Speculation about security threats in Central Asia has largely focused on the border with Afghanistan and the prospect of Islamist militants infiltrating the former Soviet space. This month, for example, Russia and Tajikistan conducted joint military exercises along the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border including over 50,000 troops and Russian strategic bombers.
But those who actually live along that border have a much different perception of what threatens them, worrying much more about isolation and poverty than military incursions, new research has found.
The authors of the report, Strangers Across the Amu River: Community Perceptions Along the Tajik-Afghan Borders, surveyed nine border communities in those two countries. "Border communities often have a different perception of the opportunities and threats posed by borders than do policy makers sitting in distant capitals," the report's authors -- Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh, Kosimsho Iskandarov, and Abdul Ahad Mohammadi -- write. "The Tajik and Afghan border districts tend to be economically impoverished, environmentally insecure and isolated from the centre, thereby presenting limited opportunities for economic stability and growth—the primary concern of surveyed communities situated in such areas."
The study also found that residents see both positives and negatives of living on the border:
Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon meets General Fang Fenghui, chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, in Dushanbe in February. (photo: president.tj)
China's plans to create a new Central Asian security bloc have raised concerns in Moscow that Russia is declining geopolitically in Central Asia and may now be competing with China.
General Fang Fenghui, the chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, said on a visit to Kabul this month that China was proposing an anti-terror regional alliance consisting of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. Almost no details about the grouping have been announced, but a spokesman for Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani "said the Chinese military chief asked for Afghanistan's participation in the Chinese-proposed anti-terrorism mechanism with Pakistan and Tajikistan," VOA reported. "President Ghani has endorsed the proposal," the spokesman said.
China has been exploring a greater role in Afghan security; during Fang's visit he also promised $70 million in military aid to Afghanistan. But the fact that this proposed alliance would include Tajikistan, and exclude Russia, has raised alarm bells in Moscow. Russia has, until now, seen itself either as the primary security provider in Central Asia or, at times, a partner with China. But that may be changing.
Azerbaijan's government has for the first time addressed an apparent dispute with Russia over arms shipments, blaming it on Moscow sending inadequate equipment.
Earlier this month, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin (who holds the portfolio of defense industry issues) made an unannounced trip to Baku. Both Russian and Azerbaijani press reported, citing unnamed sources, that the visit was aimed at sorting out Azerbaijan's failure to pay for part of $4 billion in arms deals due to the financial crisis the country is suffering as a result of falling oil prices.
This week, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov gave an interview to Russian newspaper Kommersant (which broke the news originally about the alleged payment problems). In it, Mammadyarov says that Baku has no problems paying, but that Azerbaijan was dissatisfied with what it had received:
There is no problem with payments, reports about unsolved financial issues between Russia and Azerbaijan are incorrect. We are paying everything in accordance with the contracts. There are problems in their implementation, in that the weapons arriving in Azerbaijan have to correspond to the technical parameters specified in the contracts. Dmitry Rogozin came to Baku to learn what were the problems connected to those parameters, he got a full explanation and there are no more problems....
Russia and Tajikistan have begun large-scale military exercises to practice defending against an invasion by Islamist extremists into Central Asia.
The exercises will take place over six days along more than 1,000 kilometers of the Tajik-Afghan border, which is the site of much speculation about a possible incursion of Islamist extremists from Afghanistan into Central Asia. (The total length of the border is about 1,400 kilometers.)
"Joint groups of paratroop forces from Tajikistan and Russia are being airlifted to possible points of incursions by terrorist groups on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border," said Faridun Makhmadalizoda, spokesman for Tajikistan's Ministry of Defense.
There are several features that make these exercises appear more significant than the other, relatively frequent, exercises that Russia and Tajikistan carry out. For one, they're involving 50,000 troops from Tajikistan and 2,000 from Russia. Russian forces and equipment will include not only those from Russia's 201st military base in Tajikistan, but others from elsewhere in Russia's Central Military District, the first time that has happened. In addition, Russia has deployed two strategic bombers to the exercise to practice exchanging data with officers on the ground in Tajikistan. Other planes were deployed from Russia's Kant airbase in Kyrgyzstan.
