With Chelsea (nee Bradley) Manning sentenced to 35 years in prison this week for her role in disseminating 250,000 State Department cables via Wikileaks, the debate has begun (again) about what good Wikileaks did. As the pro-WikiLeaks writer Greg Mitchell argued, "Too often (that is, most of the time), the value and import of the Manning/WikiLeaks disclosures are ignored or dismissed, just as Snowden's NSA scoops often derided as nothing new.'" Mitchell made a long list of things the public has learned as a result of Wikileaks disclosures. And it seemed worthwhile to undertake a similar exercise for those of us who focus on this part of the world.
There were of course the fun, gossipy items -- the comparisons to Azerbaijan's ruling Aliyev family to the Corleones, the jab that Azerbaijan's first lady "appears unable to show a full range of facial expression" due to the amount of plastic surgery she's had, the revelation that Kazakhstan Prime Minister Karim Masimov had a fondness for the good life, and the description of first daughter Gulnara Karimova as "the single most hated person in Uzbekistan." There were the very many cases when U.S. diplomats were exposed as having much more nuanced and critical perspectives than their bland public statements indicated. And there were of course hundreds of cases where the cables provided useful context or details to goings on in the region.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meets with Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania at the Pentagon (photo: defense.gov)
Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania is on a visit to Washington where he has met his American counterpart, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, among other officials. Hagel, after the meeting, gave the usual boilerplate statement that the two sides "agreed to continue to broaden U.S.-Georgian defense cooperation." But what might that mean?
When he talked with The Bug Pit in July, Alasania said that the meeting with Hagel would help clarify some of the defense cooperation agreements -- such as the provision of American military transportation helicopters -- that the presidents of the two countries discussed last January. But at a public event after his meeting with Hagel, at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Alasania declined to give specifics of the discussion.
This is something we have been talking about for six months, how to implement, to fast-track the agreement that was made between our presidents. Today was a confirmation... [that the agreement] will be fully implemented, but it's not going to happen overnight.
In the public event, Alasania clearly saw his primary task as disproving the lingering suspicion in Washington that his boss, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, is secretly a stooge of the Kremlin. So he not only reiterated his government's strong commitment to joining NATO, but also spent some time discussing the continuity of his government's policies with those of the governments led by Mikheil Saakashvili and Edvard Shevardnadze.
Armenia has reportedly bought long-range rockets from China, in what would be both an escalation of the rocket race between Armenia and Azerbaijan and a dramatic entry of China into the regional conflicts of the South Caucasus. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported:
Armenia has acquired Chinese multiple-launch rocket systems with a firing range of up to 130 kilometers, a military source in Yerevan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) on Monday.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the source declined to specify the quantity of the AR1A systems obtained the Armenian military and the dates of their delivery or give other details of the alleged acquisition.
The Ministry of Defense declined to confirm or deny the report, but that's not unusual for Armenia's secretive MoD So assuming the report is true, how should we interpret it?
In an analysis for Regnum.ru, David Arutyunov puts it in the context of Azerbaijan's recent purchase of Russian Smerch multiple-rocket launch systems, of which the Chinese AR1A are an upgraded version (for example, the Chinese rockets have a range of 130 kilometers, versus 90 kilometers for the Smerch). "A tendency is noticeable over the last decade in which Azerbaijan and Armenia are giving priority in their strategy of arms development to MRLS of great distance and caliber," he writes. And those systems, he notes, would be useful for attacking not just military formations but also strategic economic sites.
Azerbaijan's press seems to have largely ignored the news, but one military expert quoted by Day.az didn't try to hide his contempt:
"They bought MRLSs from China? For God's sake. Let them buy as many as they want." Thus responded Azerbaijani military expert Uzeir Djafarov to this news...
Images broadcast worldwide of Turkish protesters fleeing the vehicles since demonstrations swept the country in June may help generate business for the Izmir-based company in nations from Brazil to Libya that face social unrest, Chief Executive Officer Mehmet Katmerci said. Sales of dispersion vehicles will rise six-fold this year, he said....
“There’s huge interest in our TOMAs,” Katmerci, 40, said in an interview in Izmir on Aug. 13. “People saw through the world media that Turkey is able to produce such vehicles.”
TOMA, incidentally, is the Turkish acronym for "vehicles to intervene in social incidents," which sounds a lot cleaner than "water cannon." In addition to Brazil and Libya, the company reportedly sees Azerbaijan as a growth market. Not surprisingly, since Baku has already bought a number of TOMAs and gets frequent use out of them, including in protests just this weekend (though it's not clear if those water cannons were TOMAs or another model).
Tanks of the four competitors in the biathlon show their colors. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
In a uniquely Russian bid to boost post-Soviet solidarity, the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization has held a "tank biathlon" competition. The competition is more or less what it sounds like: as in the better-known skiing version, crews compete to race their tanks around a course while shooting at targets. Russia came in first, with Kazakhstan second, Belarus third and Armenia a distant fourth.
All the crews competed in new T-72B tanks, and RIA Novosti described the event as "part sales pitch, part post-Soviet bonding exercise."
Russia remains the world’s biggest exporter of battle tanks, the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Global Arms Trade says. So this tank biathlon appeared to be an entertaining if unconventional sales pitch, Pukhov said.
“We’ll do our best to ensure that foreign armies buy our tanks in the future,” [Defense Minister] Shoigu said, announcing the event last week.
While Kazakhstan finished second, its media played up the result as a victory. The presidential communications service headlined its story "Kazakhstani tankers showed remarkable results" and Kazinform raved "Kazakhstan stuns at Tank Biathlon contest in Russia... Kazakhstani tankers did astoundingly good at the Tank Biathlon International Competition." Armenia's press, not surprisingly given their country's poor results, downplayed the results and relegated the stories to the sports section.
Russia seemed to take it less seriously; the event inspired the usually staid state news agency into an uncharacteristic display of snark:
U.S. aircraft refueling operations in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan -- a possible substitute for Manas? (photo: flickr user BTCooper)
The commander of the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan has said that the missions that the base carries out "will have to move someplace else" as a result of the Kyrgyzstan government's refusal to renew the base agreement. While U.S. officials have not formally announced that they are leaving the base at Manas, near the capital city of Bishkek, this is the strongest indication to date that they are.
The base commander, Col John Millard, made his comments in an interview with the Pentagon Channel. The report leads off, "As the drawdown in Afghanistan nears, the U.S. transit airbase in Kyrgyzstan is preparing to shut down." And Col Millard adds: "At this time, our plans would be to stop our operations and be complete here at the transit center. According to the ISAF and the president we will not be out of Afghanistan by that time, mid-July of 2014 [when the current base agreement ends], so the operations will have to move someplace else." The piece was posted August 14, but then was subsequently taken down. (I managed to save it and you can watch it below.)
Rouhani and his Kazakhstan counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev meet in Tehran for Rouhani's inauguration (photo: president.ir)
Iran's newly elected president Hassan Rouhani may or may not take his first trip abroad as president to Kyrgyzstan and the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Regardless, most analysts seem to believe that as compared to his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Rouhani is less likely to seriously pursue ties with the SCO and its member states more generally.
A number of news media, including Iranian state media, reported last week that Rouhani would travel to Bishkek for the SCO summit on September 13. But then Iran's foreign ministry clarified that no such decision has been made:
"The SCO summit is of high importance in Eurasian region and Iran, as an observer, has actively participated in its meetings," [Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas] Araqchi said at his weekly press briefing, adding that "For this (year's) summit, Iran has also been invited, but no final decision for participation in the summit has been made yet."
"The final decision in this regard will be made by the president (Rouhani)," said the spokesman.
Iran isn't a member of the SCO, but an observer. (Full members are China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.) Under Ahmadinejad, Iran applied for full membership to the organization and he frequently praised the organization, for example calling it the foundation of a "new world order." But Rouhani is likely to step back from that emphasis, said Iranian expert Mehdi Mahdavi Azad in an interview with Radio Ozodi:
Russian President Vladimir Putin led a high-powered delegation to Baku this week, and security issues seemed to be high on the agenda, leading to renewed speculation about whether the traditional geopolitical allegiances in the South Caucasus may or may not be shifting.
The fact that the delegation included such a large number of heavyweights spoke to the significance of the visit. In addition to Putin, it included Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, Energy Minister Alexander Novak and the heads of Russia’s biggest oil companies, Rosneft and Lukoil. Also along for the visit were some ships from Russia's Caspian Flotilla and the fleet's commander, Vice Admiral Sergey Alekminsky. Putin's remarks after his meeting with Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev focused mainly on economics and business ties, but also touched on security:
During our talks we paid a great deal of attention to resolving problems in the Caspian region. We are interested in seeing this region become one in which peace and cooperation reign. There are still many unresolved issues here, relating to security, border delimitation, conserving biological diversity in the Caspian Sea and so on. We have a vested interest in resolving all these problems, naturally taking into account the interests of all littoral states.
It is symbolic that our talks coincide with a friendly visit of a detachment of the Russian Caspian Flotilla to Baku. The Dagestan missile ship and the Volgodonsk small artillery ship are among the vessels. At the end of 2013 Azerbaijani sailors plan to make a return visit to Astrakhan.
The new head of U.S. Central Command has made his first trip to Central Asia, visiting Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and -- intriguingly -- not Kyrgyzstan. One source close to CENTCOM also pointed out to The Bug Pit that the commander, General Lloyd Austin, has been everywhere else in his area of responsibility before stopping into Central Asia, suggesting what sort of priority the region is.
The official statements about the visit were predictably vague: In Tashkent, "there was an exchange of opinions on the perspective of peaceful resolution of the situation in Afghanistan." In Dushanbe, Austin discussed "assistance in strengthening stability and security in Afghanistan and prevention of risk of spread of terrorism and extremism."
So, we are left to guess about what were the topics of discussion. No doubt at the top of the agenda was the logistical support that those countries provide to U.S. forces and equipment entering and leaving Afghanistan. A piece in Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta sees a sinister hand in the timing of Austin's visit to Tajikistan, coming just before President Emomali Rahmon's trip to Russia: "In recent years a practice has developed: on the eve of Russian-Tajik discussions, without fail, an American envoy appears." That doesn't seem likely; the U.S. government usually isn't efficient enough to pull of that degree of deviousness.
Chinese and Russian soldiers participate in Peace Mission 2013 exercises. (photo: mil.ru)
Chinese troops are currently in the Ural Mountains, carrying out joint military exercises with their Russian counterparts. The exercises include 600 Chinese troops and 900 Russians, practicing the usual "anti-terror" scenario, and are following joint naval exercises by the two countries earlier this summer. What is intriguing about these exercises is that they're called Peace Mission 2013, which is the name of the annual Shanghai Cooperation Organization exercises over the past several years. And those exercises usually included most of the other SCO members -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. And as RT says, "All Russian-Chinese war games are organized within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization." Meanwhile, SCO members not including Russia and China have already held exercises this year in Kazakhstan.
So is there any significance to these dual exercises? Why are Russia and China doing their own Peace Mission this year? I asked some veteran SCO followers, and to paraphrase, the collective response was: "Who knows?" The SCO operates in mysterious ways. But Peace Mission 2014 is already scheduled to take place in China, and at least Kazakhstan seems to suggest that it will be participating.
Being summer, it is the season for military exercises. Some of the others that have been going on around the region: