Before the "New Silk Road" was ever official U.S. policy, there was talk among Washington wonks and U.S. policymakers of transforming the military Northern Distribution Network -- the system of supply routes the Pentagon uses to get its equipment to Afghanistan -- into a civilian, commercial trade network. But when the U.S. State Department rolled out its New Silk Road Initiative last year, there was never any connection made between that idea and the NDN.
That looks like it's changing, however. In a speech last week, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake, made that connection explicit:
[W]e should not overlook the economic potential of the NDN. The existing infrastructure and transit routes used to transport military cargo can and should be used by the private sector to continue trade across the region, where there is ample opportunity for growth. The economic potential of a more open and integrated region – full of untapped human and natural resources – is virtually unlimited.
And at an event last week at the Open Society Foundations Washington office, Blake's deputy Lynne Tracy made the same point, calling the NDN a "proof of principle" for the New Silk Road.
Kyrgyzstan's president Almazbek Atambayev has repeatedly said he wants to create a "civilian transport hub" at the country's main airport in Manas after the U.S. moves its air base out (at an as-yet-undetermined time). And it looks like the U.S. government is trying to help Kyrgyzstan in that effort: the U.S. Trade and Development Agency is seeking bids for a business plan for just such a proposal. From the call for proposals:
As the Manas Transit Center and the U.S. military reduce operations at Manas International Airport, Manas International Airport Company is now considering how best to use the existing assets that will become available for civilian operation. Kyrgyzstan’s President Atambayev has expressed an interest in trying to make the Manas International Airport into a hub airport.
Recent statistics would support greater civilian passenger and cargo operations; from 2007 to 2011, civilian passenger traffic increased nearly 175% to nearly 1.6 million passengers per year. General operations increased by 118%, however, total civilian cargo volume (in tons) dropped about 16% to nearly 21,500 tons (which is consistent with the worldwide air cargo decline resulting from the recession). Manas International Airport is expected to share in the general air cargo volume growth in Asia, which is projected at more than 6% annually through 2029.
The contractor will assess "assess the regulatory and market conditions, as well as the developmental impacts associated with the Project, including infrastructure improvement projects needed to support the business plan" and "work directly with the Ministry of Transport and Communication of the Kyrgyz Republic and Manas International Airport company."
The arrest of former Kyrgyzstani first son Maxim Bakiyev in the U.K. earlier this month, and Washington's request to extradite him for financial crimes in the U.S., has prompted speculation that Bakiyev might be a bargaining chip in future negotiations between the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan over the Manas air base.
Kyrgyzstan wants to try Bakiyev for crimes he committed in that country while his father Kurmanbek was president. The U.S. wants Kyrgyzstan to keep allowing it the use of Manas. So, the thinking is, the two sides can make a deal: the U.S. would extradite Bakiyev to Kyrgyzstan in exchange for an extension of Manas's lease.
The U.S. also could use information that Bakiyev gives them to in effect blackmail the current Kyrgyzstan government, Washington Times:
Mars Sariyev, an independent political analyst in Bishkek, said Maksim Bakiyev’s arrest could have been prompted by the Kyrgyz government’s refusal to renew the lease, a position that President Almazbek Atambayev reiterated during a recent visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia also operates a military facility in Kyrgyzstan — Kant Air Base.
Georgia's new defense minister nominee Irakli Alasania has said that he wants to decrease the size of the country's military, making it leaner and quicker:
“We need a very small but highly mobile army that will be able to stand up to new threats” such as terrorism and extremism, said Alasania, leader of the Our Georgia-Free Democrats party, in an interview with RIA Novosti.
This is standard 21st century defense ministry rhetoric around the world, and it's especially something that U.S. defense advisers work on with partner post-Soviet militaries, which inherited a legacy of poorly trained but large armed forces, focused primarily on territorial defense.
