Several days after apparent widespread skirmishes all along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border and the Nagorno-Karabakh "line of contact," there is still very little information about what actually happened. For a while, though, at least on the internet, it seemed that a serious escalation of violence was imminent.
It's a bit odd that, amid all the rumors of massive fighting, there doesn't seem to have been any casualties on either side, suggesting that the reports may have been some sort of deliberate disinformation campaign. And that's what the Armenian Defense Ministry has suggested:
The rumors spread by Azerbaijani mass media on the possible combat operations on NKR–Azerbaijan line of contact towards Aghdam and Fizulai are nothing but imagination.
In comparison to June 7-8, the ceasefire violations in different parts of the front line have become more frequent and have increased. This, however, did not affect and will not affect the general state.
All the usual suspects issued the usual statements calling on both sides to settle the conflict peacefully, etc. But one international reaction was especially notable: Russia's. A Russian military spokesman noted that airmen at the Russian military base in Armenia have been stepping up their training flights since the beginning of the year. From the New York Times:
Russian fighter jets stationed at a base in Armenia have conducted about 300 training flights since the beginning of 2012, and have increased the number of flying hours by more than 20 percent from last year...
The twelfth summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization took place this week in Beijing, and as usual, it's hard to tell what happened. Among the more obvious results: the organization admitted Afghanistan as an observer country and Turkey as a dialogue partner, as expected. The SCO rejected outside military involvement in Syria. And while no movement was made in upgrading the status of observer countries India and Pakistan, both countries were explicit about their desires to become full members. Presidents of all six SCO member countries (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) attended, as did the presidents of Afghanistan, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan and Turkmenistan. The organization appointed a new secretary general, a former governor of the Irkutsk region. (The new head, Dmitry Mezentsev, "attempted to run for the Russian presidency during the March elections, but was rejected because there were too many invalid signatures among those he submitted to register as a candidate," RIA Novosti notes.)
But the question of what the SCO actually does remains difficult to answer. The group pledged to be more active in Afghanistan, and focused on "regional security," while emphasizing that it is not a military alliance like NATO. According to a report from Xinhua:
Clinton and Saakashvili comission a new Georgian coast guard vessel
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brought some goodies with her on her recent trip through Georgia: some "new areas of defense cooperation," which were possibly promised but not specified when Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvilii visited Washington earlier this year. While visiting with Saakashvili in Batumi (and before partaking of some of the local vintage) she outlined in a bit more detail what this new cooperation would entail:
We have also agreed this year on several new areas of defense cooperation. The United States will provide training and support for Georgian defense forces to better monitor your coasts and your skies. We will help upgrade Georgia’s utility helicopter fleet so it can more easily transport supplies and people throughout your country. We are also going to help Georgia give its officers the 21st century training they need for today’s changing missions. With these efforts, Georgia will be a stronger international partner with an improved capacity for self-defense.
She also commissioned a new Georgian coast guard vessel, one of three that the U.S. has helped Georgia modernize:
I’m delighted to help formally commission this Pazisi patrol boat, which will soon help guard Georgia’s coastline. This ship, with its advanced technology and capabilities, is a testament to the partnership between our two countries. Georgians and Americans worked together to modernize it. And I am proud that since 2009, the United States has contributed $10 million to help the Georgian Coast Guard become a sustainable, self-sufficient service capable of patrolling and protecting its territorial waters.
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...