NATO says its logistics hub in Russia will become operational soon, reports the Moscow Times:
General Knud Bartels, who chairs the alliance's military committee, told reporters Friday that containers are being shipped from Afghanistan to Britain via that route.
"A live trial along the northern distribution route is running since Dec. 3," the Danish general said after meetings with Russia's top military brass in Moscow.
Russia signed an agreement with NATO in June to allow the alliance to use Ulyanovsk, on the Volga River, as a multimodal transit hub for getting military cargo in and out of Afghanistan. But in all those intervening months, NATO has still not used the route. There has been some reporting in the Russian press that there are commercial disputes holding up the transit. Again, the Moscow Times:
National media have speculated that money is an issue and that Volga-Dnepr, the freight company that would handle the flights from the Volga Federal District hub, is demanding more payment than NATO countries are willing to spend.
But a senior representative of the alliance said Tuesday that although to his knowledge no shipping contract had been signed, both sides were testing how the hub could work in practice.
"A dry run has been completed, and a real test to ship containers from Latvia to Afghanistan and back via Ulyanovsk is expected for the next days," said Robert Pszczel, head of NATO's Information Office in Moscow.
Pszczel would not comment on why it was taking so long for the agreement to lead to actual results. He merely said "mundane commercial considerations" play a role.
It wasn't exactly a surprise last week when Russia and Azerbaijan announced they had failed to agree on terms to extend the lease of the Gabala radar station which the Russian military operates in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan had little incentive to let Russia keep using the radar, and so demanded a huge increase in the rent from $7 million a year to a reported $300 million. Russia, meanwhile, doesn't have much leverage over Azerbaijan, and anyway is in the process of setting up a next-generation radar system on its own territory, in Armavir in the North Caucasus. That system is apparently set to become operational in the first quarter of 2013.
Still, Russia clearly wanted the station to remain, though it's not clear on what terms. The post-mortems of the failure of negotiations, interestingly, differ markedly depending on which country they come from. In Azerbaijan, the public consensus seems to be that there will be no serious ramifications. From APA:
“Russia's refusal to use Gabala radar station will not negatively affect relations between the two countries, said Deputy Chairman and Executive Secretary of the ruling New Azerbaijani Party (YAP) Ali Ahmadov....
“The decision on refusing exploitation of Gabala radar station has been passed at the negotiations between the states. If this decision was made on the basis of mutual agreement, it can not cause the tension in the relations between the two countries.”
Member of Parliament Rusam Musabayov echoed that sentiment. And Vestnik Kavkaza quotes an Azerbaijan analyst:
The U.S.'s Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan could be a target for "enemies," there's no way to be sure that corruption has been rooted out from the lucrative fuel contracts for the base, and Russia is Kyrgyzstan's strongest military partner. That's according to Roza Otunbayeva, the former president of Kyrgyzstan who made her first visit as ex-president to Washington this week. She was in town to receive an award from the Eurasia Foundation, and also took a bit of time to sit down with The Bug Pit to discuss some of the big issues in Kyrgyzstan and the region. Below is our interview, edited for clarity.
The Bug Pit: It's been argued that the focus on Afghanistan has distorted the U.S.'s policy toward Central Asia and made it “oversecuritized.” Do you agree?
Otunbayeva: No, it's not fair.... The United States responds to all our needs immediately. When we had the tragedy in 2010, we had two [military] bases, Russian and American. None of them were involved in our internal affairs, but the U.S. responded to our tragedy immediately, with the OTI program. Of course, I can't deny that that Manas is a tool for the U.S. But I don't think Kazakhstan or Tajikistan either will tell you that now only Afghanistan is the highlight of our relations, no.
BP: Manas has strengthened your relations with the U.S. and brought the government a lot of revenue, but it's also led to a lot of corruption, including at very high levels. Overall, is Manas a good thing for Kyrgyzstan?
Two days after Kazakhstan's top space official suggested that the country was reexamining its agreement with Russia on the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the country's deputy prime minister sought to tamp down such speculation.
While Kazcosmos head Talgat Musabayev was quoted as saying the Russia-Kazakhstan agreement -- which is supposed to last until 2050 -- "has run its course" and that Kazakhstan was "formulating a new, all-encompassing agreement on Baikonur," Deputy Prime Minister Kairat Kelimbetov quickly sought to clarify Astana's position, that it was committed to the current agreement. Reports Central Asia Newswire:
“As you know, in 2004 [Kazakh] President Nursultan Nazarbayev and [Russian President] Vladimir Putin agreed to extend the term of the lease of the Baikonur cosmodrome until 2050,” state media reported Kelimbetov as saying.
“The Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan, of course, confirms the commitment of those arrangements. In October 2012, Presidents Nazarbayev and Putin instructed the intergovernmental commission to study the question of sharing the Baikonur cosmodrome and the following year to work out the appropriate changes to the regulatory framework of our cooperation.”
The story also notes the Russian press reaction to Musabayev's comments, which it describes as "explosive":
Russian media, including Pravda and Kommersant, has dismissed the threat as a low-level official posturing before the Kazakh parliament and does not believe the threat to preclude Russian use of the facilities to be viable.
When looking at the future security situation of Central Asia, discussion invariably leads to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. As its name suggests, it has roots in Central Asia, but since the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and Pakistan began in 2001, the IMU has turned its focus to those battlefields. And the group's Central Asian founders, Tahir Yuldashev and Juma Namangani, have both died. But there is much speculation that, after the U.S. starts to leave Afghanistan in 2014, that an emboldened IMU may again return to Central Asia. Those discussions, unfortunately, are usually short on knowledge about what the IMU is actually doing now.
A recent piece in Foreign Policy, "The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: Down but not out," looked at the current state of the group and its strategy. And what was most striking, from the perspective of a Central Asia watcher, was how little discussion there was of that region. The piece devotes one sentence to the IMU's activities in Central Asia: "The group also continued to issue statements about events in Central Asia such as brutal attacks on Uzbeks living in Kyrgyzstan by gangs of Kyrgyz youth in 2010."
The piece notes that the group has been revitalized by the charisma of its "chief juridical voice," Abu Zarr Azzam, whose strategic focus is on South Asia:
Debris from space launches at Baikonur land on the Kazakh steppe.
Kazakhstan may suspend the current agreement allowing Russia to use Kazakhstan's territory for its main space-launch center, Baikonur, the head of Kazakhstan's space agency has said. Currently, Russia pays Kazakhstan about $115 million a year to lease Baikonur, under an agreement scheduled to last until 2050. But it looks like Kazakhstan may be rethinking that agreement. From the AP:
Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency cited Kazcosmos head Talgat Musabayev as telling parliament that proposals are being considered to bring the Baikonur facility under Kazakhstan’s jurisdiction....
“The rent agreement on Baikonur adopted in 1994 has run its course. The head of state held talks with (Russian President) Vladimir Putin and has tasked us with formulating a new, all-encompassing agreement on Baikonur,” Interfax-Kazakhstan cited Musabayev as saying.
So why is Kazakhstan doing this? The AP notes:
It is unclear what is motivating Kazakhstan’s decision to push for a revision of arrangements on Baikonur, but it is known that it has been pushing for an increased role in the space industry.
Russia also has been moving to reduce its dependence on Baikonur, constructing a new launch facility in the Russian Far East. In a 2008 interview, Musabayev suggested that Kazakhstan was coming up with contingency plans in case Russia decided to leave Baikonur:
U.S.-Turkey relations are at their strongest in recent years, and the most significant reason for that is Turkey's decision last year to host a new NATO radar connected to the alliance's air defense system against the missile threat from Iran. That is according to two experts who spoke this week at the Brookings Institution.
One of the experts, Brookings's Ömer Taşpınar, said that after Turkey's fallout with the U.S.'s close ally Israel, which highlighted worry that Turkey could be "moving East," relations between Ankara and Washington have rebounded to the point where some call it a "Golden Age" of bilateral relations. Part of the reason for that is the Arab Spring, which has elevated Turkey's relevance in Washington.
"But more tangible, more concrete, what put Turkey under a positive light, in 2011, was Turkey's very strategic decision to say 'yes' to most radars necessary for the anti-missile defense system under the framework of NATO. That decision, in my opinion, was almost a make-or-break move for the Obama administration in terms of testing Turkey's commitment to NATO, testing Turkey's commitment to the trans-Atlantic partnership."
Another of the experts, Soli Özel, said that the radar has ensured that the U.S. will not be excessively concerned about Turkey's political system -- that confidence in Ankara's "strategic Westerness" will override any concerns about its "political Westernness," despite concerns that Turkey may be backsliding away from democracy:
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili says that NATO was ready to offer his country the long-coveted Membership Action Plan to join the alliance but that "events of recent months" have scuttled those hopes. That seems to contradict statements made a day earlier by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in which he said there were never any such plans.
Saakashvili was speaking to Georgian journalists in Warsaw, on the way back to Georgia from NATO meetings in Brussels, reports Civil.ge:
“We were permanently making progress in respect of NATO [integration]. At Bucharest summit [in April 2008] we failed to get MAP, but we got a direct declaration that Georgia will become a NATO member and it was a real geopolitical breakthrough. Then NATO-Georgia Commission was established [in September, 2008]… Then we received a status of an aspirant state [December, 2011]… Then there was a statement at the NATO Chicago summit [in May, 2012] that at the next summit NATO should expand and that Georgia was one of the major candidates,” Saakashvili said....
“Yesterday [December 5] NATO-Georgia Commission meeting was held in Brussels. After the elections we had a chance of receiving MAP, because at the time discussions were ongoing that because elections were held so well and because we had a consensus between the new [government] and the President about NATO membership, there was a chance of at last getting this MAP by December – I was personally told about it at the very highest level,” Saakashvili said....
“Unfortunately, events of recent months – and I am saying it with great regret – did not allow us [to get MAP].”
“Yesterday’s [NATO-Georgia Commission] meeting was held actually without having new institutional progress [with NATO],” Saakashvili said.
Although Pakistan reopened its border with Afghanistan of U.S. and NATO military back in July, traffic there is still moving so slowly that the coalition forces haven't even moved all of the goods that had backed up there -- meaning the Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia remains the key means of supplying foreign forces in Afghanistan. That's according to Air Force Col. Robert Brisson, chief of operations for U.S. Transportation Command, in a recent interview with Military Times.
U.S. military officials have spent the past five months wrangling with the Pakistanis over a formal legal agreement and also working to clear out the roughly 7,000 shipping containers that were stalled in transit when the Pakistanis abruptly closed the border crossings in November 2011.
Coalition forces are only able to get between 10 and 50 cargo trucks per day across the border, compared to around 100 before the border was closed, Col. Brisson said.
“We haven’t booked any new cargo into the ports of Karachi and Qasim to move northbound, nor have we started moving new cargo heading southbound out of Afghanistan,” Brisson said.
New cargo may begin moving in late December or January, he said.
The U.S. and Pakistan are still working out the terms of the new agreement to ship goods through that country, and apparently the biggest sticking point is the question of transit fees.