Just as Hillary Clinton is making a trip through the Caucasus, the Azerbaijan-Armenia border is seeing some of the worst violence in years. On Monday, three Armenian soldiers were killed by Azerbaijani forces, and on Tuesday, the Armenians retaliated, killing five Azerbaijanis. Alex Jackson, in a very worthwhile post at his blog Caspian Intel, notes that the violence was not on the "Line of Contact" separating Azerbaijanis and Armenians at the de facto border of Nagorno Karabakh, but at the state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan proper. Further, the two incidents took place about 25 miles apart, "which indicates that the clashes are not linked by local geography (i.e. an Armenian incursion followed by a local Azerbaijani counterattack) but part of a broader pattern of probing attempts along the border," Jackson writes.
The implication is that, on one side or both, there was a degree of regional-level coordination by military commanders and a willingness to test the defences of the other side across a wide swathe of territory. This expansion of the battlefield marks a serious escalation.
NATO reached an agreement with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to ship military equipment out of Afghanistan through Central Asia, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reported today:
We also reached agreement on reverse transit from Afghanistan with three Central Asian partners: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. These agreements will give us a range of new options and the robust and flexible transport network we need....
With Russia we have a transit arrangement, a reverse transit arrangement already, and the fact that we have now concluded a transit arrangement, three concrete transit arrangements with Central Asian countries at the Chicago Summit, will make the use of the Russian transit arrangement even more effective.
In response to a question on payment for the reverse transit, he implied that there was some, but wouldn't specify: "I do not comment on details in the transit arrangements, but it goes without saying that we have concluded agreements that are of mutual satisfaction of the involved partners."
Meanwhile, he said negotiations with Pakistan on reopening those lines of communication continue: "I'm not going to comment on details in negotiations with Pakistan. I'll just reiterate that I still hope that a solution can be found in the very near future."
These NATO deals are not related to separate deals the U.S. has reached. Obviously the U.S. is a member of NATO, and it's not clear if this new NATO deal now covers all NATO member countries besides the U.S., or what.
The most interesting subplot here is what this means for Pakistan. The AP story on Rasmussen's comments had an intriguing bit of analysis:
The U.S. State Department is considering allowing a sale of surveillance equipment to Azerbaijan, which supporters say is needed to help protect against Iran. But Washington's Armenian-American lobby and its allied members of Congress are objecting, arguiing that it could be used against Armenian forces in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, as well.
The equipment in question hasn't been precisely identified, but it is some sort of surveillance equipment that would be installed in Mi-35M attack helicopters that Azerbaijan has lately been acquiring from Russia. The State Department and Azerbaijan are saying that the equipment would be used by Azerbaijan's border service, and an "action item" by the U.S. Azeris Network emphasizes that the equipment is required to police the border with Iran:
[I]t is the moral responsibility of the U.S. Congress and Government to show their support to their strategic ally in that turbulent region and stand strong with Azerbaijan. Such support should start with statements and resolutions in support of sovereign, secure and independent Azerbaijan, to supplying it with defensive systems such as Patriot air-defense systems (PAC3), border protection equipment, helicopter protection systems, simulators, Command and Control gear, and any other defensive and border-protection military hardware and software that would protect Azerbaijan’s energy infrastructure, make it less vulnerable, and send a strong message to Iran to stop bullying and threatening. We should show our allies that we value their partnership and friends, and are not ignoring the threat Iran poses.
Moscow's new anti-NATO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, has promoted itself as a tool for putting down Arab Spring-style uprisings in the post-Soviet space. But now backers are going a step further, proposing the CSTO deal with the Arab Spring at its source, by sending CSTO peacekeepers to Syria.
The proposal was made by Igor Yurgens, the head of Kremlin-affiliated think tank Institute for Contemporary Development, according to a report in the newspaper Izvestia:
“We should take a more flexible stance on Syria,” he said. “Let’s propose sending CSTO peacekeepers to Syria. The unit has 20,000 well trained and armed servicemen. Let’s send them to the assistance of Kofi Annan – at our expense.”
