South Ossetia's authorities are fighting among themselves about the future of the country's armed forces, with the territory's de facto defense minister accusing political opponents of wanting to dissolve the military and fully hand over the responsibility for its defense to Russia.
At issue is the implementation of the agreement signed last March by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his de facto South Ossetian counterpart Leonid Tibilov on "alliance and integration" between Russia and South Ossetia, including a "common space of security and defense."
Russia officially recognized South Ossetia as an independent country in 2008, after it fought a war with Georgia over the tiny territory, still recognized by most of the rest of the world as a part of Georgia. Since then, Russia has been formalizing its control over the territory, though only up to a point: a South Ossetian proposal last fall to hold a referendum on joining Russia was quietly ignored by Moscow, which apparently decided it didn't have anything to gain by this particular annexation.
In any case, the March 2015 agreement between Moscow and Tskhinvali called for "particular units of the armed forces of South Ossetia to enter the structure" of the Russian military. But the devil is in the details, and the two sides are now working out legislation on how to implementat the agreement. South Ossetia's defense minister, Ibragim Gasseyev, accused the South Ossetian parliament of conniving to eliminate the local armed forces altogether.
Russia has announced the details of a new shipment of arms it is sending to Armenia, a relatively rare move likely connected with Russia's ongoing tension with Turkey.
Last week, the Russian government announced that it would be providing Armenia with a $200 million credit to buy equipment including multiple-launch rocket systems, anti-tank missiles, handheld antiaircraft missiles and upgrades to tanks.
The credit was announced last year, as an apparent concession by Russia amid large-scale street protests in Armenia against the country's Russian-owned electricity company. But the details of the weapons to be acquired weren't released, which is the normal practice with Russian arms deliveries to Armenia, said Emil Sanamyan, an analyst who closely follows Caucasus military affairs.
In general, Armenia prefers to cultivate an air of mystery about what weaponry exactly it is acquiring, partly to keep its rival, Azerbaijan, off-guard but also because it likely is acquiring far less and so has little to gain by flaunting it. Azerbaijan, by contrast, tends to exaggerate its purchases in an effort to intimidate.
(That said, Azerbaijan's purchases are still substantial, and a large portion of them also come from Russia. This week, the Stockholm International Peace Research institute released a report noting that Azerbaijan was the largest importer of arms in Europe over the period 2011-15, and that it accounted for nearly five percent of Russian exports over that period.)
Azerbaijan is walking a narrow line on Syria, trying not to offend either of its powerful neighbors, offering apparently contradictory statements this week about where its sympathies lie.
In an interview with an Austrian newspaper, Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov expressed qualified support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "Currently, President Assad is the only guarantor of the integrity and security of Syria," Azimov said. "His army is a legal institution. We welcome a political process, in which Assad would remain in power until the election of his replacement."
Azimov also criticized Russian airstrikes in support of Assad: "I believe that the Russian airstrikes are inefficient and costly." But Azimov's comments were overall seen as surprisingly favorable to Russia. "This may req some explaining before #Azerbaijan Pres Aliyev comes to Washington," former U.S. ambassador to Baku Richard Kauzlarich wrote on his twitter account.
"Support for Assad means that the country is together with Russia and Iran, defending the dictatorship. It is also important that Azerbaijan and Turkey expressed the opposite position on the Syrian issue. In the whole ... interview Azimov confirms that Azerbaijan is close to the dictatorial regimes, such as Russia and Iran, and it is against the position of the free world," said Azerbaijani oppositionist Isa Gambar.
The United States plans to give Central Asia an additional $50 million in military aid under a new program, with the bulk of the aid focused on Tajikistan, budget documents released by the White House show.
The money would be part of the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, a Pentagon program launched in 2014 aimed at training militaries around the globe to fight terrorism. In the past, all of the funding in the program has gone to countries in the Middle East and Africa, but starting this year Central Asia would receive $20 million from the fund, and next year, $30 million.
"The [Department of Defense] proposes allocating CTPF funds in Central Asia to counter the Taliban, ISIL, and other regionally-based terrorist groups, and to promote stability in the region. A key partner nation in the region is Tajikistan," the DoD wrote in budget justification documents released last week. "CTPF funding will support [counterterrorism] partners in a region where war in Afghanistan and other regional pressures challenge the security interests of the U.S., its allies, and partners."
A screenshot from Kazakhstan TV station KTK of Russian military testing in Kazakhstan.
Members of Kazakhstan's parliament are pressing the government to get more money out of Russia for the rent it pays for its several military facilities, setting the stage for yet another negotiating battle between Russia and its ex-Soviet allies.
Last week, Deputy Defense Minister Okas Saparov testified in Kazakhstan's Senate, and got some criticism for the fact that Russia seems to be paying under market rates for the rent of its four military facilities in Kazakhstan. These include the Kapustin Yar test firing range, the Sary Shagan and Emba missile testing sites, and the 929th State Test Flight Center. For all that, Russia pays about $24 million in rent, and in some MPs' opinion, that is too little.
"I think that price is very low. In theory, it should be no less than the price of the land that Kazakhs use for agriculture. Farmers pay 2,000 tenge per hectare to rent a plot, while Russia just 424 tenge. How is that possible? After all, in the current crisis Kazakhstan could be getting tens of billions in profit for this rent," said MP Kuanysh Aitakhanov, television station KTK reported.
