The question of whether, or how, to give military aid to Uzbekistan is probably the hottest question among Central Asia policymakers in Washington these days. The U.S. has agreed to leave some equipment behind for its partners in Central Asia after its forces withdraw from Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan has made clear that it has high expectations for the sort of equipment that it will get. But some in Washington are concerned that giving military equipment to Uzbekistan would only abet the misrule of President Islam Karimov, who heads one of the most repressive governments on the planet. This question will undoubtedly be at the top of the agenda this week when a large delegation from Uzbekistan, headed by Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov, visits Washington.
Publicly, the U.S. says it can provide military aid to Uzbekistan while still respecting human rights. At a recent congressional hearing, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake said that "the approach we have taken with Central Asia helps proactively strengthen the region’s capacity to combat terrorism and counter extremism, while encouraging democratic reform and respect for human rights.” But Blake didn't provide specifics. And It's easy to say you can give military aid while respecting human rights, but the devil is in the details. Meanwhile, behind closed doors there are discussions about expanding donations or sales of U.S. military equipment to Uzbekistan.
A top Iranian official has made waves in the Caucasus by claiming that Iran secretly helped Azerbaijan during the latter's war with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh in the 1990s. The official, Mohsen Rezaee, is in a position to know: he was the commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards at the time. He told Sahar TV (translation by Oye Times):
“I personally issued an order … for the Republic of Azerbaijan army to be equipped appropriately and for it to receive the necessary training,” he said. “Many Iranians died in the Karabakh War. In addition to the wounded, who were transported to [Iran], many of the Iranian martyrs of the Karabakh War are buried in Baku.”
“Karabakh is a part of Islamic lands and the Republic of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity must be guaranteed through peaceful means.”
Turkey's decision in 2011 to host a radar for NATO's missile defense system has been widely interpreted as a reaffirmation of Turkey's commitment to NATO, and more generally to a western geopolitical orientation, at a time when a number of analysts and policymakers have worried that Turkey is "drifting eastward." As analyst Ömer Taşpınar put it last year, "That decision, in my opinion, was almost a make-or-break move for the Obama administration in terms of testing Turkey's commitment to NATO, testing Turkey's commitment to the trans-Atlantic partnership." More recently, on the occasion of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to Ankara, as EurasiaNet's Yigal Schleiffer pointed out, Turkish commentators again noted the significance of the decision to host the radar:
In Washington, Turkey’s realignment with the U.S. particularly after the employment of the missile radar system and Ankara’s decision to side with the Syrian opposition despite Iranian and Russian objections appeared as good news.
But that may not be a correct interpretation of Ankara's decisionmaking, notes Aaron Stein, an Istanbul-based researcher at the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies who studies Turkish defense issues. Turkey's reluctance to host the radars originally -- and then its decision, ultimately, to accept them -- both had more to do with Turkey's calculations of its own security rather than about geopolitics, he said in a brief email interview with The Bug Pit.
Russian troops participating in the 2012 Peace Mission SCO exercises in Tajikistan
Over the last few years, two large multilateral security organizations that have emerged in Central Asia: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), dominated by China, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), dominated by Russia. For the most part, these two groups have looked past one another, staking out complementary, rather than competing, mandates, and including many of the same members (Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan all belong to both). But there is still under-the-surface competition between the two groups.
As the new International Crisis Group report, China's Central Asian Problem, notes, China's ambitious economic moves into Central Asia have not been matched by political or military efforts of the same scope. That's in part because the Russian influence in Central Asia's security structures remains so strong that China is reluctant to try to compete. The SCO, China's main tool for engaging in Central Asian security, has moved away from joint military training -- its 2012 exercise was the smallest since 2003 -- and more toward getting Central Asia to crack down on Uyghur exile groups. The CSTO, meanwhile, claims to be building up a joint military structure, including rapid reaction forces.
Russia is "increasingly distrustful" of the SCO, the ICG writes:
Georgian President MIkheil Saakashvili visits Martyrs Alley in Baku, honoring victims of the Nagorno Karabakh war.
When Georgian President MIkheil Saakashvili made an official visit to Azerbaijan last week, he took with him a bit of his unique brand of anti-Russia rhetoric, saying that Baku today faces a similar threat from Russia as has Tbilisi. From Civil.ge:
After visiting Baku, President Saakashvili said that Russia was preparing the same "scenario" for Azerbaijan, which was applied against Georgia in last year's parliamentary elections when, as he put it, "oligarchs, Russian funds, blackmailing and provocations" were used.
In particular, Saakashvili mentioned the establishment of a diaspora organization in Russia made up of rich businessmen of Azeri origin, which he said posed the same sort of threat as did Bidzina Ivanishvili, the Georgian-born businessman who made billions in Russia and then became prime minister of Georgia on a platform of improving ties with Russia. Saakashvili also noted that Ivanishvili's government pardoned an ethnic Armenian activist, which he said was done "to please" Russia.
Azerbaijan has traditionally been very careful not to provoke Russia; while it similarly feels a threat to its sovereignty from Moscow, it has followed a somewhat more multi-vectored approach than has Georgia, maintaining good relations with Russia, alongside its ties to Turkey, Europe, the U.S, Israel. and others. And Russia, for its part, has not taken an aggressive position against Baku, seeming more interested in maintaining a regional balance of power between Armenia and Azerbaijan. So it's not surprising, as the opposition news site Contact.az notes, that officials in Baku publicly ignored Saakashvili's comments.
The government of Azerbaijan, backed by activists abroad, is engaging in a campaign to gain international recognition of the 1992 massacre of over 400 Azeri civilians by Armenian forces in the village of Khojaly during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Kazakhstan is testing some new unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, aka drones) from Russia, a military official has said. Kazakhstan had tried out UAVs from France and Israel but they didn't do well in the cold weather, said General-Major Almaz Dzhumakeev, commander of Kazakhstan's 36th Air Assault Brigade:
"It's necessary to strengthen the reconnaissance units. There will be a competition, a selection, we will see which is acceptable for us and our climate, taking into account the wind and the cold. There have been UAVs which took off, flew 20 meters and crashed because it was so cold..."
According to the general-major, in 2014 after the selection of the supplier country the UAVs will enter service in the armed reconnaissance units of the armed forces of Kazakhstan. "Most likely, next year they will enter service. Where there is reconnaissance, there will be UAVs," he noted.
Kazakhstan has plans to produce its own drones, and also apparently has plans to buy some small reconnaissance drones from the Russian Irkut Corporation.It's also been looking at Chinese UAVs. It's not clear from the recent news stories, but it seems likely that the Irkuts are what Maj-Gen Dzhumakeev was talking about. From the website Russian Aviation, last October:
The Kazakh Ministry of Defense (MoD) will purchase 10 Irkut-10 unmanned reconnaissance aircraft systems (UAS) from Irkut Corporation, Lenta.ru reports.
The proposal of either the U.S. or Russia building some sort of military training facility/base in southern Kyrgyzstan has been kicking around for a long time, and while there appear to have been real proposals from both Washington and Moscow, neither of them, for reasons still unclear, have ever borne fruit. Now, with Russian government approval of a deal signed late last year to place all the Russian military facilities in Kyrgyzstan under a single agreement, Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta is reporting that a Russian base in Osh is part of the deal:
Central Asian states do not face an “imminent” threat posed by Islamic militants, but they need US assistance to help defend against potential dangers, according to top US diplomats. Such assistance, it appears, may include drone aircraft delivered to Uzbekistan, which democratization watchdogs rank as one of the most repressive states in the world.
Kazakhstan and Russia recently announced an agreement to create a joint air defense network, during a visit of Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu to Astana. From RIA Novosti:
Russia and Kazakhstan signed a deal on Wednesday to create a joint regional air defense system, Kazakhstan's Defense Ministry said on Wednesday.
“This document will create a platform to secure the defense of Kazakhstan’s airspace and Russia’s adjacent territory,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement....
Russia has previously had such an air defense agreement only with Belarus, but has planned to sign a similar one with Armenia, although the two countries do not share a border.
If that sounds familiar, the two sides announced the same thing two years ago. From RIA Novosti in December, 2010:
Russia and Kazakhstan have agreed to create a joint regional air defense network, chief of Kazakh air defenses Lt. Gen. Alexander Sorokin said on Wednesday.
"We have agreed to create a joint regional air defense network, which is similar to that of Russia and Belarus," Sorokin said, adding that the Kazakh Air Force would be responsible for defending Russian airspace along the border with Kazakhstan.
Except that, two years ago, the story continued:
"The creation of this network envisions free-of-charge deliveries of Russian S-300 air defense systems to Kazakhstan," the general said.
Since then, however, nothing more has been heard of the S-300s. I surveyed a few Russian military experts and none had heard of the systems being delivered, "which," as one said, "makes me think they were not delivered." So what happened? Given the opacity of both sides' militaries, we shouldn't hold our breaths about finding out much.