Ahead of last year's CSTO joint military exercises, Russia's Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov said the exercise's scenario would deal with "possible negative developments following the example of events in Libya and Syria." But it's a big step from putting down those uprisings at home, and another to put them down in another part of the world.
If the CSTO has 20,000 well trained peacekeepers, 19,000 of them are Russian. The remaining CSTO member states -- Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- have shown only occasional enthusiasm for Russia's ambitious plans for the alliance, and it's hard, if not impossible, to imagine any of those countries sending their soldiers to Syria.
Yurgens's proposal came the same day that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly blamed Russia for blocking international assistance to Syria. Yurgens alluded to the fact that Russia's position on Syria is doing it no favors in the international arena:
The security forces in Uzbekistan have been carrying out regular, large-scale antiterror exercises in Tashkent, suggesting a heightened concern about terror attacks or riots, opposition media are reporting.
The webstie uznews.com has been carrying a series of reports about police and military exercises carried out in the city. A common theme of the reports is that the authorities don't provide any information about the exercises, which then sow panic among locals who wonder what is going on when soldiers storm their neighborhoods. In February, one exercise led residents to believe that there was a hostage situation at a school:
Residents in a Tashkent neighbourhood were terrified to find themselves under attack from terrorists on 25th February, only to learn that the frightening events unfolding around them were apparently being staged as an exercise.
School number 149 was at the centre of events that day; people in camouflage fatigues, helmets and carrying weapons, began to herd passers by away from the neighbourhood and the school.
People who did not come out of their flats were ordered to remain there. At one point the sound of shooting and grenade explosions were clearly audible.
Another drill, at a railway station near the Tashkent airport earlier this month, prompted rumors that prisoners had broken out of a train that was transporting them:
Tenants said that they were frightened when military personnel and a great number of armoured vehicles started shootings at the railway station on 4 May....
“I walked on the bridge and saw military personnel come towards me, some 20 of them wearing helmets and bulletproof vests. ‘Are you going to detain someone?’ I asked. ‘No, do not worry, grandma, we are conducting drills,’ they replied,” the elderly woman said.
Iranian naval vessels have conducted maneuvers close to the border with Azerbaijan, and high-ranking Turkish officials are visiting Baku as a show of force against Iran, according to a report in Regnum.ru.
The Regnum report cited the Azerbaijan opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat, which in turn cited eyewitnesses in the region of Astara, bordering Iran, as saying "six vessels of the Iranian navy forces had come close to the Azerbaijani state border for the second day. According to their observations, the Iranian vessels are involved in a series of manoeuvres as if it demonstrates threat to Azerbaijan." The alleged incursion comes at a time of increased tension between Iran and Azerbaijan, including Tehran's recall of its ambassador to Baku last week.
And Regnum's correspondent, citing a source in Baku "close to Turkish military circles in Baku," said that four top Turkish military commanders are visiting Azerbaijan in early June, including the heads of the army, navy and air force. "By this step, Turkey wants to explain Iran that it will not leave Azerbaijan alone," the source told Regnum.
Azerbaijan's state border service, however, denied the original report in Yeni Musavat, saying reports that Iranian warships were maneuvering were "baseless and provocative."
The Kremlin has not taken kindly to the U.S. ambassador's suggestion that Russia "bribed" Kyrgyzstan in 2009 to kick the U.S. out of the Manas air base. The controversy began Friday, when Ambassador Michael McFaul addressed a group of Russian students and reportedly told them that:
Russia had “bribed” Kyrgyzstan four years ago to prompt the country to shut down the U.S. military airbase in Manas airport near Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek. In his speech, he admitted that the United States had also offered a bribe to Kyrgyzstan, but ten times less.
The website of the U.S. embassy in Moscow, which posts texts of most of McFaul's public speeches, for some reason has only a slide presentation (pdf) of this particular address, which contains no reference to Kyrgyzstan or bribery, so it's not clear what his exact words were. But obviously he was referring to the episode when former Kyrgyzstan president Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced -- in Moscow -- that Kyrgyzstan was booting the U.S. out of the base. And at the same time, Russia announced a $2.15 billion aid package for Kyrgyzstan.