NATO and Georgian flags fly together as a four-ship NATO naval contingent visits Batumi, Georgia. (photo: Ministry of Internal Affairs, Georgia)
Russia is conducting snap exercises around the Black Sea and southern Russia as tensions continue to rise between Russia and Turkey. Meanwhile, a contingent of four NATO naval vessels -- including two from Turkey -- is visiting Georgia for joint exercises.
Russia began the exercises on Monday which reportedly involve 8,500 troops and 50 combat ships from the Black Sea Fleet and Caspian Flotilla. These sorts of large, unnanounced exercises have become common in Russia over the last several years, but analysts saw these particular drills as sending a message to Turkey.
"We've had many of these snap exercises over the past three years, it's a very correct element of training the armed forces. It's not at all necessary to see them as a signal to someone, but in this case it's of course also a signal to the Turks, because we are quickly and surely heading to war with them," said Alexander Khramichkin, a Russian military analyst, in an interview with newspaper Gazeta.ru.
Tension between Moscow and Ankara has remained high months after Turkey shot down a Russian military jet on the Syrian border. Most recently Russia accused Turkey of planning a land invasion of Syria, further heightening the risk of direct confrontation between the two powers.
The United States would give Georgia a big boost in aid to help it "resist Russian aggression" under a budget proposal announced this week by the White House. But Washington is deemphasizing military aid to Georgia, and a huge increase in Pentagon funding for a greater U.S. military presence around Russia's borders dedicates relatively little to Tbilisi.
The U.S. plans to give Georgia $63 million in general Economic Support Fund money in fiscal year 2017, up from $38 million this year, according to State Department budget documents. That money "will support Georgia’s democratization, economic development, Euro-Atlantic integration, and resistance to Russian aggression" and will be "targeted towards enhancing energy security and economic opportunities for populations susceptible to Russian influence."
But that aid is mainly for civilian programs, and American military aid to Georgia is set to decrease under this proposal. Aid to Georgia marked as Foreign Military Financing, intended for military equipment, will decrease from $30 million this year to $20 million in fiscal year 2017. Next year's funding is intended "to advance Georgia’s development of forces capable of enhancing security, countering Russian aggression, and contributing to coalition operations. This will include support in areas such as upgrades to Georgia’s rotary wing air transport capabilities, advisory and defense reform, and modernization of Georgia’s military institutions."
United States intelligence believes that Georgia could reverse its strategic orientation toward the West under Russian pressure, the country's top intelligence official has said.
The U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified to Congress on Tuesday, offering the U.S. intelligence community's annual "Worldwide Threat Assessment." The short section dealing with the Caucasus and Central Asia offers some interesting insights into how American government spooks and analysts see developments in the region. Perhaps the most intriguing statement is that on Georgia, which suggests that Georgia may be rethinking its Euro-Atlantic orientation, in part due to Russian efforts:
Even as Georgia progresses with reforms, Georgian politics will almost certainly be volatile as political competition increases. Economic challenges are also likely to become a key political vulnerability for the government before the 2016 elections. Rising frustration among Georgia’s elites and the public with the slow pace of Western integration and increasingly effective Russian propaganda raise the prospect that Tbilisi might slow or suspend efforts toward greater Euro-Atlantic integration. Tensions with Russia will remain high, and we assess that Moscow will raise the pressure on Tbilisi to abandon closer EU and NATO ties.
Russian officials have attacked the International Criminal Court for an anti-Russian bias in its prosecution of alleged war crimes in the 2008 war with Georgia over South Ossetia.
At the end of January the ICC gave its prosecutor the go-ahead to investigate the war. The court's prosecutor has said she is looking at crimes allegedly committed by Georgian, South Ossetian, and Russian forces during the conflict. But all sides seem to have ignored the potential charges against Georgia, with Georgia welcoming the ICC's involvement and Russia and South Ossetia criticizing it.
After the ICC's announcement that it would proceed with the investigation, Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs complained that the court was taking Georgia's side.
"The ICC prosecutor has placed the blame with South Ossetians and Russian soldiers, taken the aggressor’s side, and started an investigation aimed against the victims of the attack. Such actions hardly reflect the ideals of justice," said MFA spokeswoman Maria Zakharova in a January 29 briefing. "In the light of the latest decision, the Russian Federation will be forced to fundamentally review its attitude towards the ICC."
Kazakhstan soldiers goose-stepping in a 2015 military parade. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev has ordered a change in the way his country's soldiers march in a symbolic separation from Russia and the country's Soviet legacy.
In an order issued on Wednesday, Nazarbayev decreed that from now one, Kazakhstan's soldiers will march at a tempo of 95-105 steps per minute, with each step measuring from 60-70 centimeters. Furthermore, "the forward leg should be raised 10-15 centimeters from the ground and placed firmly on the entire sole, the toe held more freely, not extended."
This may seem to be a pretty arcane issue, but there are political implications. Russia and most post-Soviet militaries use the so-called "goose step," which uses a tempo of 120 steps per minute, at a maximum of 80 centimeters, and a straight leg.