Heads of state of SCO member countries (in the front row) and heads of partner states and organizations (behind) at the SCO summit in Ufa, Russia, July 9-10. (photo: SCO)
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has wrapped up its annual summit, and while the member states seemed to have failed to advance the concrete items they had on their agenda, they nevertheless adopted an ambitious strategy aimed at deconstructing the Western-dominated world order.
The summit was held in Ufa, Russia, on July 9-10, and as expected the big news was that India and Pakistan began the accession process. Somewhat more unexpected was the announcement there will be four new "dialogue partners": Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, and Nepal. And Belarus, which had been a dialogue partner, is now a formal observer, along with Iran, Mongolia, Afghanistan.
However, the accession of India and Pakistan may not be without its bumps: Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov said that adding them to the SCO will "change the balance of power" and should be discussed further. Karimov was speaking at a joint appearance with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who tried to brush the comment off with a sort of joke, Tass reported: "Islam Abduganievich, but how will it look: President Karimov of Uzbekistan brought India and Pakistan into the SCO and created a new political world reality,' Putin answered with a smile. 'Let's talk about it.'" Uzbekistan is now the chairman of the organization and next year's summit will take place in Tashkent.
Azerbaijan's new naval base in Puta, inaugurated in June 2015. (photo: president.az)
The Caspian sea states will discuss creating a "collective security system" on the sea at a meeting in Russia this fall, a Russian military official announced.
Russia's top naval commander, Admiral Viktor Chirkov, met with naval delegations from Azerbaijan, Iran, and Kazakhstan last week in St. Petersburg, and afterward announced that the states discussed creating a consultative organ of all the Caspian sea navies and a collective security system, and signing an Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents on the Caspian.
"During the meetings with [Admiral Chirkov] the delegations confirmed their readiness to work on these issues, and agreed to conduct the first round of corresponding consultations in Russia in October," the statement from the Russian Ministy of Defense said.
The idea of a collective security system was first publicly mooted by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu last year in Baku; Chirkov's comments suggest it is moving forward.
The notion of collective security on the Caspian is a bit odd; it wasn't explicitly mentioned which of the five states would be involved in the organization, but the goal is presumably for all of them to be. And then, on a closed sea with no other potential enemies, the idea of collective security is overkill -- from whom would they be defending themselves?
State Department officials have defended the provision of armored vehicles to Uzbekistan against criticism that it is irresponsible to reward a government with such a poor record of treating its citizens, while more military aid to Tashkent appears to be in the works.
In January, the State Department announced that it was giving more than 300 used Mine-Resistant Armor-Protected (MRAP) vehicles to Uzbekistan, the largest transfer of U.S. military equipment to a Central Asian country. It was surprising move given that Uzbekistan's star in Washington seemed to be falling: the U.S. is pulling out of Afghanistan and so neighboring Uzbekistan is no longer a critical partner in the war effort.
Nevertheless, the U.S. wants to help Uzbekistan and the MRAPs are "purely defensive vehicles" and would only be used by the Ministry of Defense forces and not by police units of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Daniel Rosenblum.
Rosenblum was testifying before Congress at a June 25 hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, "Civil and Political Rights in Uzbekistan and Central Asia: Implications for Post-2014 U.S. Foreign Policy." He was asked by the commission's chairman, Massachusetts Democratic Rep. James McGovern, what the "rationale" was for giving the vehicles to Uzbekistan given the country's poor human rights record, which includes firing on and killing hundreds of its own civilians in 2005 protests.
Russia is negotiating with Armenia to supply the latter with advanced Iskander-M missiles, a potentially substantial boost to Armenian defenses against a potential Azerbaijani attack. News about the ongoing negotiations was leaked to both the Armenian and Russian press, and the timing of the leak suggests an effort to tamp down anti-Russian sentiment in ongoing street protests in Yerevan.
"The contract isn't signed yet, negotiations are still continuing," a source "in the military-technical cooperation sphere" told Russian news agency Tass. A source "close to the ruling Republican Party of Armenia" told the same thing to Armenian newspaper Zhamanak.
The missiles could be acquired under a $200 million loan for arms purchases that Russia offered to Armenia last week and which Armenia's parliament ratified in an extraordinary session on July 2. "We are going to acquire weaponry of a new type, which until now has not been seen in the Armenian armed forces," said Ara Nazarian, Armenia's deputy defense minister, in reference the loan.
That loan was part of a series of concessions that Russia made to Armenia, including ceding to Armenian jurisdiction the case of a Russian soldier who killed seven members of an Armenian family. The news of the Iskander-Ms would seem to be yet another element of this effort to appease Armenian public sentiment.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is planning to visit all five Central Asian republics next week; the visit is expected to focus on energy cooperation but will also seek to boost India's growing military ties in the region and will include a visit to the newly built Indian military hospital in Tajikistan.
The tour will take place July 6-13, and will also include a stop in Ufa, Russia, for the summits of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS -- India is a current member of the latter and is expected to join the former as a full member (along with Pakistan) at this summit.
"Countering the spread of Islamic State (IS) terror will be a key part" of the visit," The Hindu newspaper reported, citing "sources."
"The Prime Minister will discuss counter-terror technology, training forces and also countering radicalism. Significantly, the government had also appointed former [Intelligence Bureau] chief Asif Ibrahim as a special envoy recently, with a mandate to discuss the spread of IS and terrorism, and liaise with governments abroad on the issue," the newspaper reported. “'Given India’s efforts to counter Islamic radicalism, these Central Asian states, are natural allies,' an Indian official said."
Valery Permyakov, a Russian conscript soldier suspected of killing six members of a family in Gyumri, Armenia, in a photo released by the Armenian authorities.
Russia has agreed to let Armenian courts try a Russian soldier accused of murdering seven members of an Armenian family after deserting Russia's major military base in the country. The move is a major concession by Moscow, and comes as large-scale street protests in Yerevan against Armenia's Russian-owned electricity company have been gathering strength.
The soldier, Valery Permyakov, walked off Russia's 102nd military base in Gyumri on January 12, walked into the nearby home of the Avetsiyan family and opened fire; six died immediately and a seventh, a six-month-old baby, died later in the hospital. The case outraged Armenians and led to unprecedented protests against the base.
From the beginning, Armenia and Russia have disagreed about who should be able to try Permyakov: Armenia wanted him tried in Armenian courts, while Russia wanted him to be tried by a Russian military court, albeit on Armenian soil.
On June 26, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan met with a Russian government delegation to discuss energy fees, the issue that sparked the Yerevan protests. But the scope of the discussions was apparently wider than that, and Sargsyan's office issued a surprise announcement after the meeting:
The opening ceremony for Azerbaijan's new Caspian Sea naval base at Puta. (photos: president.az)
Azerbaijan has inaugurated a new base for its navy on the Caspian Sea, which it calls "the largest and most modern military object in the Caspian basin."
The base was formally opened on June 25, Azerbaijan's Armed Forces Day, in a ceremony with President Ilham Aliyev.
"Today we have gathered for the opening of the naval base. This event shows the strength, the power of our country," Aliyev said at the ceremony. "This base meets the highest world standards and is one of the biggest military objects created in recent years in Azerbaijan."
The old base, near the center of Baku, was the home of the Soviet Caspian Fleet. In 2011 Azerbaijan announced it was leaving that base and building a new one as it sought to expand the very modest naval forces it inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The new base is in the town of Puta, about 30 kilometers southwest of Baku, and was originally scheduled to open last year. The announcement of the new base included some detail on the living, dining, and medical facilities for sailors but somewhat less on the operational details of the base. It did emphasize that it would facilitate real-time monitoring of activity in the Azerbaijani sector of the sea by means of surveillance stations on islands and on naval vessels. It also will allow for information sharing between naval forces, the border control service and the State Maritime Administration.
There was no mention of what sort of vessels the base might accomodate, but Azerbaijan has been active in recent years in trying to enlist foreign partners in naval shipbuilding.
An Airbus C295W military transport aircraft with Uzbekistan markings, captured by a Spanish aviation photographer. (photo: @ja_almarza)
Uzbekistan appears to have bought four military transport aircraft from Airbus, as it continues to try to get new military equipment from Western partners.
Neither Uzbekistan nor Airbus have confirmed the sale, but the news appears to have been broken by a Spanish aviation photographer, J.A. Almarza, who captured images of the aircraft in Spain with the Uzbekistan flag painted on the tail.
Earlier, Airbus announced that it had sold eight C295W aircraft to customers who did not want to be identified. Last week, Saudi Arabia announced that it was buying four of those. The publication of the Spanish photographs seems to solve the rest of the puzzle. "Photographs recently published on the internet by aviation enthusiasts show a C295W at Seville in the markings of the Uzbekistan Air Force, indicating this will be the recipient of the other four," reported IHS Jane's Defence Weekly.
The leading Russian defense blog, BMPD, came to the same conclusion: "The June 17 appaearance of the first photographs of the C295W in the colors of the Uzbekistan Air Force leads to the conclusion that the purchaser of the other four aircraft is Uzbekistan."
A spokesman for Airbus, asked by The Bug Pit to confirm or deny the purchase, declined to comment.
The State Department has released its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism" reviewing terrorism activity from the past year and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the ISIS is the overwhelming focus throughout the report, but also in the former Soviet Union.
"The ongoing civil war in Syria was a significant factor in driving worldwide terrorism events in 2014," State wrote in the report's introduction. "The rate of foreign terrorist fighter travel to Syria – totaling more than 16,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 90 countries as of late December – exceeded the rate of foreign terrorist fighters who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years."
The report continues State's practice of describing governments' perceptions of the threat of terrorism, rather than Washington's own perception. The introduction of the section on South and Central Asia reads: "Central Asian leaders have expressed concern about the potential terrorist threat posed by the return of foreign terrorist fighters to the region in the wake of ISIL’s growth in the Middle East and the drawdown of U.S. and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan."
Last year's report expressed substantial skepticism about Central Asian government's claims about terror threats; that skepticism is less apparent in this report's newly written sections on ISIS. However, a senior State Department official testified before Congress earlier this month on ISIS in Central Asia and downplayed the threat, noting that the vast majority are not recruited in Central Asia but abroad, particularly in Russia.