Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko meet in Moscow on December 15. (photo: kremlin.ru)
The prospect of a Russian air base in Belarus "will not be discussed," Belarus's defense minister has said, but regional analysts believe the issue is far from resolved.
Belarus-Russia relations have been a little strained lately, with one bone of contention being Russia's open desire to establish an air base on the territory its western neighbor, and Belarus's resistance. Russian officials have been talking about the base for two years, with regular statements met by conspicuous silence from Minsk. That changed in October when President Alexander Lukashenko, for the first time, said Belarus didn't need a Russian base, and furthermore denying that there had even been discussions to that effect.
Lukashenko was supposed to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in November, but that meeting was abruptly canceled. The two finally got together in Moscow last week, but nothing was said publicly about the base. After the meeting, Putin only glancingly mentioned security issues: "We agreed to develop our military and military-technical cooperation to strengthen regional stability and security."
A few days later, Belarus's defense minister Andrei Ravkov was asked about the prospect of a Russian base. "Nothing has changed. The issue hasn't been discussed and won't be discussed, most likely," he said.
A Kyrgyz in a Mongol warrior princess getup won the Turkvision song contest in the third iteration of the event that brings together Turkic peoples from across Eurasia in a musical celebration of a shared culture.
The presidents of the CSTO member states gather in Moscow on December 21. (photo: CSTO)
Russia's post-Soviet security bloc has put off a decision to appoint a new secretary general, suggesting some internal dissension about the direction of the organization.
The heads of state of the six Collective Security Treaty Organization members met in Moscow on Monday and judging from the official statements, no particularly big decisions were made, other than reaffirming the group's intention to fight terrorism.
But just a few days earlier, an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yuriy Ushakov, said that the group would be choosing a new secretary general. "Working discussions are going on about that issue. There will be a final decision before the leaders on Monday. Several variants are being discussed," Ushakov said.
The CSTO's declaration Monday, however, noted: "The collective security council decided to prolong the authority of CSTO General Secretary Nikolay Bordyuzha until January 1, 2017."
Ushakov said that the next secretary general would be from Armenia: "The rotation is being considered on the basis of the Russian alphabet, so it's completely logical that Armenia will become the general secretary in the organization. But this issue is still being discussed."
This explanation about "rotation" isn't entirely convincing. Bordyuzha, a Russian and a career Soviet KGB officer, has been the CSTO's only general secretary and has served since 2003.
It may not be a coincidence that Armenia also happens to be the only CSTO ally who has unambiguously sided with Russia in its row with Turkey that resulted from the November shootdown of a Russian jet on the Turkey-Syria border.
Germany's air base in Termez, Uzbekistan. (photo: Bundeswehr)
Germany has officially left its air base in Uzbekistan, the German embassy in Tashkent has confirmed, officially ending a 14-year military presence in Central Asia.
In October Germany announced that it would be leaving the base by the end of the year and [insert German stereotype] they have. A closing ceremony at the base was held December 11, a spokeswoman for the embassy, Melanie Moltmann, told The Bug Pit.
The closure wasn't officially announced, which is consistent with the extremely low profile that the base enjoyed; German officials almost never spoke about it until it was about to close.
The base, at Termez on the Afghanistan border, was a logistics point for German troops operating in northern Afghanistan. But the two sides got involved in a dispute over the rent: earlier this year Uzbekistan tried to raise the rent to 72.5 million Euros annually, German media reported; just months before Tashkent had secured a new agreement approximately doubling the rent to 35 million Euros a year.
With the German departure, there are now no foreign military bases in Central Asia other than Russian ones. France's small detachment left in 2013, and the U.S. closed down its base at Manas, in Kyrgyzstan, in 2014.
A Kazakhstan warship tests anti-aircraft artillery in the Caspian Sea. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan has, for the first time, launched an anti-aircraft missile from a warship on the Caspian Sea. While the test may not mean much operationally, in the context of current heightened Russian military activity on the Caspian the move appears to be a modest show of force from Astana.
Kazakhstan's Ministry of Defense announced on December 14 that it had tested the Arbalet-K air-defense missile system from its missile boat Oral. The test was carried out at a "high level," the MoD said, noting that the [Ukrainian-made, incidentally] Arbalet-K was designed to defeat "jet, turboprop and propeller aircraft and helicopters, under conditions of visibility of the target, using surface-to-air missiles."
This follows another test, on November 27, of anti-aircraft artillery from the Oral and three other Kazakh warships on the Caspian. That test, the MoD said, was conducted in "conditions as close as possible to combat."
These weapons are a far cry from the cruise missiles that Russia has launched from the Caspian on three separate occasions since October -- twice at targets in Syria, and once in a test. Russian President Vladimir Putin also has recently dismissed worries by Kazakhstan about the danger posed to civilian aircraft over the Caspian, saying that the Caspian states need to make sacrifices for the sake of the anti-terror fight that Russia is carrying out.
