With the crisis in Ukraine showing no sign of abating, the U.S.'s ties with Russia are at their lowest level since the Cold War. But some in the U.S. military are apparently advocating restraint in dealing with Russia for the sake of Afghanistan military logistics. That's according to a piece in the Christian Science Monitor, which quotes U.S. military officials discussing the potential impact of political problems with Russia on the transit to Afghanistan.
The U.S.'s military transit route through Russia and Central Asia to Afghanistan, the Northern Distribution Network, has been a key backup to the shorter, cheaper land routes via Pakistan. For a variety of reasons, the NDN has become a much less busy route over the last year or so. There have been various figures given for the percentage of cargo now transiting Russia from Afghanistan (including as little as less than one percent). But even at a small volume, the NDN plays an important role:
As the US military prepares to draw down in Afghanistan, the NDN – through which some five percent of US military materials are currently being moved out of the country – likely will continue to grow in importance, particularly if President Obama pursues a “zero option” and pulls all US troops from the war by the end of the year.
“That’s why we want to keep the NDN open,” [a] senior defense official says. “We can surge more material up and out through the network if we need to do that.”
However, Russia maintains a financial interest in keeping the NDN going, even despite political problems:
In a time of economic uncertainty, the NDN offers Russia a considerable source of income, in the neighborhood of $1 billion a year.
A Russian soldier launches a "Leer" drone. (photo: Russian Ministry of Defense)
Russian troops in Tajikistan have received surveillance drones designed for "terrain reconnaissance and detection of radioactivity," the Russian military has announced. "The UAVs have substantially raised the military capability of the units carrying out the surveillance mission during day and night," the report said. The UAVs in question are the "Granat," "Zastava," and "Leer." All are relatively small -- the Granat and Zastava are portable. And the Leer is apparently especially designed for "detecting radiation, creating interference for radio signals and suppressing specific frequencies."
It's not clear what radiation threat there may be in Tajikistan, but the small surveillance drones would be consistent with Russia's stated mission of trying to stop the spillover of militants from Afghanistan into Tajikistan. It's also possible that the drones are just for show. As regional security expert Mark Galeotti wrote in a recent analysis in openDemocracy, Russia's belated enthusiasm for drones is partly for show: "Of course, this is the age of the drone, and Moscow must be wanting to achieve parity with its rivals... [I]n 2012, Putin acknowledged that ‘unpiloted aircraft are being used more and more actively in armed conflicts; and I must say, they are being used effectively’ and so ‘we need the full line, including automated strike aircraft, reconnaissance drones and other systems… It is imperative to involve best engineering and science bureaus and centres in this effort.'" But Galeotti notes that Russia is far behind other countries like the U.S. -- by as much as two decades -- and is fast trying to catch up.
While foreign military aid to the countries of Central Asia is unlikely to have a large impact on security in the region, it's unclear whether the positive effects will outweigh the negative ones. That's according to a comprehensive new report (pdf), "External Support for Central Asian Military and Security Forces," written by Dmitry Gorenburg for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (and supported by the Open Society Foundations, which also funds EurasiaNet).
The 90-page paper is the most exhaustive accounting of military aid given to the Central Asian countries. While "Russia remains the main source of military and security assistance for most Central Asian states" the report also looks at American and other countries' military aid, Both the U.S. and Russian aid is based primarily on quid pro quos, Gorenburg argues: for Russia it is for the sake of "basing rights and a certain level of acquiescence on Russian foreign policy priorities" while for the U.S. it's been "assuring continued access for transferring supplies and personnel to Afghanistan."'
Gorenburg notes that the possibility of Central Asian militaries receiving excess U.S. military equipment from Afghanistan is insignificant relative to the amount of attention it gets:
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili in Washington on February 26. (photo: U.S. State Department)
The U.S. State Department has endorsed granting Georgia its long-coveted status as an aspiring NATO member, the Membership Action Plan, on the heels of Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili'shigh-profile trip to Washington. It's not clear whether this represents a substantive policy shift, but it is the first time in recent memory that the U.S. has explicitly come out in favor of MAP.
In response to a recent letter by 40 members of Congress urging the State Department to "advocate granting MAP to Georgia, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State of Legislative Affairs Julia Frifield wrote:
We believe Georgia deserves credit at the upcoming NATO Summit for the progress it has made and its demonstrated commitment to NATO operations and standards. We stand ready to support Georgia's own efforts to build a consensus within the Alliance for granting it a Membership Action Plan.
Now, that isn't the strongest statement ever, and Secretary of State John Kerry's remarks with Gharibashvili repeated what has been the standard Washington line that "We stand by the Bucharest decision and all subsequent decisions that Georgia will become a member of NATO," adding that: "The United States will work to make sure that Georgia’s progress is acknowledged by all members of this year’s NATO Summit."
(It was the 2008 Bucharest summit, recall, where NATO declined to give Georgia MAP but instead said that Georgia and Ukraine "will become members of NATO." And we see how that worked out in Ukraine...)
Georgia's government has quickly approved a proposal to send a contingent of peacekeeping troops on a European Union mission to the Central African Republic, while Turkey is taking its time on making a decision about whether to send its own soldiers.
A little more than a week ago, Georgia and Turkey both began considering participation in the EU mission, which is being quickly put together for deployment some time in March. In that time the Georgian government made a decision to send a company to the CAR and the parliament approved it on a 106-1 vote. The company will deploy in March for a six-month period, Defense Minister Irakli Alasania said in announcing the decision. (It's not clear how big a company in the Georgian armed forces is, but internationally a company is generally on the order of 100 soldiers.)
Turkey, meanwhile, is taking a more deliberate approach. It is sending a "special representative and a humanitarian assessment team" to the CAR this week and will make a decision after that trip. Turkey is sending the assessment team “in order to elaborate how we can contribute effectively to the situation and what has to be done,” said Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu at a meeting Thursday of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Ukraine's post-Soviet neighbors have been closely watching the events in Kiev -- in particular, to see how Russia responds. The spark for the protests was an unusually geopolitical one, President Viktor Yanukovych's abrupt decision to slow down negotiations with the European Union in favor of the Russia-led Customs Union. The "loss" of Ukraine, from the Kremlin's perspective, would be a huge blow to Vladimir Putin's dream of post-Soviet integration, as exemplified by the Customs Union, the Eurasian Union, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. So how might Russia's policies toward the other countries in its orbit change as a result of what happened in Ukraine?
Putin sees the events in Ukraine as the result of destabilization (albeit possibly accidentally) by the West, writes Fyodor Lyukanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs in a trenchant analysis of how the Kremlin is likely looking at the situation in Kiev:
In his view, unrest must be suppressed before it turns into a huge fire. Unrest produces nothing but chaos. A weak state drives itself into a trap. Once a state falters, external forces will charge through the breach and start shattering it until it falls. The West is destructive. It is either unable to understand the complexity of the situation and acts in a primitive way, designating "good" and "bad" players, or it deliberately destroys undesirable systems. The result is always the same - things get worse. The desire to limit Russian influence and hinder Moscow's initiatives is the invariable imperative of the Western policy.
Ukraine's defense minister on Wednesday said that he had transferred a unit of paratroopers to Kiev, a day after the situation there dramatically deteriorated and more than two dozen were killed. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defense announced late Wednesday that the military has the right to detain people as part of an "anti-terror" operation underway.
Thus far, the military has stayed out of the protests. The government instead has relied on its special police units, the now-notorious Berkut, to fight the protests. But with violence escalating and spreading the government may deem it necessary to send in reinforcements.
Defense Minister Pavel Lebedev said that he had ordered the deployment of the 25th Paratrooper Brigade to Kiev from its base in Dnepropetrovsk in order to protect military arsenals in the capital. Asked if the units could be used against protesters, Lebedev answered: "Read the Constitution and laws of Ukraine." Later, the Defense Ministry clarified: "The information on troops being sent to disperse the Maidan is untrue."
The General Atomics "Avenger" UAV, which may soon be based in Central Asia. (photo: General Atomics)
The U.S. is making plans to set up drone bases in Central Asia in the case that the government of Afghanistan doesn't allow U.S. troops to remain in that country past this year, the Los Angeles Times has reported. The military wants to maintain the ability to carry out attacks against militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan even if it has no military presence in those countries, and the next best options are the Central Asian states. The officials interviewed didn't specify which countries were being considered: "There are contingency plans for alternatives in the north," said one official quoted by the paper.
So which would it be? The story's publication prompted much speculation among Central Asia watchers as to where the putative base might be located. Each of the three Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan would have serious downsides from the U.S.'s perspective. Tajikistan is highly susceptible to Russian pressure, and the Kremlin is surely not inclined to let the U.S. reestablish its military presence in Central Asia. Uzbekistan might be willing to host a base and is relatively immune to Russian pressure, but is a bit of a bete noire in Washington and setting up a drone base there would surely face resistance from human rights-inclined members of Congress. And Turkmenistan would have some of the same problems as Uzbekistan, but also has a proudly held neutrality that would seem to preclude hosting U.S. drones.
One wrinkle that could affect the decision is whether the bases are run by the military or the CIA. As the Times notes, the current drone program in Afghanistan and Pakistan is operated by the CIA, which can remain covert. President Barack Obama has said he wants to shift U.S. drone programs to the military, but in this case that would require the bases to be relatively public:
Soldiers from Georgia and Turkey may take part in a European Union peacekeeping force to the Central African Republic. Georgia could contribute up to 100 soldiers to the mission, AFP reported, while Turkey's potential contribution seems less ambitious. The EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton wrote a letter to Turkish foreign minister Ahmed Davotoglu, an anonymous Turkish official told the AFP. "The EU letter did not specifically ask for troops from Ankara but was seeking some kind of Turkish 'contribution.' 'We are evaluating what we can do,' the official said."
The ... force will have just six months from when it becomes fully operational to help improve security and so "must attain visible results very quickly," Major-General Philippe Ponties, the commander of the force told a news conference. "The aim is to establish in our area of operations a kind of safe haven (in a limited area of [the capitol] Bangui) where people could feel secure," he said.
Col. John Vaughn, 376th Air Expeditionary Wing vice commander, kisses school cook Galina Ivanovna in one of the last visits by US troops to the school in Birlik on Dec. 20, 2013. (Photo: US Air Force/Senior Airman George Goslin)
The U.S. air base at Manas, in Kyrgyzstan, has started formally shutting down, and U.S. troops have already started using the replacement facility in Romania as they transit in and out of Afghanistan.
This month, there have been a steady stream of U.S. military press releases marking the "last" of one or another functions at Manas: the air traffic control unit has shut down, the Theater Security Cooperation division (which deals with the base's joint activities with Kyrgyzstan's armed forces) is closing shop February 25, even the final visit by American troops to a local school.
Meanwhile, on February 3, 300 U.S. troops transited through the Romanian base at Mihail Kogalniceanu on their way to Afghanistan, the first contingent of U.S. troops to use that facility (popularly referred to among troops as "MK") instead of Manas. It was apparently a rush to get the MK facility ready to go, judging by the remarks made by an officer in the unit charged with setting it up:
“There were some naysayers who were very skeptical about our ability to complete this project in time,” Col. Michael C. Snyder, the deputy commanding officer of the 21st TSC, officer-in-charge of the Regional Support Element at MK Air Base and a native of Dallas, Ore., told his team of Army and Air Force personnel. “You should be immensely proud of what you’ve accomplished during the last couple months. Don’t let this moment pass without realizing we’ve come together as a team to achieve some amazing things.”