U.S. forces drop supplies for base in Bala Marghab, Afghanistan. Coming soon to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan? (photo: Sgt. Seth Barham, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division Public Affairs)
In the wake of the U.S.'s announcement that it is moving its air base in Kyrgyzstan to Romania, the conspiracy theories continue to be propagated -- even in relatively respectable Russian analytical and official circles. A couple of weeks ago, The Bug Pit looked at one popular conspiracy theory: that the U.S. wasn't in fact leaving Manas, but was involved in an elaborate deception to cover up its aims of setting up a state-of-the-art intelligence-gathering operation in Kyrgyzstan.
But that's not the only theory being mooted as the "real" explanation for what the U.S. is doing (moving operations to Romania, if you're naive enough to believe the Pentagon). A piece in the Russian Ministry of Defense newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, entitled "The Pentagon Intends to Stay," suggests that the withdrawal from Manas is merely a tactical retreat, and that the U.S.'s strategy in Central Asia is "to leave, in order to stay." According to this analysis, the small training centers that the U.S. has set up in Tajikistan and had planned to set up in Kyrgyzstan, as well as the military supply routes of the Northern Distribution Network, represent a foothold that the U.S. can use to maintain influence with a smaller footprint.
But that piece is relatively measured. Other analyses get more specific, and a lot more conspiratorial. One theory is that the U.S. is moving to Aktau, on Kazakhstan's Caspian Sea shore. This theory is promulgated by a number of people, including analyst Nikolay Bobkin, writing for the Russian think tank Strategic Culture Foundation.
Erodgan and Putin in St. Petersburg. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, visiting St. Petersburg, repeated his request for Turkey to be allowed in to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to "save us from the trouble" of trying to get into the European Union. And at the same time, he seemed to endorse Turkey's entrance into the Russian-led Eurasian Union.
Turkey became a "dialogue partner" of the SCO earlier this year, but that distinction apparently doesn't mean much: Turkey wasn't even invited to the September summit in Bishkek. In spite of that shabby treatment, Erdogan still holds hope for the SCO, it seems.
In St. Petersburg, at a joint press conference with Putin, a reporter asked a double-barreled question: to Putin about Ukraine's move to halt its EU accession, and to Erdogan about Turkey's interest in the Eurasian Union. Putin ended his comments on Ukraine by noting that "Turkey has a lot of experience of negotiating with the European Union. We will ask the Prime Minister’s advice on what line to take in this situation." And then Erdogan brought up the SCO. From the Kremlin's official transcript:
RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: Yes indeed, we have 50 years’ experience. That counts for something (laughter).
In response to Mr Putin’s statements, let me make another proposal: accept Turkey into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: I think or rather I know for a fact that Turkey’s international influence and the independent and sovereign policy that Turkey follows under your leadership give every reason to have Turkey play a more active part in regional international organisations. Russia welcomes this.
Tajikistan has replaced its long-serving minister of defense, Sherali Khairulloyev, raising questions as to whether President Emomali Rahmon intends to take the country's military and defense policy in a different direction.
Khairulloyev, who had held his post since 1995, will be replaced by Sherali Mirzo, currently head of the country's border guards. The shakeup is part of a much larger government reshuffling, with many ministers not in power ministries also losing their jobs. So it seems likely that Khairulloyev's dismissal has less to do with his performance than with an internal maneuvering by Rahmon to consolidate his position.
Nevertheless, the move comes at a sensitive time for Tajikistan and its security. The departure of U.S. and NATO combat troops next year from Afghanistan has raised fears in the region that instability could spill over into Central Asia. And Tajikistan, with a long, porous border and suffering from precarious stability itself, is thought by many to be the weak link in Central Asian security. Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization are providing substantial aid to Tajikistan's border forces ahead of 2014.
Turkey's choice of a Chinese air defense system continues to dominate the agenda between Turkey and its Western partners in NATO. Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davotoglu, is in Washington this week and that issue is on the agenda. And the deal was also the hot topic at a NATO Industry Forum last week, organized by NATO and Turkey's Undersecretariat for Defense Industries, which your Bug Pit was able to attend.
