"C'mon, Barry! Just a few anti-tank missiles. Please!"
President Obama has said he will treat as non-binding a law calling on him to "normalize" defense relations with Georgia, including selling defensive weapons to Tbilisi. In a presidential signing statement* first reported by Civil.ge, Obama said that Section 1242 of the defense authorization bill, the part dealing with Georgia, would interfere with his authority to carry out foreign policy:
Sections 1231, 1240, 1241, and 1242 could be read to require the disclosure of sensitive diplomatic communications and national security secrets; and sections 1235, 1242, and 1245 would interfere with my constitutional authority to conduct foreign relations by directing the Executive to take certain positions in negotiations or discussions with foreign governments. Like section 1244, should any application of these provisions conflict with my constitutional authorities, I will treat the provisions as non-binding.
When the bill was passed by Congress, it was a bit of a mystery why Moscow wasn't going ballistic (metaphorically) over it and Tbilisi wasn't gloating. This may be the answer. U.S. diplomats probably were telling their interlocutors: "We don't intend to actually do this." So, it looks like Georgia, in its effort to get a hold of some new American weapons, is back to square one.
*If you're not familiar with signing statements, they're basically an extra-legal way for the president to tell Congress "Thanks for the advice, but no."
The government of Georgia has agreed to pay the Israeli defense contractor Elbit $35 million to settle a lawsuit. In April, Elbit announced that they were suing Georgia for $100 million for failure to pay for equipment it bought in 2007. Neither side has commented much on the suit, but it would appear to be related to Georgia's purchase of 40 Hermes 450 aerial drones from Elbit. From an Elbit press release:
Elbit Systems Ltd. announced today, further to its announcement dated April 8, 2011 regarding the filing of a lawsuit against the Government of Georgia ("Georgia"), that the Company and Georgia have signed settlement agreements for settling all claims and disputes.
According to the settlement, Georgia will pay the Company an amount of approximately $35 million and will also return to the Company certain equipment and sub-systems, that were supplied to Georgia by the Company in the past, against the full release of the initial claims.
So are they returning some of the drones?
Earlier this month, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili also pardoned two Israeli businessmen and settled the case they were jailed for, an episode that had strained relations between the two countries. It's not clear whether the Elbit settlement is related to that, but the timing is suggestive.
Jamie Kirchik, writing in The Tablet, says the resolution of the case of the jailed businessmen opens the door for an improvement of Georgian-Israeli relations, which also have been strained over various arms sales between Russia, Israel, Georgia and Israel's foes (including Syria and Iran). One sign of the improving relationship:
Where is war most likely to break out in 2012? Between Georgia and Russia? Armenia and Azerbaijan? Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (or Tajikistan and itself)? News is thin this week between (non-Orthodox) Christmas and New Year's, so analysts and pundits are coming out with their predictions for 2012, and a lot of them touch on the possibility for conflict in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
The International Crisis Group's Louise Arbour, writing in Foreign Policy, lists Central Asia as one of "Next Year's Wars":
Tajikistan, for example, now faces a growing security threat from both local and external insurgencies, something it has almost zero capacity to contain. Adding to the country's woes, relations with neighboring Uzbekistan are at an all-time low, with their long-running water dispute no closer to resolution and occasionally deadly border incidents threatening to spark deeper violence.
She also mentions the U.S.'s tight relationship with Uzbekistan (though it's not clear how that would spark a war next year) and the regional divide in Kyrgyzstan.
And on the Caspian Intelligence blog, Alex Jackson is making guarded predictions for 2012 for the Caucasus. In Georgia, he says there is a greater risk of violence as next year's elections approach:
A road in far western Kazakhstan, an underappreciated part of the Northern Distribution Network
The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a report (pdf) last week on relations with Central Asia and the war in Afghanistan. And while there is little new in there for close watchers of the region, it does have some new numbers about the traffic through the Northern Distribution Network that suggest that Uzbekistan is less important than it was a year ago:
Since 2009, the United States has steadily increased traffic on the NDN, a major logistical accomplishment that has resulted in a series of commercial air and ground routes that supply NATO and U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Close to 75 percent of ground sustainment cargo is now shipped via the NDN. According to U.S. Transportation Command, an estimated 40 percent of all cargo transits the NDN, 31 percent is shipped by air, and the remaining 29 percent goes through Pakistan.
The NDN comprises three principal land routes: one stretching from the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti, through Baku, Azerbaijan, across the Caspian Sea, and into Central Asia; one from the Latvian port of Riga through Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan; and a final route that originates in Latvia and travels through Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and passes into Afghanistan via Tajikistan. An estimated 70 percent of cargo transiting the NDN enters at Uzbekistan’s Hairaton Gate.
(This was written before Pakistan cut off U.S. and NATO traffic.) Last November, a Pentagon official testified that 98 percent of NDN traffic went through Uzbekistan. And that figure has been frequently cited to show how Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, effectively had the U.S. over a barrel: we can't cross him or he'd cut off transit, and then we would be really out of luck.
When news broke last week that the U.S. Congress had mandated that the Obama administration "normalize" military relations with Georgia, which would include the sale of defensive weapons to Tbilisi, it seemed inevitable that this would spark a furious reaction from Moscow. The Kremlin had said that this, more than anything else, was the issue that would ruin the reset. And Russia has been overreacting to all sorts of related issues lately, like a slight shift in NATO's rhetoric towards Georgia. The Kremlin tried to gin up a controversy about Georgia harboring anti-Russia "terrorists," and has made several threats about the U.S.'s European missile defense plans.
And yet, it's now a week after Congress passed the law, and the response from Moscow is... crickets. I've asked a variety of knowledgable sources in Moscow, Tbilisi and Washington for their theories on this. Here are some of their ideas:
-- Russia is too occupied with its own domestic crisis to worry about Georgia. This might have something to do with it, but if so, it would invalidate Georgians' theories that the recent "terror" plot was a ploy by the Kremlin to rally the Russian public around an external enemy. If they were looking to do that, this very real action by Congress would have been a lot more useful a foil than an apparently imagined terror plot.
Kazakhstan is boosting its naval presence in the Caspian to compete with the other littoral states, the country's naval commander, Captain Zhandarbek Zhanzakov, has said. In an interview with the newspaper Express-K (in Russian). This contradicts somewhat his assertion to EurasiaNet last year that Kazakhstan was building a navy to deal with "terrorists," but seems more in line with reality. Translation via BBC Monitoring:
We badly need the navy. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the establishment of the five Caspian littoral states, the issue of adopting a new convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea has become acute. The convention has not been agreed upon yet. The demand for energy resources in the world increases the strategic importance of the Caspian region, where geopolitical interests of both regional and leading world powers are focused. Against the background of this, preserving the balance of forces in! the Caspian Sea zone remains to be the key issue.
An analysis of the naval forces of our neighbours shows their rapid development in order to change the current state of affairs in their favour. For example, two frigates - "Tatarstan" and "Dagestan" - equipped with modern missile systems and the new generation gunnery ship "Astrakhan", built using stealth technology, joined the effective combat strength of Russia's Caspian fleet. A coastal infrastructure, including observation posts are being developed in the water area of the Caspian Sea.
Development of integration processes with NATO and the United States enabled Azerbaijan to secure assistance in developing its national naval forces. Iran is also increasing its forces in the Caspian Sea.
Each Collective Security Treaty Organization member country will get a veto over any new foreign military bases in member states, the group agreed at a summit today in Moscow. From RIA Novosti:
"Now, in order to accommodate extra-regional military structures on the territory of the CSTO, it will be necessary to obtain official approval of all [CSTO] members,” [Kazakhstan President Nursultan] Nazarbayev said.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev added that “all parties reached a mutual agreement” on the decision.
The CSTO includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The most obvious effect of this is that Russia now can veto any future U.S. bases in Central Asia. As the saga between India and Tajikistan has recently shown, and the last Manas-is-closing scare did earlier, Moscow already has quite a bit of say over this issue. But would Uzbekistan listen if Moscow told them they couldn't host some foreign base? Might Uzbekistan try to veto a new Russian facility in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan? It seems very doubtful Russia would listen then.
An analysis in Kommersant (in Russian) says that while, publicly, the organization is most focused on the threat to the region from instability in Afghanistan, behind the scenes the real fear is "the West's rising influence on post-Soviet territories." And it includes an interesting tidbit about U.S. regional anti-drug initiatives. Translation via Johnson's Russia List:
US Special Forces have trained units in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan that have served as “praetorian guards” for those respective countries' presidents, according to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.
The military spending bill passed this week by Congress includes a provision calling on the U.S. to "normalize" military relations with Georgia, including the sale of weapons. The timing of the bill (which still has to be signed by President Obama) is provocative, coming as U.S.-Russia relations have been going through a rough spell and the Kremlin accused Georgia of harboring anti-Russian terrorists on its soil. Meanwhile, things seem to have been going Georgia's way; in addition to this news, the U.S. and NATO have noted "significant progress" in Georgia's NATO accession process, and NATO officially designated Georgia as an "aspirant" country for the first time.
The bill (pdf) includes a section 1242 (full text below) on Georgia, which calls on the Secretaries of Defense and State to develop a plan within 90 days "for the normalization of United States defense cooperation with the Republic of Georgia, including the sale of defensive arms." It also calls on NATO and NATO candidate countries "to restore and enhance their sales of defensive articles and services to the Republic of Georgia as part of a broader NATO effort to deepen its defense relationship and cooperation with the Republic of Georgia."
Russia's Secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev claimed that Georgia is harboring anti-Russia terrorists, in an interview with the newspaper Argumenty i Fakty on Wednesday:
“The multi-ethnic peoples of Russia and Georgia are inextricably tied to each other. Saakashvili is carrying out a policy that is far from the interests of the Georgian people. More and more Georgian soldiers are being sent to take part in combat operations abroad [in ISAF operation in Afghanistan]. Training of individuals for carrying out terrorist acts in Russia is conducted on the territory of Georgia”, Patrushev said.
To some observers, the timing of that statement is suspicious, coming just days after the huge protests that have made the Russian government look vulnerable for the first time since Vladimir Putin took power in 2000. The Georgian government-run PIK-TV suggested that Patrushev's comments were meant to distract people from internal issues and rally around the central government. Their video report is in Russian, but helpfully subtitled in English. They interview Giorgi Baramidze, minister for Euro-Atlantic integration:
“Unfortunately it is not the first stupid and groundless statement that the Russian government has made. It is likely to have been caused by the intensified tension in its internal politics.”
And Alexey Malashenko, of the Carnegie Moscow Center: