As Russia, China and Central Asian countries plan for post-2014 Afghanistan, they are floating plans to create "mini buffer states" in northern Afghanistan in order to stanch the potential flow of Islamism and violence into the post-Soviet space.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the China-led security organization that also includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, held a meeting of member state defense ministers this week in Khujand, Tajikistan. The participants made the usual vague public statements about how the SCO was playing a key role in regional stability. “We do not share the West’s optimism about the chances of stabilising the situation in Afghanistan following continued actions by international terrorist and Islamic extremist organisations,” said Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. “The SCO is turning into one of most important structures, to our mind, not only in Central Asia, but also in the East,” he added. The defense ministers also discussed the upcoming iteration of the annual Peace Mission joint military exercises, to be held this year in August in China's Inner Mongolia.
American MRAPs in depot in Afghanistan. (photo: 1st Lt. Henry Chan 18th CSSB Public Affairs)
Central Asian countries are still eligible to receive used American military equipment from the war in Afghanistan. But it seems they may be losing out in the giveaway to their neighbors to the south: Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan.
At issue are the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles, a staple of the Afghanistan war. U.S. officials say that there are 1,600 of them in Afghanistan and that they are willing to give them away to allies. One possible recipient is Uzbekistan; this was apparently on the agenda when a high-level delegation from Tashkent visited Washington in December.
But controversy over the giveaway program spiked last month when the Washington Post published a story saying that Pakistan was among the candidates to receive MRAPs. This resulted in consternation in Afghanistan, where mistrust of Pakistan is strong. And U.S. officials disputed the story. “Our commitment to the Afghan people and the Afghan National Security Forces is unwavering,” said Marine General Joseph Dunford, commander of all U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
On Monday, the State Department issued a carefully worded statement about the U.S.'s plans. "U.S. military equipment leaving overland from Afghanistan through Pakistan or via the Northern Distribution Network is part of the overall process of removing equipment as our forces draw down in Afghanistan. We have not and do not intend to transfer this equipment to the governments neighboring Afghanistan."
China's defense minister, on a visit to Tajikistan, has promised the Central Asian country "hundreds of millions of dollars" in military aid which -- if true -- would be a dramatic policy change for Beijing, which has focused more on economic ties in Central Asia.
The defense minister made the comments at a joint appearance with Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon in Dushanbe, reported ITAR-TASS:
“China is satisfied with the level of bilateral cooperation in all spheres, including military and military-technical and guarantees assistance to Tajikistan in the strengthening of its defense capacity,” Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan said. He said China would supply military uniforms and help in the training of military personnel, adding that this would involve “hundreds of millions of dollars”.
No details were given, but in the days before Wang's visit it also emerged that China had financed a $12 million "Officer's House" for the Tajikistan armed forces. (Wang, incidentally, is in Tajikistan for a defense ministerial meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.)
According to a 2013 report by the International Crisis Group, between 1993 and 2008 China gave Tajikistan a total of $15 million in military aid. In his recent report on external security assistance to Central Asia, military analyst Dmitry Gorenburg said that China generally deferred to Russia in the security sphere in Central Asia:
Russian Iskander-M theater ballistic missiles on parade. (photo: MoD of Russia)
Russia is planning to move missiles close to the border with Kazakhstan, ostensibly in preparation for instability coming from Afghanistan. But a number of analysts say that the move is instead a show of force occasioned by the crisis in Ukraine.
The Russian newspaper Izvestia reported, citing Ministry of Defense officials, that Russia is planning to deploy Iskander-M theater ballistic missiles to the Orenburg region, about 100 kilometers from the border of Kazakhstan. The rockets would be ready to quickly be deployed into Kazakhstan under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and "would protect Russia and former Soviet republics from possible external threats from Central Asia," Izvestia wrote. Construction is underway to build facilities for the missiles at the Totskoye-2 military base and the missiles are supposed to be deployed by the end of the year.
"Our government has said that the Central Asian vector is considered the most worrying, in connection with the reduced presence of the U.S. in Afghanistan. The exit of the Americans can lead to the destabilization of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan," Vasiliy Kashin, a military analyst with the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies told Izvestia. "In this case Russia's Central Military Region would need to be ready to move quickly to help Kazakhstan defense its borders. Kazakhstan's own forces are not very large."
The ethnic Armenian village of Kesab in 2010. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
An attack by Syrian rebels on an ethnic Armenian town has raised questions about Turkey's role in supporting the opposition and prompted claims by many Armenians that the attack was orchestrated by the Turkish government as an attack on Armenians.
The town, Kesab, is in Syria's far northwestern corner, on the border with Turkey and on the Mediterranean coast. It has been Armenian for centuries, unlike most of the Armenian communities in Syria which were settled by refugees from the 1915 genocide in Turkey.
Last week, Syrian rebels attacked Kesab, "part of an offensive aimed at opening up a rebel link to the sea," Reuters reported. And Syria's government blamed Turkey: "Syrian authorities accused Turkey of helping the fighters launch their attack on Kasab from Turkish territory, saying Ankara's army 'provided cover for this terrorist attack' on the wooded and hilly border region."
And a number of Armenian sources took that accusation further, and said that it was a deliberate Turkish attack on Armenians. The Armenian website Mediamax posted an interview with Mudar Barakat, a pro-government Syria commentator, in which he said that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arranged the attack as part of his campaign for Turkey's upcoming elections. "Erdogan is targeting Kassab’s symbolic importance as a peaceful Syrian cradle for the Armenian families who survived the massacres enforced by his Ottoman predecessors and it seems that this attack on Kassab is a reflection of Erdogan’s anger towards Armenia’s stand against his terrorism in Syria, and a reminder of the 1915 massacres and the historical Turkish animosity towards the Armenians."
