Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meets with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in Sochi on July 1, the first high-level meeting in seven months between the two countries. (photo: MFA Russia)
Turkey's foreign minister floated a proposal to let Russia use a key air base for a joint fight against ISIS in Syria. He later qualified the offer, but it nevertheless was a measure of how rapidly Turkey's foreign policy, in particular its relationship to Russia, is changing.
On Monday, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told state broadcaster TRT that Turkey would cooperate with"“everybody who is fighting Islamic State," adding: "Ankara has opened the Incirlik airbase to all those wishing to join the active fight. Why not cooperate with Russia in the same manner?”
Those remarks caused a minor furor in Turkey and Russia, given what until just a few days ago was a dangerous level of tension between the two states caused by Turkey's shooting down last year of a Russian plane on the Turkey-Syria border.
Cavusoglu was forced to clarify: "We said that we could cooperate with Russia in the period ahead in the fight against Daesh ...I did not make any comment referring to Russian planes coming to the Incirlik Air Base."
Not everyone was convinced by that denial. "I think officials in Ankara wanted to see the possible reactions about Incirlik issue," said Mehmet Fatih Öztarsu, an analyst who follows Turkish relations with the post-Soviet world. "Even pro-governmental media published the same speech but a few hours later [Cavusoglu] denied it. It was an attempt to understand domestic and international balance," Öztarsu said in an email interview with The Bug Pit. He added that while Russia's use of Incirlik -- a key hub for NATO allies including the United States -- was unlikely, some form of military cooperation could be expected to develop between Turkey and Russia.
Turkmenistan is getting more directly involved in affairs in northern Afghanistan, an area inhabited by ethnic Turkmens, as instability festers on the border between the two countries.
The Turkmenistan government recently invited several local northern Afghanistan officials to Turkmenistan in late June, and gave free medical care to a commander in an ethnic Turkmen paramilitary unit fighting the Taliban in northern Afghanistan, the commander told the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Also visiting Turkmenistan were the head of the border police in a district of Afghanistan bordering Turkmenistan, other paramilitary commanders, and the head of the highway police in one northern Afghanistan region. It wasn't clear what the other officials were doing in Turkmenistan, but RFE/RL notes that it is rare for Turkmenistan to give visas to ethnic Turkmens from Afghanistan. The paramilitary commander, Emir Allaberen Karya, told RFE/RL that he hoped Ashgabat would "continue to help the Afghan Turkmens." It's not clear what that help has consisted of, but one assumes it is more than the occasional health care junket to Ashgabat.
Karya said it was his first visit to Turkmenistan and that he had been hoping to meet there other commanders of his group, Arbaky, from neighboring regions but that a Taliban attack on his unit had forced him to return to Afghanistan ahead of schedule.
Also in late June, Turkmenistan's foreign minister Rashid Meredov visited northern Afghanistan unannounced, RFE/RL reported. Meredov visited Jowzjan, Faryab, and Balkh provinces where he visited Turkmenistan-financed development projects and met with local leaders. In one part of the visit his convoy hit a mine, though Meredov was apparently unharmed.
Georgia's military has abolished mandatory military service, becoming the first post-Soviet state (outside of the Baltics) to manage to do so.
Georgia has talked about getting rid of the draft for years, and Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli on Monday announced that it was finally happening. “The Georgian Armed Forces do not need a service member brought in on the compulsory basis,” Khidasheli said, according to Civil.ge.
Most states would like to get rid of conscription for obvious reasons -- people don't like it, and soldiers who are forced to be there are not the best soldiers. The trick is to have enough money to pay a high enough salary to soldiers to want to join of their own volition. Khidasheli did not mention any budget ramifications of the move, but she argued that service in the armed forces is “prestigious” and there is a “high demand” for joining the army voluntarily.