Saudi Arabia on Tuesday announced the creation of a 34-country coalition of Muslim states aimed at fighting terrorism. Those 34 countries did not include the six Muslim-majority states of the former Soviet Union, though Azerbaijan said that it was considering joining in.
It's not yet clear what exactly the coalition will do: "It remains unclear what the Sunni kingdom is asking the other countries to do—whether it is a loose grouping to talk strategy and share intelligence or the first step to establishing a fighting force against the Sunni militant group," the Wall Street Journal reported.
The geopolitics of the new coalition suggest the emergence of a sort of new Cold War bloc arrangement in the region. The United States praised the creation of the new group. "In general it appears it is very much in line with something we've been urging for quite some time, which is greater involvement in the campaign to combat ISIL (Islamic State) by Sunni Arab countries," said U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
Russian warships and Turkish commercial vessels have had run-ins on consecutive days, adding to tension between the rival powers.
On Sunday, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that one of its destroyers in the Aegean Sea was forced to fire warning shots at a Turkish fishing boat because the boat was approaching dangerously close to the warship. The MoD immediately summoned Turkey's naval attache to Moscow after that incident.
Then on Monday, a Russian corvette and coast guard boat forced a Turkish commercial ship in the Black Sea to change course because it was in the way of a Russian oil-rig towing boat.
Amid tensions between the two countries as a result of last month's Turkish shootdown of a Russian jet on the Turkey-Syria border, both sides accused the other of trying to provoke them.
"Ours was only a fishing boat. It seems to me the reaction of the Russian naval ship was exaggerated," said Turkey's foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, referring to Sunday's incident. "Russia and Turkey certainly have to re-establish the relationship of trust that we have always had, but our patience has a limit," Cavusoglu said.
Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli speaks December 10 at the Washington think tank Heritage Foundation. (photo: MoD Georgia)
Georgia's government is asking the United States to store some of its weaponry in the country in the case it were needed quickly to defend against Russia. The U.S., while announcing an ambitious plan to "preposition" equipment in several NATO countries on Russia's border, is so far declining to do so in Georgia.
By the end of next year, the U.S. Army hopes to have what it calls "European Activity Sets" placed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, the top Army commander in Europe, General Ben Hodges, said this week. The sets would consist of vehicles and weaponry so that American soldiers coming to the area for training, or for a quick deployment, would have gear waiting for them.
Hodges added that the army is not now considering additional sites. But Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli, visiting Washington this week, is lobbying for Washington to change its mind and to include Georgia in that list.
“Putting more security in [the] Baltics or eastern border of NATO is the same value for us as putting it in Georgia, because deterring Russia anywhere means more security for Georgia,” Khidasheli said in an interview with the newspaper Defense News. “But at the same time, we hope that Georgia will be part of that deal, as well, and we will get our share in this entire picture of European security setup … we will see. We’re negotiating all those issues and I’m very optimistic that we will get our portion from this.”
A December 2 tweet by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin.
The Russia-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, has declared its support for Russia in its ongoing conflict with Turkey. But the fact that the CSTO's statement was issued by an Armenian general, and that all of the other CSTO members have conspicuously failed to publicly back the statement, has only reinforced the impression that few of Russia's friends are willing to take its side against Turkey.
On Wednesday, the CSTO's military committee met in Moscow and, according to the organization, unanimously condemned Turkey's shootdown of a Russian Su-24 bomber on the Turkey-Syria border last month.
"All chiefs of staff of the CSTO member states supported the position of Russia, calling the Turkish aggression treacherous. It can't be judged any other way — it was a stab in the back, as Russia said immediately," said the chief of staff of the Armenian armed forces, Colonel-General Yuriy Khachaturov.
He went on: "We support Russia in all of its decisions... The CSTO is united as never before. We will get stronger."
Chinese soldiers at the opening ceremony of the SCO Peace Mission 2012 military exercises in Tajikistan. (photo: MoD, Russia)
China places a priority on Central Asia as a site for training its military to operate abroad, with nearly half of its military exercises abroad involving Central Asian and Russian militaries, a new U.S. government report has argued.
The analysis of China-Central Asia relations in the report, by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, won't surprise too many close watchers of the region. It argues that Chinese activity in Central Asia is largely economic, that Chinese military activity there is relatively limited but growing, and that China's economic and security policy is oriented towards maintaining stability in the ethnically Uyghur and frequently restive province of Xinjiang, which borders Central Asia.
But there are a number of interesting observations in the report, which was based on interviews with experts and government officials from the U.S., China, Central Asian countries, and elsewhere.
For example, the priority that the Chinese military apparently places on Central Asia as a training ground. It notes that most of Beijing's security cooperation with Central Asia is conducted under the auspices of the Shaghai Cooperation Organization, which is dominated by China but also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
While the SCO military exercises had over the years seemed to be declining in importance, as the organization took on more of an economic role, the last major exercise, in 2014, was the organization's biggest in ten years. And SCO exercises play an outsized role in preparing the Chinese military to operate outside its borders, the report argues: