The U.S.'s top diplomat responsible for Central Asia just finished a trip to Uzbekistan, amid increasing speculation that the two countries are seeking to upgrade their relationship, in particular their military cooperation.
Robert Blake, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, visited Tashkent from August 15-18. His visit came after an eventful summer: in June, Uzbekistan suspended its membership in the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. Many observers interpreted the move as motivated by Uzbekistan's intention to allow the U.S. to set up some sort of military base in the country. The CSTO requires members to get permission from other members before allowing foreign military bases; i.e., Russia gets a veto. Leaving the CSTO could free Uzbekistan up to allow a U.S. base. But then, earlier this month, Uzbekistan's parliament passed a new law forbidding foreign military bases.
That didn't stop many from continuing to speculate that the purpose of Blake's visit to Uzbekistan was to set up a military base. Most notably, the Kazakhstan newspaper Liter, an organ of the ruling Nur Otan party, reported that "We can dare to suggest that Robert Blake's visit will result in signing an agreement on deploying US troops on Uzbek soil." Blake, of course, denied that was on the agenda. And at a press conference in Almaty just before his trip to Tashkent, he said that while the U.S. will be leaving Uzbekistan some lefover military equipment after it leaves Afghanistan, that equipment likely won't include lethal weapons:
When it comes to the brewing arms race in the Caspian Sea region, no one can accuse Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of navel-gazing. Ashgabat is now able to back its claims to some energy-rich patches of the sea with considerable firepower.
The U.S. military is conducting exercises with their counterparts from Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan on disaster response and emergency management. The exercises, called Regional Cooperation 2012, are taking place in Kyrgyzstan through June 29.
They're being run by U.S. Central Command, with some contributions from the Massachusetts National Guard, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Manas air base. Military officials from the Central Asian countries are participating, as well as some civilian agencies from the government of Kyrgyzstan, like border troops, the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Emergency Situations.
The exercise Regional Cooperation (RC) is an annual event in Central Asia that focuses on coordinating military and civilian assistance to disaster response and emergency management. It's been held in Tajikistan twice before (in 2011 and 2009) and was supposed to be held in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, but the revolution and violence of that year caused the exercise to be moved to Germany. This is just a tabletop exercise, as opposed to the Steppe Eagle field exercises that the U.S. carries out every year in Kazakhstan. And the fact that it's coming just after the Shanghai Cooperation Organization exercises in Tajikistan, which featured many of the same participants, is accidental, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek tells The Bug Pit: "This takes place after the SCO exercise, but that is purely coincidence. The annual event usually takes place later (September), but in order to get several countries’ schedules to align, it is being done in June."
A map showing the approximate location of Iran's new oil discovery in the Caspian
Iran recently announced that it has discovered a substantial oil deposit -- about 10 billion barrels -- in the Caspian Sea. That would be about seven percent of Iran's total reserves, and the country's first discovery in the Caspian in over a century. That in itself is pretty remarkable; Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said it will "change the energy and political balance of the region."
But the situation could get a lot more complicated, according to regional analyst Alex Jackson. In a recent presentation, which he provided to The Bug Pit, Jackson noted that the discovery appears to actually be in waters claimed by Azerbaijan. Iran hasn't provided a precise location, but has said it is 188km north of Roudsar in Gilan province and 250 km northwest of Neka. See the map here, from Jackson's presentation, where the white dotted line is what Azerbaijan considers to be the southern boundary of its waters, while the brown dotted line represents what Iran considers to be the northen extent of its waters. And right in the middle of that is this new discovery (actually two separate, though connected, fields, called Sardar Jangal and Sardar Milli). In addition to the 10 billion barrels of oil, it also holds 50 trillion cubic feet of gas, according to Iran.
A US government-funded survey on mass media trends in Iran found that state television remains by far the most common source of news for Iranians, though roughly half its viewers admit that they don't consider it to be entirely trustworthy. At the same time, Iranians are skeptical of the content in foreign news broadcasts too.
President Ilham Aliyev admires the fruits of the domestic weapons industry; will an indigenous armored vehicle be next?
Azerbaijan is producing its own armored vehicles, which will be "100 percent locally produced," according to news agency APA. The report gives little information about the vehicle, not even a name, other than to say it will be first produced in reconnaissance and "combat" models.
But it does include an amusing bit of South Caucasus oneupmanship:
These cars will have the advantages over Georgia-based “Didgori” and Armenia-based “Ayk” vehicles for its maneuver possibilities, ballistic protection, sustainability, as well as the other features.
Azerbaijan has already been producing armored vehicles in cooperation with a South African firm. And as we learned from the embarrassing tale of Georgia's "homemade" drone, it's easy to say something is "100 percent local" without that meaning very much. It's more an issue of national pride than anything else.
Russia considers the transfer of U.S. military equipment from Afghanistan to Central Asian armed forces to be "unacceptable," and contrary to agreements those countries have signed as part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. That's according to an anonymous Russian diplomat quoted in the newspaper Kommersant (and helpfully translated into English by RIA Novosti).
