From the June 11, 2013 ceremony in Riga of U.S. and Baltic country officials celebrating the 100,000th container to pass through the Baltics en route to military forces in Afghanistan. (photos: The Bug Pit)
The U.S. embassy in Riga held a ceremony on Tuesday celebrating the 100,000th container to be shipped through the Baltic states en route to Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network. The ceremony featured an NDN-themed cake, speeches by top officials from all three Baltic states and a formal "christening" of the 100,000th container by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Lynne Tracy. It spoke to the fact that unlike many of the Central Asian countries, which tend to try to keep their cooperation with the U.S. military quiet, the NATO members on the other end of the NDN -- Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania -- are proud of their role in the NDN.
The day after the ceremony, the Latvian foreign ministry held a conference devoted to the NDN and broader Eurasian economic and transportation integration. The Bug Pit was lucky to have been in Riga at the time, and the event was a terrific opportunity to learn more about how this less famous end of the NDN works. And one of the major messages of the conference was how the Baltic countries are hoping to use their role in the NDN to deepen ties with their former compatriots in Russia and Central Asian countries.
Sign promoting Rahmon and the Rogun hydropower project, in the town of Rogun. (photo: The Bug Pit)
The conflict between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan over the proposed Rogun dam could, as Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov has threatened, lead to war between the two countries. Thanks to the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, I was able to take a reporting trip to Tajikistan in April and May. And while a detailed report will be coming out later this summer, here's a bit of a taste, with some photos from Rogun:
The conflict, of course, is more than just about the dam, which is why it's so interesting – and also difficult to solve. The roots, everyone in Tajikistan told me, date from the 1920s, when Soviets drew borders of the two republics that rendered Tajikistan so dependent on Uzbekistan for any access to the outside world (as well as, from the Tajik perspective, depriving Tajikistan of the jewels of their culture, Bukhara and Samarkand). That was more or less irrelevant during the Soviet period, and early post-independence when the governments of the two countries got along. But as relations soured (due to a variety of reasons, including both governments' support of rebel groups agitating against their respective neighbors), Uzbekistan began to use its geographic position as a means of bullying Tajikistan – by requiring visas for Tajikistan citizens, by mining the border, cutting off train routes, raising import duties, and on and on. And Rahmon sees Rogun as not just a way to get out from under Uzbekistan's thumb, but to do a little bullying itself. This is an illuminating U.S. diplomatic cable from Wikileaks:
An Afghan Mi-17 helicopter, the same type India is reportedly giving to Tajikistan. (photo: U.S. Army)
India will give two military transportation helicopters to Tajikistan when its defense minister visits Dushanbe in July, Indian press is reporting. During his visit next month, A K Antony also will inaugurate a military hospital in Farkhor in southern Tajikistan, according to a report from the Press Trust of India.
I asked a well-connected Indian defense journalist about this and he said his sources confirmed the report, and that the helicopters in question would be two Mi-17s. The plan to give them to Tajikistan had been made some time ago, but India's requirements for UN peacekeeping and for fighting the Naxal rebellion in India meant that there were no spare aircraft until now, the source tells The Bug Pit.
Separately, another news item also speaks to how Central Asia's militaries are looking to new sources for hardware: Kyrgyzstan is reportedly acquiring air defense systems from China. From CentrAsia.ru:
"Our cooperation will enter a new level and will continue to gather momentum. Moreover, we are glad that the company [CETC International] expresses interest in realizing projects of air defense systems and radar stations, as these questions are relevant for us," said [Kyrgyzstan's deputy defense minister Colonel Zamir] Suerklov.
It's not clear whether Kyrgyzstan is buying these systems or China is giving them as aid, or what kind of air defense we're talking about. Either way, it's an intriguing development given that Russia just promised Bishkek more than $1 billion in military aid, and that there are ongoing plans to create a joint CSTO air defense system.
A model of the ship Dearsan is building for Turkmenistan. (photo: Cem Devrim Yaylali)
Turkmenistan is buying eight new well armed naval vessels from Turkey, marking a substantial increase in capability for the country's nascent navy.