Kazakhstan is acquiring new naval mines to help defend its shores on the Caspian Sea from marine invasion. Kazakhstan's Ministry of Defense made that announcement just days after Russia's military created a stir by announcing it was acquiring a new marine assault vehicle for its Caspian Flotilla.
"Today, the conception of defense of the Caspian Sea from amphibious landings of a notional enemy are being discussed. Here we can use models being developed by our factory," said Valeriy Sptitsin, general director of the Zistko company. Spitsin was quoted in a press release by the Kazakhstan Ministry of Defense. "After development and testing we can use these models for defense of the Caspian shore," he continued.
This might not have otherwise deserved notice, except that it came just a few days after a minor stir in the Russian-language military blogosphere about Russia's potential for amphibious invasions in the Caspian. The Russian Ministry of Defense TV network published a report describing the introduction of a new marine assault craft into the Caspian Flotilla.
Russian military blogger Andrey Shipilov picked up the story and wrote a post entitled "Russia prepares for an invasion of the countries of the Caspian." He noted: "The equipment is purely offensive, the only function of which is to seize coastal territories. ... the only open question is which state's territory is the target of this necessity?"
Top: A chart, by Security Assistance Monitor, measuring the level of dependency on U.S. military aid of various countries. Bottom: Georgian soldiers participate in U.S. military training in Germany in 2014 before being deployed to Afghanistan. (photo U.S. Army Spc. John Cress Jr)
By Pentagon budget standards, the countries of the former Soviet Union are relatively insignificant recipients of American military aid, dwarfed by the billions given annually to Israel, Egypt, and Pakistan. But a new study has shown that some of the security forces in the region are unusually dependent on American aid.
The survey, by the Washington advocacy organization Security Assistance Monitor, compared the amount of military and police aid the U.S. gave to every country in 2014 to the countries' respective defense budgets. And it found that among the ten countries where U.S. aid made up the largest proportion of the defense budget, three were former Soviet republics: Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
Georgia was the fourth-most dependent country, with $158 million in U.S. security assistance compared to a defense budget of $387 million. Tajikistan was seventh, its budget of $104 million supplemented by $29 million in U.S. aid. (Tajikistan will surely climb up the list soon, as it's slated to get $50 million over the next two years in additional anti-terrorism funding from the Pentagon.)
Kyrgyzstan was sixth on the list, but this is somewhat misleading: in 2014, Kyrgyzstan got $90 million in U.S. aid, but nearly all of that ($81 million) was payment for the Manas air base, which the U.S. was forced to leave that year. The $81 million is an estimate based on the best information SAM was able to get (a SAM analyst told The Bug Pit that they are working to try to get more precise information from the Pentagon). It may have simply been an accounting quirk. In any case, the Manas rent money wasn't really military aid, but a cash payment to the Kyrgyzstan government, even if for U.S. bookkeeping purposes it's classified as military aid.
A Russian warship, the Alexander Otrakovsky, passes through the Bosphorus on March 9 with heavy Turkish coast guard and police security. (photo: Yoruk Isik)
Russian warships passing through the Bosphorus are getting stronger protection from the Turkish coast guard and police, in an apparent response to heightened security concerns.
Last week two ships carrying cargo for the Russian military in Syria passed through the straits, which connect the Black Sea to the Mediterrannean, accompanied by three Turkish coast guard vessels, an Istanbul police department vessel, and a police helicopter. This week at least three more Russian warships have gotten the same protection.
This level of protection is unprecedented in recent years, said Can Devrim Yaylali, a Turkish naval expert and author of the blog Bosphorus Naval News. Normally the Russian ships are accompanied by a single Turkish coast guard vessel, Yaylali told The Bug Pit in an email interview.
Russian warships, by international treaty, are allowed to pass freely through the Bosphorus. That has been the source of some tension recently, as the two countries are at odds over the war in Syria and Turkey's shooting down of a Russian air force jet last year.
Nevertheless, the Turkish coast guard gives an escort to every foreign warship that passes through, Russian or otherwise. But what explains the new level of security? Yaylali suggests that the Turkish authorities probably got intelligence about a possible attack on a Russian ship. "Otherwise the Turks would not bother so much to protect Russian ships, especially in this political climate," he said.
The Murena amphibious assault ship, due to enter the Caspian Flotilla in 2017. (photo: Almaz Shipbuilding, Khabarovsk)
Russia's plans to introduce a new amphibious assault ship into its Caspian Flotilla has raised questions among just which of its neighbors' shores Russia envisages assaulting.
The new ship will join the Caspian Flotilla next year, according to a report by the Ministry of Defense-run TV Zvezda. The ship is designed to carry marine assault teams, including 140 troops and one tank or two armored personnel carriers, up to a beach.
"There is a valid reason for strengthening the Caspian Flotilla with this vessel," TV Zvezda reported. It quoted military analyst Alexander Mozgovoy: "The region is extremely unstable. There are both our North Caucasus republics, where terrorist groups appear quite often, and also the nearby states."
Russian military blogger Andrey Shipilov picked up the story and wrote a post entitled "Russia prepares for an invasion of the countries of the Caspian." He notes: "The equipment is purely offensive, the only function of which is to seize coastal territories. And just as it is written in the story, it's very necessary on the sea now; the only open question is which state's territory is the target of this necessity?"
General Raheel Sharif, chief of staff of Pakistan's armed forces, received an honor guard in Dushanbe. (photo: Pakistan Army)
The chief of Pakistan's army visited Tajikistan this week, vowing Pakistan's "full support" in Tajikistan's fight against terror. The visit was the first by the general to Central Asia.
General Raheel Sharif met Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon on Tuesday; the two discussed "cooperation between national armies and law enforcement agencies of Tajikistan and Pakistan in the fight against modern threats and challenges, including terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking," according to Rahmon's website.
General Sharif, for his part, "offered Pakistan’s full support in capacity building of Tajikistan forces to counter terrorism," according to the Pakistan Army website. Rahmon also reportedly praised the Pakistan Army's "phenomenal achievements" in operations on the border with Afghanistan, calling them a "role model for rest of the world."
Central Asia has not typically been a priority area for the Pakistani military, but Sharif's predecessor visited Tajikistan and Kazakhstan in 2013. This appears to have been Sharif's first visit to the region. (It's also worth noting that Sharif, in addition to army chief of staff, is probably the most powerful political figure in Pakistan today.)
Tajikistan is something of a hot spot for foreign military assistance these days. Sharif's visit came one day after a senior Chinese military official met Rahmon in Dushanbe and promised that "China is willing to further enhance military cooperation and multilateral counter-terrorism collaboration with Tajikistan."
Russia's senior defense industry official has made an unexpected visit to Baku, as a Russian newspaper reports that Azerbaijan is refusing to pay for a shipment of Russian arms.
"The fall in oil prices has affected everyone, and Azerbaijan is no exception," an unnamed Russian defense industry official told the newspaper Kommersant. As a result, a shipment of weapons ordered several years ago by Azerbaijan is currently sitting in port waiting for payment, the official said.
An early version of a story on the Sputnik Azerbaijan site cited an Azerbaijani military expert backing that up, but some time after it was published all references to Baku's failure to pay were erased.
In an apparent effort to sort out the situation, Russia's deputy prime minister in charge of defense industry, Dmitry Rogozin, arrived in Baku for a previously unannounced visit on Wednesday night. On Thursday, Rogozin posted a photo with him and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev on his facebook page with the caption "Following positive negotiations with the leader of friendly Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev." There was no indication of what may have resulted from the positive negotiations.