President Ilham Aliyev at the opening of the Araz munitions plant in Shirvan in 2010. (photo: Ministry of Defense Industry of Azerbaijan(
Azerbaijan's government has responded with uncharacteristic solicitousness to an explosion at a state munitions factory that killed two workers and injured 24 more, underscoring the importance the state places on its defense capacity.
The explosion occurred at the Araz munitions plant in the city of Shirvan, southwest of Baku, on July 26. Azerbaijani authorities said it was caused by a stockpile of old ammunition that had been slated for disposal.
The government's response was swift and active: the Minister of Defense Industry Yavar Jamalov visited the injured at the hospital and went to the funerals of those killed. The ministry's press service is releasing regular updates on the health of the injured. An investigative commission was formed and the state prosecutor's office opened a criminal case. This level of responsiveness is unusual for a government that tends to rule in a distant, imperious manner and to punish the messengers who call attention to bad news in the country.
Two whisteblowers have gone public with allegations that Georgia's Ministry of Defense is loaded with unqualified officials who were appointed only because they were political allies of the minister, and that ministry officials are using their posts to promote the minister's political party.
While this sort of behavior is common in post-Soviet government structures, including in Georgia, it is relatively rare for allegations like this to be made publicly. And the claims could damage Georgia's reputation as a reform-oriented state aiming to join Western structures like NATO.
The two MoD employees made the allegations at a press conference in Tbilisi this week. Senior officials have been appointed illegally, not through open and transparent "Western-style" competition, but through a system of nepotism and party patronage, said Beka Kiria, a senior specialist at the ministry's Defense Policy and Planning Department. The minister, Tina Khidasheli (who has just stepped down for unrelated reasons) is a member of the Republican Party.
In addition, the Strategic Communications section of the ministry has devoted all of its resources to promoting party leadership rather than the activities of the ministry, said Mariam Takaishvili, head of the ministry's section on Communication with NATO and International Organisations. Both officials said they had been reprimanded for complaining about these issues internally.
The Ministry of Defense has not publicly responded to the allegations.
Bulgaria has joined the long list of Russia's neighbors who have accused it of violating its airspace.
Russian military aircraft have violated Bulgaria's -- and therefore NATO's -- air space four times in the past week and more than ten times over the last ten months, Defense Minister Nikolay Nenchev said in a TV interview on Sunday. "Our fighter jets are ready to intercept them," Nenchev said, calling the actions a "provocation toward Bulgaria and its air force."
Bulgaria and Russia don't share a land border but both lie on the Black Sea, which has become more and more tense since Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. The question of Black Sea airspace, in particular, has become a heated issue in the last few weeks, as NATO is discussing strengthening its air presence in the region, and Russia has responded by moving its top-of-the-line air defense systems to Crimea.
In response, Russia criticized Nenchev for making the allegations on TV and not through diplomatic channels, and denied that any violations had taken place.
"We could not conceal our surprise when we heard Bulgarian Defense Minister Nikolay Nenchev saying in his speech on Nova TV that last month had seen the growing number of violations by Russian military planes, which had their ADS-B transponders off, of the Bulgarian zone of responsibility of NATO airspace," said Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov.
Georgian soldiers take part in U.S. Marine Corps training program in Georgia. (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
The United States will devote more military aid towards arming and equipping the Georgian armed forces, direct more training towards building combat skills, and help Georgia build a local training center oriented towards helping it defend itself rather than only deploying to Afghanistan.
The broad contours of the policy shift were laid out in a new agreement between the two countries announced during a visit to Tbilisi by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this month. On Monday, a U.S. embassy official in Tbilisi provided more details to The Bug Pit.
“Much like in the U.S. Army, where we've focused on deployment requirements for several years, there's been a certain level of atrophy in the core warfighting capabilities, so much of our security assistance over the next few years will address those areas: territorial defense capabilities and readiness," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Azerbaijani government was forced to deny Turkish press reports that Turkey was establishing a military base in the country.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev signed an agreement "confirming the protocols on the transfer of buildings and structures in the military cantonment Gyzyl Shryag and the terminal at the military airfield in Zainalabdin Tagiyev to the use of the armed forces of the Turkish republic," Azerbaijani media reported on Thursday.
From that legalese, some Turkish media oversimplified the news. "Turkey to establish military base in Azerbaijan," the state Anadolu Agency wrote in its headline. "Azerbaijan signs protocol allowing Turkey to establish military base," the state-run Daily Sabah wrote.
Azerbaijan's constitution, however, forbids the establishment of any foreign military base in the country, and government officials quickly clarified. "Press reports about the creation of a military base of any country do not have any basis and do not correspond to reality," Deputy Defense Minister Ramiz Tahirov told the AzerTaj news agency.
What exactly constitutes a "base" isn't always clear, but this is a largely bureaucratic move, explained Jasur Mammadov Sumerinli, director of the Caspian Defense Studies Institute, in an email interview with The Bug Pit. Around 60-70 Turkish soldiers are stationed in Azerbaijan, largely as trainers for various branches of the Azerbaijani security services, Sumerinli said.
Foreign ministers of the Caspian littoral states meet in Astana on July 13, 2016. (photo: MFA Russia)
Are the five states around the Caspian Sea finally going to resolve their dispute about how to divide the body of water between themselves?
A number of unusually positive statements from diplomats from the littoral states have suggested that the seemingly intractible dispute is on the verge of being resolved. But if any of the Caspian countries have softened their negotiating positions -- the intransigence of which has resulted in this long dispute -- they aren't telling.
The foreign ministers of the five states -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- met last week in Astana, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the sides could reach an agreement in a year.
"I believe it is absolutely realistic to aim for signing the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea in 2017. I think this can be done even in the first half of the year," he said. That enthusiasm was shared by Kazakhstan, whose prime minister, Karim Massimov, tweeted: "Met with foreign ministers of Caspian littoral states. There's hope for prompt completion of talks over Caspian Sea Legal Status Convention."
Turkey's TCG Tekirdağ patrol boat, taking part in Breeze 2016 exercises off the coast of Bulgaria (photo: The Bug Pit)
Russia has announced the deployment of more advanced air defense systems to Crimea, a move to protect the region from what one official called NATO's "air hooligans."
In August, the18th anti-aircraft missile regiment of the 31st Air Defense Division, based in Feodosia, will be equipped with Russia's top-of-the-line S-400 Triumf air defense system. It's yet a further buildup of Russia's defenses along its southwestern border against what it sees as a hostile western military threat in the Black Sea. This would complement Russia's system of land-based anti-ship missile defenses along the Black Sea, which already effectively let Russia control the surface of the sea.
"Placing the S-400 air defense system on duty in Crimea effectively locks down the Crimean sky against any attack from the air. The very fact of the placement of this advanced air defense system in Crimea will keep honest all NATO aviation based in the Black Sea region," said Crimea's vice premier, Ruslan Balbek.
The deployment is most likely directed against the United States as the only air force likely to threaten Crimea by air, said retired Colonel General Igor Maltsev, a former commander of Russia's air defense force.
Azerbaijan claims to be close to fielding a domestically produced armed drone, another escalation in its race to arm to take back the territory it lost to Armenian forces.
Azerbaijan's domestic arms industry will be able to supply the drones to its armed forces "in the near future," said Yaver Jamalov, the country's Minister of Defense Industry, at a cabinet meeting Sunday.
"Testing of the unmanned aerial vehicle 'Zarba,' created by your [President Ilham Aliev] on short notice, has been successful, and in the near future the device will be handed over to the armed forces," Jamalov said.
This would seem to be Azerbaijan's first armed drone. It has used surveillance drones, mostly purchased from Israel, for several years and in April's heavy fighting with Armenia it emerged that Azerbaijan also had Israeli Harop "kamizake drones," which are themselves the bomb. Armenia also operates small, domestically produced surveillance UAVs.
This announcement comes amid an unprecedented diplomatic push to try to resolve the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh, which Armenia won from Azerbaijan in a war as the Soviet Union collapsed.
NATO put off a decision on creating an alliance Black Sea naval force, which had been promoted by several alliance members as a means of beefing up the NATO presence on its southeastern border with Russia.
The alliance, as expected, agreed to set up a multinational land brigade based in Romania, which is intended to "contribute to the Alliance’s strengthened deterrence and defence posture, situational awareness, and peacetime demonstration of NATO’s intent to operate without constraint" and "provide a strong signal of support to regional security," according to the final communique issued by the alliance at the conclusion of its summit on Saturday in Warsaw.
But as for increasing sea or air activities around the Black Sea, NATO agreed to keep discussing: "Options for a strengthened NATO air and maritime presence will be assessed." It continued: "We will continue to address the implications for NATO of developments in the region and take them into account in the Alliance’s approaches and policies. We will continue to support, as appropriate, regional efforts by the Black Sea littoral states aimed at ensuring security and stability. We will also strengthen our dialogue and cooperation with Georgia and Ukraine in this regard."
An adviser to American presidential candidate Donald Trump has criticized United States policy in Central Asia as unnecessarily antagonistic, giving a rare glimpse into what a Trump presidency could mean for U.S. relations in the region.
The adviser, Carter Page, spoke Thursday in Moscow, and the main theme of the talk was that Russia and China have more successfully pursued their interests in Central Asia because they deal on the basis of “respect, equality and mutual benefit.” That, he argued, was one of the reasons for the flourishing of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Central Asia.
Page contrasted that with the American approach, which he said was characterized by books like "Chaos, Violence, Dynasty," and "Predatory Regimes." (He was referring, apparently, to academic monographs by Eric McGlinchey and Scott Radnitz.) This, Page argued, was evidence of "nakedly emotional approaches to news, often involving expressions of opinion and lacking verification of factual assertion" which typified "mainstream western discourse" on Central Asia.