In both the U.S. and Russia there has been a fair amount of talk about the possibility that as U.S.-Russia relations deteriorate, Russia could block the U.S.'s transportation of supplies to its forces in Afghanistan. But experts in Russia tell The Bug Pit that there is little incentive for the Kremlin to take such a step.
U.S. military planners say they have already been making contingency plans in case Russia shuts off the Afghanistan transit routes, known collectively as the Northern Distribution Network. In an interview with Russian newspaper Kommersant, NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow was asked about the possibility of Russia shutting down the NDN. "We hope that Russia, which has an interest in the long-term stability of Afghanistan, will continue cooperation on transit." And jingoistic Russians are licking their chops. "They understand this in the Kremlin: the agreement over the 'Northern Distribution Network' at NATO's disposal is one of the strongest trumps that Russia has in its conflict with the West," the website Military Review recently wrote.
Russia has hastened to assure its Central Asian allies that they will not be involved in any military moves in Ukraine, a sign that Moscow is aware of the growing worry about its new assertiveness.
The issue is the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led post-Soviet security bloc that includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The group thus far has seen a lot more talk than action, and plenty of questions remain about what it will actually do. On Monday, Kyrgyzstani MP Tursunbai Bakir Uulu expressed concern that the CSTO might embroil Kyrgyzstan in the conflict in Ukraine:
"The agreement was ratified, but before the events in Ukraine. I don't want to be a hostage to these agreements. You know, that the [Russian] Federation Council took a decision that, if the need arose, they could intervene militarily in Ukraine. If tomorrow war breaks out between Russia and Ukraine, we would be obliged to fight on Russia's side. We need to withdraw from these agreements so we don't get drawn into a war in Ukraine."
An American MRAP is loaded on to a Russian An-124 aircraft at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, in 2012. (photo: U.S. Air Force 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs)
Russia's potential blockage of the U.S. military's transportation corridors to Afghanistan has received a fair amount of attention as the U.S.-Russian relationship has collapsed over the crisis in Ukraine. Behind the scenes, however there is also discussion of suspending the substantial commercial cooperation that the U.S. military has with Russia over transport to and from Afghanistan.
At issue are the massive Antonov An-124 aircraft, the largest cargo plane in regular use. There are only three companies in the world that operate the 20 An-124s in commercial use, and only two of them -- the Russian company Volga-Dnepr and the Ukrainian company Antonov -- conduct military business, according to a 2012 article by Defense Media Network: "In the last dozen or so years, Russian and Ukrainian commercial carriers have flown thousands of missions in support of American and allied military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and all over the globe." The aircraft are useful in particular for carrying the Mine-Resistant, Armor-Protected (MRAP) vehicles in heavy use by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Volga-Dnepr has ten An-124s and Antonov seven, and Volga-Dnepr's director of North American operations, Colon Miller, said business is booming: “We’ll go from an oil mission out of Houston, Texas to something out of Africa, or a mission to Central Asia, then to Europe and back to the United States, a military mission leaving Charleston Air Force base, head over to CENTCOM area, offload its cargo in Afghanistan, pick up additional cargo while it’s there and fly it back to Kuwait and then reposition to South America for an oil job back to the United States, then Indonesia, Australia, Russia. They’re hot moving, pretty much all the time.”
The Dniestr River, dividing Transnistria from Chisinau-controlled Moldova (photo: The Bug Pit)
Fears that the crisis in Ukraine could be spreading to Moldova have sharpened as American and European leaders warn that the Russian military may be casting its eyes further West. "There is absolutely sufficient force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Trans-Dniester if the decision was made to do that. That is very worrisome," said U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO's supreme allied commander. Strobe Talbott, one of the U.S.'s top diplomats in the ex-Soviet world, tweeted: "[N]ow that we've had crash course on Crimea, read ahead about Transnistria, a likely target for Putin next move." Added Nicu Popescu, an analyst at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris" “What happened to Crimea in two weeks, most of that had happened to Trans Dnestr in the last 22 years, except for what happened to Crimea in the last 24 hours: recognition by Russia and annexation. That could happen in Trans Dnestr.” Russian officials denied they had any expansionist aims: “Russian armed forces are not involved in any manner of unannounced military manoeuvres that would endanger the security of neighbouring states,” said Russia’s deputy defence minister, Anatoly Antonov. “We have nothing to hide.” The de facto authorities in Transnistria, the separatist region of Moldova that borders western Ukraine. called last week to join Russia like Crimea did.
Belarus has been increasing its military cooperation with Russia during the period of the crisis in Ukraine, but analysts argue that is as much as a way to keep Moscow at arm's length as a desire for closer ties.
Earlier this month, Russia sent six Su-27 fighter jets to Belarus's Babruisk airfield, which Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said was prompted by the U.S. sending its own fighter jets to neighboring Poland and Lithuania. “We reacted calmly until large-scale exercises began ... in Poland,” Lukashenko said. “There is a clear escalation of the situation near our borders.”
Meanwhile, however, Belarus's government has been noticeably reluctant to toe Moscow's line on Russian policy in Ukraine. Its foreign ministry has not endorsed the Crimean annexation, unlike many of its fellow Collective Security Treaty Organization members like Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.
As the Belarus Security Blog argued, Belarus considers its military to be a low priority. "In this case, official Minsk decided to demonstrate its loyalty on defense issues in order to neutralize the effect from refusing to follow Russian policy," a recent post said.