Russia is planning to increase its presence of airborne troops in Central Asia and the Caucasus, a sign that Moscow sees a greater possibility of fighting in the region. The planned deployment was announced by Lieutenant General Vladimir Shamanov, the commander of the airborne troops, and reported by Nezavisimaya Gazeta (in a report translated into English by RIA Novosti):
Russian military bases in Central Asia and the Caucasus are to be considerably strengthened. They might be reinforced by units of the national Airborne Force to increase mobility and combat efficiency, said the force’s commander.
Airborne forces (i.e., those that parachute into action) are fairly elite units, and suggest a more active role for the Russian military than would the current Russian troops in Armenia and Tajikistan, which are mostly infantry.
Shamanov didn't provide many details of the proposed reinforcements, but said that they were required both by the necessity to "successfully accomplish the objectives set by Russia’s leaders" as well as to strengthen Russia's "international commitments" to the Collective Security Treaty Organization. (Those commitments, it should be noted, are largely self-imposed by Russia without much apparent enthusiasm from other CSTO members and are themselves an instrument of accomplishing the objectives of Russia's leaders.)
The report notes that Russian airborne troops were deployed to Kyrgyzstan during the recent unrest, to Tajikistan during CSTO exercises last year and are scheduled to be sent to Armenia for CSTO exercises later this year. "But it is unclear whether airborne units will remain there on a permanent basis," NG adds.
Amid the negotiations between Russia and Azerbaijan over the Gabala radar station, Armenia has stepped in and said they would be willing to host a Russian radar if a deal over Gabala falls through.
The current lease for the radar station expires in December, and Azerbaijan has gradually been raising the price it says it wants to charge Russia under a new agreement. The latest reports had Azerbaijan's price rising from $7 million now to a whopping $300 million. Another set of talks on the issue between the foreign ministers of the two countries took place this week, with no apparent resolution. But Armenia's prime minister, Tigran Sargsyan, said in an interview with the Russian newspaper Kommersant that Armenia would be willing to host a replacement radar, and that it could even be a better site for it than Azerbaijan:
“There may even be advantages, because Armenia is a mountainous country. Coverage can be broader,” Sargsyan said.
Meanwhile, the Russian and Azerbaijani public bargaining continued. Ali Hasanov, a top adviser to Azerbaijan's president Ilham Aliyev, tried to emphasize that the negotiations were taking place on Azerbaijan's terms:
"Gabala radar station is our property. We decide on to whom and on what terms to lease it, taking into account the interests of the state. We take into consideration its cost, policy and its impact on relations with neighboring countries" Hasanov said.
And he downplayed the threat of an Armenian counteroffer:
"We do not have anything against that. Of course, why the Armenian outpost cannot be a radar post as well? If Russia needs to build this post in Armenia, we will not have any objections" he said.
A top U.S. military official has finished a trip around Central Asia, and while most of the official news about his visits with the region's leaders was prettyvague, there were a couple of interesting items from Kyrgyzstan.
After meeting with the U.S. official, CENTCOM commander General James Mattis, the chair of Kyrgyzstan's national security council Busurmankul Tabaldiyev suggested that Kyrgyzstan is open to keeping the Manas air base open after 2014. That would be a shift from recent public rhetoric from Bishkek, which has stressed the need to close the base as soon as the current agreement expires in 2014. From 24.kg, quoting Tabaldiyev:
Kyrgyzstan is interested in ensuring security and stability in the country and is ready to participate fully in the efforts of the international community to assist Afghanistan. The Kyrgyz side expressed its readiness to assist the U.S. government to continue after 2014, but in the interests of the country, the views of the people and the security of Kyrgyzstan.
In his meeting with Mattis, Tabaldiyev also apparently broached the topic of getting drone aircraft from the U.S., reports RFE/RL:
Tabaldiev told RFE/RL the request was for U.S. drones to be left for Kyrgyzstan during the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan due by the end of 2014.
...Mattis, leader of the U.S. delegation, reportedly replied that Washington is ready to consider the request.
The U.S. military might rely on India as a way of getting equipment in and out of Afghanistan if Pakistan doesn't cooperate, a senior military official has said. The official, Marine Lt. Gen. Frank Panter, deputy commandant for installations and logistics, testified at a Congressional hearing on Thursday and was asked about the U.S.'s plans if Pakistan doesn't soon start to allow U.S. and NATO supplies to again transit that country. He said India would be part of the solution, according to a report from the Press Trust of India:
"If we can't negotiate or successfully negotiate the reopening of the PAK GLOC (Ground Lines of Communication) we have to default and rely on India and the Northern Distribution Network, our increased strat airlift."
India has already been taking up some of Pakistan's slack. ABC News reported in January that as a result of Pakistan's blockade, the Pentagon had started "diverting some cargo from Pakistani ports to Indian ports where the supplies are either flown into Afghanistan or transported northward by train for delivery through one of the NDN routes."
(It's not clear how you would go by train to an NDN route: the only ways northward through India to Afghanistan have to pass through either Pakistan or China, and that is probably not happening.)
Indian analyst M K Bhadrakumar, writing on his blog, suggests that the U.S. is using India either as leverage against Pakistan, or perhaps to transport sensitive equipment with which it doesn't trust Pakistan:
Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad discuss railway projects in Dushanbe.
This week, Dushanbe hosted the fifth meeting of the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan, and the U.S., as expected, used the occasion to promote its "New Silk Road" vision of a future in which Afghanistan is a hub of commerce between Central and South Asia. "The region’s wealth of natural resources, nascent trade agreements, and a burgeoning network of transport and energy connections underscore the great economic promise of a more integrated South and Central Asia," said Robert Blake, assistant secretary of State for Central and South Asia, the U.S.'s senior representative at the meeting. "ut achieving greater economic cooperation – the essence of the New Silk Road vision – will not be easy or happen overnight. It will require strong buy-in and coordination by governments in the region, its international partners, and investment from the private sector."
So when participants announced that they would "accelerate" plans for a railway from Kashgar (in far western China) and Herat (in western Afghanistan), you might assume the U.S. would be thrilled. It doesn't get much more Silk Road than Kashgar and Herat, and getting China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan on the same page for a regional project is no small feat.
The catch is that Iran is a driving force behind the Kashgar-Herat railway project. And the U.S. can't abide any cooperation with Iran, New Silk Road be damned. Blake was asked about this at a press conference after the meeting:
Question [BBC Persia]: Mr. Blake, we know that the United States and European countries likewise, you promote integration projects in the region between Central Asia and South Asia. How is it possible without Iran’s participation?
Azerbaijani minister of defense Safar Abiyev meets Iranian defense officials this month in Tehran.
Israel has gained access to airfields in Azerbaijan, possibly so that Israeli aircraft could land there after attacking Iran, a new report in Foreign Policy magazine says:
[F]our senior diplomats and military intelligence officers say that the United States has concluded that Israel has recently been granted access to airbases on Iran's northern border. To do what, exactly, is not clear. "The Israelis have bought an airfield," a senior administration official told me in early February, "and the airfield is called Azerbaijan."
Senior U.S. intelligence officials are increasingly concerned that Israel's military expansion into Azerbaijan complicates U.S. efforts to dampen Israeli-Iranian tensions, according to the sources. Military planners, I was told, must now plan not only for a war scenario that includes the Persian Gulf -- but one that could include the Caucasus.
A few weeks ago, when Azerbaijan's $1.6 billion arms deal with Israel was announced, this blog discounted the idea that Azerbaijan would get involved in a potential Israeli attack on Iran, arguing that the risks for Azerbaijan are too high and the potential gains unclear. The exception would be if Azerbaijan's influence were so discreet as to allow Baku some plausible deniability; then Iran probably wouldn't stand to gain from attacking Azerbaijan. According to the FP report, the most likely use for the Azerbaijan airfields would be so that Israeli aircraft could land there after an attack, obviating the need for mid-air refueling en route to Iran, which Israel isn't particularly experienced with and which would reduce the amount of weapons the planes could take on each sortie:
Ohanian, Panetta and other U.S. and Armenian officials meet in Washington
Armenia's defense minister Seyran Ohanian has wrapped up a three-day visit to the U.S., as military relations between the U.S. and Armenia quietly strengthen. Ohanian's visit was his first to the U.S. since he became defense minister in 2008, according to Armenian Reporter, which reported that he met with his counterpart Leon Panetta and CIA director David Petraeus, among other officials.
Last month, the two countries agreed to carry out their first-ever joint military exercises in April. And Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cables show that Ohanian is someone the U.S. likes working with, Armenian Reporter notes:
Although this was Ohanyan's first visit to U.S. since his appointment as defense minister in 2008, Ohanyan is known to have a good rapport with Americans, meeting Petraeus and other senior U.S. officials during visits with Armenian peacekeeping units in Iraq and Afghanistan and to NATO headquarters in Brussels.
