Last week's joint military exercises between Russia and Kazakhstan posited an intriguing threat scenario -- a cruise missile attack, which a top Kazakh military officer called "topical" because it reflected "the latest events happening in the world." The reference to the U.S./NATO war in Libya was unmistakeable. But Roger McDermott, writing in Jamestown's Eurasia Daily Monitor, takes that analysis a step further:
An analysis of “recent events” influencing the splicing of this aspect into the planned scenario fits the intervention against Gaddafi’s forces in Libya by France, the UK and US forces, but is NATO intervention in eastern Kazakhstan even remotely plausible? The range factor is perplexing: at the upper limit of long-range cruise missile systems. Indeed, the location of this rehearsal suggests that the “hypothetical opponent” most likely has a much closer proximity.
McDermott doesn't spell it out here, but could they have instead be envisaging a Chinese attack, and masking it by making a veiled NATO reference? As distrustful as Russia is of the U.S., it definitely recognizes that China is more of a threat in its eastern flank. And Kazakhstan, too, is likely more worried about China's intentions than those of NATO. But politically, it's easier to make references to a NATO threat than a China one, especially as the SCO summit just concluded in Astana. It would be interesting to know how this exercise is being seen in Beijing...
1st Lt. Kathleen Ferrero, U.S. Air Mobility Command Public Affairs
A U.S. tanker flies over the Arctic Ocean en route from the U.S. to the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan
The U.S. air force has made its first trip over the Arctic Ocean in support of its troops in Afghanistan, the fruit of negotiations over the last two years with Russia and Kazakhstan to steadily expand the Northern Distribution Network. From a U.S. military press release:
A KC-135 Stratotanker flew north until it started flying south, June 21 to 22 -- cutting a new pathway over the Arctic Circle and the North Pole between Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., and the Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan. It was the first time an Air Force air refueling tanker has ever flown this route.
The mission followed another historic flight that took place June 5 to 6 when a C-5M Super Galaxy traversed the Arctic Circle to fly the first direct delivery airlift mission from Dover Air Force Base, Del., to Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan.
A 2009 U.S.-Russia transit agreement helped make the new arctic routes possible, according to U.S. Transportation Command. The KC-135 flight over the North Pole alone saved the Air Force approximately 4.5 hours and $54,000.
Azerbaijan celebrated its Armed Forces Day on Sunday with a big military parade in Baku and the first display of the country's new, Russian-supplied S-300 air defense system, the existence of which had been the source of some skepticism.
The parade featured 6,000 soldiers and a variety of hardware (you can see a video below). Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, also gave a speech in which he boasted about Azerbaijan's military prowess and vowed to retake the disputed province of Nagorno Karabakh, now controlled by Armenians.
Over 3,000 soldiers from Kazakhstan and Russia are taking part in joint military exercises in eastern Kazakhstan. The exercises, called "Shygys-2011" ("East" in Kazakh), started June 20 and last until the end of the month. The focus seems to be on air force cooperation, in particular in repelling an air invasion. There is an intriguing explanation of the scenario by the chairman of the joint chief of staff of Kazakhstan, Saken Zhassuzakov:
For the first time, we have been working on repelling cruise missiles. We did not have such missions before. It is topical because the analysis made for the latest events happening in the world shows that the first strikes are the ones with cruise missiles, which can be fired from the range of one and a half, two and three thousand miles, and almost without the use of an aircraft.
So, what latest events in the world involving cruise missiles could he be talking about? It's pretty hard to imagine how anything in Kazakhstan or Russia would end up in a U.S./NATO/Libya-type scenario, but perhaps I don't have the strategic vision that these guys do.
(The link above also has some video of the exercises.)
Another intriguing development: the Russian Caspian Flotilla is going to take part in joint exercises with the Kazakhstan armed forces (presumably its nascent navy), called Center-2011 (in Russian), some time this summer.
Russia has strongly objected to the visit of a U.S. naval cruiser to Batumi, Georgia, arguing that it is a provocation because the U.S. ship is part of the missile defense system to which Russia is strongly opposed.
On the surface, the visit of the ship, the USS Monterey, has nothing to do with the missile defense controversy. It is in the Black Sea for joint U.S.-Ukraine exercises including "counter-piracy operations; non-combatant evacuation operations, as well as board, search and seizure trainings." Other countries taking part are Azerbaijan, Algeria, Belgium, Denmark, Georgia, Germany, Macedonia, Moldova, Sweden, Turkey and the UK. The U.S. Embassy says the visit is a normal training mission:
The USS MONTEREY is operating in the Black Sea to conduct joint maritime training with several countries adjoining the Black Sea. U.S. ships have regularly deployed in the Black Sea region for many years and represent the continuing U.S. commitment to Black Sea regional stability and maritime security.
But that hides a more insidious intent, Russia argues. The Monterey is equipped with the Aegis radar system, and as such would be part of the European missile defense shield that the U.S. wants to build around Russia. And so the visit, Russia says, is a wolf in sheep's clothing. Via RIA Novosti:
"The Russian Foreign Ministry earlier expressed concern that along with negotiations on cooperation in the global air defense system, [the U.S.] is conducting simultaneous 'reconnaissance' operations near the borders of our country," the ministry said.
The possible scuppering of Kazakhstan's planned deployment to Afghanistan appears to be a result of genuine parliamentary opposition to the move, heightened by the still-mysterious and probably unrelated bombing in western Kazakhstan. That's the analysis of Roger McDermott, a very knowledgable source on Kazakhstan military issues, writing in Jamestown's Eurasia Daily Monitor.
