President Mikheil Saakashvili has unveiled Georgia's first domestically produced drone aircraft. The drone is designed for reconnaissance and surveillance, with a photo and infrared camera, and Saakashvili said that it being homegrown means that "no one will share this with others," apparently referring to an embarrassing episode with previous UAVs that Georgia bought from Israel. After selling the drones to Georgia, Israel reportedly gave Russia data link codes that allowed the Russians to hack into the Georgian drones. The Georgian government hasn't publicly confirmed those reports, but Saakashvili surely had them in mind when speaking at the drone's launch, reports Civil.ge:
“When you make procurement from abroad a seller may not give you a full technology or may share technology [bought] by you to your adversary,” Saakashvili said at a presentation of the drone. “No one will share this [pointing to the Georgian-made drone] with others; it’s ours… We no longer depend on others.”
The drone can fly for eight hours, reach an altitude of 3,000 meters and reach a top speed of 160 km/hour, Georgia says. The Georgian Ministry of Defense has video of the demonstration here (and which you can see below). I asked a UAV expert, who asked not to be named, what he thought. He was impressed, but doubted that it was as homegrown as was being portrayed:
Turkmenistan is developing its first indigenous coast guard ship, part of the country's effort to protect its Caspian shore, state media reported. There were very few details given in this account on Turkmenistan's official government website, which at the very end of a long report about President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's visit to a military unit in Ashgabat:
Chief of the State Border Guard Service M. Yslamov presented the model of the Arkadag patrol ship – the first vessel built in Turkmenistan to the President.
Arkadag, incidentally, means "Protector" and is the new honorific that has been given to Berdimukhammedov, in the same fashion that his predecessor was named Turkmenbashi, or "Leader of the Turkmen," which now happens to be also the name of the country's major Caspian port and apparent future site of its naval headquarters.
(And yes, this was actually almost two months ago, but it's been barely reported and new to The Bug Pit. This weekend, of course, Berdimukhammedov was engaged with a different sort of vehicle, winning a car race.)
This follows Turkmenistan's quiet move last year to buy two Turkish fast patrol boats, and the decision to establish a naval academy in Turkmenbashi. (He also recently got a tour of a Turkish coast guard vessel with his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul.)
What small opportunity these protests had of taking advantage of the new vulnerability of the Kremlin in the wake of big anti-government protests over the recent elections was probably quashed by the fact that they are led by the Communist Party, whose head, Gennady Zyuganov, was the main speaker at the Moscow rally. Zyuganov opened his remarks by mentioning that it was the 70th anniversary of the birth of ex-Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, whom Zyuganov lionized as "the first in Europe to revolt against NATO." He said that this would be the first time in 1,000 years of Russian history that a foreign military base would be established in Russia, and that it would make Ulyanovsk into a center of drug trafficking in Russia.
For what it's worth, Russian officials have taken pains to emphasize that what is proposed at Ulyanovsk is not a "base," and will host no NATO personnel.
Never mind: Zyuganov said more rallies against the base/transit hub will be held April 21, the eve of Lenin's birthday.
Russia has apparently chosen a new ambassador to NATO, and it appears to augur a change of tone for Russia in Brussels. The previous Kremlin envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, was the leader of a nationalist political party who became a sort of cult hero/villain (depending on your perspective) for his very public disdain for the alliance, which he broadcast frequently on Twitter. The new ambassador, the newspaper Kommersant reports, is Alexander Grushko, now deputy foreign minister with a portfolio that includes NATO and other Euro-Atlantic issues and a background of working in arms control issues. Kommersant says Grushko would be the first career diplomat to hold the NATO post and that the appointment would be welcomed in NATO:
An unnamed NATO official said that the alliance was "pleased that it would be Grushko and nobody else," citing his experience in covering NATO and European issues at the foreign ministry."More to the point, Grushko is a professional specializing in NATO. No need to explain anything to him," said the source, according to Kommersant.
And another story in the paper quotes a Russian expert saying of Grushko, "This is definitely a diplomatic appointment, not a political one."
Grushko has been a frequent interlocutor with American officials, as can be seen from the voluminous number of Wikileaked cables that cite conversations between him and U.S. diplomats. But he still comes off as a strong NATO skeptic, and the tone in the cables suggests no particular warmth in the conversations. Take this cable, from October 2008, just after the Russia-Georgia war:
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: