Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan, visits Hairatan in 2010. (photo: ISAF)
Since the rail line between the Uzbekistan border town of Hairatan and Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, opened in 2011, news about its operations have been hard to come by. But it is apparently running in relative safety (contrary to some previous suggestions) and under Uzbekistan's control. That's according to a dispatch from Hairatan by American newspaper Fayetteville Observer, the local paper of some of the U.S. Army reservists who are managing the rail line (and flagged by the excellent Railways of Afghanistan blog).
The railroad, recall, was built by Uzbekistan Railways with money from the Asian Development Bank after American military logisticians identified the Uzbekistan border as the most troublesome bottleneck in getting supplies into Afghanistan.
Since then, Uzbekistan and the Northern Distribution Network generally have declined in significance to the U.S. military, which now relies much more heavily on Pakistan. But, as one U.S. soldier told the Observer: "This gives us an alternative in case Pakistan closes... It gives us negotiating leverage in Pakistan. If you guys don't play ball with us, there is another way out." Still, about 4,600 rail cars ply the Hairaton-Mazar route every month, and about 90 percent of the fuel used by coalition forces in Afghanistan travels on the rail line.
Three years after opening, Uzbekistan still operates the railroad, the piece reports:
[T]he railroad between Uzbekistan and Mazar-e-Sharif is operated by Uzbekistan as part of an agreement between that country and Afghanistan. It was built by the Asian Development Bank using donations from across the world, and the Uzbek government - not Afghanistan - collects money from the imports.
The U.S. State Department is skeptical about how Central Asian governments perceive the threat of terrorism in their countries, according to the department's annual review of terrorism around the globe.
In language similar to last year's report, the State Department said that "The effectiveness of some Central Asian countries’ efforts to reduce their vulnerability to perceived terrorist threats was difficult to discern in some cases, however, due to failure to distinguish clearly between terrorism and violent extremism on one hand and political opposition, or non-traditional religious practices, on the other." But this year it added a bit of texture with a mention of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: "[T]errorist groups with ties to Central Asia – notably the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihad Union – continued to be an issue even as they operated outside of the Central Asian states." (For some serious analysis of what threat the IMU poses, see this post at the Afghan Analysts Network.)
With the crisis in Ukraine, Georgia's efforts to join NATO have gained new energy. And while Tbilisi hasn't changed its ultimate aim -- gaining the elusive Membership Action Plan for the alliance -- it is coming up with some new proposals to gain closer cooperation with its western military partners.
Defense Minister Irakli Alasania is on a visit to Washington, and in addition to meeting with various U.S. government officials he also made a public appearance at a conference, where he advocated placing NATO "defensive assets" in Georgia, reports Civil.ge: "Air defense and anti-armor capabilities – 'this is something we need to put in Georgia and Russians will understand that you are serious,'” Alasania said."
It's noteworthy that this formulation -- "defensive" anti-aircraft and anti-armor weapons -- is exactly that used by former President Mikhail Saakashvili. But where Saakashvili wanted the U.S. to give him those weapons, Alasania here is asking that NATO allies put them in Georgia.
We'll see what comes of that proposal. Meanwhile, the alliance is getting ready for its summit this fall in Wales, and all eyes are on what the alliance may do to signal support for Georgia. Tbilisi is still pushing for MAP, although Alasania acknowledged in his remarks in Washington that it was an uphill battle:
“It is also important for the United States to show leadership… to make sure that next steps that NATO will make, for example at the summit in September, will be adequate response to what’s happening in Ukraine,” the Georgian Defense Minister said.
“We are talking about the Membership Action Plan, but we don’t really know how these discussions will end up, while, honestly, in fact after [developments in] Ukraine we should be talking about accession talks of Georgia and other aspirants to NATO,” he said.
The Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry is looking into reports that volunteers from Kazakhstan are among the pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The "people's mayor" of the breakaway town of Slavyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, told Time magazine that "his militia force... is made up partly of volunteers who have come from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and other parts of the former Soviet Union." And a member of the Russian "Eurasian Youth Union" organizing volunteers to support pro-Russian forces in Ukraine told the newspaper Izvestia that they had been in touch with "thousands of people from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vorkuta, Irkutsk, other Russian cities, even the Cossack community from eastern Kazakhstan has responded."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Nurzhan Aitmakhanov told Tengrinews.kz: "We have paid attention to various media reports that allege that 'among the militias in Slavyansk are volunteers from Kazakhstan.' We note that in the reports there are no specific names or documents proving the citizenship of the volunteers. As a result it's not possible to confirm the information. We consider the reports groundless." But he said the ministry and other relevant organs will keep looking into the reports.
A Mistral-class warship in France; Russia will soon receive two ships of this class, one possibly destined for the Black Sea Fleet. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Russian President Vladimir Putin has signaled his intent to expand the country's Black Sea Fleet now that the previous restrictions to its size have been annulled.
On Friday, the Kremlin announced that "The Government and the Defence Ministry have been instructed to draft a development programme for the Black Sea Fleet." This follows the annulment of the agreements that Russia and Ukraine had signed in 2010, on account of the fact that Ukraine is no longer in charge of Crimea. As RIA Novosti puts it: "The development of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet became an important task for the country when a number of agreements were annulled with Ukraine after the Crimean Peninsula was reunited with Russia last month."
One key provision of those agreements was that Russia was not allowed to expand the number or capability of the ships it had in the Black Sea Fleet; instead it could only replace an old ship with a new one of the same class. When Russia reached a deal with then-president Viktor Yanukovych in December in a failed attempt to shore up Yanukovych's rule, it reportedly included a provision to "start negotiations on preparation of a bilateral agreement on replacement of weaponry and military equipment" of the fleet. Russia had long been pushing Ukraine to alter their agreement so that the fleet could add more ships; now those constraints are gone and Russia can add as much as it wants. Aside from potential additional ships, one analysis in the journal New Eastern Europe suggests various on-land expansion possibilities:
Turkish-Armenians are welcoming Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's offer of “condolences” for the mass killings of Armenian that began 99 years ago during the Ottoman era. But opinions are mixed as to whether Erdoğan’s words will lead the renewed action toward reconciliation.
The Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization announced on Thursday that it would stop all contacts with NATO. It's a decision not likely to be deeply mourned in Brussels, which rarely had evinced any interest in cooperating with the CSTO in the first place.
CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha said at a Moscow press conference that: "For now we will not be making any efforts to establish contact with NATO, due to their stance during the Ukrainian crisis.... Today, NATO is blackmailing all of the CSTO member states ... showing that they are extremely dissatisfied with Russia's actions in recent months."
Bordyuzha's remarks echo those made by Russia's deputy defense minister, Anatoly Antonov, earlier this week:
"There is moral pressure and an attempt to convince people that 'Russians are bad' and therefore they should look up to European democracy. They are talking about some military-technical assistance, about sending advisers and increasing the number of joint exercises. NATO has only one task to pursue — to drive a wedge between Russia and its allies, to tear us away from each other," Antonov said.
Russian gunboats during a 2011 exercise on the Caspian Sea. (photo: mil.ru)
The foreign ministers of the countries surrounding the Caspian Sea met in Moscow on Tuesday, in preparation for a summit this fall. Diplomatic activity around the sea is not new, and the major dispute -- how to divide up the sea between the five countries -- remains unresolved. But as with everything else in the post-Soviet space, the crisis in Ukraine has changed the calculations in the Caspian, making for an unusual amount of turbulence in the normally stagnant diplomatic waters.
The most interesting potential storyline of the meeting was that Russia had convinced the other four countries -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan -- to agree to forbid the military presence of any other country on the sea. This was based on a report in Russian newspaper Kommersant, which quoted a "diplomatic source from one of the Caspian countries" saying that "Moscow managed to convince its partners that no outside power should influence decisions about the Caspian. In particular, the issue is about limiting the deployment of military forces of third countries, especially the U.S., to the Caspian."
It's not clear to what extent the issue came up at the meeting. At a press conference afterwards, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was asked about "the intention of some non-Caspian countries to gain a presence, including military, without taking into account the interests of the countries in the region?" Lavrov answered: "Responsibility for the state of affairs in the Caspian region rests with the Caspian countries... We are open to cooperation with outside countries, if they are ready to do so on the basis of the rules and principles that the five Caspian countries agree on among themselves."
Russia is gearing up for an ideological battle with the West, using its post-Soviet security apparatus to counter the threat of "color revolutions" around its borders.
The Russia-led political-military bloc the Collective Security Treaty Organization recently held a roundtable in Minsk on countering "color revolutions," the motley collection of recent popular uprisings that, in the Kremlin's mind (or perhaps only its propaganda), are orchestrated by the U.S. and include such disparate revolutions as Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Tunisia, and Syria. "All so-called 'color revolutions' are carefully prepared in advance by the creation and training of 'leaders' and special groups capable of organizing protest actions of the population aimed at creating informational-psychological pressure on the government," said CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha at the event. And he called for the "collective response using the CSTO" to combat those threats in CSTO countries (which, in addition to Russia, include Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan).
The CSTO has been making those sorts of statements for a while, but the events in Ukraine seem to have sharpened its focus on color revolutions. Bordyuzha, however, has been fairly vague about what, exactly, the CSTO could do about the issue. Аn analysis was published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta making some more concrete suggestions about what the CSTO and Russia could do. One of its suggestions was to work with the press, and the fact that it came out the same day as the Minsk roundtable suggested that the article may itself be part of the strategy.
The author, Aleksandr Bartosh, is more explicit than Bordyuzha can be about who, exactly, are organizing these color revolutions:
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev meets his Iranian counterpart, Hasan Rouhani, in Tehran. (photo: president.az)
Tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran have been tense over the past few months, with border skirmishes, Tehran accusing Baku of being in cahoots with Israel and Baku claiming to break up Tehran-linked terror plots. In spite of this rocky patch, top Azerbaijani officials have visited Tehran, with President Ilham Aliyev meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Azerbaijan's Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov meeting with top Iranian military officials.
Aliyev's visit "created an opportunity for rapid development of relations between the two countries in various spheres," said General Hassan Firuzabadi, chief of staff of Iran's armed forces. Firuzabadi also reportedly said that "We have today discussed the issues on organization of military trainings, friendly meetings, provision of techniques and weapons for the Azerbaijani Army."
Hasanov, for his part, reiterated Baku's promise that it would not allow any other country (read: Israel) to attack Iran from its territory.
Iran's president is apparently planning a trip to Baku in the next month. The visits are part of a general pivot toward Central Asia, said the Iranian Fars News Agency. "Iran has recently enhanced efforts to boost political, economic and cultural ties and cooperation with the regional and neighboring countries, specially the Central Asian states."