Russia is building up its military presence in the breakaway Georgian territory of Abkhazia in a way that suggests that Moscow anticipates a long-term presence there, according to a new report by the International Crisis Group. As is often the case with ICG reports, the whole thing (pdf) -- titled "Abkazia: The Long Road To Reconciliation" is worth reading. But Bug Pit readers will be especially interested in the details it provides on Russia's current military posture in Abkhazia:
The 2008 war with Georgia allowed Russia to greatly enhance its already considerable military presence. Russian officials say there are roughly 5,000 Russian personnel in Abkhazia: 3,500 military and 1,500 Federal Security Service (FSB) officers and “border guards”. Moscow allocated $465 million over four years to the rehabilitation and construction of military infrastructure. This included work on Bombora, the largest military airfield in the South Caucasus, in Gudauta. Though Russian media sources describe significant weapons at the base, Western military officials in late 2012 said intelligence indicated only four fighter craft there on a regular basis – two Sukhoi 27s and two MiG-29s.
The Russians also refurbished a smaller, though strategically and symbolically important naval port in Ochamchire, just 30km from Georgian-controlled territory. Eight Russian “border patrol” boats are reportedly there – including two new craft that arrived in 2012. According to FSB officials, they likewise set up several radar stations along the coast to cover Abkhazia’s “territorial waters” and monitor areas under Georgian naval control.
U.S. aid to the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus would fall next year under the budget the White House proposed today. Aid to every country in the region would fall in fiscal year 2014, with the exception of Kyrgyzstan, a continuation (but deceleration) of the drop between fiscal years 2012 and 2013. Under the proposed budget, total aid to Central Asia would drop by four percent while aid to the Caucasus would drop 12 percent. That's on top of budget cuts announced in February, under which aid to the Caucasus would drop by 24 percent from 2012 to 2013. Aid to Central Asia would drop 12 percent over the same time period. However, U.S. aid is down across the world, so this drop in Central Asia and the Caucasus doesn't necessarily represent a decline in U.S. interest in the region.
The total requests for fiscal year 2014:
Armenia: $30,843,000, down 16 percent from the 2013 request of $36,608,000
Azerbaijan: $15,555,000, down 5 percent from the 2013 request of $16,330,000
Georgia: $60,775,000, down 12 percent from the 2013 request of $68,700,000
Kazakhstan: $10,799,000, down 28 percent from the 2013 request of $14,900,000
Kyrgyzstan: $50,569,000, up 8 percent from the 2013 request of $46,725,000
Tajikistan: $34,915,000, down 7 percent from the 2013 request of $37,405,000
Turkmenistan: $6,125,000, down 9 percent from the 2013 request of $6,735,000
Uzbekistan: $11,052,000, down 12 percent from the 2013 request of $12,595,000
Azerbaijan has asked Russia to relocate some of its Caspian Fleet to Baku after Turkmenistan's naval forces fired on some of Azerbaijan's offshore oil drilling facilities. That's according to Russian website OSTKRAFT, and while the chances of this being accurate are probably pretty small, it's too intriguing a rumor to not pass on. According to OSTKRAFT's story:
President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev has appealed to the leadership of Russia to move part of its Caspian Fleet from Astrakhan and Makhachkala to Baku.
The goal of such military assistance would be the defense of offshore oil drilling facilities in the Caspian Sea territorial waters of Azerbaijan. The immediate cause for the appeal of the government of Azerbaijan to Moscow, according to an OSTKRAFT source, is the damage to Azerbaijan's offshore oil refining infrastructure in shooting by the naval forces of Turkmenistan on the Caspian. The Russian reply is not known.
Given the vagueness of the sourcing, it's best to treat this report with a high degree of skepticism. And it seems unlikely that Aliyev would make such a dramatic request to Russia -- in the long term he's more worried about Russia than about Turkmenistan. And inviting the Russians to base themselves in Baku would make it very hard later to get them out.
Still, the nascent naval forces of Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan have clashed in the past and we didn't hear about it until long after the fact (and probably still wouldn't have, if not for WikiLeaks). And Baku has shown that it prefers not to publicize news of its own weakness in the Caspian. So is there at least a kernel of truth to this somewhere, perhaps some sort of naval clash between the two countries? We'll have to wait for more information.
In his testimony to Congress last month, the chief of U.S. Central Command, General James Mattis, said that he had instructed the U.S.'s intelligence officers to draft "releasable products" to give to its "most trusted partners" in regions including Central Asia:
As I travel throughout the [CENTCOM area of responsibility] and see the promise of new initiatives and the risk posed by numerous challenges, I receive requests from military leaders across the region to increase intelligence sharing between our militaries. Many show determination to make tough decisions and prioritize limited resources to oppose antagonists seeking to destabilize their countries or use them to plan and stage attacks against the U.S. homeland. With this in mind, and in order to demonstrate our commitment, I requested the Intelligence Community to begin drafting releasable products for our most trusted partners in the Levant, on the Arabian Peninsula, in the Central Asian States, and in South Asia as a standard practice rather than the exception.
I am encouraged by the personal attention the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is giving these matters. Director Clapper’s strong emphasis and encouragement for the intelligence community to produce intelligence in a manner that eases our ability to responsibly share information with our military counterparts creates a stronger, more focused front against our common enemies and builds our partner nations’ confidence. We are grateful for the nimble manner in which our intelligence community has strengthened our efforts to checkmate more of our enemy’s designs.
Kazakhstan's new foreign minister did some traveling in the region last week, visiting Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in an apparent effort to get the two sides to talk about their dispute over the massive, controversial Rogun dam project. The United Nations has been trying to get Kazakhstan to play a leading role in resolving the issue between its neighbors to the south and when the foreign minister, Erlan Idrissov, spoke to the press in Dushanbe, he highlighted the Rogun issue:
"It's no secret that the construction of the Rogun hydroelectric power plant is one of the important issues on the agenda. The Tajik president spoke during the meeting about his vision and approach to the construction of this facility. He suggested the importance of working together with the World Bank to conduct an independent examination of the construction of the power station," Idrisov said....
"The states in the upper waters should not violate the rights and economic interests of the states located in the lower waters and vice versa. There are international conventions according to which the two sides should sit at the negotiating table and work out a mutually acceptable scheme for the usage of water resources," Idrisov said.
Russia's announcement that it might be setting up repair facilities in Afghanistan for the maintenance of the Afghanistan military's equipment may seem like a pretty mundane bit of news, except for the irresistible symbolism. "Russia considers returning to Afghanistan," writes Foreign Policy. "Russia going back to Afghanistan? Kremlin confirms it could happen," writes the Christian Science Monitor.
“We will look into various options of creating repair bases on Afghan territory,” the head of the Defense Ministry’s department of international cooperation, Sergey Koshelev, told the press. He added that the maintenance of weapons and military hardware in Afghanistan remains a top priority, as any instability in the country would affect Russia’s own security, as well as the security of other European nations.
And Moscow is also not ruling out more substantive cooperation with NATO in Afghanistan. RT again:
Russian NATO envoy Aleksandr Grushko also said that Moscow was not excluding the possibility of broader cooperation with the military bloc. In particular, Russia could offer to enlarge the transport corridor to Afghanistan, so that the country’s own forces could continue to receive supplies from Western allies after coalition troops leave Afghanistan in 2014.
The logistics center that Russia set up in Ulyanovsk for NATO to use for transporting military equipment out of Afghanistan is not being used because it's too expensive, a senior NATO official has said. Alexander Vershbow, the alliance's deputy secretary general, gave a long interview to Russian newspaper Kommersant and discussed a variety of issues involving Russia-NATO relations. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the conversation was about missile defense, but there was also some interesting discussion on Ulyanovsk:
Kommersant: What is happening with the transit center at Ulyanovsk? As far as I know, there has been only one test flight with NATO cargo from Afghanistan. When will the transit center start working in full?
Vershbow: Everything is agreed on there and ready for use not just by NATO countries but by all other partners in ISAF who want to transport cargo to or from Afghanistan. The issue is the commercial aspect. NATO countries are studying the most advantageous transportation networks from the financial point of view. So, for example, transit routes through Pakistan, closed not long ago, now are fully open and that is the most inexpensive route.
