A delegation from Uzbekistan visited Washington this week as the two countries try to figure out how the impending withdrawal from Afghanistan is going to affect their relationship. The content of the discussions, part of the annual high-level talks that the U.S. has with every Central Asian country, were kept very quiet, but no doubt focused heavily on security issues.
"No new deals, agreements, just heart-to-heart discussions between U.S. and Uzbekistan -- I hear Russia's pressure on Central Asia was a big topic," said Washington-based Voice of America Uzbek service reporter Navbahor Imamova on twitter (edited slightly to detwitterize).
The talks included Uzbekistan Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, as well as officials from the Pentagon, White House, and Congress. The State Department statement on the talks, naturally, didn't mention Russia. "The participants discussed all aspects of the U.S.-Uzbekistan relationship, including political developments, regional stability and security, human rights and labor, education and cultural exchanges, and economic development and trade. The United States looks forward to broadening and deepening its relationship with Uzbekistan on the basis of these candid and constructive conversations."
Russia's assessment of the prospects for a smooth transition in Afghanistan are dim -- and getting worse, the country's ambassador to Tajikistan said. Russian ambassadors from the Central Asian states and Afghanistan met in Tashkent and Igor Lyakin-Frolov, Moscow's envoy to Dushanbe, took the occasion to give an interview to Russian newspaper Kommersant.
Lyakin-Frolov's view was grim: "If a few months ago the prevailing view was that the situation in Afghanistan was more or less normal and a direct threat to Tajikistan wasn't seen, now the prognosis is becoming more and more pessimistic," he said.
The "threat" from Afghanistan has been the driver (or, perhaps, the pretext) for Russia's recent push to build up its security presence in Central Asia. It's been boosting the presence and capability of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, including building up a joint CSTO air force and using the CSTO to provide technical assistance to Tajikistan's border forces. And Lyakin-Frolov's comments are some of Russia's most explicitly pessimistic.
His "most favorable" scenario of how things may turn out is not actually very favorable: "The most favorable scenario supposes that the current government will barely hold on in Kabul and in the majority of provincial centers with the support of the U.S. and NATO contingents. There are also less favorable scenarios which suppose that a full-scale civil war can start, which would threaten the integrity of the Afghan government and likewise, the security of the countries of Central Asia... and, correspondingly, the security of Russia. So we need to prepare."
U.S. troops patrol the Torkham Gate on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. (photo: Spc. Hillary Rustine, Combined Joint Task Force 1)
While the U.S. has suspended its military transportation across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, that does not have any effect on traffic through Central Asia, a Pentagon spokesperson has told The Bug Pit.
In a protest against U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, supporters of Pakistani politician Imran Khan have imposed a sort of vigilante blockade of U.S. and NATO cargo across the border to Afghanistan. "Protesters have taken the law into their own hands deciding who can pass and go on to Afghanistan, and who can't," the BBC reported. "They have been harassing truck drivers and turning back vehicles carrying Nato provisions."
As a result, the U.S. has "voluntarily halted US shipments of retrograde cargo" through Pakistan, the Pentagon announced. In the past, that has meant a big boost for Central Asia: when Pakistan closed the border in 2011, it took close to two years to fully restore traffic. In the meantime, the U.S. was paying an extra $100 million a month to ship its goods via the longer, more difficult Northern Distribution Network.
But that's not happening this time (at least yet), Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright told The Bug Pit. He said that the small amount of traffic via the NDN has not been affected by this latest move:
Armenians may have been troubled by Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to their country, as it seemed to be an exhibition of Russia's tightening grip on Yerevan's foreign policy. But in Azerbaijan, the visit occasioned a different sort of fear: that Putin was confirming Russia's military support for Armenia in a potential conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
One military expert in Baku, Uzeyir Cafarov, said that Putin's support for Armenia would increase the risk of conflict. "We must be extra careful regarding the situation on the front line in January and February. It is possible that local clashes will take place on the front line. Russia continues to play double games. We must not give in to this and must bring into Russia's attention that its position on the Karabakh conflict is biased," Cafarov told the newspaper Azadliq, according to a BBC Monitoring report.
And member of parliament Zahid Oruc told sia.az (also via BBC Monitoring), "With this visit and by increasing the number of Russian troops in Armenia, Russia is stimulating the regional arms race and pushes others to this. This is a threat to the lasting peace in the region."
Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze meets with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (photo: NATO)
At this week's NATO foreign ministerial meetings in Brussels, the alliance's secretary general had effusive praise for aspiring member Georgia. Praising recent "free, fair and inclusive" elections, Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that "Georgia serves as a model for the wider region." And in his mostly widely quoted comments, he said that "In the five years since we created the NATO-Georgia Commission, Georgia has moved closer to NATO."
As one wag on twitter put it, Rasmussen's statement could as easily have been made in 2005 or 2007 as today. And indeed there is a bit of the Zeno's paradox to Georgia's NATO progress, continually getting "closer" while seemingly having to way to actually arrive.
And trying to play the spoiler, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was in Brussels as well. And in a press conference there he described NATO expansion as a continuation of the Cold War. Via Civil.ge:
Lavrov said that NATO enlargement, not only in the context of Georgia but in general, represents “continuation of Soviet-old inertial logic of the ‘cold war’.”
“It implies not only preserving the dividing lines, which we have all committed to remove, but it’s also implies moving them [these lines] further to the East, which fundamentally contravenes commitments that we have undertaken at the highest level on indivisibility of security,” Lavrov said. “No one should take steps creating risks to the security of partners.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin visited his country's military base in Gyumri, Armenia. (photos: kremlin.ru)
Russian President Vladimir Putin visited his country's military base in Gyumri, Armenia, while unprecedented protests against Putin took place in the capital, Yerevan. Protesters objected to Armenia's plan to join the Russia-led Customs Union -- which they say Putin bullied their president, Serzh Sargsyan, into -- and Russian pressure generally. But one key element of the Russian-Armenian relationship remains relatively unquestioned in Armenia: Russia's military role in the country.
After Russia scored some remarkable successes in getting ex-Soviet republics Armenia and Ukraine to suspend their work toward integrating with the European Union, it has faced a fierce backlash, most notably in Kiev. But even the much smaller protests in Yerevan were remarkable given Russia's role as Armenia's traditional protector against neighboring, hostile Turkey and Azerbaijan. So it was probably no coincidence that Putin chose as his entry point to Armenia the most potent symbol of Russia's protective role, the military base at Gyumri.
"We believe that the presence of Russian troops on Armenian territory helps strengthen stability and security in the South Caucasus, and increases the level of practical cooperation between Russia and Armenia – both CSTO members – in military and technical spheres," Putin said during his visit.
The trend of U.S. training to Central Asian security forces since 2000. (credit: Security Assistance Monitor)
The United States has substantially increased its training of security forces in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, focusing on the State Committees of National Security (GKNB) of the respective countries, newly released U.S. government documents show.
The newest version of the annual Foreign Military Training and DoD [Department of Defense] Engagement Activities of Interest report shows a sharp increase in the number of activities in Central Asia under Section 1004 of the DoD authorization bill. Section 1004 provides funding for the Pentagon to conduct training of partner nation security forces for counternarcotics missions. According to the data, 411 members of the Tajikistan security forces and 225 in Kyrgyzstan were trained under Section 1004 in 2012, while in previous years only a handful or no troops from Central Asia were trained. Of those, at least 350 of the Tajikistani officers and 100 of the Kyrgyzstanis were from the GKNB. A full rundown of the data on the Caucasus and Central Asia, including some good graphs, can be seen at the new Security Assistance Monitor website.
The rub with this sort of training is that the GKNB, as the most capable units in post-Soviet security forces, tend to carry out both missions against serious external threats and also persecute legitimate domestic opposition. A case in point is the controversial operation in Khorog, Tajikistan, last year, in which the GKNB played a leading role. And yet, all evidence points to the fact that the Khorog events were more of a popular resistance than a terror threat.
Police in Azerbaijan have arrested an Iranian and accused him of planning an attack on the Israeli embassy in Baku. In many places this would be big news, but it's become somewhat dog-bites-man in Baku, the government claims evincing more skepticism than alarm.
In the latest incident, Baku police arrested 31-year-old Hassan Faraji after he was seen near the Israeli embassy exhibiting "suspicious behavior." Israeli media have reported that "Faraji is a part of the Iranian Quds Forces, a special unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard that, among other roles, is tasked with planning and executing terrorist attacks against Israeli targets overseas." Iran has denied that, while accusing Azerbaijani authorities of torturing Faraji, which Baku denies.
Anyway, this is the latest of a long string of plots that Azerbaijan has accused Iran of fomenting in Baku. The Bug Pit asked Anar Valiyev, a Baku-based analyst who as far back as 2007 was writing that the regularity with which Baku accuses Tehran of plotting attacks. Valiyev noted that this recent accusation is especially hard to believe, given that Iran is finally managing to work its way out of international isolation:
U.S. forces drop supplies for base in Bala Marghab, Afghanistan. Coming soon to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan? (photo: Sgt. Seth Barham, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division Public Affairs)
In the wake of the U.S.'s announcement that it is moving its air base in Kyrgyzstan to Romania, the conspiracy theories continue to be propagated -- even in relatively respectable Russian analytical and official circles. A couple of weeks ago, The Bug Pit looked at one popular conspiracy theory: that the U.S. wasn't in fact leaving Manas, but was involved in an elaborate deception to cover up its aims of setting up a state-of-the-art intelligence-gathering operation in Kyrgyzstan.
But that's not the only theory being mooted as the "real" explanation for what the U.S. is doing (moving operations to Romania, if you're naive enough to believe the Pentagon). A piece in the Russian Ministry of Defense newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, entitled "The Pentagon Intends to Stay," suggests that the withdrawal from Manas is merely a tactical retreat, and that the U.S.'s strategy in Central Asia is "to leave, in order to stay." According to this analysis, the small training centers that the U.S. has set up in Tajikistan and had planned to set up in Kyrgyzstan, as well as the military supply routes of the Northern Distribution Network, represent a foothold that the U.S. can use to maintain influence with a smaller footprint.
But that piece is relatively measured. Other analyses get more specific, and a lot more conspiratorial. One theory is that the U.S. is moving to Aktau, on Kazakhstan's Caspian Sea shore. This theory is promulgated by a number of people, including analyst Nikolay Bobkin, writing for the Russian think tank Strategic Culture Foundation.
Erodgan and Putin in St. Petersburg. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, visiting St. Petersburg, repeated his request for Turkey to be allowed in to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to "save us from the trouble" of trying to get into the European Union. And at the same time, he seemed to endorse Turkey's entrance into the Russian-led Eurasian Union.
Turkey became a "dialogue partner" of the SCO earlier this year, but that distinction apparently doesn't mean much: Turkey wasn't even invited to the September summit in Bishkek. In spite of that shabby treatment, Erdogan still holds hope for the SCO, it seems.
In St. Petersburg, at a joint press conference with Putin, a reporter asked a double-barreled question: to Putin about Ukraine's move to halt its EU accession, and to Erdogan about Turkey's interest in the Eurasian Union. Putin ended his comments on Ukraine by noting that "Turkey has a lot of experience of negotiating with the European Union. We will ask the Prime Minister’s advice on what line to take in this situation." And then Erdogan brought up the SCO. From the Kremlin's official transcript:
RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: Yes indeed, we have 50 years’ experience. That counts for something (laughter).
In response to Mr Putin’s statements, let me make another proposal: accept Turkey into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: I think or rather I know for a fact that Turkey’s international influence and the independent and sovereign policy that Turkey follows under your leadership give every reason to have Turkey play a more active part in regional international organisations. Russia welcomes this.