McDermott suggests that it was the combined effect of public opposition to the deployment -- in particular by veterans of the Soviet Afghan war -- and the apparent terror attacks:
In isolation, such campaigning stood little chance of success. What no official had foreseen was an unexpected terrorist incident in Aktobe, on the country’s Caspian coast....
The confluence of several factors, partly predictable and unforeseen developments, influenced senators to draw back from approving the bill. In the hiatus between announcing the agreement and seeking to conclude the ratification process, explanations offered to the wider society did not eliminate the misperception that Astana may become a direct combatant.
McDermott adds, however, that the parliamentary rejection is "neither final nor outright." There is a provision in the country's constitution which requires decisions like this to be made by a joint session of parliament, not by two separate votes by the two houses:
Armenia is producing unmanned drones for military use, the country's deputy air force commander has said, according to RFERL:
“We have quite serious unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), even those capable of carrying out objectives deep inside enemy territory,” Colonel Armen Mkrtchian told journalists. “They are made in Armenia.”
Mkrtchian refused to give any details of domestic drone manufacturing, which exists only in a limited number of countries. He would not say if Armenian-made UAVs are designed only for surveillance missions or air strikes as well.
This is the first time Armenia has publicly said it has drones, which this report calls "official confirmation" of what had been rumors for a long time. But rival Azerbaijan -- which already uses drones close to the line of contact over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh -- and Armenia seem to take opposite tacks when it comes to discussing their military buildups. Azerbaijan brags about how much it is spending on new defense systems, while Armenia slyly drops rumors that it, too, is keeping up. But both approaches lend themselves to exaggeration -- and the little amount of information that Armenia has "confirmed" here seems like it might be part of a disinformation campaign.
But it could just as likely be true. Armenia would be joining a rapidly growing list of drone manufacturers -- and doing its best to keep up with Azerbaijan.
What does the TV show The West Wing have to do with U.S. and Western policy toward Central Asia? The former is a part of the "discourse of danger" created around Central Asia that leads to poorly conceived policies toward the region, argue two academics in a new, thought-provoking paper, "Contesting danger: a new agenda for policy and scholarship on Central Asia."
The paper is only available to those with academic library access, but the authors, John Heathershaw and Nick Megoran, summarize it in a piece on openDemocracy. In brief, it argues that a vague view of Central Asia as "obscure, oriental and fractious" has contributed to ill-informed policymaking. The paper traces an interesting history of this discourse, with a particularly compelling (at least to me, not having watched the show) of how Central Asia was portrayed on The West Wing, and how that dovetails with the Washington conventional wisdom on Central Asia. There was a running storyline on the series across several episodes:
[T]hese episodes feature a plot to assassinate the fictional President Isatov of Kazakhstan (once again mistaken at first, this time for Uzbekistan) and a regional oil company head which leads to a rigged election, civil conflict (‘the Kazakh people are rioting in the streets because they’ve been screwed out of an election’) and the invasion of the country by China and Russia (a ‘war over oil’). The two Great Powers are kept apart only by a massive American intervention of around 150,000 troops. As C. J. Cregg (Allison Janney, who plays White House chief of staff ) comments, ‘I’m trying to keep China and Russia from annihilating the Northern Hemisphere over oil in Kazakhstan.’
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit has concluded, doing little to dispel perceptions that it is an anti-Western talk shop. The two pieces of news that have gotten the most attention from the summit are the statement opposing U.S. missile defense plans, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling on the group to form a new world order to replace the current one that is "managed and run by slavers and colonizers of the past." There was also some pointed commentary on the "Arab Spring," with the suggestion that Arab countries develop democracy "in accordance with their own history and cultural traditions."
But there were some substantive developments as well. As expected, the group made a step toward admitting India, Pakistan and Iran as new members. Those three countries are currently all observer states of the SCO, along with Mongolia, which appears not to have taken this step -- on which more in an upcoming post. There was talk of Afghanistan joining as an observer during this summit, though that appears not to have happened.
And the SCO signed an agreement on cooperation on drug trafficking with the United Nations, signaling the group's increasing legitimacy among established international organizations.
And although there doesn't seem to have been much specific action taken in the economic realm, there seems to have been a lot of discussion of greater economic cooperation among SCO states. From China Daily:
It appears that Kazakhstan has gotten cold feet about its proposed deployment of four officers to Afghanistan. Last week, the upper house of the parliament rejected the bill authorizing their deployment, but that move seemed like it could have been a bit of political theater. Now the lower house of parliament -- which approved the bill a month ago -- has now said it won't support the bill. RIA Novosti quotes one member of the lower house, Nurtai Sabilyanov:
"Given the opinion of the senate and the public, the Majilis [lower house] will return the agreement to the government and it will have no legal effect because of the non-ratification by parliament," Sabilyanov said.
Majilis ratified the agreement with NATO on May 18 but the upper house turned the bill down on June 9 pending a decision from a joint parliamentary session.
"We must not send [our] military to Afghanistan, it is clear to all," he said.
Another MP, Tasbay Simambayev, wrote in the government newspaper Liter that senators "breathed a sigh of relief" when the bill was voted down: "Our country should not be dragged into someone else's wars." His piece (not online, via BBC Monitoring) focused on the threat of terror that Kazakhstan would expose itself to. But there also was an intriguing reference to "ambiguous reaction from our close partners":
Many arguments were voiced in favour of the need to increase the Kazakh military's combat experience, that we need a closer cooperation with the North Atlantic alliance, that we are bound by agreements and so on. But the point is that no international, foreign policy activity should harm Kazakhstan's reputation and security.