Kommersant: The Russian proposal is less advantageous?
Vershbow: It's costlier. NATO governments are looking for the best proposal for the least amount of money. We're talking about a very large quantity of cargo -- tens of thousands of containers. Correspondingly, the prices have to be competitive, this is business.
Kommersant: Not long ago Russia announced it was ready to use one of its ports for these transport networks.
Vershbow: Yes, on the Baltic Sea. That was one of the variants discussed, but everything will depend on how commercially advantageous it is in comparison with the other available routes. If Russia makes a better proposal, that could gain them a greater share of this business (laughs).
Russia's Black Sea Fleet taking part in military exercises this week.
Russia's surprise, large-scale military exercises on the Black Sea are raising alarm among some of its neighbors. Russian President Vladimir Putin sprung the exercises on his military at 4 am Thursday and showed up in person, along with Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, to observe the exercises on Friday. The exercises involve around 30 warships, 7,000 servicemembers and various armored vehicles and artillery.
But the Black Sea is a complex geopolitical environment: Russia's Black Sea Fleet is based in Sevastopol, in on-again-off-again ally Ukraine. NATO members Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania also have naval forces on the sea, as of course does Russia's foe Georgia. So the international response to the exercise wasn't entirely positive. As RT put it, "The Russian naval drills came as a surprise not only to the Russian armed forces, but also for neighboring countries’ militaries as well, which were forced to rub sleep from their eyes and rush to their duties as up to 30 Russian battleships left port."
Russian officials pointed out that there is nothing to prevent them from conducting these sorts of surprise drills. “According to international practice, exercises involving up to 7,000 people do not require us to inform our partners in advance,” said Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
Screenshot from Pentagon Channel video report on Alaska National Guard C-130J training mission to Mongolia (http://www.dvidshub.net/video/284878/alaska-guard-travels-mongolia#.UVORwlvGSp2)
Mongolia is in discussions to buy American-made military transport airplanes, and is getting U.S. help in learning how to operate the aircraft. That ambitious purchase appears to signal that Mongolia has mining money to spend, and it's using some of it to upgrade its armed forces.
Mongolia is looking at buying three C-130J transport airplanes, manufactured by Lockheed Martin. The planes would likely be used to transport the country's armed forces on its increasingly ambitious international peacekeeping missions. From a press release by the Alaska National Guard, whose airmen recently traveled to Mongolia to conduct training on C-130 maintenance:
In a country as vast and open as Alaska, the Mongolian Air and Air Defense Force is tasked with transporting Mongolian Armed Forces, but with only Soviet-era helicopters that include the MI-24B, MI-8T and MI-171E, they lack the capacity to transport large numbers of personnel, making it impossible to meet all their mission requirements.
“This is a great professional exchange for us,” said 1st Lt. Bayasgalan Baljinnyam, platoon commander, Unit 337 Nalaikh Air Base, Mongolian Air and Air Defense Force. “Our national Air Force needs a C-130 because we need to participate in every mission and right now we have to call on civilian aircraft to transport our troops. We need to have our own C-130 so we can manage ourselves and transport our own troops to other countries.”
The U.S.'s growing military ties with Uzbekistan may be a strategic necessity, given the importance of the Central Asian country in the U.S.'s war effort in Afghanistan. But it is forcing the U.S. to confront an important, if little-discussed, complication: Uzbekistan is the least-trusted, most-feared country in the region. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have well-known border and water conflicts with Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan sees Uzbekistan as a regional rival. So is the U.S.'s military aid to Uzbekistan raising regional tensions?
U.S. military aid, after being suspended for several years because of human rights concerns, is steadily being ramped up. That the U.S. is giving small surveillance drones to Uzbekistan is the worst-kept secret in Washington (OK, in the narrow slice of Washington that The Bug Pit inhabits). It's also giving Uzbekistan's armed forces night-vision goggles, body armor, and GPS systems, and there are credible rumors in Washington of heavier military equipment being considered for Uzbekistan to either buy or be given. (And it's not just the U.S.: Uzbekistan has pledged to work more closely with NATO on training, and the U.K. is also planning to make some donations to Uzbekistan as well.)