The move faced criticism even from many of Khidasheli's allies. The country's president, prime minister, and chair of the parliamentary committee on defense all said she should have consulted with them. “Such decisions – no matter right or wrong and whether we agree or disagree – should not be taken by a single official; instead it should be discussed by the government session and the National Security Council,” President Giorgi Margvelashvili told journalists on Monday. However, he stopped short of suggesting that he would contest the decision.
The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Serzh Sargsyan and Ilham Aliyev, meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Last month, Azerbaijan appeared to have made a significant concession in its struggle to regain its lost territory of Nagorno Karabakh: it agreed to expand the international mission monitoring the conflict. But Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, newly returned from Moscow where he discussed the plan with his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, is now walking back that promise.
Armenia, as well as the United States, had long pushed for strengthening the monitoring mission, run by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, because the understaffed, underresourced mission is unable to determine who is to blame for the increasingly common ceasefire violations. Azerbaijan, however, had previously argued that increasing monitoring would only serve to solidify a status quo it saw as illegitimate: an Armenian occupation of its land.
It wasn't clear why Azerbaijan had agreed to the concession, but an OSCE statement after last month's meeting in Vienna said the two sides agreed to implement an "investigative mechanism." It wasn't specified what that mechanism would be, but Armenians and other have pushed for devices that could record the origin of gunshots.
The heads of state of the SCO member states at their 2016 summit in Tashkent. (photo: president.uz)
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization's summit concluded with few concrete results and plenty of reminders that the group's members have different visions for where the would-be non-Western bloc should be heading.
At the SCO's 15th anniversary summit in Tashkent, there were plenty of vague declarations about the desirability of greater economic cooperation and stepping up the fight against terrorism, but no new initiatives as to how that might be achieved.
The concrete results of the summit were so meager that Russian President Vladimir Putin was reduced to touting the new SCO Youth Card, "which would offer students discounts on travel, accommodation, and visits to museums and other cultural and historical sites in the member countries."
The much-discussed accession of India and Pakistan as full members of the SCO progressed with the signing of a memorandum of obligation. "We hope that our partners will complete these steps as soon as possible, in time for our next meeting in Kazakhstan," Putin said in his speech. Putin also pushed for Iranian membership: "We think that now that the Iranian nuclear issue has been settled and the UN sanctions lifted, there are no obstacles in the way of a positive assessment of Tehran’s membership application."
South Ossetia will keep its army, its de facto president has said, apparently ending a contentious discussion about dissolving the territory's armed forces and subsuming them into the Russian military.
However, South Ossetia's armed forces will remain heavily dependent on their Russian patrons, who are funding a rearmament program that will make Tskhinvali's military the equal of Russian units, de facto president Leonid Tibilov said in an interview with Russian news agency Sputnik.
"The process of arms and equipment modernization of the Republic of South Ossetia will be launched to reach the level of the Russian Defense Ministry's 58th Army," Tibilov said. He added that the Russian military presence in the territory will not be increased: "Regarding an increase in the number of [Russian] military, I can say that the current contingent is capable of solving the tasks, therefore the issue of an expansion… is not on the agenda," he said.
The future of South Ossetia's armed forces emerged as a controversy earlier this year after the de facto defense minister accused some members of parliament of conniving to dissolve the armed forces. The issue of the military is one of the sharpest in the negotiations between Moscow and Tskhinvali over the level of autonomy that the territory will retain.
South Ossetia broke away from Georgia as the Soviet Union was collapsing, and has been propped up by arms and money from Moscow since then. Georgia attempted an ill-fated attack to get the territory back in 2008, and Russia responded by formally recognizing the territory's independence (though very few other countries followed Moscow's lead).
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov greets his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping upon the latter's arrival to Uzbekistan for the SCO summit. (photo: president.uz)
As the 15th summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is set to start on Thursday in Tashkent, the group is poised to continue its growth, with two new members and five new partners. The group's purpose, however, remains unclear, with its diverse members apparently unable to agree on a consistent agenda.
The biggest headline after last year's summit was that India and Pakistan were invited to join the organization as full members, the first expansion since the group was founded. (The SCO currently consists of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.)
