After a U.S. Congressional committee held a hearing critically examining U.S.-Azerbaijan relations, Azerbaijan's parliament responded with a retaliatory event of its own, accusing the U.S. of ignoring Baku's strategic cooperation with Washington.
On February 12, the House's Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats held a hearing, "Azerbaijan: U.S. Energy, Security, and Human Rights Interests." As expected, members of Congress and American experts on Azerbaijan criticized Baku for its accelerating crackdown on any opposing voices in the country, including the raid on and closure of the U.S. government-funded RFE/RL office.
Baku has been increasingly vocal in its criticism of the U.S., and this time took the step of organizing its own counter-hearing just two days later, "Energy and Security Cooperation: Partnership Based on Mutual Interests." Azerbaijani opposition website contact.az noted that government officials in Baku resent what they see as ingratitude for the contributions that they make to U.S. security interests:
The head of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Relations Samad Seyidov described relations between the two countries 'strategic partnership'. He further spoke about the support that Azerbaijan provides to Washington and how the US does not appreciate this.
Tajikistan's parliament has made it easier for its citizens to join the Russian armed forces in response to Russia's welcoming of foreigners into its ranks.
Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law allowing citizens of other countries to join the Russian military. While in theory the move would seem to pave the way for a Russian version of the French foreign legion, military analysts said that the real purpose was to make it easier to take on locals at Russia's military bases abroad, in particular in Armenia and Tajikistan. From the Moscow Times:
Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow-based defense think tank, explained to The Moscow Times that the change was finally implemented to provide legal status to locals already serving on Russian bases in Armenia and Tajikistan.
Furthermore, as salaries for Russian civilians continue to outpace those offered by military service contracts, the new law is seen as a way to fill the military with migrant workers, Pukhov said. The reported salary for a contract soldier in the Russian army is 30,000 rubles ($500) a month.
Azerbaijan and Armenia are both seeking to strengthen their ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, applying to be formal observers of the organization, the SCO's chief has said.
The China-led economic and security bloc is in expansion mode: in the upcoming summit in Ufa this summer India and Pakistan are expected to become full members. And according to SCO Secretary General Dimitriy Mezentsev, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, and Syria are applying to become observers.
Mezentsev, speaking at a press conference February 10, also put Iran in the same category of applicants as India and Pakistan, and said that there are "no legal obstacles" to them becoming members. So might Iran, too, be slated to join this summer?
Currently the SCO has six members: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. India, Iran, Pakistan, Mongolia, and Afghanistan are observers, while Belarus, Sri Lanka, and Turkey are "dialog partners."
Neither Baku nor Yerevan has confirmed Mezentsev's statement. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan mooted the idea of becoming an SCO observer in 2013, but nothing came of it then.
It does seem like there is some real interest in Azerbaijan in becoming an observer. Independent member of parliament Rasim Musabekov said in an interview that "the SCO is a quite authoritative international forum, located not too far from Azerbaijan. Countries close to Azerbaijan like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyyrgyzstan are in it. So we're interested in being part of this forum." He added, though, that "this will in no way affect the resolution of the Karabakh problem."
The USS Cole on its most recent visit to the Black Sea, in October 2014. (Photo: U.S. Navy)
A U.S. Navy warship entered the Black Sea this week "to promote peace and stability in the region," according to a Navy statement, but Russia doesn't see it that way.
"The destroyer Cole entered the Black Sea February 8. From the moment it entered the Black Sea straits, surveillance units of the Black Sea Fleet have been carrying out careful tracking of the American ship," an anonymous Russian naval source told Interfax.
The ship's first stop was Constanta, Romania, where it is spending four days. It's not clear what its itinerary is after that.
In June, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Romania and promised to keep a steady U.S. naval presence on the Black Sea. "The U.S. has maintained a regular naval presence in the Black Sea since mid-March, with the USS Truxton, the USS Donald Cook and the USS Taylor all conducting port calls in Romania, and we will sustain this tempo going forward,” he said.
That seems to have been the case. In 2014, American warships spent a total of 207 days on the Black Sea, according to The Bug Pit's calculations based on the careful tracking of the Bosphorus Naval News blog, and the tempo seems to have been fairly consistent throughout that period. In 2013, U.S. warships made just two visits to the Black Sea, spending a total of 27 days.
HQ-9 air defense systems on parade in Beijing. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
China has reportedly provided both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan with sophisticated air defense systems, which would represent the largest Chinese military equipment deal thus far in Central Asia.
Reportedly, China has provided one battalion each to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan of the HQ-9 air defense system, as partial payment for natural gas that it imports from Central Asia. (Each battalion consists of eight launchers.)
The information on the deal is spotty: it comes from Chinese-language Canadian defense journal Kanwa Defense Review, and cites an anonymous Chinese defense industry source. "It is possible, even likely, but it is still unclear at which stage the deals are," Vasily Kashin, a Russian military expert at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies told The Bug Pit. "Both countries need long range [surface-to-air missile] systems to replace their S-200s which are becoming physically old and unsustainable. Both countries are well known for their careful balancing between Russia, China and the West, they are both fiercely independent from Russia. Besides, Chinese currently can provide very good financial terms for such a deal."
Armenia's chief prosecutor has formally asked his Russian counterpart to hand over a Russian soldier accused of killing seven members of a family outside Russia's military base in Armenia. The request was made just after the two sides apparently had agreed to try the soldier in a Russian military court at the base.
The Russian soldier, Valery Permyakov, is accused of killing seven members of the Avetsiyan family just after deserting his guard post at the 102nd military base in Gyumri, Armenia's second city, on January 12. Shortly afterwards the Armenian authorities announced that Permyakov would be tried under the Russian justice system, in spite of the fact that the base agreement seems to suggest he should be tried under Armenian jurisdiction. That sparked unprecedented protests in Gyumri and Yerevan by Armenians unhappy about how the case was being handled.
More than three weeks later, the back-and-forth jockeying between Russia and Armenia over the case continues, indicating that it remains the subject of delicate negotiations, with serious implications for Armenia's government stability and Armenia-Russia relations.
Georgia would see a big boost in its U.S. military and economic aid under the White House's new proposed budget, while aid to most of the rest of the region would decline.
Under the budget proposed on February 2, Georgia would get $20 million in Foreign Military Financing aid (which allows the country to buy equipment from the U.S.) in Fiscal Year 2016. That's double the amount proposed last year (it's not yet clear how much of that was actually disbursed). From the State Department document explaining the proposal:
Funds will be used to advance Georgia’s development of forces capable of enhancing security, countering Russian aggression, and contributing to coalition operations. This will include support for such things as upgrades to Georgia’s rotary wing air transport capabilities, advisory and defense reform, and modernization of Georgia’s military institutions.
Russia's post-Soviet security bloc will work to build up the capacity of other member states to produce substitutes for Ukrainian weaponry, the bloc's top official announced.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization will strengthen its commission on defense industry cooperation and focus its efforts on "import substitution." That term has become a buzzword over the last year in Russia as the country scrambles to replace products it can no longer buy as a result of Western sanctions. Here, though, the focus is Ukrainian weaponry, said CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha at a January 30 press conference in Moscow.
The commission will be led by Dmitry Rogozin of Russia, who is now the chief government defense industry official in Russia. The effort "will allow us to take into account and maximally use all the existing possibilities in CSTO countries for manufacturing military equipment which had previously been produced on the territory of Ukraine. The activities of this commission will be focused primarily on implementing this program of import substitution," he said.
"There are possibilities in Kazakhstan. And today, by the way, we are having substantive discussions regarding two factories' possibilities in this program of import substitution. There are also possibilities in Belarus, in Armenia there are very serious possibilities, in Kyrgyzstan, you know, there are several factories."
Georgian soldiers undergo U.S. Marine Corps training at the Vaziani training base in 2013. Vaziani is one of the possible locations for a NATO training base to be set up in Georgia this year. (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
NATO's planned military training center in Georgia will start operations this year, a senior alliance official said on a visit to Tbilisi.
"Starting this year, we aim to hold periodic military exercises here in your country, with NATO Allies as well as with other interested NATO partners," said NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow at a January 30 speech in Tbilisi.
The exercises will be held at a "Joint Training and Evaluation Centre," the establishment of which NATO and Georgia announced last September. A location for the center still hasn't been determined, but one of the items on Vershbow's agenda in Georgia was to scout out locations; Civil.ge reported that one of the candidates sites he visited was the Vaziani training range near Tbilisi.
"This will be the most visible element of a NATO presence in Georgia. The Centre could host live and simulated training and certification for Allied and partner military units, in particular for units committed to the NATO Response Force," Vershbow said. "And it could also host exercises and training in support of our Connected Forces initiative."
But much remains uncertain about the center. According to Civil.ge, Vershbow said that NATO and Georgia "have yet to “flesh out the goals and purposes of the center," and that it's still not clear whether the center will host only command exercises (i.e. officers on computers) or field exercises with soldiers.
A private militia to combat ISIS and the Taliban has been formed in northern Afghanistan, as Afghan and Central Asian officials continue to debate to what extent there is an ISIS presence in the region.
It's not clear how serious the new anti-ISIS militia is: "several dozen" members announced its presence at the provincial council office in Mazar-e-Sharif this week, according to a report by Khaama Press. But they claim to have 5,000 people ready to fight ISIS and the Taliban, and if nothing else they have a keen instinct for PR: their uniforms are the tricolor of Afghanistan's flag -- red, green, and black -- and their name is "Marg," or "Death."
Also this week, a senior Russian defense ministry official visited Tajikistan where he invoked the growing terror threat. The official, Deputy Defense Minister Anatoliy Antonov, called Tajikistan "our outpost in the fight against terror." The officials discussed Russian aid to Tajikistan but no details were announced; Central Asia expert Arkady Dubnov told Nezavisimaya Gazeta (in a piece headlined "ISIS Tests Strength of Central Asia's Borders") that the purpose of the visit was to assuage concerns in Dushanbe about slow deliveries of the military aid Russia has promised Tajikistan.