Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has asserted that his recent visit to the United States raised US-Georgian strategic ties to a “new level.” American officials have been much more reticent on bilateral defense issues, raising questions about what exactly was discussed in Washington.
NATO and Russia are working on an agreement to set up a multi-modal transport hub in Ulyanovsk, in Russia's Volga region, to assist the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, reports the Russian newspaper Kommersant, citing Russian diplomats. Via Johnson's Russia List:
Talks on establishing a NATO logistics base in central Russia started one-and-a-half years ago. A source from the Russian Foreign Ministry said that the United States proposed a Russian city where "cargo from Afghanistan could be airlifted and then forwarded by rail to Latvia or Estonia." After discussing several locations, both parties agreed to set up the hub in Ulyanovsk because its airport is best suited to the task in that region due to the proximity of railway lines.
Russian Railways and Volga-Dnieper Airlines, which are already involved in delivering NATO cargo from Afghanistan to Europe, are expected to benefit, as the project will increase cargo traffic considerably.
The report adds that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will soon sign an agreement on the proposal.
Intriguingly, one of the reasons that the facility at Ulyanovsk will be needed is because Uzbekistan is wary of the reverse transit, specifically about the possibility of drugs or arms being smuggled in along with it:
[The Ulyanovsk hub] is also important because of Uzbekistan, whose territory is currently used for the supply of goods to Afghanistan, does not want to allow them in the opposite direction.
"The Uzbeks are afraid of the importation of drugs and weapons. It's not so easy to check whole trainloads of military equipment," says the diplomat.
The United States is gently pressing Kazakhstan to do more to reform its political system in the wake of parliamentary elections that failed to meet international standards and a violent crackdown on labor protests in the country's oil-rich western region.
Uzbekistan is slated to get some new night vision goggles, bulletproof vests and GPS equipment from the U.S., a State Department official has said. A couple of weeks ago, the U.S. formally notified Congress that it intends to again start giving Uzbekistan military aid, which had been halted since 2002 because of concerns about human rights. At the time it wasn't clear what exactly would be given to Tashkent under the waiver, but now the State Department has described in a little more detail what is under discussion here. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, at a press conference on February 1:
Examples of the kinds of things that this waiver was given for – this will enhance the Uzbeks’ ability to counteract transnational terrorism and all – things like night vision goggles, personal protection equipment, global positioning systems. It’s defensive in nature, and it’s also supportive of their ability to secure the routes in and out of Afghanistan.
It's not clear that there is in fact any significant threat to the NDN in Uzbekistan. The closest thing so far, initially called a "terror" attack by the Uzbek authorities, appears more and more to be looking like an inside job. More likely, this is the pretext that the Uzbekistan government is using to justify the aid, knowing that that will resonate with U.S. policymakers; their real interest is likely geopolitical, that is showing Russia that they have other options for security other than Moscow and the CSTO.
At the press conference, Nuland also addressed the question of human rights and this aid:
What's the biggest "threat" emanating from the Caucasus and Central Asia? Every year the head of the U.S. intelligence community is required to give to Congress a "Worldwide Threat Assessment" describing all the things that could go wrong for the U.S. around the world. Yesterday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper submitted this year's version (pdf), and our humble region got four paragraphs in the 30-page report. The facts in the report won't be news to readers of The Bug Pit, but what threats the intelligence community chooses to highlight are worth looking at:
The unresolved conflicts of the Caucasus and the fragility of some Central Asian states represent the most likely flashpoints in the Eurasia region. Moscow‟s occupation and military presence in and expanded political-economic ties to Georgia‟s separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia account for some of the tensions. Meanwhile, Tbilisi charged Russia with complicity in a series of bombings in Georgia in 2010 and 2011, while the Kremlin has been suspicious about Georgian engagement with ethnic groups in Russia‟s North Caucasus. Georgia‟s new constitution strengthens the office of the Prime Minister after the 2013 presidential election, leading some to expect that President Saakashvili may seek to stay in power by serving as Prime Minister, which could impact the prospect for reducing tensions.
Still from video of Obama and Saakashvili's White House meeting
Presidents Obama and Saakashvili has their much-anticipated Oval Office meeting Monday afternoon, and their comments to the press afterwards suggested that differences of opinion remained over the question of the U.S. supplying weapons to Georgia. That has become the most fraught element of the U.S.-Georgia partnership, with Tbilisi pushing hard to get the U.S. to give or sell the Georgians "defensive" weapons, and the U.S. demurring. Congress recently tried to force Obama to restart a more robust defense cooperation, including arms sales, but Obama then declared his intention to ignore Congress, setting up the potential of a small crisis between the tiny Caucasus nation and its would-be superpower patron. At the White House meeting, in spite of the formal professions of strong cooperation, it wasn't hard to see cracks in that facade.
Obama spoke first, and made an unfortunate slip of the tongue: he praised the "institution-building that's been taking place in Russia -- in Georgia." (Saakashvili did display remarkable restraint during the second or so before Obama corrected himself, sitting stone-faced.) After mentioning the possibility of a free-trade agreement between the U.S. and Georgia, he then discussed defense cooperation:
We talked about how to continue to strengthen our defense cooperation and there are a wide range of areas where we're working together. And I reaffirmed to the president, and reassured him, that the United States will contnue to support Georgia's aspirations to ultimately become a member of NATO.
By contrast, here is what Saakashvili said about defense cooperation:
Earlier this week, the U.S. designated three men as members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), shadowy groups operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And U.S. agents arrested a fourth man in the U.S., charging him with supporting the IJU.
These moves have prompted skepticism about whether the IMU and IJU are in fact real threats, and questions about whether the U.S. is trumping up these charges -- or even selling out Uzbekistan's dissidents -- for the sake of Tashkent's cooperation on the Northern Distribution Network. These are worthwhile questions to be asking, even while there's still too little information to come to conclusive answers.
But if this is a sort of "payment" by Washington to Tashkent, it wouldn't be the first time. Political scientist Eric McGlinchey, in his new book Chaos, Violence, Dynasty: Politics and Islam in Central Asia, discusses how the IMU got on the State Department's official list of terrorist organizations -- ultimately making this week's arrest and sanctions possible:
The "Desert Tank," on the way to fight terrorists in Kazakhstan?
Last May, Kazakhstan bought 20 off-road buses from a Chinese company, a sale that was marked at a ceremony at the factory and an "atmosphere festive, full of joy" but otherwise little notice. Now, though, several months later, some news stories have been popping up in the Chinese press that this bus is in fact a "desert tank" suitable for fighting terrorists in the desert on Kazakhstan's border with the Chinese province of Xinjiang.
Here we have a mighty new machine from China. This is the Shaanxi SX6100 SPF, nicknamed the ‘Desert Tank’. It is a bus-like vehicle based on a 6×6 Dongfeng truck chassis, made for all-terrain duty in the desert. Shaanxi just sold twenty SX6100′s to security services in the great country of Kazachstan where they will be used for ‘anti-terrorism-patrol’ in the vast empty deserts in the east, near the border with China’s Xinjiang Province.
As you can see from the photo (several more available here), the SX6100 sure looks a lot more like a bus than a tank, most notably because of its complete lack of armor. But, the report continues, it could be weaponized: "The Desert Tanks sold to Kazachstan are nor armed but Shanxi says a turret for a small machine gun can be fitted on the roof." The author challenges the mighty SX6100's potential attackers: "Come to check that out, terrorist!"
Still from video purporting to show American Humvees during the unrest in Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan, in December.
American Humvees, given to Kazakhstan using U.S. military aid, appear to have been used by the security forces which violently quelled the December riots in Zhanaozen, killing at least 17 protesters. The U.S. gave the Humvees to the Ministry of Defense for use in its nascent peacekeeping brigade, and it's not clear who was using them in Zhanaozen. But their use there suggests either that the peacekeeping brigade, known as KAZBRIG, was used to put down the uprising in Zhanaozen, or that the Humvees are being used by some internal security unit rather than by Ministry of Defense forces. Neither of those options are likely to please the Americans who gave Kazakhstan the Humvees.
The involvement of the Humvees is shown in a citizen cellphone video, aired in this report from Russian television network REN-TV. At about the 1:35 mark, you can see three Humvees driving down the road, and at 1:42 a very fleeting image seems to show another one traveling in the opposite direction.
Obviously, that brief glimpse doesn't say much, but it does suggest that Humvees were on the scene at the crackdown (assuming this isn't some sort of elaborate disinformation campaign). So, what were they doing?
The U.S. began giving Humvees to Kazakhstan in 2002, and now, according to a 2010 diplomatic cable, the "Kazakhstan HMMWV fleet currently includes 114 vehicles (45 up-armored vehicles, the rest being primarily unarmored or ambulances). KAZBRIG uses the [Humvees] for training peacekeepers and is expected to deploy with them as part of a future PSO [peace support operation]."
Former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze is making some pretty inflammatory accusations against his successor, reports the website Gruziya Online:
To maintain power, Mikheil Saakashvili may involved in a war against Iran, says ex-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.
"I do not rule out that Saakashvili to keep his seat can turn to a military campaign against Iran that would be a disaster for our country," he said, stressing that the issue could be the subject of future negotiations between Saakashvili and U.S. President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on January 30.
"An anti-Iranian campaign should not be conducted on the territory of Georgia," said Shevardnadze.
The Russian media is full of speculation about an impending attack on Iran far out of proportion with the likelihood of such a thing happening any time soon. And it's unlikely that war with Iran will actually be on the agenda when Obama and Saakashvili meet next week.
This analysis from Messenger.ge seems (except for the Iran stuff) more on target: