Belarus has announced that it tested its new rocket-launcher system in China, the latest sign of an increasing military partnership between the two countries. And Belarus's president Aleksandr Lukashenko took the opportunity to take swipes at both Russia and NATO countries, suggesting Minsk may be more comfortable with Beijing than with any of its neighbors in Europe.
The Polonez multiple-launch rocket system is Belarus's highest-profile defense industry innovation, and took the spotlight at the country's May 9 Victory Day parade this year. Many analysts have suggested that it bears traces of Chinese origin and may use rockets (which Belarus doesn't produce) from China. So the fact that it was tested in China certainly gives credence to that speculation.
But the press release announcing the test, which featured comments from Lukashenko, was unusually feisty for the genre. "Our ally, Russia, is not so active in supporting our aspirations. We will talk about that separately with the Russian president," Lukashenko said, without citing which aspirations were not being supported. "But we thank the People's Republic of China and its leadership for this support."
Lukashenko also took aim at NATO, though he was a bit more understanding to his western neighbors: "They constantly publicly demonstrate their activities, especially on our borders," he said. "This activity can not but alarm us. But this isn't really an issue. We understand the propaganda aspect of these acts. You need to keep your powder dry. We have always said this."
Georgia and France have finalized a blockbuster air defense deal that was the source of a major political crisis in Tbilisi last year, though many of the details of the deal and the crisis remain shrouded in mystery.
Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli on June 15 signed an agreement with the company ThalesRaytheonSystems in Paris on the purchase of “advanced” air defense systems that will “guarantee country’s air defense,” Khidasheli said, according to Georgian news website Civil.ge.
But that's about all that is known: the exact type of system, its price, or anything else is being kept secret. “I cannot speak about the details of the agreement we signed today. Information about such type of procurements, weapon should be top state secret, otherwise we can now continue our conversation in Russian and they will not even need to spend money on translation to learn information about this agreement,” Khidasheli told the Georgian state broadcaster.
Qatar has brokered the release of four Tajikistani border guards who had been held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan since December.
The news came from the Qatari foreign ministry on June 14, but thus far the border guards haven't appeared in Tajikistan, nor has the Tajikistan government commented.
“Under the directives of HH the Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, Qatari mediation succeeded in the release of four soldiers from Tajikstan who were captured by Taliban in December on the Northern borders of Afghanistan,” the Qatari statement said. “Qatar is using all its resources and diplomacy to save lives."
The four guards were kidnapped while gathering firewood on the border with Afghanistan; their commanding officer was later sentenced to eight and a half years in prison for ordering the men to gather the firewood.
Within days after the kidnapping the Tajikistan government said that they knew where the four were being held and that they would be released imminently, but since then little information has come out.
The intriguing element of the reported release is the Qatari angle. It's not known what Qatar did to secure the guards' release, but the Taliban regularly kidnap foreigners for exorbitant ransoms.
A senior State Department official has downplayed the threat of Central Asian fighters joining ISIS amid heightened concerns after a high-ranking Tajikistan police official announced that he had joined the radical Islamist group.
While some Central Asians are joining the group, the vast majority are recruited outside the region, particularly as labor migrants in Russia, said Daniel Rosenblum, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs.
"For the overwhelming majority of Central Asians, the conflict in Syria and Iraq is a distant phenomenon; it is not something they think about day-to-day. But a small minority of Central Asians have been successfully recruited by violent extremists to join the conflict," Rosenblum said .
Rosenblum was speaking at a June 11 hearing of the U.S. Congress's Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe titled"Wanted: Foreign Fighters -- The Escalating Threat of ISIL in Central Asia." In spite of that somewhat overwrought title, Rosenblum did not discuss the what threat ISIS may pose to Central Asia itself, though he did mention media reports of ISIS appearing in Afghanistan: "We have seen signs that ISIL is attempting to spread into Afghanistan, and that some Taliban groups have rebranded themselves as ISIL to attract funding and recruits. ISIL’s presence in Afghanistan is a relatively new phenomenon and it will take time to evaluate its long-term prospects."
Armenians hold complex, at times contradictory views toward the Russian military base in their country, a new opinion poll has found.
When asked whether it was "acceptable for a foreign state or institution to ensure Armenia’s national security," only 17 percent of Armenians found it acceptable. But then, asked if they "find the presence of any other state’s or structure’s military bases in Armenia acceptable or unacceptable?" 55 percent found it acceptable. Of those that found the presence of a foreign base acceptable, the greatest number of respondents (38 percent) said it was justified to protect against attack by Azerbaijan or Turkey, while 25 percent said "security guarantees" -- probably a broader version of the same answer.
Those responses are hard to reconcile with one another, but probably represent the ambivalence many Armenians feel toward the Russian military presence in their country as a necessary evil.
Russia operates the 102nd military base in Gyumri, Armenia's second city, and has about 5,000 soldiers stationed there. In 2010 Armenia agreed to allow the base to stay until 2044 and while Armenians have generally acquiesced to the base's presence, unprecedented protests against the base broke out in January after a Russian soldier abandoned the base and killed seven members of a local family in their home.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with the foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states in Moscow on June 3. (photo: Kremlin)
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization will "upgrade" Iran's status in the group if Tehran reaches an agreement with international powers on its nuclear program, Russia's foreign minister has said. Meanwhile, China is pushing for the organization to take a greater role in regional security.
The SCO foreign ministers met in Moscow this week in preparation for the July 9-10 summit in Ufa. It has been clear for some time that this would be an expansion summit, at least for India and Pakistan. Those countries are now observers, but have sought full membership for years. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that: "If relevant decisions are made in Ufa, they will pave the way for the SCO’s extension, and India and Pakistan will have an opportunity to launch the initial procedures for joining the SCO."
The SCO now includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. China has been the main driver of the organization, and in recent years it had taken on more of an economic role than the military or security role it seemed to aspire to when it formed in 1996. But the crisis in Ukraine has reenergized Russia's attempts to find non-Western allies, and since then Moscow given the SCO much more of its attention.
Alarms about the threat of war in Transnistria, the breakaway territory of Moldova, have been repeatedly sounded in recent days by government officials and media in Transnistria, as well as the de facto state's main sponsor, Russia.
Two weeks ago Ukraine canceled the agreement that allowed Russia to supply its roughly 1,500 troops stationed in Transnistria through Ukrainian territory. The Ukrainian route was the only way by which Russian forces in Transnistria could be reached by land; the territory's only other land border is with Moldova, which also has been restricting what limited access it was giving Russian forces to Transnistria.
While Ukraine insists that its move solely affected the agreement to supply the Russian military, many Russian and Transnistrian sources claim that Transnistria is now the subject of a full "blockade" and that Ukraine and Moldova, backed by the United States, are preparing a military assault.
Transnistria's de facto foreign minister, Nina Shtanski, said on June 1 that Ukrainian troops were massing at the border with Transnistria. "It's clear to everyone what is on the Transnistrian border: they are building tent camps, deploying soldiers. Imagine what panic this is causing among Transnistrians and especially people who live on the border with Ukraine," she said.
The U.S. Navy has rejected claims that Russian jets forced an American warship to retreat after getting too close to Russian waters in the Black Sea.
The USS Ross has been patrolling the Black Sea since May 23, part of the U.S.'s stepped-up military presence in the region. And according to an unnamed source in the security structures of Crimea, Russian Su-24 aircraft forced the American ship to change course because it was nearing Russian waters and "acting provocatively and aggressively," reported RIA Novosti.
The Russian news agency Sputnik noted that: "The incident comes on the same day as fugitive Georgian ex-leader Mikheil Saakashvili's appointment as governor of Ukraine's Black Sea-bordering Odessa region." It did not elaborate on what the connection between the two incidents might be.
Over the past year there have been several similar minor episodes between the U.S. ships patrolling the Black Sea and the Russian military. In one such incident last April, a Russian Su-24 buzzed the USS Donald Cook, which the Pentagon called "provocative." And according to a story widely distributed in the less reputable parts of the Russian internet, the Russian jet managed to shut down all of the American ship's electronic equipment, an experience which so demoralized the crew that 27 of the sailors requested retirement shortly after. (An English-language version can be seen here.)
U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan Susan Elliott posing with two OMON officers in 2013. (photo: twitter)
The senior Tajikistan police official who apparently defected to ISIS had taken part in United States training on five seperate occasions, a State Department official has said.
Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, the head of the Ministry of Interior special forces OMON units, claimed in his ISIS promotional video that he gone to the U.S. three times for counterterrorism training, including with American mercenary firm Blackwater. "Listen, you American pigs: I've been to America three times. I saw how you train soldiers to kill Muslims," he said. "You taught your soldiers how to surround and attack, in order to exterminate Islam and Muslims."
That claim was confirmed by the State Department on May 30. "From 2003-2014 Colonel Khalimov participated in five counterterrorism training courses in the United States and in Tajikistan, through the Department of State's Diplomatic Security/Anti-Terrorism Assistance program," spokeswoman Pooja Jhunjhunwala told CNN.
OMON has been one of the key elements of U.S. security cooperation in Tajikistan, which has focused on training and equipping the country's various special forces units. That training has been controversial, even before there was any ISIS connection: while the special forces are Tajikistan's most capable units and would be used to combat genuine security threats, they also are a key element of President Emomali Rahmon's repressive rule and have been implicated in indiscriminate force in suppressing internal opposition.
Three Chinese warships are have visited Istanbul while a Turkish vessel made a stop China, a "rare moment in naval diplomacy" while the two countries are navigating some rocky shoals in their military relationship.
The guided-missile frigates Linyi and Weifang and the supply ship Weishanhu arrived in Istanbul on May 24 for a five-day stay. (The Linyi and Weifang, recall, were the ships that recently took part in joint Russian-Chinese exercises in the Mediterranean and Russian Victory Day celebrations in Novorossiysk on the Black Sea.)
Meanwhile, a Turkish frigate, the TCG Gediz, visited the Chinese port of Qingdao from May 22-24. The TCG Gediz is on a long trip around the Far East, stopping in 14 countries, and although the stop in China has garnered the most attention, Turkish analysts saw the tour as part of a broader pivot to Asia. "As a Nato member, Turkey is sending everyone the message … that it can collaborate with everyone in the military field, not only with the allies of Western countries," Selcuk Colakoglu, vice-president of the Ankara-based think tank International Strategic Research Organisation, told the South China Morning Post.