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:
A leader of a governmental think tank in Tajikistan has accused "some countries" and "certain forces" of trying to create an independent Greater Badakhshan from parts of Tajikistan and Afghanistan -- but that Russia and China would help prevent that from happening. That's according to Asia Plus, which reported on a report that deputy director of the Center for Strategic Studies, Sayfullo Safarov, presented in Kazakhstan:
According to [Safarov], currently, there are groups in Afghan Badakhshan that are supported by certain forces. “This indicates that underground geopolitical games are being carried out,” [Safarov]said. He, however, did not specify what forces those groups submit to.
“We cannot say that these plans now pose serious threat to security of Tajikistan, because we are able to defend our part of Badakhshan. Besides, our strategic partners – Russia and China – will help us. However, some countries are hatching such plans we must be vigilant in order to keep stability in this region,” Safarov said.
In a response, also published on Asia Plus, Tajikistan political analyst Parviz Mullojonov noted that Safarov's comments dovetailed neatly with those of Russian government-affiliated "experts" who like to portray Central Asia as on the brink of chaos so as to justify an increasing role there. He said that the fallout from the controversial Khorog operation last year has forced the government into playing up the seriousness of the threat posed by Badakhshan:
Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon traveled to Moscow this week to meet with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. At the top of the agenda was the long-delayed ratification of the agreement, signed last year by the two presidents, to extend the presence of Russia's 201st military base in Tajikistan until 2042. While Russia has already ratified the agreement, Tajikistan has been dragging its feet for reasons that remain unclear. But after the meeting in Moscow, Rahmon promised that the parliament would ratify the deal by this fall:
“I'd like to say that we treat this issue [of the Russian military base] very seriously,” Rahmon said, “and we are firmly committed to fulfilling our obligations. Now that we have solved a range of issues concerning the base, and as our parliament is returning from holiday, we will solve this issue by the fall of 2013.”
The two sides also apparently discussed the $200 million in military aid that Moscow has promised Dushanbe. One detail that emerged is that this amount is to be disbursed over a period stretching until 2025. “President Vladimir Putin’s orders are straightforward: to assess all risks and to help the Tajik armed forces face these risks,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said after the Putin-Rahmon meeting.
As usual with these sorts of meetings, details were scarce but speculation rampant. Much speculation centered around what the two discussed about Tajikistan's upcoming presidential elections. Political analyst Shokirjon Hakimov told the Tajikistan newspaper Avesta:
The shooting of a Turkish shepherd on the Armenia-Turkey border has sparked international tensions, though there appears to be some confusion in Turkey as to precisely with whom they should be angry.
The episode began July 31, when a 35-year-old shepherd in Turkey's Kars province accidentally wandered over the border with Armenia to retrieve one of his sheep that had strayed. (Though some reports say the wayward animal was a cow.) Kars Governor Eyüp Tepe blamed Armenian soldiers for the incident, and Turkey's Foreign Ministry issued a strong statement blaming Armenia:
We strongly condemn the shooting and killing of an innocent Turkish citizen for a simple border violation which we understand to have had an innocent purpose. There is no explanation for the Armenian party’s use of disproportionate force in such an incident which may typically occur at the border.
But it's no secret that Armenia doesn't actually control that border -- Armenia's borders with Turkey and Iran are in fact patrolled by Russian soldiers (though there are some Armenian guards under Russian command). It soon became clear that it was a Russian unit responsible for the shooting. From Hurriyet Daily News:
Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania during his interview with The Bug Pit (photo: Georgia MoD)
How can Georgia both improve relations with Russia while remaining on the path to NATO membership? That's been the fundamental question for Georgia's new government, which has promised to pursue both those seemingly contradictory strategic goals. But the country's defense minister, Irakli Alasania, chooses to frame them as complementary, rather than contradictory, aims. Alasania spoke to The Bug Pit last month in Tbilisi and discussed that question, among several other of the security issues Georgia now faces.
Alasania said that the new government, led by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, is a more attractive ally for NATO in several respects: “First, we are mature politically, we're not going to end up entangled in a military confrontation," he said. Secondly, the ministry is engaging a number of internal reforms to increase transparency, opening up tenders and expanding parliamentary and public oversight. "And the third thing: by improving, step by step, the relationship with Russia. This gives us space to deal with Abkhazians and South Ossetians, to reintroduce ourselves to Abkhazians and Ossetians. This is the key: If Abkhazians and Ossetians start thinking that, together with Georgia they're going to be in Europe, rather than stay under Russian occupation, this is going to be the key when allies will understand that we're ready.”
Nagorno Karabakh's armed forces have been substantially strengthened by large deliveries of weaponry over the past two years, said the head of the armed forces of the breakaway territory, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:
"We have never had a situation which we have now in terms of obtaining concrete weapons and military hardware,” their top commander, General Movses Hakobian, told a news conference in Stepanakert.
Hakobian said the arms acquisitions have been so extensive that the Karabakh Armenian military has difficulty storing them and plans to build a new arms depot for that purpose. He declined to specify the types of new weaponry delivered to it.
Providing no details is standard practice. Armenians, both in Yerevan and in Karabakh (which broke away from Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union), tend to talk big about their military might but provide few details. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, loves to tout its weapons purchases, probably to the point of exaggeration.
(Incidentally, the most authoritative source of real data on arms sales and transfers is the database of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which does a pretty complete (or, as complete as you can get) accounting of arms deals around the world. But remarkably, the database has absolutely no information on Karabakh, or the other ex-Soviet breakaway republics of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transniester, underscoring again what a black hole this part of the world is for verifiable information.)
Afghanistan authorities are beefing up security in Hairaton, the border town with Uzbekistan, citing recent attempts by militants to lay mines on a road leading to the bridge to Uzbekistan.
Authorities didn't give details of the mine-laying, or of the increased security measures. The chief of police of Balkh province, Abdul Razak Kadiri said “This city has strategic significance for all countries, so we will continue to strengthen security measures,” according to a report in Afghanistan.ru.
In June, Balkh authorities established a new police post in Hairaton and the deployment of additional police units, also announcing it as an effort to increase security in the border town.
Without knowing too many details it's hard to say what this means, but the major activity in Hairaton is transportation of U.S. and NATO cargo to and from Uzbekistan. While military supply convoys have been repeatedly attacked in northern Afghanistan, as far as I'm aware there have been no attacks in Hairaton (or in Central Asia itself). As usual, we should always look with strong skepticism at any news that comes out of this area, especially with so few details, but if this is true it would certainly be raising some alarm in Tashkent.
The government of Kyrgyzstan is working with a Washington, D.C., law firm to reopen the securities fraud case against Maxim Bakiyev, the son of the former president. Kyrgyzstan had made clear its displeasure with the U.S., after the Department of Justice dropped the case without explanation, and the move may have even played a role in the U.S.'s apparent eviction from its air base in Kyrgyzstan. So it's not too surprising that they are continuing to pursue this. But a story about the issue in Buzzfeed contains a number of intriguing details.
One is that the law firm, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld, is working pro bono. Why it is doing so remains unclear, and the Buzzfeed piece implies there is a hidden agenda.
“It’s not a usual path to represent a country pro bono,” McCarthy [the firm's head lawyer on the case] conceded. He named the firm’s “respect for Roza Otunbayeva” as a main motivating factor in taking the job. When asked what Akin Gump was getting out of the deal, McCarthy said “it motivates me and my team personally as well” and that Akin Gump wants to help Kyrgyzstan “stay the course” when it comes to corruption.
Another interesting piece of news the story broke is the apparent reason that the U.S. dropped the charges:
A person working on the deal who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that State Department officials had told Akin Gump representatives that the case was dropped because Eugene Gourevitch, the Bakiyev family’s financial adviser who was the cooperating witness on the case, had recanted his testimony. Gourevitch is currently in an Italian jail facing charges related to a $2.7 billion carousel scheme.
A U.S. Congressional committee held a hearing on the "emerging threat of resource wars" in Central Asia, but failed to demonstrate that that threat was emerging, or even a threat at all.
The hearing was held by the House Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats and chaired by Representative Dana Rohrabacher who is bringing his idiosyncraticbeliefstoward the region to the committee's work since being appointed to chair it earlier this year.
Rohrabacher opened the hearing with a dark warning, that "increasing global demand for supplies of energy and minerals is sparking intense economic competition that could lead to a counterproductive conflict. ... A zero-sum world where no one can obtain the means to progress without taking them from someone else is inherently a world of conflict. When new sources of supplies are opened, as is the case with Central Asia, there is still fear that there is not enough to go around and thus conflict emerges." But other than the general observation that China and India were both growing a lot and both needed resources, how conflict may emerge from that situation was not explained.
Today is the one-year anniversary of the controversial military operation in Khorog, Tajikistan, and human rights groups took the occasion to present to the government a report they have prepared on the events. The report has yet to be publicly released, but a report in Asia Plus summarizes the findings. Most of them have to do with the difficulty of determining exactly what happened:
The right to establish the truth. Although a year has passed since the Khorog events, there is now access to reliable information about: goals and objectives of the government military operation conducted in Khorog; the number of military personnel participating in the operation; number of casualties that occurred during and after the special operation; and investigation into the operation and post-operation deaths.
Access to information. Mobile and fixed-line communications as well as Internet were cut off in Khorog during the operation. Besides, several websites were blocked after fighting in Khorog.
Use of force and weapons. International standards provide for the requirements of proportionality and necessity of use of force and weapons and planning any operations in order to minimize possible casualties. According to some sources, 22 civilians and 23 military personnel were killed during the operation. Lack of information about the exact number of casualties among civilians and military personnel evokes serious concern.
Investigation. Although a year has passed since the Khorog events, there is still no information about the number of criminal proceedings instituted regarding the operation and post operation deaths and wounds.