A year ago last week, Georgian troops carried out a military operation against what it called "armed subversives" infiltrating the country from Russia. The operation, in the Pankisi Gorge where Georgia's small Chechen minority lives, reportedly killed 11 people. And President Mikheil Saakashvili, then in the heat of a parliamentary election campaign with Bidzina Ivanishvili, called the alleged incursion a "provocation" by Russia aimed at influencing the vote.
But a year on, evidence has emerged to cast serious doubt on the government's original claims, and there are credible suggestions that the operation was in fact the botched result of an attempt by Saakashvili's government to train Chechen rebels to destabilize Russia. The crux of the issue seems to be, as the headline in a recent piece by Open Democracy put it, "Is Georgia a terrorist state?"
Questions about the official version of events arose soon after the events. But the really damning counterallegations came in an April report by Georgian human rights ombudsman Ucha Nanuashvili, who concluded that:
[T]he Chechens had been recruited in Europe by Georgian Interior Ministry officials, brought to Tbilisi, and trained over a period of several months in the use of weaponry with the intention of enabling them to cross the border from Georgia into Chechnya to join the ranks of the Islamic insurgency.
The impending attack by the U.S. on Syria has dominated the world's attention for the last week or so. And the powers surrounding the Caucasus and Central Asia -- notably Russia, Turkey, and Iran -- have been among the most active in discussing Syria, with Russia and Iran backing the government of Bashar al-Assad and Turkey one of the strongest supporters of the rebels. In spite of, or perhaps as a result, of that, the countries in between have taken a cautious approach to the possibility of U.S. military involvement in Syria.
Befitting its strong attachment to the U.S., Georgia's foreign ministry made a statement that appeared to endorse the American position that Assad's government should be punished for the use of chemical weapons:
“Georgia welcomes and supports readiness of the international community to play more active role in resolving humanitarian crisis in Syria and to hold the regime that committed this crime accountable for violating the fundamental international humanitarian norm."
Georgia's position is largely a factor of its ties to Turkey and the U.S., Michael Cecire, a Washington-based analyst of Georgia and the Caucasus, told The Bug Pit:
The Georgian government is happy to defer to their partners in the West and in nearby Turkey to take the lead on the issue. When it comes to Syria, Tbilisi's primary geopolitical concerns would be to ensure that the consequences from an intervention did not lead to destabilization in the South Caucasus. The Assad regime's closeness to Hezbollah and Iran, which both operate in the Caucasus to varying extents, makes this at least a possibility -- particularly in light of Hezbollah's alleged role in an early 2012 disarmed bombing attempt in Tbilisi.
An Israeli Gabriel anti-ship missile, of the type recently bought by Azerbaijan, being fired. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The commander of Iran's navy has warned neighboring Azerbaijan about its purchases of Israeli missiles, and said that Tehran "is monitoring the situation." From a report from the Fars News Agency:
Iranian Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari called the Caspian Sea as the Sea of peace and friendship, and said the recent Azeri missile procurements from Israel have harmful impacts on regional peace and stability.
"We have announced many times that the Caspian Sea is the Sea of peace and friendship and the littoral states should provide its security through cooperation with each other but certain sides adopt such measures (purchasing Israeli missiles) through coordination with others," Sayyari said in a press conference in Tehran on Sunday, commenting on Azerbaijan's recent purchase of Israeli Gabriel-5 missiles.
"Anyhow, Iran is not heedless of the issue and is monitoring the situation," he added.
Recall that the Gabriel-5 missiles were part of a $1.6 billion weapons purchase that Azerbaijan made from Israel last year. That news raised a splash back then because of the talk of a looming U.S. and/or Israeli attack on Iran (remember those days?). Azerbaijan was likely never going to get involved in that conflict, but it has its own security issues with Iran, especially on the Caspian.
DLA employees in Germany load cargo destined for Afghanistan. (photo: DLA Distribution Europe)
The U.S. military has abandoned plans to set up facilities in Almaty, Baku and/or Bishkek to help get rid of excess equipment from its operations in Afghanistan, saying they were unfeasible. The Defense Logistics Agency, the military organization that handles shipments of cargo to and from Afghanistan, announced a series of tenders (for Almaty, Bishkek in March 2013 and then cancelled them in April.
The so-called "retrograde" from Afghanistan is big business, estimated to cost the U.S. up to $6 billion. And along the way, the U.S. will be giving away a lot of the equipment it has, both military hardware and all of the other civilian equipment (e.g. office furniture, air conditioners) that the U.S. has brought to Afghanistan. So far the U.S., however, has not given too many details about how all this will work, what goods are on offer and who will get them. And DLA officials who have spoken to The Bug Pit have said that they are only in the early stages of working this all out, although the pullout is scheduled to start next year.
The DLA solicitations all contained similar descriptions of the work to be done, essentially to set up warehouses/logistics hubs for getting rid of equipment from Afghanistan:
Group photo from the last Chinese-Pakistani joint air force exercise in 2011. (photo: Pakistan air force)
China and Pakistan are going to hold joint air force exercises in the province of Xinjiang, the home of China's restive Uyghur population that also borders Pakistan. The exercise will take place against the backdrop of improved relations between Beijing and Islamabad, which have been frayed over China's complaints that Pakistan doesn't do enough to combat Uyghur separatism on its territory.
The Chinese defense ministry said the exercise, called Shaheen-2 would take place Sept 2-22. It is the follow-on drill to Shaheen-1, held in Pakistan in 2011.
China has repeatedly accused Pakistan of allowing the presence of Uyghur militants on its soil, usually doing so in private but occasionally, including after attacks in the far western Chinese city of Kashgar in 2011, in public. But during a visit this year by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to Islamabad the Chinese side publicly praised Pakistan's anti-terror efforts:
China “reiterates that it respects the anti-terrorism strategy developed and implemented by the Pakistani side in light of its own conditions. …China expresses its appreciation and continued willingness to help Pakistan build up counter-terrorism capacity”, the joint statement read.
And Pakistan also promised “continuous, active collaboration with and assistance to China in combating terrorist forces including the ETIM," referring to the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement, the group China accuses of carrying out an Islamist, separatist agenda in Xinjiang.
Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon looks thrilled to meet CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha in Dushanbe (photo: president.tj)
Russia's collective security organization is developing a plan for strengthening the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, to be presented at the group's summit next month in Sochi. The secretary general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Nikolay Bordyuzha, made the announcement after meeting with Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon in Dushanbe.
"The CSTO is preparing a proposal for rendering aid in strengthening the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border to minimize the consequences of the exit of international forces from Afghanistan in 2014," Bordyuzha said. "We need to be ready for the emergence of any situation on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border... The number of armed clashes [on the border] has increased by more than half."
The CSTO already discussed its intention to do this at an informal summit in May, and Bordyuzha didn't provide any details about the plan that's being worked out. It's safe to assume that Russia is pushing for the return of its troops to the border, as it has been doing pretty consistently for the past several years. And it apparently hopes that the veneer of multilateralism of the CSTO will help overcome the resistance that Tajikistan has been putting up for just as long.
A South Korean Chang Bogo class submarine, soon to be in Azerbaijan's arsenal? (photo: US Navy)
Azerbaijan has reportedly expressed an interest in buying $3 billion worth of weaponry from South Korea, including several items for its nascent navy. That's according to a Korean newspaper report citing South Korean lawmakers and passed on by Azerbaijan news agency APA. Azerbaijan's shopping list reportedly includes two submarine boats, naval destroyers, transport ships, T-50 training planes, attack helicopters, K-9 self-propelled artillery vehicle, drones, and fire control systems. The Azerbaijanis reportedly made clear their intentions during a visit of South Korean parliamentarians to Baku in May.
But the Korean story points out two reservations that Seoul has about such a sale: the danger of angering Russia and the fear of destabilizing the South Caucasus. One of the lawmakers, Kim Kwan-Jin, said "We still have to decide for ourselves, is it worth it to deliver arms to a country which has a territorial dispute with another government," he said, referring to the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh. But he added: "Azerbaijan expressed a very strong interest and desire to buy our weapons." (Note: though the news stories out there identify Kim as a member of parliament, South Korea's defense minister has the same name and it's not clear if it's the same person.) And the South Korean ministry of foreign affairs is reportedly "generally against" the sale, recommending that the defense ministry "show special caution and restraint."
With Chelsea (nee Bradley) Manning sentenced to 35 years in prison this week for her role in disseminating 250,000 State Department cables via Wikileaks, the debate has begun (again) about what good Wikileaks did. As the pro-WikiLeaks writer Greg Mitchell argued, "Too often (that is, most of the time), the value and import of the Manning/WikiLeaks disclosures are ignored or dismissed, just as Snowden's NSA scoops often derided as nothing new.'" Mitchell made a long list of things the public has learned as a result of Wikileaks disclosures. And it seemed worthwhile to undertake a similar exercise for those of us who focus on this part of the world.
There were of course the fun, gossipy items -- the comparisons to Azerbaijan's ruling Aliyev family to the Corleones, the jab that Azerbaijan's first lady "appears unable to show a full range of facial expression" due to the amount of plastic surgery she's had, the revelation that Kazakhstan Prime Minister Karim Masimov had a fondness for the good life, and the description of first daughter Gulnara Karimova as "the single most hated person in Uzbekistan." There were the very many cases when U.S. diplomats were exposed as having much more nuanced and critical perspectives than their bland public statements indicated. And there were of course hundreds of cases where the cables provided useful context or details to goings on in the region.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meets with Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania at the Pentagon (photo: defense.gov)
Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania is on a visit to Washington where he has met his American counterpart, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, among other officials. Hagel, after the meeting, gave the usual boilerplate statement that the two sides "agreed to continue to broaden U.S.-Georgian defense cooperation." But what might that mean?
When he talked with The Bug Pit in July, Alasania said that the meeting with Hagel would help clarify some of the defense cooperation agreements -- such as the provision of American military transportation helicopters -- that the presidents of the two countries discussed last January. But at a public event after his meeting with Hagel, at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Alasania declined to give specifics of the discussion.
This is something we have been talking about for six months, how to implement, to fast-track the agreement that was made between our presidents. Today was a confirmation... [that the agreement] will be fully implemented, but it's not going to happen overnight.
In the public event, Alasania clearly saw his primary task as disproving the lingering suspicion in Washington that his boss, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, is secretly a stooge of the Kremlin. So he not only reiterated his government's strong commitment to joining NATO, but also spent some time discussing the continuity of his government's policies with those of the governments led by Mikheil Saakashvili and Edvard Shevardnadze.
Armenia has reportedly bought long-range rockets from China, in what would be both an escalation of the rocket race between Armenia and Azerbaijan and a dramatic entry of China into the regional conflicts of the South Caucasus. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported:
Armenia has acquired Chinese multiple-launch rocket systems with a firing range of up to 130 kilometers, a military source in Yerevan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) on Monday.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the source declined to specify the quantity of the AR1A systems obtained the Armenian military and the dates of their delivery or give other details of the alleged acquisition.
The Ministry of Defense declined to confirm or deny the report, but that's not unusual for Armenia's secretive MoD So assuming the report is true, how should we interpret it?
In an analysis for Regnum.ru, David Arutyunov puts it in the context of Azerbaijan's recent purchase of Russian Smerch multiple-rocket launch systems, of which the Chinese AR1A are an upgraded version (for example, the Chinese rockets have a range of 130 kilometers, versus 90 kilometers for the Smerch). "A tendency is noticeable over the last decade in which Azerbaijan and Armenia are giving priority in their strategy of arms development to MRLS of great distance and caliber," he writes. And those systems, he notes, would be useful for attacking not just military formations but also strategic economic sites.
Azerbaijan's press seems to have largely ignored the news, but one military expert quoted by Day.az didn't try to hide his contempt:
"They bought MRLSs from China? For God's sake. Let them buy as many as they want." Thus responded Azerbaijani military expert Uzeir Djafarov to this news...