western enemies of Russia" are manipulating international election monitoring organizations, actively influencing the minds of internet users, creating a distorted picture of the mood of society through non-governmental organizations and the media. They advised the CSTO to engage in the production of "instruments of counterpropaganda" and that Russia should not be afraid to act on the internal political life of neighboring countries.
The CSTO's secretary general, Nikolay Bordyuzha, was at the event, and spoke in somewhat purple prose about the danger that Russia's allies now face:
One is struck by the perfidy of the organizers and leaders of these revolutionary transformations, who pursue purely mercenary goals and do not shy away from using any means to attain them, including those out of the bounds of legal and ethical norms... One is shocked by the cynicism of the scene, when a high-ranking official of a respected government, devoted to democratic values, publicly flirts with a radical nationalist and inveterate anti-Semite.