But Georgia is an interesting case, since it does have a territorial dispute with Russia and the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Jane's Sentinel (full entry subscription only) notes that Georgia had been on the path to a smaller, leaner armed forces, but that that was derailed by the 2008 war with Russia:
The Georgian Armed Forces (GAF) are currently in the midst of wide-reaching reforms. The Strategic Defence Review (SDR) of 2007 set out a restructuring programme for the period to 2015 that ultimately sought to develop relatively small, numerous and more deployable brigades within a joint forces command structure that would ultimately do away with separate combat naval and air forces.
Ceremony of the launch of rocket-artillery ship "Kazakhstan" in Aktau
Kazakhstan has formally launched its first warship in the Caspian Sea, the rocket-artillery ship "Kazakhstan", with a ceremony in Aktau, the country's main naval base, on October 18.
Kazakhstan's defense minister, Adilbek Dzhaksybekov, said at the ceremony that the Caspian is "becoming a strategic zone of global significance.":
"The government is taking measures to create here a self-sufficient group of armed forces, equipped with up-to-date weapons and technology, capable of defending the military security of the Caspian region in all spheres -- in the water, land and air."
Dzhaksybekov reiterated that Kazakhstan is building two more ships of the same type as "Kazakhstan," which underwent three months of testing in the Caspian this summer before formally entering service, reported CaspioNet (which has a video of the opening ceremony).
Georgia passed the litmus test of holding successful parliamentary elections, and so NATO will seek to take "steps forward" in the alliance's relationship with the country, said James Appathurai, NATO’s Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, on a visit to Tbilisi Thursday. Appathurai met with incoming Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, as well as Giga Bokeria, secretary of the National Security Council and Grigol Vashadze, acting Foreign Minister in the outgoing government. Reports Civil.ge:
He said that ongoing democratic transfer of power following the elections “is the sign and a demonstration of Georgia becoming a normal country.” He also said that this change was also made possible because of reforms ongoing in Georgia over the years.
“The Secretary General communicated this both to President Saakashvili and Mr. Ivanishvili that elections were and are a litmus test and a very important part of this test has been passed,” Appathurai said while speaking at a news conference after meeting with Vashadze...
“The Allies have not yet discussed how they wish to characterize either the elections or what will come next… The Allies did say that these elections were an important test; it’s a test, that in my view and I know in Secretary General’s view, is being passed; they will wish to recognize that and then we will see how they characterize whatever steps forward we might envision in the relationship,” he said.
But Appathurai said that it's not yet clear what specific steps NATO might take with respect to Georgia. After his meeting with Appathurai, Ivanishvili called on the alliance to take specific, practical steps:
Armenian Scud-B missiles, on display at a 2011 military parade in Yerevan.
Armenia is capable of attacking Azerbaijan's oil facilities in case of a war, and that it just finished military exercises practicing that scenario. a top Armenian general has said, speaking to a press conference at the conclusion of the exercises:
“We simulated strikes against both army units and military facilities of the probable enemy and … economic facilities that influence, in one way or another, the military capacity of its armed forces,” said Major-General Artak Davtian, head of the operational department at the Armenian army’s General Staff.
“There would be no strikes on the civilian population, we are not planning or playing out such a war scenario,” he told journalists. “We do not plan any strikes on cities. Our targets are military and economic facilities that are essential to a particular state.”
“In particular, I can stress that we modeled several strikes on oil and gas infrastructures, energy carriers that would affect the economy,” Davtian added in a clear reference to oil-rich Azerbaijan.
The exercises took place from October 1-13. According to Radio Azatutyun:
The two-week “strategic” exercises, which drew to a close at the weekend, took place in undisclosed locations in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh in a mostly “command-and-staff” format. According to the Armenian military, they involved over 40,000 troops and thousands of pieces of military hardware. The participating personnel included a record-high number of army reservists.
Azerbaijan, naturally, responded quickly. Spokesman for Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry, Colonel Eldar Sabiroglu:
A controversial pick for a top military position is raising the specter of a power struggle in Georgia's defense ministry. Last week, President MIkheil Saakashvili appointed Giorgi Kalandadze, a 32-year-old brigade general, as chief of the joint staff of the armed forces. But Kalandadze appears to be a highly political figure, reports Rezonansi newspaper. He's close to Bacho Akhalaia, the former defense minister who, as interior minister, was fired last month after the prison abuse scandal broke.
This has set up a potential clash with the new defense minister nominee, Irakli Alasania, formerly an ambassador to the United Nations under Saakashvili who then joined the opposition Georgian Dream coalition, which won parliamentary elections October 1. Rezonansi writes (via BBC Monitoring):
"At a time when the president and the [ruling] National Movement say that they will not hamper the arrival of a new [political] force which won the parliamentary election and will enable it to assume power, the appointment of a Bacho Akhalaia team member as chief of the Joint Staff in such a speedy manner came as some contradiction to the above statements and raised certain questions," says Irakli Aladashvili, editor-in-chief of the Arsenali military analytical magazine, in an interview with Rezonansi.
He says he can hardly imagine Alasania's and Kalandadze's cooperation, among others because many of Kalandadze's actions in the capacity of deputy chief of the General Staff, require to be investigated. He believes that in all likelihood, Alasania will nominate his candidate to President Saakashvili and if the president refuses to approve him, this will lead to a conflict between the defence minister and the chief of the Joint Staff.
Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly canceled his visit to Pakistan last week, but ties between the two countries nevertheless appear to be growing as a result of the Kremlin's fear of instability in Afghanistan.
Putin was supposed to be in Pakistan last week for the Dushanbe Four summit, a grouping that includes Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. But he canceled at the last minute; foreign minister Sergey Lavrov went instead and Pakistan's chief of army staff, Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, visited Moscow at the same time. And despite Putin's cancellation, analysts in Russia, Pakistan and India all seem to agree that Russian-Pakistani relations are nevertheless destined to get stronger.
Part of this seems to be a very slow post-Cold War geopolitical realignment, and part is motivated by specific worries about Afghanistan. Russia and India have strong relations, especially military-to-military ties, a vestige of the Cold War when India was a Soviet ally and its enemy, Pakistan, was supported by the U.S. But India is now seeking to diversify its relations, including strengthening ties (including in defense) with the U.S. That has led some in Moscow to want to send India a message, said Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies and an analyst well connected to the Russian Ministry of Defense, in an interview with Kommersant:
“India remains Moscow’s most important partner in the area of [military-technical cooperation], both in terms of volume and potential. Yet Delhi’s attempts to diversify its supplies of new weapons – increasingly from Western countries – are making Russia flinch. Moscow has explained to Delhi, in no uncertain terms, that it can also diversify its military-technical ties by means of a rapprochement with Pakistan."
Tajikistan's recent military base deal with Russia raised some eyebrows, especially since an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin crowed that they got the 30-year extension "almost for free." There was a lot of skeptical reaction in Tajikistan's blogosphere, as Global Voices reported. One sample:
Joking in front of media before any deals had been announced, Putin addressed Tajikistan's president (as quoted in Radio Ozodi): "I always knew that you were a wise person. You invited us on your birthday, enticed us, one could say, because you can't refuse anything on someone's birthday. Now we will have to sign anything you ask us to."
Reacting to Putin's joke, blogger Shukufa described this statement as an example of “oriental diplomacy”. She wrote: "What Rahmon should learn from Putin is diplomacy. It is spectacular how Putin today enticed Rahmon to sign the base deal on Russia's terms, while enabling [the Tajik leader] to save face and even claim that the terms had been dictated by Tajikistan."
But Tajikistan's opposition politicians aren't particularly opposed to the deal. The country's most significant opposition figure, Muhiddin Kabiri of the Islamic Renaissance Party said the deal was the lesser evil that could be expected. He said in principle he's against the presence of foreign military bases in Tajikistan...
"But I see the signing of the agreement on the prolongation of the Russian base as less harmful than the presence of bases of other governments in our country, as Russia already has more than 100 years of military presence in Tajikistan."