The ships will be built by Dearsan, the Turkish shipyard which had already been contracted by Turkmenistan for two fast patrol boats. The eight new ships will be of the same size as the two previous ships, but better armed. Each will be equipped with four anti-ship missiles, two remote-controlled MANPADS-sized surface-to-air missile launchers, a 40 mm main gun, a six-barreled anti-submarine mortar, two remote-controlled 12.7 mm guns and two remote-controlled 25 mm guns.
This is according to Cem Devrim Yaylali, who blogs at Bosphorus Naval News. Yaylali spoke to a Dearsan representative at the recent IDEF defense expo in Istanbul, and took a photo of the model that Dearsan was presenting. And he was generous enough to pass along the information and photo to The Bug Pit.
Turkmenistan had already been reported to be acquiring five missile boats from Russia, in addition to the two Dearsan fast patrol boats.
I asked Dearsan for confirmation and more information, but didn't hear back. That is not surprising: they have been very quiet about their previous deals with Turkmenistan, no doubt at Ashgabat's request.
Georgia and Azerbaijan have been publicly cooperating a lot lately, with presidential meetings and news of co-producing military jets and armored personnel carriers. That military cooperation, in particular, is projected to grow, writes Azerbaijani analyst Zaur Shiriyev. In a two-part series in Today's Zaman, Shiriyev looks at some of the details of the increasing cooperation, in particular in the military-industrial sphere. Shiriyev traces the increased cooperation to the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia:
[S]ince 2008, new opportunities have arisen. Prior to 2008, Baku had long demanded that Tbilisi stop letting Armenia repair its battle tanks and other armored techniques at a Russian munitions factory in Tbilisi. Once Georgia cut ties with Moscow and agreed, high level ministry of defense visits from Azerbaijan to Georgia commenced and both sides reached a compromise. This stimulated the development of their defense industry cooperation.
An Iskander-M on parade in Moscow in 2010. (photo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/9K720_Iskander)
Russia has deployed an advanced new missile system to its base in Armenia,amid deteriorating relations with Armenia's rival, Azerbaijan. A source in Armenia's Defense Ministry confirmed to RFE/RL's Armenian service the deployment of "several" Iskander-M systems.
The Iskander-M is a relatively new Russian mobile (truck-mounted) theater ballistic missile system, comparable to the infamous Scud but with a longer range (400 km) and more accurate.
The Iskanders will be stationed at Russia's base in Gyumri, so it's not clear whether or not they would be a factor in any war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory they both claim but which Armenian forces control, Nagorno Karabakh. It's impossible not to see the deployment in the light of the recent chill in Azerbaijan-Russia relations, including the apparent cancellation of fighter aircraft deliveries. Emil Sanamyan, a keen observer of Armenia-Azerbaijan defense issues and Washington editor of the Armenian Reporter, tells The Bug Pit that "I see it as an effort to build up deterrence against the war in Nagorno Karabakh and also to increase the Russian footprint in the Caucasus, particularly in light of the closure of the Gabala radar." [Gabala, recall, was the Russian radar that Azerbaijan hosted until the two sides failed to agree on an extension of the terms.]
It's also the case that Russia is upgrading its equipment across the board, so this may just be part of a regular update with no geopolitical implications. But you can bet that in Baku they are looking closely at this.
The U.S. State Department released its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism," which purports to summarize and analyze the "terrorist" threats around the world. Here is the report's summary of Central Asia in 2012:
Despite the absence of major terrorist incidents on their territory, governments in the five Central Asian states were concerned about the possibility of a growing threat connected to changes in the international force presence in Afghanistan in 2014. While some sought to reduce their countries’ vulnerability to the perceived terrorist threat, the effectiveness of their efforts was in some cases undercut by failure to distinguish clearly between terrorism on one hand and political opposition, or non-traditional religious practices, on the other.
On the occasion of last year's report, Myles Smith wrote on EurasiaNet that "For the most part, the report simply lists what authorities describe as terrorist attacks and as anti-terrorist operations, but uses qualifying terms – 'reportedly'; 'potentially' – that make it clear State is as in the dark on the nature of the events as the rest of us." A year later, there's really nothing to add to that analysis. But it's worth noting that, if the U.S. is spending increasing amounts of money, and making counter-terror assistance an increasingly large part of U.S. activity in the area, it might behoove Washington to be a little clearer about what exactly it is that this money and diplomatic effort are being directed at.
