The opening ceremony of the Caspian Cup naval competition, in Kaspiysk, Russia. (photo: MoD Russia)
Russia has kicked off its inaugural "International Army Games," an Olympic-style competition for militaries, with 2,000 soldiers from 17 countries competing in 13 disciplines from a tank biathlon to naval games on the Caspian to a military cooking contest.
The biggest event by far will be the tank biathlon, in which 13 countries will compete. The tank biathlon was first held two years ago under the auspices of Russia's nascent military bloc the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and last year with an expanded guest list that also included China and India.
All the rest of the events are brand-new and only Belarus and China are competing in most of them (the Russian Ministry of Defense has an extensive English-language guide to the games here, with detailed explanations of the rules for each contest).
From the Bug Pit's coverage area, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Russia, and Tajikistan are all competing in the tank biathlon. Kazakhstan also is competing in the "Aviadarts" air force skills challenge, and both Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are in the "Caspian Cup." The other participating countries are Angola, Venezuela, Egypt, India, Kuwait, Nicaragua, Pakistan, and Serbia.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited China and negotiated over a controversial deal with Beijing to buy sophisticated air defense systems.
The visit is yet another twist in the long-running drama of Turkey's multi billion-dollar air defense deal, which has become a litmus test of sorts for its geopolitical leanings. The controversy kicked off in 2013, when Turkey announced it would opt for a Chinese system over American and European bidders. That, in turn, sparked harsh reactions from NATO allies and it had increasingly seemed that Ankara was getting ready to change its mind and opt for the European system after all.
But ahead of his July 28-29 visit to Beijing Erdogan suggested that air defense was part of the agenda. "The most suitable bid came from China but certain developments led to delays. We will revisit these matters during this trip. If we receive a proposal that enriches the bid, we will view this positively," Erdoğan told a news conference in Ankara before departing for China.
"The visit's most important topic will be the negotiations between China and Turkey on defense systems," an unnamed Turkish official told Turkish newspaper Today's Zaman.
NATO's primary objection to Turkey buying the Chinese system was that it would not be able to be securely integrated into NATO's own air defense system, of which Turkey already plays a large part. Turkey, meanwhile, has argued that its highest priority is getting access to the technology used to built the system so that it can eventually build them (or something similar) itself; China was willing to that (in addition to being a cheaper offer) while the European bidder weren't.
A series of Russian soldiers behaving badly in Tajikistan has ignited debate in that country about the presence of the Russian military base there.
The most recent incident, which appears to have been the straw that broke the camel's back, was a July 28 street fight in Kulyob, near a part of the Russian base, involving "seven drunken Russian soldiers who had stripped down to their underwear began dancing, singing, and 'yelling loudly' in a residential area of the city center," RFE/RL reported. Locals reportedly complained to the soldiers, who then were reinforced with other soldiers from the base, and it resulted in a brawl.
This follows recent cases involving two Russian soldiers allegedly murdering a Tajik taxi driver last fall, and another soldier badly beating a waiter in a Kulyob restaurant earlier this year.
Russia's 201st Motorized Rifle Division is based in three facilities around Tajikistan: near Dushanbe, Kulyob, and Qurghon-Teppa. Its roughly 7,000 troops make it Russia's foreign largest military presence. In 2012 Tajikistan agreed to extend the presence of the base until 2042 in exchange for military aid, discounts on fuel, and easier conditions for Tajikistani labor migrants to Russia.
General Lloyd Austin and other U.S. officials in Tashkent for meetings with President Islam Karimov on military cooperation. (photo: president.uz)
A senior American military official has visited Uzbekistan to discuss unspecified military cooperation issues.
General Lloyd Austin, the commander of U.S. Central Command, visited Tashkent on July 27 and met with President Islam Karimov and other officials. Uzbekistan's press release on the event said that Afghanistan was the topic of conversation, among other issues of regional security. RIA Novosti, citing "a source close to the negotiations," said the talks focused on the delivery of over 300 armored vehicles that Washington has promised. CENTCOM does not appear to have commented on the visit at all.
All that is fairly routine, and the talks also likely dealt with the possibility of further U.S. military aid that officials in Washington have hinted at. Meanwhile, Russia also recently ratified a deal under which Moscow would write off $900 billion in Uzbekistan's debt in order to open up new lines of credit for military purchases.
Kyrgyzstan's president has suggested that Russia's military base in the country will have to leave at some point, perhaps in an effort to signal that even as relations with the United States suffer, he doesn't intend the country to be a Russian vassal.
"We have a long term agreement, but sooner or later in the future Kyrgyzstan will have to defend itself, without relying on the bases of brotherly friendly countries," Almazbek Atambayev said at a press conference on July 27.
He did suggest that the base's presence was still welcome today: the base's establishment "was due to threats which the republic can not withstand still today, so the decision on the opening of the base was correct and remains relevant today," he added.
But the reference to the base leaving some day recalled a somewhat stronger statement Atambayev made in 2012 when he publicly questioned whether Kyrgyzstan needed a Russian base. And it comes at a particularly geopolitically volatile time for Bishkek; last week the government canceled a key treaty with the United States in what is probably the most serious diplomatic crisis with Washington in the short history of their bilateral relations. So is Atambayev trying to show that, just because he's angry at Washington, that doesn't mean the country is automatically in Moscow's camp?
In any case, the importance of the air base, at Kant near Bishkek, has risen substantially since 2012. Russia set up the base in 2003, its first new foreign military base since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It had been more or less merely a geopolitical placeholder with no apparent function except as a response of sorts to the U.S. setting up its own air base in the country.
Romanian and Georgian soldiers practice clearing a room during NATO exercises in Georgia. (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
NATO militaries wrapped up joint exercises in Georgia this week, as the alliance tries to strengthen its position in the Caucasus as a counterweight to Russia, and Tbilisi tries to leverage NATO's newly sharpened confrontation with Russia to achieve its long-held goal of membership in the alliance.
The exercise, Agile Spirit, involved about 250 soldiers from Bulgaria, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. It was the first NATO exercise held at the Vaziani base outside Tbilisi as a result of the decision, made at last year's NATO summit in Wales, to open a training base in Georgia. (Exercises named Agile Spirit have been held in Georgia in the past, but those were bilateral U.S.-Georgia exercises; those now have a new name. Noble Partner.)
The exercises took place in an atmosphere of heightened tension between Russia and Georgia; while the exercises were going on the former moved the border a bit in a possible attempt to provoke the latter or at least to visibly throw its weight around.
One of the more interesting story lines from the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Russia was the addition of new "dialogue partners": Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, and Nepal.
The role of a dialogue partner is not clear, and seems to vary: Belarus had been a dialogue partner, and played an active role in the organization. President Alexander Lukashenko went to the summit earlier this month and Belarus was upgraded to an SCO observer. Turkey, meanwhile, became a dialogue partner in 2013 and since then both the SCO and Ankara, by all public appearances, seem to have completely ignored one another.
But that caveat aside, becoming part of the SCO is nevertheless a statement of some sort of geopolitical intention. Armenia's accession is not too surprising: it is Russia which is clearly interested in pushing SCO expansion in order to boost its own international status, and Yerevan is highly susceptible to Moscow's wishes.
Azerbaijan's entrance, however, is more interesting. What does Azerbaijan have to gain from being part of the SCO?
For one, the SCO's focus on weakening Western norms of human rights is clearly attractive given its accelerating feud with the United States and European countries over what Baku says is unfair criticism of its political and human rights practices.
The targets of a special forces raid in Bishkek were ISIS members planning attacks on the Russian air base in Kyrgyzstan and on a celebration in the center of Bishkek marking the end of Ramadan, Kyrgyzstani security officials announced.
"The underground terrorist group was planning terror acts at a mass gathering for Orozo Ait (Eid) on July 17, and also on the territory of the air base of the Russian Ministry of Defense located in the city of Kant," Kyrgyzstan's state security service GKNB said in a statement.
The raid, in which six alleged terrorists were killed and another seven arrested, occasioned a lot of skepticism among Kyrgyzstanis, both for the fact that it took place in a heavily populated neighborhood and that the government provided no evidence that the people it targeted were in fact terrorists. ISIS is a convenient bugaboo for post-Soviet governments, though there is little evidence that the group has any designs on the region, let alone any current presence.
And the supposed targeting of the Russian base hardly adds credibility to the authorities' version of events. Russia established the base in 2003, its first new foreign military base since the fall of the Soviet Union. It had been more or less merely a geopolitical placeholder with no apparent function, but in recent years Russia has renovated it, increased the number of aircraft deployed there, and announced plans to make it the Central Asian hub of the planned joint air forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov meets his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the SCO summit in Ufa. Behind the smiles, there were disagreements over the planned accession of India and Pakistan to the group. (photo: president.uz)
Central Asian states are eyeing with concern the planned expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to include India and Pakistan, regional analysts say.
With the addition of the two South Asian countries, the membership of the organization -- now China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- would increase from six to eight. Four of those are outside Central Asia, and all four of those are nuclear powers with populations and economies that far surpass those of the SCO's four Central Asian members.
While there is little room in the SCO for public dissent, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov issued probably the most surprising statement of the summit, saying that the addition of India and Pakistan "would not only change the political map, but would change the balance of power. This is not a simple issue, and it needs to be discussed."
That went against the conventional wisdom in Ufa, which was that the addition of India and Pakistan would make the SCO stronger and was to be welcomed.
On India and Pakistan, Karimov "said what everyone was thinking, but wouldn't say," said Galiya Ibragimova, a consultant on Central Asia at the Moscow PIR Center on Political Research, in an interview with The Bug Pit.
The concerns about the addition of India and Pakistan are various. In Karimov's case, he is worried that it would shift the group's attention away from Central Asia to South Asia.
Ibragimova pointed out that Karimov has traditionally not wanted to participate in groups where the focus was outside of Central Asia, noting that its decision to pull out of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in 2012 was justified by the fact that the CSTO was also getting involved in conflicts outside the region, for example Nagorno Karabakh.
Tweets by Indian officials showing the Indian-Tajikistan military hospital near the border of Afghanistan. (photos: twitter)
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has wrapped up his ambitious post-Soviet trip with a stop in Tajikistan and the joint Indian-Tajikistan hospital near the border with Afghanistan. "This is the last stop on my visit to the five Central Asian countries," Modi said in Dushanbe. "But, we sometimes save the special one for the last."
Tajikistan isn't quite as special to India as it was a few years ago, when Delhi spent tens of millions of dollars to renovate the Ayni air base with the evident aim of establishing it was India's first Central Asian military outpost. Those hopes were dashed -- most likely by Russia -- at least five years ago (Ayni is almost never publicly discussed, and so developments tend to become known to the public with a significant delay).
But some in Delhi seem to still hold on to hope, and the U.K. tabloid Daily Mail reported ahead of Modi's visit that Ayni would be on the agenda. "[Indian] Government sources told Mail Today that use of the Ayni airbase for the Indian Air Force, tops the agenda," the paper reported. “'Getting a foreign airbase, particularly in Central Asia is a significant development. But in this case, two other countries, Tajikistan and Russia, have to agree,' former Air Chief Marshal PV Naik told Mail Today."