Russia has reached out to the Taliban in Afghanistan in what senior officials say is an effort to cooperate with them in the fight against ISIS in that country. The strategy would be shift for the Kremlin, which has largely portrayed the Taliban as just as much of a threat as ISIS.
The Kremlin's special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said in an interview with Interfax last month that Russian interests "objectively coincide" with those of the Taliban in the fight against ISIS, and that Moscow has channels for information sharing with the Taliban. "The Taliban now for the most part act like a national liberation movement. For them the Americans are occupiers, who illegally occupy their homeland and threaten their cultural and religious traditions," Kabulov said.
The Taliban, for its part, denied that any contacts with Russia had taken place:
On Wednesday 23rd December 2015 some media outlets published a report quoting the Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov as saying that they have talked to or established lines of communication with the Islamic Emirate regarding the threat of so called Daesh in Afghanistan.
The Islamic Emirate has made and will continue to make contacts with many regional countries to bring an end to the American invasion of our country and we consider this our legitimate right.
But we do not see a need for receiving aid from anyone concerning so called Daesh and neither have we contacted nor talked with anyone about this issue.
Tajikistan is planning to create "special reconnaissance units" to guard the border with Afghanistan, a senior security official has said.
The units will be part of Tajikistan's State Committee for National Security (known by its Russian acronym, GKNB), which oversees the border, according to the commander of the border forces, Radzhabali Rakhmonali.
"The situation on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border is complex. In Kunduz, Takhar, and Badakhshan provinces the 'Taliban' movement is working actively. So it's been proposed that we restructure the border forces and form special reconnaissance units," Rakhmonali said in parliament on Friday. Last week, Tajikistan suspended operations at its consulates in Kunduz and Badakhshan because of security concerns.
More than 1,000 troops will serve in the new units to start, a military source told AFP. Radzhabali also said that "there are financial means" for attracting more contract troops to the border force.
The proposed restructuring also would make the commander of the border forces responsible directly to the president rather than to the government as is the case now. The restructuring has been approved by the lower house of the parliament, and must be approved by the upper house and then the president. Given the top-down nature of politics in Tajikistan, there's no reason to believe the proposal won't be eventually approved.
Advocates for the survivors of an Armenian family killed by a Russian soldier say that the soldier's murder trial is being unduly influenced in favor of Russia.
The soldier, Valeriy Permyakov, has already admitted that he killed seven members of the Avetisyan family after deserting the 102nd Russian military base in Armenia's second city of Gyumri. He has been convicted of desertion by a Russian military court, and is now on trial for murder.
Russia originally announced that it planned to try Permyakov for murder, as well, but street protests in Gyumri and Yerevan against that decision forced Moscow to back down and agree to let Armenian courts try him.
But the way the trial is being conducted has again raised accusations that Russia is trying to influence it. The trial is being overseen by an Armenian judge, but is being conducted on the premises of the Russian military court at the base in Gyumri.
The trial began in December, and then lawyers for the defense complained that the presence of Russian servicemembers in the courtroom "shows that it is overseen by the Russian side," Armenian media reported. The judge at the time disagreed, saying they were needed to protect Permyakov, but when the trial resumed on Monday the Russian servicemembers had been replaced by Armenian guards.
With international sanctions lifted, Iran is ready to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, senior Iranian officials said Monday.
Iran applied for full membership in the SCO in 2008, but has been blocked by rules in the organization's charter that forbid membership for any country under United Nations sanctions. Those sanctions were lifted on Saturday as a result of Tehran's compliance with its nuclear deal with world powers including the United States, China, and Russia.
The organization has been eager to get Iran on board. "The organization wishes success to Iran in the finalization of efforts related to the nuclear program so that the essential legal procedures leading up to the lifting of sanctions were implemented as soon as possible," said SCO Secretary General Dmitry Mezentsev last month. "I'd like to believe the SCO will take up Iran's request for the status of a full member immediately after that."
And with the sanctions lifted, Iranian officials said that among their priorities would be gaining full SCO membership.
"The lifting of sanctions opens for Iran the opportunity to become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and eliminates other limitations, which the Islamic Republic has been facing in the regional foreign policy," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari told a press conference on Monday.
"For several years Iran has been an observer state in the SCO and is interested in strengthening that organization. The removal of sanctions creates new possibilities for acquiring full membership for Iran in the SCO," wrote Iran's ambassador to Moscow, Mehdi Sanai, on his blog.
Romania is pressing NATO to create a regular Black Sea flotilla in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea, Romanian media have reported.
NATO, and in particular the United States, substantially stepped up their naval patrols in the Black Sea after the Crimean annexation, but thus far it's been done on an ad hoc basis. The Romanian proposal would create a regular "flotilla" reportedly also consisting of ships from Germany, Italy, Turkey and the United States, Romanian television station Digi24 reported.
Warships of countries not on the Black Sea are restricted from spending more than 21 days at a time there by the 1936 Montreux Convention. So if a NATO Black Sea fleet were to come to fruition members other than Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey would have to rotate their ships out regularly.
The increased NATO presence on the Black Sea has already been a major irritant to Russia. At the same time Russian naval vessels' use of the Bosphorus straits, which pass through the middle of Istanbul, to supply the war effort in Syria has become a flashpoint in the Russia-Turkey conflict.
Romania will try to bring the proposal up at the alliance's next summit, in Warsaw in July, Digi24 reported.
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: