Ohanian, Panetta and other U.S. and Armenian officials meet in Washington
Armenia's defense minister Seyran Ohanian has wrapped up a three-day visit to the U.S., as military relations between the U.S. and Armenia quietly strengthen. Ohanian's visit was his first to the U.S. since he became defense minister in 2008, according to Armenian Reporter, which reported that he met with his counterpart Leon Panetta and CIA director David Petraeus, among other officials.
Last month, the two countries agreed to carry out their first-ever joint military exercises in April. And Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cables show that Ohanian is someone the U.S. likes working with, Armenian Reporter notes:
Although this was Ohanyan's first visit to U.S. since his appointment as defense minister in 2008, Ohanyan is known to have a good rapport with Americans, meeting Petraeus and other senior U.S. officials during visits with Armenian peacekeeping units in Iraq and Afghanistan and to NATO headquarters in Brussels.
"The better we get to know Minister Ohanian, the more we like him as a partner in political-military efforts," U.S. Charge in Armenia Joseph Pennington wrote in a 2009 cable made available by Wikileaks. "He seems a straightforward interlocutor, who is respected in the Armenian government and within the Defense Ministry. His credibility as a soldier is very high, given his long experience commanding NKSDF [Nagorno Karabakh Self Defense Forces] troops."
"We are pleased to find General Ohanian interested and committed on Armenia's NATO-related defense reform efforts and Euro-Atlantic ties," Pennington wrote.
Georgian opposition politician Bidzina Ivanishvili is paying tens of thousands of dollars a month to Washington lobbyists, and it looks like it's already paying off. On Monday, Jim McDermott, a Democratic congressman from Washington state, introduced the "Republic of Georgia Democracy Act of 2012," which would require the U.S. to cut off all aid (military and otherwise) to Georgia unless the Secretary of State can certify that parliamentary elections scheduled in October are carried out in a free, fair and competitive manner. That fits with a recent rhetorical push by U.S. officials to impress upon Georgia's government the extent to which Washington is watching the conduct of its elections. The penalty may seem a bit harsh, though: when was the last time Bahrain -- to pick another prominent U.S. military aid recipient -- had a free election?
But what's most striking about the bill is its emphasis on Ivanishvili. The bill mentions the billionaire businessman no fewer than 13 times in its nine pages, without mentioning any other politician (other than President MIkheil Saakashvili, referring to his "increasingly dictatorial control over Georgia's government" and several times to the "Saakashvili regime"). It details the revocation of Ivanishvili's citizenship, the financial harassment of Ivanishvili and the suspicious death of an Ivanishvili supporter while in jail. Unsurprisingly, the bill's text was sent to The Bug Pit by a PR firm working for Ivanishvili. (The bill, introduced only Monday, does not appear to be online yet, I'll update with a link when it is.)
The U.S. sees Georgia's upcoming elections as a "litmus test" for its entry into NATO, the presumed next ambassador to Tbilisi said. The nominee for ambassador, Richard Norland, testified at his confirmation hearing in the Senate on Wednesday, and used the phrase "litmus test" twice, according to a report by Civil.ge:
“Given Georgia’s interests and Georgia’s aspirations to NATO membership and our support for those aspirations, how these elections are conducted is a very important litmus test and we’ll be watching carefully to make sure that the way these elections unfold are in keeping in NATO standards.”
“The Europe and the United States are closely watching the conduct of these elections to determine whether they meet the criteria that are expected of a NATO-member country,” Norland said...
“I think Georgian officials are beginning to understand, that in fact they are being watched, that this is being monitored closely and that it is a litmus test for their membership to NATO. We hope that they will take the right steps,” Norland said.
He had pretty strong words on the current state of political freedom in Tbilisi:
“There are reports of harassment of opposition candidates that trouble us deeply,” Norland said.
He said that the role of the Georgian state audit agency “Chamber of Control in party financing is drawing a lot of concern in Georgia and in the international community.”
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin exhibits his pleasure at meeting Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev.
