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.
Amid increasing tension between Tehran and Baku, Azerbaijan's defense minister Safar Abiyev visited Iran on Monday and promised that his country would not be used as a platform from which to attack Iran. Press TV reports:
The relations between the two neighbors have been strained after Azerbaijan signed a USD 1.5 billion deal with Israel to purchase drones and anti-aircraft and missile systems.
Last month, Tehran summoned Azeri Ambassador Javanshir Akhundov to protest Baku’s agreement.
However, Azeri officials said that the weapons were being purchased to liberate 20 percent of the country’s occupied territories.
If there other, more important subjects that the two sides discussed, they weren't reported. So was the main purpose of the visit for Azerbaijan to reassure Iran about the Israeli weapons? It seems like Iran must have known better. Indeed, Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahedi downplayed the significance of the Israeli weapons, according to News.az:
Azerbaijan-Israel arms deal is not new and this deal was signed some time ago. It has no connection with Iran-Azerbaijan relations. Iran is ready to assist Azerbaijan in the defense field and to organize joint trainings.
But it also would seem a strange time to start discussing joint military trainings and so on, as Iran and Azerbaijan don't have particularly close military relations. There have been other recent high-level discussions between the two countries: Last week, their foreign ministers (plus Turkey's) met in the Azerbaijan exclave of Nakhchivan.
Master Sgt. Grady Fontana, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Europe
A Georgian soldier trains in Germany in preparation for deployment to Afghanistan
NATO's special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia has praised Georgia's cooperation with the alliance, continuing a recent pattern that suggests Georgia will take some sort of step forward at the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago. The official, James Appathurai, gave an interview to the magazine Tabula (video in English), summarized by Civil.ge:
NATO "took a decision in Bucharest [in 2008] that Georgia will become a NATO member if it still wants to and when it meets the standards of course," he said... "[Georgia] still wants to and based on popular support in Georgia I expect that to stay the same and Georgia is working to meet the standards. We have not changed our view. We continue to work towards that step when Georgia will become a NATO member and Georgia is taking the steps as well and in fact, as the Secretary General said, we are getting closer together."
"We've just agreed the package of measures to, as we call it, enhance Georgia's connectivity to NATO. Over the past few years, including since 2008, Georgia has taken steps at bringing closer links, closer ties, closer connections to NATO. We will take a note of that as [Georgia's] National Security Advisor [Giga Bokeria] is here and when President Saakashvili comes in few weeks to meet with North Atlantic Council again," said Appathurai, who is also the Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy.
The NATO-Georgia commission also met this week, and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the cooperation would be "reinforced further":
The Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia won't be sufficient to get U.S. military supplies out of Afghanistan, senior U.S. military officials have said, saying that they need Pakistan to reopen its territory again to military transit. On Tuesday, the head of U.S. Central Command, General James Mattis, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, and said: “The withdrawal out of Afghanistan, we do need the ground line of communications through Pakistan.” That reinforced comments from last week by his colleague, General William Fraser, commander of U.S. Transportation Command, when he testified in front of the same committee. “With the amount of equipment we need to move ... we need the Pakistan [ground lines of communication] open,” Fraser said. “Because of the large numbers that we are talking about that we need to bring out in a timely manner.”
While the U.S. recently concluded agreements with all the Central Asian states for "reverse transit" -- bringing equipment out of Afghanistan when the U.S. and NATO start withdrawing in 2014 -- the generals' testimony emphasizes that won't be enough. General Mattis is going to Pakistan next week to try to negotiate a reopening of those routes, which have been closed since December, when a U.S. attack killed more than two dozen Pakistani soldiers.
U.S. military cooperation with Tajikistan provides a necessary counterbalance to Russian influence, but also is helping authoritarian President Emomali Rahmon to cement his grip on power. That's the analysis of country's leading opposition politician, Muhiddin Kabiri, chairman of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, who sat down for an interview last week with The Bug Pit on the topic of the increasing U.S. military cooperation with Tajikistan.
Kabiri is a unique figure: although his party promotes "Islamic Revival," he is also, in the words of local analyst Alexander Sodiqov, "a moderate and pragmatic politician with explicitly pro-Western views." And he is widely regarded as a singularly credible and authoritative voice in Tajikistan.
U.S. military cooperation with Tajikistan has been increasing over the last few years, as the U.S. has sought to build relationships with the countries involved in the Northern Distribution Network, and to help local security services protect the countries of Central Asia from threats out of Afghanistan. The cooperation has focused on border security, as well as training and equipping the myriad of special forces in Tajikistan's military, National Guard, border security and police. Kabiri said the government has a variety of interests in this cooperation:
First of all, we need this training. After these events in the east of Tajikistan, this showed us that we are not so ready for terrorist attacks, so Tajikistan needs these units to be stronger.
A C-295 transport aircraft, in service with the Czech Air Force
Kazakhstan has signed an agreement to buy eight military transport planes from Airbus, making it the first military in Central Asia to operate a non-Russian airplane (excluding helicopters). The Ministry of Defense agreed to buy two C-295 planes next year, and signed a memorandum of understanding to buy six more by 2018.
The aircraft will be operated by the Air Forces of Kazakhstan in support of their transport missions throughout the nation´s vast territory....
Kazakhstan is now our first customer country within the CIS region. We will ensure that we live up to this mark of confidence and stand by our new customer for many years to come”, said Rafael Tentor, Head of Airbus Military Aircraft Programmes. “This is exactly the kind of transport capacity Kazakhstan needs for current and future missions. The capabilities of the C295, combined with its cost-efficiency, ensured that it was selected over alternative offers for the renewal of the military transport fleet of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Kazakhstan in the 10 tonne payload class.”
According to the Ministry of Defense, Airbus agreed as part of the deal to provide technical data so that Kazakhstan can maintain the airplanes itself.
The C-295 is used for moving troops into relatively austere conditions, and can take off from and land on unimproved runways. They fill the same niche as the C-130, which the U.S. has proposed donating to Kazakhstan, as part of its effort to help the country better protect its sparsely populated but strategically important West. Those discussions have gone on for years without result, though, and the fact that Kazakhstan is buying the C-295s suggests that the C-130 deal with the U.S. has fallen through.
With the Russian government agreeing to finally pay Kyrgyzstan rent for the military facilities that Russia operates there, pressure is increasing on the Kremlin to pay up for the other military bases it operates in the former Soviet Union.
Just days after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to pay his Kyrgyzstan counterpart Almazbek Atambayev $15 million in back rent for the Kant air base and other facilities, Tajikistan is signaling that it, too, intends to pay hardball. The two countries agreed in principle back in September to extend the lease of the base for Russia's 201st division for another 49 years. But the issue of payment was left until later, and on Tuesday Dushanbe's ambassador to Moscow suggested they would drive a hard bargain, in an interview with RFE/RL:
"[N]o one in the world today intends to give up even a small plot of their land for nothing." The Tajik ambassador said, "our country should keep this in mind, whether there should be payment of some $300 million or compensation through providing military-technical aid," adding "nobody will say thank you to those who give up their land for free to others."
The $300 million figure has been mentioned in Tajikistan but Dostiev conceded that even 10 percent of that amount of money would be acceptable.
Azerbaijan has agreed to buy $1.6 billion in weapons from Israel, a massive deal that is likely Azerbaijan's largest single arms purchase ever. The deal will include drones, anti-aircraft and missile defense systems, Israeli officials have told news agencies. The deal would be almost equal to Azerbaijan's stated 2012 defense budget of $1.7 billion (though will certainly be spread out over many years).
The timing of the deal is misleading: regardless of the ongoing ratcheting up of tension between Israel and Iran, and increasing attention to Israel's intelligence activities in Azerbaijan, these weapons are destined to be used not against Iran, but against Armenia, which controls the breakaway Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Though it's tempting to think otherwise. The AP reports:
Israeli defense officials Sunday confirmed $1.6 billion in deals to sell drones as well as anti-aircraft and missile-defense systems to Azerbaijan, bringing sophisticated Israeli technology to the doorstep of archenemy Iran.
The sales by state-run Israel Aerospace Industries come at a delicate time. Israel has been laboring hard to form diplomatic alliances in a region that seems to be growing increasingly hostile to the Jewish state.
Its most pressing concern is Iran's nuclear program, and Israeli leaders have hinted broadly they would be prepared to attack Iranian nuclear facilities if they see no other way to keep Iran from building bombs...
As Iran's nuclear showdown with the West deepens, the Islamic Republic sees the Azeri frontier as a weak point, even though both countries are mostly Shiite Muslim.