Looking at the individual country listings is instructive. Here is Tajikistan's summary:
The Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, for much of its 800 miles as open as this. (photo: The Bug Pit)
Russia's Central Asia security bloc held a summit in Kyrgyzstan this week, and the main item on the agenda appeared to be the ostensible danger of increased tension in the region as a result of the U.S./NATO pullout from Afghanistan, which is supposed to start next year. But the outcome of the summit subtly highlighted how the alliance's members -- Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- have differing agendas vis-a-vis regional security.
At the summit, the organization reportedly decided to "step up control" on the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, which would be the weak link in any security cordon between Afghanistan and the ex-Soviet world. What that means is unclear, though: Russia has been pushing Tajikistan to allow it to again police that border, as it did until 2005. But Tajikistan has been fairly adamant that it doesn't want the Russians to come back. Russia's ambassador to Tajikistan told Reuters a couple of weeks ago that Moscow wants to bring back its border troops to Tajikistan, though such a deployment would "of course" have to be agreed upon by Tajikistan, as well. Tajikistan's government has been notably silent on the issue lately, so it's not clear whether they might be mulling a change of policy and allowing Russian border troops again.
Along with this, Russia is continuing its alarmist rhetoric about the dire consequences of the U.S. pullout in 2014, reports RIA Novosti:
When Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili announced earlier this month that he intended for Georgia to get a NATO Membership Action Plan by the end of next year, it seemed like he was engaging in a bit of geopolitical wishful thinking similar to that of his political rival, President Mikheil Saakashvili. NATO MAP -- which would put Georgia solidly on the road of becoming a full member -- has been Saakashvili's holy grail, but the goal has only seemed to recede over the past few years. But Caucasus analyst Michael Cecire suggests that Ivanishvili's government is in fact making the kind of reforms that will get Georgia into NATO. In a piece in The National Interest, he notes that Georgia's high level of defense spending, substantial contribution to the war in Afghanistan and successful elections last year make Georgia seem a strong candidate. But of course, the weakest element of Georgia's case for NATO membership has always been political, related to the complications of its relations with Russia. But Ivanishvili's government has made key steps toward mitigating that problem, Cecire writes.
[T]he new government has made overtures to Russia and embarked on a military-reform program in an effort to reduce the prospect of another war and bolster its case for NATO membership. Recognizing that the often bellicose tone towards Moscow struck by the previous United National Movement (UNM) government had done little to advance Tbilisi’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, the Georgian Dream government is pushing to normalize ties with Russia.
But Cecire notes that what is less often written about is how the defense ministry, now led by Irakli Alasania, has carried out important democratic reforms:
Azerbaijan doesn't have aspirations to join either NATO or the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a top government official said on a visit to Germany. "We envision our future security model within the framework of the Nonaligned Movement,” said Ali Hasanov, head of the presidential department for socio-political issues, said at a forum dedicated to “Azerbaijan’s European Path: Achievements and Potentialities.” Hasanov added: “Therefore Azerbaijan will neither be a member of NATO nor the CSTO, while cooperating with both.”
“It does not mean that Azerbaijan will not or can not change its choice. The choice can change anytime. Azerbaijan’s national interest is the decisive factor, if the national security interests require that it is necessary to join NATO, then it will be so. If national interests require reconsidering Azerbaijan’s participation in CSTO, this issue will be reconsidered. Our security, energy, economic, political and social interests arise from and are based on the needs, interests of the Azerbaijani people,” he said.
Given that Azerbaijan hasn't been doing anything to indicate that it intends to join either alliance, it's not exactly news that Hasanov said this. But it's an interesting statement in the context of Azerbaijan's recent rocky relations with Russia. President Ilham Aliyev has been palling around with his Georgian counterpart and Kremlin bugaboo Mikheil Saakashvili, and there has been talk of an "emerging alliance" between Georgia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. And that was before the great Eurovision scandal.