The U.S., recall, has said it is planning to hand over some of the equipment it is now using in Afghanistan to Central Asian militaries, as part of the U.S.'s Excess Defense Articles program. From Kommersant:
If implemented, this plan would allow Washington to expand its military cooperation with Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) member countries. A Russian diplomat said, on condition of anonymity, that Moscow considers this scenario to be “absolutely unacceptable....”
A Russian diplomat said this scenario ran counter to specific agreements with Moscow’s Central Asian partners and other agreements within the CSTO framework.
But the last two paragraphs of the Kommersant story gently suggest that Russia's objections may not really be about the legal issues of the CSTO:
A sizable U.S. presence might emerge on the Central Asian arms market, which primarily receives Soviet and Russian-made equipment. Moscow’s partners might eventually get used to having U.S. equipment.
It appears that CSTO members have every right to independently negotiate U.S. military equipment deliveries, all the more so as Moscow has recently turned Ulyanovsk into a transshipment center for NATO consignments being withdrawn from Afghanistan, without coordinating the decision with the CSTO.
Kazakhstan military officers observe the SCO drills, after taking the scenic route to northern Tajikistan.
The annual military exercises of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization wrappied up today in northern Tajikistan, with member militaries practicing "air-to-ground fire attack, joint encirclement and suppression, charging into depth for pursuit and annihilation and vertical interception and annihilation" against the usual "terrorist" threat.
Taking part were about 2,000 soldiers and 500 military vehicles and airplanes from Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. That's all the SCO countries except Uzbekistan, which -- in keeping with its standard practice -- didn't participate. But Uzbekistan seemed to go a bit further this year, and even forbade Kazakhstan's troops and equipment from transiting through its territory en route to Tajikistan, according to Kazakhstan's defense attache in Tajikistan, Serik Zhumadilov:
"The Uzbek authorities have not allowed Kazakhstan's military equipment to pass through Uzbekistan to participate in the exercises. Military equipment and personnel of the armed forces of Kazakhstan, which are involved in anti-terror exercises have been delivered to Tajikistan, bypassing Uzbekistan through Kyrgyz territory."
Uzbekistan, recall, has also declined to participate in various activities of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a similar political-military bloc. It's also bowed out of Western-led regional initiatives, like the "Istanbul Process" for Afghanistan. And given that Uzbekistan sees Kazakhstan as a rival, it's maybe not too surprising that they don't want the Kazakhstan military marching through their territory.
Gunboats from Azerbaijan's coast guard threatened international oil company ships working on behalf of Turkmenistan on at least two occasions in 2008, U.S. diplomatic cables from Wikileaks show. The incidents, which don't seem to have been previously reported, caused Turkmenistan's president, Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov, to accuse his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev of "personally insulting" him and "running like a little boy."
One incident was in April 2008, and involved a vessel from the Malaysian company Petronas in a part of the Caspian that both sides agree is Turkmenistan's:
[U]pon closing in on the Petronas ships/rig, the Azeri gunboats instructed the Petronas captain to move away. He reportedly refused to move, stating that he was nowhere close to Azerbaijan's claimed border. The standoff reportedly lasted for more than a day. In the end, the Petronas captain agreed to move slightly to the east (although not as far as the Azeri border guards at first had demanded), which apparently satisfied the Azeris.
The second was in May 2008 and involved a ship from Canadian company Buried Hill and was in a spot that was (and remains) in dispute between the two countries, around the Serdar/Kyapaz and Omar-Osman/Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli fields:
In the second episode, the Azeri gunboats again intercepted a vessel that Buried Hill had hired to do some research in block III related to its plans to begin drilling in the first quarter of 2009. Buried Hill told him this time calls were made from Ashgabat to Baku, and that the Azeri vessels subsequently backed off. According to
Buried Hill, there were also Iranian vessels in the area at the time of the interception.
Several days after apparent widespread skirmishes all along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border and the Nagorno-Karabakh "line of contact," there is still very little information about what actually happened. For a while, though, at least on the internet, it seemed that a serious escalation of violence was imminent.
It's a bit odd that, amid all the rumors of massive fighting, there doesn't seem to have been any casualties on either side, suggesting that the reports may have been some sort of deliberate disinformation campaign. And that's what the Armenian Defense Ministry has suggested:
The rumors spread by Azerbaijani mass media on the possible combat operations on NKR–Azerbaijan line of contact towards Aghdam and Fizulai are nothing but imagination.
In comparison to June 7-8, the ceasefire violations in different parts of the front line have become more frequent and have increased. This, however, did not affect and will not affect the general state.
All the usual suspects issued the usual statements calling on both sides to settle the conflict peacefully, etc. But one international reaction was especially notable: Russia's. A Russian military spokesman noted that airmen at the Russian military base in Armenia have been stepping up their training flights since the beginning of the year. From the New York Times:
Russian fighter jets stationed at a base in Armenia have conducted about 300 training flights since the beginning of 2012, and have increased the number of flying hours by more than 20 percent from last year...