The United States Congress has held a rare closed hearing on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, as leading members of Congress are pushing for new conflict-resolution measures favored by Armenia but opposed by Azerbaijan.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee held the hearing last week, with James Warlick, the U.S. co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, testifying. Warlick did not comment on the content of the hearing, except to tweet: "I thank the @HouseForeign affairs committee and its chair @RepEdRoyce for hosting me to discuss #NKpeace. We agreed to work for a settlement."
It's not clear why the hearing was closed, or why it was held now. But tension has been getting worse along the so-called "line of contact" between the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides. Armenian forces won control of the territory, which is de jure part of Azerbaijan, in a war in the early 1990s, but the ceasefire that has held since then has become increasingly tenuous, with violence along the line at its highest level since the war formally ended in 1994. "This is a war, and I would ask you to use the term ‘war’ and not to use the phrase ‘ceasefire violation’ because, in effect, we don’t have a ceasefire anymore,” Defense Ministry spokesperson Artsrun Hovannesyan told reporters in December.
Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, in happier times (2013). (photo: president.tj)
Iran has shrugged off a rhetorical assault waged by Tajikistan's government and has ratified a security cooperation agreement signed by the two countries before their relations took a nosedive in recent weeks.
Iranian media and Iran's embassy in Dushanbe reported that Iran's parliament has ratified an agreement on defense and security cooperation. It's not clear from the reports exactly what the agreement entails; Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani signed a number of agreements during the latter's visit to Dushanbe in September 2014. Those agreements reportedly included provisions on information sharing in law enforcement and drug trafficking.
Whatever the content of the agreement, the ratification normally wouldn't be especially newsworthy. But it comes as Dushanbe has heaped criticism on Tehran for allowing the exiled opposition leader Muhiddin Kabiri to participate in a conference in Iran in December. Tajikistan's foreign ministry sent a diplomatic note to Iran objecting to the “head of a terrorist party suspected of mounting an attempted overthrow of the government” was invited to Tehran. In his sermon last Friday, Tajikistan's top mufti said that Iran was "abetting terrorism" by inviting Kabiri.
Russia says it has completed the handover of air defense systems to Kazakhstan, part of the project of creating a joint air defense system across the former Soviet Union. But Kazakhstan's Ministry of Defense is complaining that the systems aren't actually yet delivered and are not in working condition.
The gift of five Russian S-300 air defense systems to Kazakhstan was announced two years ago (and then was said to be on slate for completion by the end of 2014). This was to be the first step of the Central Asian portion of a joint air defense system Russia is trying to create with its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. (Armenia and Belarus are in their own discussions with Russia to build up the system in their regions.)
At December's meeting of the CSTO in Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced that the S-300 transfer to Kazakhstan was complete.
"We have completed the project to transfer without charge the S-300 air defense systems to Kazakhstan, taking into consideration the fact that this is a weighty, if not main, contribution to the integrated air defense system, which, one may say, has become a reality, and now its hardware component has been built up to the expected strength," Shoigu said.
But that's not quite the situation, senior Kazakhstani defense officials say. "The S-300 complexes won't enter service tomorrow. Two complexes are underdoing technical service in Kazakhstan, and three will undergo technical service in Russia," the head of Kazakhstan's air defense forces, General-Major Nurlan Ormanbetov, told the Kazakh service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Russia and other allies will hold a military intelligence exercise, the first of its kind, in Tajikistan in April.
A source in Tajikistan's security services told the newspaper Asia Plus that the Collective Security Treaty Organization will hold the exercise in a military training area in the Khatlon province, which borders Afghanistan. About 800 soldiers from CSTO member states Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan will take part. The source told Asia Plus that it's the first time the CSTO has held an exercise specifically devoted to intelligence.
Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan has become Russia's prime security concern in Central Asia as the Taliban has become more and more active in neighboring northern Afghanistan.
Russia is also looking at bilateral Russia-Tajikistan military action in case of a deteriorating security situation in Tajikistan, a senior Russian diplomat has said. "We may use coalition groups of the armed forces of Russia and Tajikistan, if circumstances demand," said Aleksandr Sternik, the head of the Russian foreign ministry's department in charge of ex-Soviet states, in an interview Sunday with the news agency Interfax. He said the issue was discussed at a recent meeting of the CSTO in Moscow.
"Toward this end we're optimizing the structures and deployment schemes of the 201st Russian military base in Tajikistan. Its capabilities are increasing. Under the current circumstances taking into account the state of affairs in the border region this is the most effective model of cooperation," Sternik added.
In the two weeks since Saudi Arabia announced that it was forming a yet another "coalition" to combat Islamist terror, the allegiances of the former Soviet states have come under increasing scrutiny. All of them, however, appear to believe that they have little to gain from picking a side and continue to spurn the advances from various suitors, including Russia and the United States in addition to the Saudis.
When Saudi Arabia announced its 34-member coalition of majority-Muslim states, there was a conspicuous lack of any post-Soviet republics in its ranks. Azerbaijan said it was considering the idea, and apparently still is.
A Saudi newspaper reported that Tajikistan's ambassador to Riyadh said that Dushanbe was considering the idea, and that President Emomali Rahmon would discuss the idea during his visit to Saudi Arabia in January. But the same day, that was denied by the country’s deputy foreign minister, Parviz Davlatzoda, who told the Russian news agency TASS, "We do not consider this at all."