If you haven't been following, the controversy began in September, when after a drawn-out competition, Turkey announced that it had chosen the Chinese HQ-9 air and missile defense system. The Chinese system was competing against ones from Russia, the U.S., and Europe, so the competition appeared to have -- rightly or wrongly -- a geopolitical component. So the pick of the Chinese system renewed fears that Turkey, under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was drifting away from the West toward the East. More specifically, NATO partners are concerned that the system won't be able to be securely integrated into the NATO air defense system in which Turkey already participates (though many in Turkey claim that is merely a pretext by Western companies and governments who resent losing business and influence to China).
The U.S. ambassador to Georgia has sparked controversy with comments that criticized Georgia's policy, in the early days of independence, toward the minority populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Ambassador Richard Norland was speaking to a group of students at Tbilisi State University on November 15, and was asked about the possibility of Georgia regaining control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. His comments, apparently recorded by someone at the event, included the following:
If you ask me about my personal opinion I can tell you that when I was in Georgia 20 years ago I saw that Georgians were treating Abkhazians and Ossetians the same way as Russians were treating Georgians and Georgia will have to apologize for the mistakes of the past.
This isn't an especially controversial statement; Georgians frequently express similar sentiments as they rue the mistakes that were made in the 1990s that contributed to the loss of those territories. But it's apparently too sensitive for the U.S. ambassador to say such a thing in public. In American politics Norland's statement would be called a "gaffe," which is when a political figure accidentally tells the truth. And the predictable result was that Georgian officials lined up to criticize Norland's remarks, and Norland was forced to backtrack.
Some of the Georgian responses, from a report on Georgian television station Rustavi-2 (via BBC Monitoring):
Azerbaijan naval vessels on parade in 2011. (photo: Wikimedia commons)
Azerbaijan will start building a warship next year, military sources told the news agency APA. No details were given, including what sort of ships were under consideration, or who Azerbaijan might be partnering with. Just: "Baku Shipbuilding Plant has already submitted the projects of some ships for Navy for different purposes and the ships will be constructed after the projects are agreed."
While Azerbaijan has been the relative laggard in the Caspian Sea arms race (instead prioritizing equipment oriented toward war with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh), recently it has evinced a bit more interest in its navy. As part of the blockbuster arms deal with Israel it is buying Gabriel anti-ship missiles, and just last month it said it would soon start receiving Uran-E naval missiles from Russia.
Azerbaijan has never before produced a military vessel, so it's safe to assume that it's not doing this by itself. So the big question is, who's the partner? I asked several sources in Baku and Moscow, and no one knew (or would say). The most likely partner would seem to be Turkey, which has been fairly active in helping Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan build up their navies from scratch. And the news came out as Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev was visiting Turkey (though the only defense contractor Aliyev seems to have visited was Turkish Aerospace Industries, where he looked at helicopters and training aircraft). I happened to meet Turkey's top government defense industry official, Murad Bayar, this week and asked him if Turkey was participating, and he answered noncommittally, saying the two sides had "had some consultations, but there is nothing definite."
Russia will fully upgrade the equipment at its military base in Tajikistan ahead of the U.S.'s withdrawal from Afghanistan, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu has said. That will also entail making the unit based there into a division again, after it was downgraded to a brigade in 2009, Shoigu said in remarks on Russian television:
"We are moving [the base] to a division structure, by December we will complete this division to about 80 percent, and by the time of elections in Afghanistan and the departure of the coalition forces we will complete it 100 percent with the newest weaponry and military equipment."
Shoigu didn't give any information about whether or not the base, known as the 201st, would receive any new soldiers, but it stands to reason that the upgrade to a division (which usually consists of two brigades) would involve such a move.
Russian officials have in the past given some indication of the equipment upgrades that are intended for the 201st. An unnamed, high-ranking military official told Izvestia last year that most of the base's equipment dated from the 1980s and that all of the vehicles would be upgraded (except for tanks, which are already relatively up-to-date T-72s). The new equipment would include Tigr and Rys all-terrain vehicles and Tor air defense systems, among other equipment.
But according to that story the timeline for the upgrades was 2015, so Shoigu's announcement means that they are intending to accelerate that by a year. And this just after the announcement that Russia would double its footprint at its main base in Kyrgyzstan, as well.
The Iran-Azerbaijan border in Nakhcivan (photo: The Bug Pit)
A shooting on the Iran-Azerbaijan border has led to the border being closed for several days, the latest episode of tension between the two countries. The controversy began last week, when an unidentified gunman (in military uniforms, according to Azerbaijan) fired shots at a tractor working on the shore of the Araz River that forms the border between the two countries.
No one was injured, but in response, "The Azerbaijani side accused the Iranian military of the fire and demanded an explanation. Not having received them, the Azerbaijani authorities closed the nearest border crossing point Shahtakhti," near the site of the incident in Azerbaijan's Nakhcivan exclave. And then Iran retaliated by closing off the other two border crossings in Nakhvican, citing "Baku's refusal to negotiate over the issue." From Press TV:
[Iranian embassy in Baku press secretary Mohammad] Ayatollahi said Azerbaijan sealed the border crossing in an “unconventional move” on Wednesday after an unidentified assailant opened fire on a tractor in the border region without causing any casualties.
He stated that the border closure has created serious problems for Iranian passengers and drivers....
He stated that an Iranian border guard was killed by Azeri security forces in Bileh-Savar two years ago, but Iran did not close the border and pursued the issue through the relevant authorities.
Nearly every day, the exact same headline pops up in the news feeds of those who follow conflict n the Caucasus: "Armenian Armed Forces violate ceasefire in several directions." And with only slightly less frequency, and only slightly more variation, another headline appears: Azerbaijan Violates Ceasefire over X times Last Week."
The stories -- reprinted press releases from the respective ministries of defense -- follow the same numbing pattern. From the Azerbaijani side, after a couple of paragraphs saying where the alleged shooting took place, the exact same four paragraphs close out the piece:
The conflict between the two South Caucasus countries began in 1988 when Armenia made territorial claims against Azerbaijan.
Armenian armed forces have occupied 20 per cent of Azerbaijan since 1992, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding districts.
Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a ceasefire agreement in 1994. The co-chairs of the The OSCE Minsk Group, Russia, France and the U.S. are currently holding peace negotiations.
Armenia has not yet implemented the U.N. Security Council's four resolutions on the liberation of the Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding regions.
The Armenian press releases are even more repetitive, not bothering to name the sites of the alleged violation. They all follow this form, nearly verbatim, the only variation being the number of violations over the past week:
The adversary violated the ceasefire, at the line of contact between the Karabakh-Azerbaijani opposing forces, around 200 times past week.
As a result of a U.S. attack that killed the head of the Pakistani Taliban, there are renewed threats in Pakistan to shut down the border with Afghanistan to U.S. and NATO forces. This, of course, would have a direct impact on Central Asia, by forcing the U.S. military to again shift its supply routes back to the Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia and Russia. And this just as American military officials have managed to get away from the more expensive, difficult northern route and back to Pakistan.
The political party that rules the province that borders Afghanistan "passed a resolution that threatened to block the supply lines through the region in response to a C.I.A. missile strike that killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, on Friday," the New York Times reported. It set a deadline of November 20 for the U.S. to stop drone attacks, after which they promised to shut the border. The resolution, the Times says, "was a means of building pressure on the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to end American drone strikes, while buying time to avoid a tricky confrontation with Mr. Sharif’s administration, which does not favor blocking NATO lines."
And also, crucially, the Pakistani military appears to favor the strike and to oppose closing the border. From an analysis of the political fallout by Ariq Rafiq in Foreign Policy: