Soldiers from Kazakhstan take part in the opening ceremony of "Cooperation-2016," the CSTO military exercises taking part near the borders of Estonia and Latvia. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Russian military exercises near its western borders have become de rigeur over the last couple of years, as tension between Russia and NATO has spiked. But exercises that kicked off this week are novel in that Russia has brought along its allies from the Caucasus and Central Asia, which have for the most part sought to avoid getting drawn into Russia's conflict with the West.
The exercise kicked off August 16 in the Pskov oblast, which borders Estonia and Latvia. About 5,000 Russian soldiers are taking part, along with about 1,000 from the other countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
These exercises, under the rubric "Cooperation," are the annual cornerstone of the CSTO military exercise program. But there are some new twists this time. For the first time in the history of the exercises, Russia's ambassador to NATO Aleksandr Grushko is observing them. "Obviously, in the situation where NATO countries are pursuing a course of military containment of Russia, we have to undertake efforts to ensure that Russia's safety is secured," he said at a press conference there. "I'm sure that the NATO countries are carefully following" the CSTO exercises, he added. "The art of war is an extremely competitive field."
The Russian corvette Makhachkala, taking part in ongoing exercises -- and more? -- in the Caspian Sea. (photo: Russian MoD)
Russia asked Iran and Iraq for permission to to use their airspace for ballistic missiles against Syrian targets, apparently from the Caspian Sea, part of a new offensive against ISIS from the East.
"The Russian Defense Ministry last week sent a request to Iraq and Iran for the use of the airspace of these countries for the flight of ballistic missiles," a military source told the Russian news agency Interfax on Monday.
The request coincides with naval exercises, which also started Monday, of the Caspian Flotilla in the "southwest part of the sea," i.e. the part closest to Syria. "The plan of the exercises envisages testing the readiness of the forces of the Caspian Flotilla in resolving crisis situations presenting a threat to the military security of the country, including of a terrorist nature," the MoD said in a release.
Russia last year senttwo salvos of Kalibr cruise missiles against ISIS targets in Syria from ships in the Caspian Sea, the first ever combat use of those missiles and an unprecedented step in the militarization of the Caspian. The events caused some consternation among Russia's Caspian neighbors, most notably Kazakhstan, which rerouted flights across the sea and apparently complained behind the scenes.
Screenshot of a television ad, aired by Georgia's Centrist Party on state television, advocating for the legalization of Russian military bases in Georgia.
Geopolitics has taken center stage in Georgia's election campaign, with one party calling to legalize Russian military bases in the country, another calling for the constitution to enshrine Georgia's "non-bloc" status, and another calling for the constitution to reflect the country's NATO aspirations.
At the end of June, the Democratic Movement party called for Georgia to be officially neutral. The party leader, Nino Burjanadze, was once a leader of Georgia's pro-Western Rose Revolution but has since developed close ties with Russia.
“We believe that a clause should be added to the Georgian constitution, which would stipulate non-bloc status for Georgia,” she said, according to Civil.ge. “It means that Georgia should reject joining any kind of military bloc be it NATO or any other military alliance. There should be no troops of any foreign country or a bloc on the Georgian soil." She argued that Georgia's “authorities and significant part of country’s political elite act pursuant to NATO and the U.S. interests, instead of Georgia’s interests.”
Then, in response, the pro-NATO Republican Party introduced a counterproposal, to amend the constiution so that its preamble included the direction "to establish a full-fledged place in the Euro-Atlantic system of security and cooperation of democratic states."
The Kyrgyzstan government is investigating the apparent theft of equipment from the former United States air base there, which the departing Americans had handed over to the Kyrgyzstan armed forces.
A criminal case was opened in February, deputy military prosecutor Belek Mamatbayev told RFE/RL. "This is a strategic object," he said. "In the interests of the investigation I can't say anything now. After the investigation is finished we will give more information about who is accused, what are the losses to the state, and what court will look at the case."
When the base formally closed in 2014, the U.S. handed over the equipment, valued at $30 million, to Kyrgyzstan's National Guard, which was going to use the base. RFE/RL described the equipment as consisting of dozens of cars, mobile barracks, tents, generators, televisions, refrigerators, air conditioners, washing mashines and other home and office electronics.
A government commission then distributed the equipment to various ministries and agencies, and the National Guard was allocated some, as well, but some remained in storage at Manas. When a new commander was named to the battalion assigned to Manas, he discovered that some of the equipment was missing, National Guard official Taalai Myrzabayev told RFE/RL.
"After everything was handed over to the National Guard, we conducted checks from time to time," said Abdyrakhman Mamataliyev, who was vice premier for security affairs when the base was handed over, in an interview with RFE/RL. "The government should have controlled it. If you take into account our mentality, you need checks. This was very good equipment. If the theft is confirmed, it's a shame."
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev hosts his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for tea at his house. (photo: president.az)
The presidents of Russia, Iran, and Azerbaijan met in Baku this week, for the first time in this trilateral format, part of a week of heavy diplomatic activity that highlighted the shifting international relations around the South Caucasus.
The Baku meeting took place on Monday, and was taken on the initiative of Azerbaijan. The top agenda item was a railroad project that could connect Russia and Eastern Europe to the Persian Gulf.
That project would bring not only economic benefits to the three countries, but could be a geostrategic boon for Azerbaijan, as well, said Zaur Shiriyev, a Baku-based political analyst. He noted that this project would compete with another Russia-initiated North-South railroad project, that would go from Russia through Abkhazia, Georgia, and Armenia.
"This transport corridor bypasses Armenia, thereby eliminating the possibility of reopening the Russian-Georgian railway though Abkhazia, or any kind of discussion that was used a threat [against] Baku," Shiriyev said in an email interview with The Bug Pit. He noted that that Armenia project also could have competed with another Azerbaijani rail priority, the currently under-construction Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway that will connect Azerbaijan to Turkey and Europe.
The White House wanted the United States military to monitor the 2010 massacres in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, with a drone, and the military's failure to do so had negative ramifications for future U.S. military operations in Sudan, Libya, and Syria, a new book reports.
"Within the White House," the Osh violence "triggered fears of a possible ethnic cleansing campaign to come, or even genocide," writes Rosa Brooks in her new book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon. At the time, Brooks was working as Counselor to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and she recounted getting a phone call from an acquaintance at the National Security Council. "With little preamble, he told me that Central Command needed to move a surveillance platform to a position from which it could monitor fast-breaking events in Kyrgyzstan," she writes.
The Pentagon blanched -- not because it didn't care about Kyrgyzstan, Brooks writes, but because the request didn't come through the proper chain of command, and a medium-level staffer couldn't approve something as weighty as deploying a military aircraft to a new country.
"My White House colleague was incredulous when I raised some of these concerns. 'We're talking about, like, one drone. You're telling me you can't call one colonel at CentCom and make this happen? Why the hell not? You guys' -- by which he meant the Pentagon writ large -- 'are always stonewalling us on everything. I'm calling you from the White House. The president wants to prevent genocide in Kyrgyzstan. Whatever happened to civilian control of the military?"
At the International Army Games competitions in Kazakhstan, soldiers from 12 countries competed in sniper and artillery competitions; military VIPs viewed an opening ceremony with Kazakh pageantry, and the visiting soldiers toured Almaty. (photos: MoD Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan is hosting two events of the International Army Games, a Russia-created military Olympics, the first time the competition has been held outside of Russia.
The sniper and artillery competitions of the Army Games are being held at the Gvardeiskiy training facility near Almaty, with 278 soldiers from Kazakhstan, Venezuela, Kyrgyzstan, China, Russia, Belarus, Zimbabwe, India, Iran, Mongolia, Greece, and Armenia taking part. "We are glad to be the first to widen the geography of the Army Games," said Defense Minister Imangali Tasmagambetov, the opening ceremony.
Competing at home apparently inspired the Kazakh teams; they won the sniper competition and as of Monday they were leading the artillery event.