Part of Tajikistan's reluctance is no doubt due to Moscow's hostile attitude toward the Saudi coalition. The Russian press has heaped scorn on the notion of the coalition; one journalist asked President Vladimir Putin about it, noting that "This will be an anti-Russian alliance, and it includes Turkey. This is very dangerous." Putin played the good cop, though:
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko meet in Moscow on December 15. (photo: kremlin.ru)
The prospect of a Russian air base in Belarus "will not be discussed," Belarus's defense minister has said, but regional analysts believe the issue is far from resolved.
Belarus-Russia relations have been a little strained lately, with one bone of contention being Russia's open desire to establish an air base on the territory its western neighbor, and Belarus's resistance. Russian officials have been talking about the base for two years, with regular statements met by conspicuous silence from Minsk. That changed in October when President Alexander Lukashenko, for the first time, said Belarus didn't need a Russian base, and furthermore denying that there had even been discussions to that effect.
Lukashenko was supposed to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in November, but that meeting was abruptly canceled. The two finally got together in Moscow last week, but nothing was said publicly about the base. After the meeting, Putin only glancingly mentioned security issues: "We agreed to develop our military and military-technical cooperation to strengthen regional stability and security."
A few days later, Belarus's defense minister Andrei Ravkov was asked about the prospect of a Russian base. "Nothing has changed. The issue hasn't been discussed and won't be discussed, most likely," he said.
A Kyrgyz in a Mongol warrior princess getup won the Turkvision song contest in the third iteration of the event that brings together Turkic peoples from across Eurasia in a musical celebration of a shared culture.
The presidents of the CSTO member states gather in Moscow on December 21. (photo: CSTO)
Russia's post-Soviet security bloc has put off a decision to appoint a new secretary general, suggesting some internal dissension about the direction of the organization.
The heads of state of the six Collective Security Treaty Organization members met in Moscow on Monday and judging from the official statements, no particularly big decisions were made, other than reaffirming the group's intention to fight terrorism.
But just a few days earlier, an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yuriy Ushakov, said that the group would be choosing a new secretary general. "Working discussions are going on about that issue. There will be a final decision before the leaders on Monday. Several variants are being discussed," Ushakov said.
The CSTO's declaration Monday, however, noted: "The collective security council decided to prolong the authority of CSTO General Secretary Nikolay Bordyuzha until January 1, 2017."
Ushakov said that the next secretary general would be from Armenia: "The rotation is being considered on the basis of the Russian alphabet, so it's completely logical that Armenia will become the general secretary in the organization. But this issue is still being discussed."
This explanation about "rotation" isn't entirely convincing. Bordyuzha, a Russian and a career Soviet KGB officer, has been the CSTO's only general secretary and has served since 2003.
It may not be a coincidence that Armenia also happens to be the only CSTO ally who has unambiguously sided with Russia in its row with Turkey that resulted from the November shootdown of a Russian jet on the Turkey-Syria border.
Germany's air base in Termez, Uzbekistan. (photo: Bundeswehr)
Germany has officially left its air base in Uzbekistan, the German embassy in Tashkent has confirmed, officially ending a 14-year military presence in Central Asia.
In October Germany announced that it would be leaving the base by the end of the year and [insert German stereotype] they have. A closing ceremony at the base was held December 11, a spokeswoman for the embassy, Melanie Moltmann, told The Bug Pit.
The closure wasn't officially announced, which is consistent with the extremely low profile that the base enjoyed; German officials almost never spoke about it until it was about to close.
The base, at Termez on the Afghanistan border, was a logistics point for German troops operating in northern Afghanistan. But the two sides got involved in a dispute over the rent: earlier this year Uzbekistan tried to raise the rent to 72.5 million Euros annually, German media reported; just months before Tashkent had secured a new agreement approximately doubling the rent to 35 million Euros a year.
With the German departure, there are now no foreign military bases in Central Asia other than Russian ones. France's small detachment left in 2013, and the U.S. closed down its base at Manas, in Kyrgyzstan, in 2014.
A Kazakhstan warship tests anti-aircraft artillery in the Caspian Sea. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan has, for the first time, launched an anti-aircraft missile from a warship on the Caspian Sea. While the test may not mean much operationally, in the context of current heightened Russian military activity on the Caspian the move appears to be a modest show of force from Astana.
Kazakhstan's Ministry of Defense announced on December 14 that it had tested the Arbalet-K air-defense missile system from its missile boat Oral. The test was carried out at a "high level," the MoD said, noting that the [Ukrainian-made, incidentally] Arbalet-K was designed to defeat "jet, turboprop and propeller aircraft and helicopters, under conditions of visibility of the target, using surface-to-air missiles."
This follows another test, on November 27, of anti-aircraft artillery from the Oral and three other Kazakh warships on the Caspian. That test, the MoD said, was conducted in "conditions as close as possible to combat."
These weapons are a far cry from the cruise missiles that Russia has launched from the Caspian on three separate occasions since October -- twice at targets in Syria, and once in a test. Russian President Vladimir Putin also has recently dismissed worries by Kazakhstan about the danger posed to civilian aircraft over the Caspian, saying that the Caspian states need to make sacrifices for the sake of the anti-terror fight that Russia is carrying out.