The Russian government is unhappy about Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev's recent moves regarding Kyrgyz-Russian military relations, Itar-Tass reports, suggesting a public effort by the Kremlin to knock Atambayev down a notch. Moscow's complaints include Atambayev's statement that Russia's Kant air base in Kyrgyzstan is unnecessary, criticism of the Collective Security Treaty Organization head Nikolay Bordyuzha, and tough bargaining over a torpedo plant. Russia is even concerned that Atambayev might go wobbly on his vow to kick the U.S. out of Manas in 2014, the news agency reports:
Russia is very dissatisfied with the policy of Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev elected last October, the Vedomosti cited a high-ranking Russian official as saying to reporters on Wednesday. In February Atambayev stated about a probable shutdown of the Russian military base in Kant, though the agreement about the deployment of the military base in 2009 was extended for 49 years. “The military base did not bring much benefit,” Atambayev said. Last February the president demanded from Russia to pay off the debt for the military base at 15 million dollars and the Defence Ministry repaid the debt.
Atambayev’s statement sounded like the thunder in the sky creates new problems not only for bilateral relations, but also for the CSTO activities. “If earlier the CSTO brought together six allied countries and one country with the special position that is Uzbekistan, after the presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan we received a president, who does not realize always what he is saying,” the Russian official said. He is also not convinced that Atambayev will keep his promise to shutdown the US military base Manas by 2014.
President Mikheil Saakashvilii watches the Agile Spirit exercises with Lt Col. Richard Coates, commanding officer of the U.S. Marine contingent at the exercise.
U.S. Marines and Georgian soldiers are conducting joint military exercises and, in a development that everyone saw coming, it's become controversial, with Russia calling it a "provocation."
The exercises include 350 Marines and 400 Georgian troops and are scheduled to end Wednesday after nine days of drills. The U.S. contingent is part of the Romania-based Black Sea Rotational Force. Their goal is to build military-military relations with the Georgians, while the Georgians are training to go to Afghanistan. From a Marine Corps press release:
"We have a little different way of doing things but we all learn by training and experience, so it’s good for us to share," said Sgt. Besiki Gabeshuili, 26, Company Sergeant, Company A, 42nd Battalion, 4th Infantry Brigade. "This is my third time doing this type of training with the Marines and we are very excited because the experience helps prepare us to work together in the future."
The Marines and soldiers took a break from the ranges on the fourth day for weapons maintenance, hygiene and to prepare for the second half of the training. During the next three days Marines and Georgian soldiers participated in specialized classes consisting of cordon and search techniques, convoy tactics, counter improvised explosive device tactics, convoy operations and the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program.
Sounds routine enough, but not to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, via Civil.ge:
Russia doesn't want the U.S. and NATO to leave Afghanistan by 2014 unless Afghans are ready to secure the country themselves -- but Moscow also doesn't want the Westerners to stay if they're not going to finish the job. That's the message that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave in an interview with Afghanistan's Tolo News. Lavrov suggested that the U.S. is angling for permanent military bases both in Afghanistan and in Central Asia, while leaving Afghanistan unstable and threatening to Russia.
Here he discusses the U.S. withdrawal (from a transcript on the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website):
A Turkish military helicopter crashed in a residential neighborhood in Kabul, killing 12 Turkish soldiers and four Afghan civilians on the ground. Early indications suggest that the helicopter had technical problems and was not shot down. Although Turkish troops have served in significant numbers in Afghanistan since the beginning of the U.S.-led operation (there are about 1,800 there now), before this crash only three Turkish soldiers had died in theater.
Turkey's participation in the Afghanistan war doesn't have significant popular support: According to a 2009 Pew Global Attitudes Survey (the most recent I could find that addressed this question), only 15 percent of Turks supported keeping NATO troops in Afghanistan, with 63 percent opposing. (The survey, unfortunately, didn't ask specifically about Turkish soldiers' participation.)
An analyst interviewed by the Wall Street Journal suggests that the crash may lead to more Turkish public questioning of their presence in Afghanistan:
"Our presence in Afghanistan has always been controversial and this development will add to those question marks," said Atilla Yesilada, a political analyst at Global Source Partners, an Istanbul-based research group...."There are very serious questions being asked about how far our reach should stretch."
Indeed, the leader of the opposition Nationalist Movement Party, Devlet Bahçeli, reacted to the accident by saying that Turkey needed to "reconsider" its role in Afghanistan, reported Today's Zaman:
Russia has confirmed that it is planning to help NATO set up a transportation hub in the Volga city of Ulyanovsk, confirming its willingness to cooperate with U.S. goals in Central Asia and setting off a mild political controversy among Russians uncomfortable about working with NATO.
As first reported a month ago by the newspaper Kommersant, NATO is looking at using the Ulyanovsk facility to fly in equipment that it is moving out of Afghanistan as it withdraws. The equipment will then be sent onward to Europe via train.
The first official confirmation of the plan was made this week by Dmitry Rogozin, formerly Moscow's ambassador to NATO and now deputy prime minister dealing with defense industry. In his inimitable way, he addressed a controversy that had been brewing on Russian online fora, writing on his facebook page (and reported by RIA Novosti):
Reading about a ‘U.S. base near Ulyanovsk’ is annoying. Let me explain: we are talking about a so-called multimodal transit of non-lethal cargos to serve the needs of international security assistance forces in Afghanistan.
In Ulyanovsk, mineral water, napkins, tents and other non-military cargos will be reloaded from trains onto planes and then moved to Afghanistan.
This will be a commercial transit, which means the Russian budget will get money from it. I don’t think that the transit of NATO toilet paper through Russia can be considered the betrayal of the Fatherland.
The next day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov mentioned the NATO-Russia deal, which he said had not yet been formally approved:
"This draft agreement… has not entered force yet, it has not yet been considered by the government,” Lavrov told State Duma members...
The two big post-Soviet military blocs, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, have announced their respective plans for large-scale exercises this year. The CSTO's will take place in September in Armenia, while the SCO's will happen in Tajikistan in June.
Last September's CSTO exercises were a pretty big deal, involving 24,000 troops and taking place amid a concerted Kremlin effort to gin up the threat from Afghanistan, prompting a lot of observers to speculate that Moscow was trying to use the CSTO as a means of exerting a heavier hand in Central Asia. This year's exercises were still months away, and there are few details available about them, so it's hard to compare yet. But the choice of location in Armenia is curious, given that last year so much of the rhetoric justifying the organization's existence related to Afghanistan. So now is the shift toward the Caucasus, or is it just Armenia's turn?
Meanwhile, the choice of Tajikistan for the SCO exercise, Peace Mission 2012, has prompted one dropout already: Uzbekistan won't be taking part in the exercise, Regnum reports (in Russian):
"During the exercises, a special anti-terror operation in a mountainous area will be worked on. New methods will be used to detect, block and destroy mock outlawed armed formations that have captured a mountain village, according to the legend," the [Tajikistan Ministry of Defense] press centre said.
One Tajikistan member of parliament interviewed by Regnum had harsh words for Uzbekistan's decision:
U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley
Leon Panetta speaks with the Manas Transit Center commander, Colonel James Jacobsen
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited Bishkek on Tuesday, meeting with Kyrgyzstan officials to discuss extending the lease of the Manas air base that the U.S. operates there. Kyrgyzstan's president, Almazbek Atambayev, has consistently said that he wants the U.S. out of there by 2014, and the U.S. seems to be treading carefully, giving the soft sell and not seeking to renegotiate the base's lease just yet. From the Armed Forces Press Service:
A senior defense official said that arrangement is in place through July 2014, and that the secretary will not negotiate any additional use of the facility on this trip. Rather, the official added, the visit is intended to underscore to the Kyrgyz government and to Atambyev, who was inaugurated in December, that the United States government views its relationship with Kyrgyzstan as central to Central Asian regional security.
Still, extending the base lease was still clearly on the agenda, even if implicitly. Via Reuters:
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were no negotiations to keep Manas past 2014.
Still, the official suggested that the Pentagon wasn't taking Atambayev's position on Manas as the final word on the matter, saying there may be some "wiggle room."
Using the phrase "wiggle room" suggests that the U.S. is looking for a short-term extension -- i.e.long enough to get troops and equipment out of Afghanistan -- but not to stay in the base indefinitely. Atambayev presumably wouldn't have a problem with that -- as long as the price is right. This is probably the first step in a long process.