But on the eve of this year's summit, it's not clear what the timetable for their accession is. Their final accession should take place next year, Yuriy Ushakov, a senior adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said. "The process of accepting India and Pakistan into the SCO will enter the final stage and we expect that at the next summit in Kazakhstan, India and Pakistan will be finally admitted into the SCO ranks," he said.
A senior Indian diplomat suggested that the timetable may be looser and hinted that it is dependent on the desires of current member states. “We need to work out what we need to do … As far as India’s pace of accession at the SCO being a function of Russia, China and the four countries of Central Asia, I would say we see ourselves as following fairly flexible multilateralism. So we are quite happy to engage in multiple processes. We have been working with other members of SCO on several other fields,” said the diplomat, Sujata Mehta, at a press conference Wednesday.
A Bulgarian minesweeper takes part in NATO exercises in 2014. (photo: NATO)
Bulgaria's prime minister has said the country will not participate in a proposed joint NATO naval fleet in the Black Sea, slowing the momentum of a project that had thus far received broad support from NATO members and partners.
The move would “turn the Black Sea into a territory of war,” Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said on Thursday, adding that he “wants to see cruising yachts, and tourists, rather than warships.”
“To send warships as a fleet against the Russian ships exceeds the limit of what I can allow,” Borissov told reporters in Sofia on Thursday, as quoted by Bloomberg. “To deploy destroyers, aircraft carriers near Bourgas or Varna during the tourist season is unacceptable.”
The Romanian-led proposal to create a sort of joint NATO Black Sea naval force has the support of Turkey, the United States, NATO headquarters, as well as non-NATO members Georgia and Ukraine.
Bulgaria's refusal could have several causes. For one, presidential elections are coming up and Borissov may be concerned that rival, more pro-Russia parties could use the move against him, said Dimitar Bechev, a Bulgarian political scientist and fellow at Harvard's Center for European Studies. "Most of all, I think he's concerned about domestic repurcussions," Bechev said in an interview with The Bug Pit. He added that Bulgaria could likely eventually join whatever NATO naval force emerges in an "under the radar" fashion
Kazakhstan has announced that it intends to buy new military transport aircraft in response to the militant attack in the western city of Aktobe last week.
Kazakhstan Prime Minister Karim Massimov announced the planned aircraft purchase as part of a series of measures including improving security in airports and train stations and creating an interagency working group on countering extremism and terrorism.
"The prime minister has ordered the Ministry of Defence together with the State Security Committee, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Finance to submit a proposal within a week on the acquisition of heavy-lift military transport aircraft," according to a statement on the government website. The statement didn't provide any more details.
This is a relatively unusual move for Kazakhstan, to announce a military procurement program so clearly in response to a single event, and it underscores the level of concern that Astana is clearly feeling about its ability to deal with these sorts of situations. The Aktobe attacks on June 5 (whose targets included a National Guard base) clearly caught the authorities wrongfooted, and the security services' response has been found wanting.
The U.S.'s primary interests in Central Asia are making sure the region doesn't become a terrorist sanctuary and protecting it from Russian influence, a senior State Department official has testified. The statement suggests a shift in Washington (rhetorically, at least) toward a Central Asia policy oriented toward security and away from political reforms and human rights.
U.S. official statements about Central Asia policy usually describe Washington's interests as threefold: promoting political and economic reform, developing the region's oil and gas resources, and improving security. The introduction to the testimony of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Daniel Rosenblum at a congressional hearing last year was typical:
Since the fall of the Soviet Union nearly 25 years ago, the United States has supported the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence of the states of Central Asia, while also promoting the political and economic reforms that can ensure their long-term stability and prosperity. U.S. security is directly tied to a stable Central Asia. Central Asia’s energy resources and transport corridors can help drive regional and global economic growth in the decades to come. And some of Central Asia’s most serious challenges – such as transnational crime, terrorism, violent extremism, and climate change – affect our national interests as well, and require us to work closely together with them.