It took a few days, but on Monday Russia's Foreign Ministry reacted strongly, issuing a harsh statement:
The Russian Foreign Ministry was extremely bewildered by the U.S. ambassador’s statements… His estimates of Russian-U.S. cooperation go far beyond diplomatic etiquette and represent a deliberate distortion of a number of aspects of Russian-American dialogue...
An Azerbaijani Coast Guard ship patrols this week in Baku's harbor
As Baku got ready for the highest-profile event in its recent history, hosting the Eurovision Song Contest, there has been a conspicuous presence in the city's Caspian Sea port: two Coast Guard vessels, part of Azerbaijan's heightened security measures as Europe's pop music fans have flocked to the city.
Government officials aren't saying what threat they might be protecting against, and, as close to the water as the Eurovision venue might be, of course an attack from the sea is exceedingly unlikely. Still, Eurovision is taking place in an atmosphere of heightened tension with Iran -- which also happens to be the most significant threat that Azerbaijan's growing naval force is intended to protect against.
Azerbaijan has perhaps been the most secretive of all of the Caspian littoral states about its navy, but the recent purchase of anti-ship missiles from Israel suggests an intention to get more serious about its naval security.
The analysts I spoke to in Baku said that the wakeup call for Azerbaijan's navy was when Iran threatened a BP prospecting ship in 2001. There have been other episodes when Iranian oil rigs entered sea space that Azerbaijan claimed, and that threat is still present. "How will we react if tomorrow Iran decides to install one of their oil wells in some territory that we consider ours?" asks Taleh Ziyadov, an analyst in Baku. "Maybe some crazy guy, because he got frustrated by Azerbaijan-Israeli relations, tomorrow he will declare 'go and install that well over there.' The possibility of serious tension is there, and Azerbaijan will attempt not to allow it."
Russia is letting it be known that it's ready to walk away from the Gabala radar station it operates in Azerbaijan if the government in Baku doesn't moderate its bargaining position. That's what a source in Russia's Ministry of Defense told Russian media today:
“The Russian military is disappointed by the non-constructive approach from the Azerbaijani side concerning the talks on extending the lease of the Gabala missile radar,” the source said, adding that Moscow would likely leave Gabala if the talks did not move ahead...
The source in the Russian Defense Ministry also said that size of the price increase was unreasonable, since the radar needed a full renovation and the sum Baku was demanding for the lease was comparable to the cost of constructing a new radar.
Recall that Azerbaijan has increased its demands from the current $7 million a year, to $100 million and then $300 million. Unlike many of Russia's installations in the former USSR, like in Armenia, Tajikistan or Ukraine, this one doesn't really come with any security guarantees, so Azerbaijan's interest in it is not great. Meanwhile, Russia has a newer radar in the North Caucasus that fulfillls the same role as Gabala, so it has little interest in ponying up to Azerbaijan. So while this leak by the Russian MoD could just be a bargaining position, it looks like this deal is heading for rejection.
When news broke a couple of years ago that Russia was selling S-300 air defense systems to Azerbaijan, the immediate assumption was that this had to do with Armenia. The sale suggested a huge shift in Russia's military policy toward the south Caucasus: Russia has a big military base in Armenia and provides Yerevan with weaponry. So why would it be arming the other side? There were all sorts of theories: it was done to intimidate Armenia into signing a long extension of the base agreement with Russia, or that it was pure mercenary motives. Some noted that the range of the S-300s was enough to cover Nagorno Karabakh (over which a war will presumably be fought) but not Gyumri, Armenia, where the Russian base is.
But what if we were all looking in the wrong direction for the threat, to the west rather than to the south? That's what analyst Anar Valiyev today told The Bug Pit in Baku. He says the S-300 is in fact one of the weapons that Baku has been buying to protect against an Iranian attack. He argues that a war over Karabakh would be fought only on the territory of Karabakh, that Armenia (under pressure from Russia) would not to expand the war into Azerbaijan proper, like an attack on Baku's oil and gas installations (which the S-300s are protecting). Therefore, there's no need to protect Baku from an Armenian attack. So, by process of elimination, it's Iran.