"The better we get to know Minister Ohanian, the more we like him as a partner in political-military efforts," U.S. Charge in Armenia Joseph Pennington wrote in a 2009 cable made available by Wikileaks. "He seems a straightforward interlocutor, who is respected in the Armenian government and within the Defense Ministry. His credibility as a soldier is very high, given his long experience commanding NKSDF [Nagorno Karabakh Self Defense Forces] troops."
"We are pleased to find General Ohanian interested and committed on Armenia's NATO-related defense reform efforts and Euro-Atlantic ties," Pennington wrote.
Georgian opposition politician Bidzina Ivanishvili is paying tens of thousands of dollars a month to Washington lobbyists, and it looks like it's already paying off. On Monday, Jim McDermott, a Democratic congressman from Washington state, introduced the "Republic of Georgia Democracy Act of 2012," which would require the U.S. to cut off all aid (military and otherwise) to Georgia unless the Secretary of State can certify that parliamentary elections scheduled in October are carried out in a free, fair and competitive manner. That fits with a recent rhetorical push by U.S. officials to impress upon Georgia's government the extent to which Washington is watching the conduct of its elections. The penalty may seem a bit harsh, though: when was the last time Bahrain -- to pick another prominent U.S. military aid recipient -- had a free election?
But what's most striking about the bill is its emphasis on Ivanishvili. The bill mentions the billionaire businessman no fewer than 13 times in its nine pages, without mentioning any other politician (other than President MIkheil Saakashvili, referring to his "increasingly dictatorial control over Georgia's government" and several times to the "Saakashvili regime"). It details the revocation of Ivanishvili's citizenship, the financial harassment of Ivanishvili and the suspicious death of an Ivanishvili supporter while in jail. Unsurprisingly, the bill's text was sent to The Bug Pit by a PR firm working for Ivanishvili. (The bill, introduced only Monday, does not appear to be online yet, I'll update with a link when it is.)
The U.S. sees Georgia's upcoming elections as a "litmus test" for its entry into NATO, the presumed next ambassador to Tbilisi said. The nominee for ambassador, Richard Norland, testified at his confirmation hearing in the Senate on Wednesday, and used the phrase "litmus test" twice, according to a report by Civil.ge:
“Given Georgia’s interests and Georgia’s aspirations to NATO membership and our support for those aspirations, how these elections are conducted is a very important litmus test and we’ll be watching carefully to make sure that the way these elections unfold are in keeping in NATO standards.”
“The Europe and the United States are closely watching the conduct of these elections to determine whether they meet the criteria that are expected of a NATO-member country,” Norland said...
“I think Georgian officials are beginning to understand, that in fact they are being watched, that this is being monitored closely and that it is a litmus test for their membership to NATO. We hope that they will take the right steps,” Norland said.
He had pretty strong words on the current state of political freedom in Tbilisi:
“There are reports of harassment of opposition candidates that trouble us deeply,” Norland said.
He said that the role of the Georgian state audit agency “Chamber of Control in party financing is drawing a lot of concern in Georgia and in the international community.”
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin exhibits his pleasure at meeting Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev.
The Russian government is unhappy about Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev's recent moves regarding Kyrgyz-Russian military relations, Itar-Tass reports, suggesting a public effort by the Kremlin to knock Atambayev down a notch. Moscow's complaints include Atambayev's statement that Russia's Kant air base in Kyrgyzstan is unnecessary, criticism of the Collective Security Treaty Organization head Nikolay Bordyuzha, and tough bargaining over a torpedo plant. Russia is even concerned that Atambayev might go wobbly on his vow to kick the U.S. out of Manas in 2014, the news agency reports:
Russia is very dissatisfied with the policy of Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev elected last October, the Vedomosti cited a high-ranking Russian official as saying to reporters on Wednesday. In February Atambayev stated about a probable shutdown of the Russian military base in Kant, though the agreement about the deployment of the military base in 2009 was extended for 49 years. “The military base did not bring much benefit,” Atambayev said. Last February the president demanded from Russia to pay off the debt for the military base at 15 million dollars and the Defence Ministry repaid the debt.
Atambayev’s statement sounded like the thunder in the sky creates new problems not only for bilateral relations, but also for the CSTO activities. “If earlier the CSTO brought together six allied countries and one country with the special position that is Uzbekistan, after the presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan we received a president, who does not realize always what he is saying,” the Russian official said. He is also not convinced that Atambayev will keep his promise to shutdown the US military base Manas by 2014.