This is the second year of the Army Games, a sort of Russian military soft power event with origins in a Collective Security Treaty Organization (Russia's post-Soviet security cooperation alliance) but which has taken on a more global scope. While Russia has tried to get NATO countries to take part, that effort has largely failed and the list of competitors is largely a Russia-friendly one.
The chiefs of staff of the armed forces of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan watch military exercises in Urumqi. (photo: Inter Services Public Relations)
Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan have set up a "Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism" to jointly combat terrorism, further advancing security cooperation between the unlikely group of countries.
The chiefs of general staffs of the four armed forces met in Urumqi, China, on Wednsday and announced the formation of the mechanism, which will coordinate efforts on "study and judgment of counter terrorism situation, confirmation of clues, intelligence sharing, anti-terrorist capability building, joint anti-terrorist training and personnel training," according to a joint statement by the four sides.
Recall that when this idea was first publicly broached in March, Russian analysts reacted with some alarm, calling it a "Central Asian NATO" representing an unprecedentedly bold move by China into Central Asian security while excluding Russia. (Some Russian media then blamed this blog for fomenting discord between China and Russia by reporting on those analysts' comments.) Thus far there seems to be no further comment from the Russian government or press on this development.
The four representatives also observed a Chinese military exercise at Korla. "Exercise encompased a very effective neutralization of a terrorists' base in a remote mountainous region employing all the modern aerial and ground equipment and gadgets. [Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan] appreciated [the People's Liberation Army] troops for their skills and enhanced abilities to counter all categories of terrorism," according to a Pakistani military press release.
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and his Kazakhstan counterpart Imangali Tasmagambetov meet in Astana. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Russia has given Kazakhstan several air defense systems, and the two sides reportedly negotiated more Kazakh purchases of Russian aircraft during a visit by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu this week to Astana.
The delivery of the S-300PS air defense systems has been discussed for years. When Russia announced at the end of last year that the deal was finally complete, the Kazakh side declined to comment publicly, and anonymous MoD officials complained that the systems in fact needed lots of repair and were not ready for service.
This time, though, Kazakhstan's MoD announced that they had received the S-300s -- and that Russia had even thrown in 170 rockets to be used with them.
It's unclear what threats from the air Kazakhstan faces. But Russia has been pursuing a joint air defense system within the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and has been carrying out analogous negotiations with CSTO members Armenia and Belarus. (Kazakhstan also has claimed that Uzbekistan drones have violated its airspace.)
In addition, Shoigu discussed two possible aircraft deals with Kazakhstan, reported the Russian newspaper Kommersant, citing a source "familiar with the deals." They would include four Yak-130s, which can be used both as training aircraft and light attack jets; an undisclosed number of Yak-152 training aircraft; and two Il-76MD-90A military transport aircraft. The negotiations on the transport aircraft are "relatively advanced," Kommersant reported.
Georgia appointed a new defense minister who immediately became the subject of controversy when the outgoing minister criticized the selection.
The new minister, Levon Izoria, was announced on Monday, and spoke to the press on Tuesday. From a policy perspective, he signaled little new, vowing to continue Georgia's "active participation in NATO Resolute Support – we will pursue it with our strategic partner, the United States,” he said, referring to the western military mission in Afghanistan. Izoria also emphasized the importance of the new security cooperation agreement with the U.S. which will focus on building up Georgia's ability to defend itself, reported Civil.ge.
But the woman whom Izoria is replacing, Tinatin Khidasheli, took a public shot at his appointment. Izoria comes from Georgia's internal security services; he had been serving as deputy head of the State Security Service, and before that deputy interior minister. That background is inappropriate for a defense minister, Khidasheli said shortly after the appointment was announced.
“It is a wrong message to our partners abroad, as well as internally, when at first Irakli Alasania, a political figure, was replaced by a security official [Mindia Janelidze] as defense minister and then Khidasheli was replaced again by a security [official]… It indicates on a very negative trend,” Khidasheli said. Her husband and speaker of the parliament Davit Usupashvili echoed the comments.