It was just a couple of weeks ago when international mediators called on Azerbaijanis and Armenians to pull back their snipers from the front lines of Nagorno Karabakh. To no one's surprise, neither side agreed.
And now, Azerbaijan has announced a new addition to its sniper corps. The unimprovably named Azerbaijan Voluntary Military Patriotism Technical Sport Society has started teaching sniper classes to the country's youth. From News.az:
[T]he courses purposed to prepare marksmen – snipers for the army and power structures. Drawing attention to Azerbaijani war conditions, the general added that snipers to be prepared in the courses would be completely ready for battle with the enemy: 'Snipers will study here masking, use of other weapons, topography. Along with studies on hand-to-hand fighting, snipers will also study law. Azerbaijani snipers differ from Armenians, because they never fire at peaceful people'.
AFP picked up the story, and emphasized a somewhat sensational angle -- the potential of young female snipers:
Azerbaijan on Tuesday launched sniper lessons for young people, including girls, amid its bitter unresolved conflict with neighbouring Armenia in which marksmen are often used on the front line.
Teens as young as 16 are taking part in the sniper courses for civilians, which have an upper age limit of 30, and participants will also learn about fighting techniques, weapons, map-reading skills and legal issues.
Observers from the OSCE may not approved of in Nursultan Nazarbayev's 95.5 percent victory in Kazakhstan's presidential elections, but the Shanghai Cooperation Organization liked what it saw:
The elections of the President of Kazakhstan held on April 3, 2011 were free and transparent. Head of the Observers' Mission of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Muratbek Imanaliyev considers so.
"The Mission considers that the presidential elections of Kazakhstan were free and open, meeting all requirements of the national legislation and international election standards", M. Imanaliyev said.
Imanaliyev's further comments to the press read like gallows humor, but probably were not intended as such:
"The Kazakh election is being held in a very stable manner, without any twists in every sense of this word, primarily the political one. I think Kazakhstanis and their neighbors should only be glad of it,"Imanaliyev told a press conference in Astana on Sunday...
Asked what he thought about the lack of intrigue at the current election, Imanaliyev said: "Personally, I can only be glad about the absence of an intrigue."
"I understand what kind of intrigue you mean. (. . . ) But I am very content that everything is going smoothly," the SCO secretary general said.
Apparently "intrigue" here means "anything other than a foregone conclusion."
As we've reported, the line between the SCO's military/collective security role and its political role is often pretty blurry, with stability being the top priority in both cases. And the organization's embrace of this election is certainly exhibit A.
As Nagorno Karabakh's first civilian airport gets set to open on May 9, Azerbaijan is threatening to "annihilate" any Armenian planes that use it. Azerbaijan argues, of course, that Karabakh belongs to them and the Armenians who now occupy it do so illegally. The shoot-down threat is almost certainly an empty one: it would be an act of war, before Azerbaijan is apparently ready and done in a way that would get international sympathies strongly on the Armenian side.
But, assuming they were serious, could Azerbaijan do it? Azerbaijani military experts say they would use surface-to-air missiles like the S-125 or S-200, according to the news agency APA:
Air Defense Troops’ experts declare that they are able to carry out measures against each military and civil aircrafts flying to Azerbaijan’s Khankendi airport. If close location of Khankendi airport to the front-line is taken into consideration, Air Defense Troops can annihilate those aircrafts by using C-125 or C-200 complexes. At the same time, it is possible to destroy navigation system of those aircrafts by using modern radioelectronic methods, and annihilate them without using any force. According to the words of experts, at present, Azerbaijan’s air defense systems can control not only the flights over Nagorno Karabakh, but also all the flights over Armenia. Civil aircrafts fly especially at altitudes of 8-10 km, their speed is lower than the military ones. Moreover, aircrafts rising from Khankendi may be annihilated till the level of maximum altitude.
Georgia's president Mikheil Saakashvili says there is only one source for the kind of heavy weaponry his country needs to defend itself from Russia: the U.S. In an interview with Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin, Saakashvili discussed the question of the U.S. providing weapons to Georgia. He said that the U.S. is not refusing to sell Georgia weapons, which is something some allies of Georgia have claimed:
Saakashvili said he takes the administration at its word that there is no ban on weapons sales to Georgia and that some sales of small arms are "in the pipeline." But he added that Georgia really needs heavier weapons that could be used to defend the country in the case of another conflict with Russia.
"We don't' really need small arms, we have plenty of them and actually there are many alternative sources to shop for them," he said. "What Georgia really needs is something that it cannot get from anywhere else and that's anti-air and anti-tank [weapons] and that's completely obvious ... that's where should be the next stage of the cooperation."
Emphasis added. Now, there are certainly many other places than the U.S. whence Georgia could buy these sorts of weapons. Wikipedia, for example, lists 19 countries that produce anti-tank missiles, including ones like Brazil, China, India, South Africa and Turkey, where these weapons would be much cheaper than U.S. equivalents and which wouldn't have obvious geopolitical problems. There's a similarly extensive list of countries that make anti-aircraft missiles and guns.
Turkey has hosted joint "urban warfare" exercises with troops from Afghanistan and Pakistan, comprising sniper and anti-tank units from the three countries. A video, apparently from the exercise:
The number of troops was small -- apparently 128 -- but the meaning of the exercise was more political than operational. Turkey has long been NATO's point of contact for relations with Pakistan, and Washington and Brussels have been trying to get Turkey to help build relations between the militaries of Afghanistan and Pakistan. So this exercise -- agreed upon at a summit between the three countries in December -- is a step in that direction. From the Pakistan military press service:
It is pertinent to mention here that this is the first time that a Trilateral Exercise among the three countries is being conducted on the Turkish soil .It will play a pivotal role in cementing close military ties between the countries in the realm of combating the menace of terrorism and extremism being spearheaded by the inimical forces.
For all the hand-wringing about Turkey's "shift to the East," things like this are a reminder that Turkey is uniquely positioned to manage NATO's relations with countries to its east.
Is the U.S. military planning some sort of new facility in the Caucasus? The commander of U.S. European Command, Admiral James Stavridis, testified before Congress this morning and suggested that. In his written testimony (pdf), he described five ongoing "force posture" (Pentagon-ese for basing issues) initiatives:
The fourth initiative is developing a U.S. Transportation Command requirement for a Black Sea/Caucasus en-route location to further U.S. expeditionary capability. The European Command will meet this requirement while maximizing our basing efficiencies.
(Emphasis added.) Reading between the lines, it seems like that must mean some sort of facility in the Caucasus to help with the Northern Distribution Network, shipping cargo to Afghanistan (i.e., something comparable to the Navoi cargo hub). A significant amount of U.S. military cargo already goes through the main airport in Baku, but this suggests that the Pentagon is imagining a dedicated facility for that, whether in Baku or elsewhere. That's just speculation, though. I asked TRANSCOM public affairs officials for more information and they said they had none and referred me to EUCOM; I will update when/if I hear back.
One of the questions I hope to ask: what, exactly, is a "location"? Is this yet another euphemism for the b-word?
Is China planning a military expansion across Central Asia -- by railroad? An analyst in Jamestown's China Brief suggests so., in a piece provocatively titled "The PLA’s "Orient Express": Militarization of the Iron Silk Road."
The analysis notes two trends: China's ambitious plans to expand its international rail links to the west, including to Central Asia, Turkey, Europe and the Middle East; and the People's Liberation Army's increasing use of rail transport to move military cargo and soldiers around China. And when you put those two things together...
With China’s expansionist policy and infrastructure projects toward its neighbors, some analysts are beginning to sound the alarm on the militarization of these projects.
For example, Konstantin Syroyezhkin, in Kazakhstan’s Institute of Strategic Studies, points out the rapid development of road and railroad infrastructure in Central Asia with Chinese participation may be used for future PLA troop deployments in case of a serious conflict threatening China’s security or strategic interests. This concern is corroborated by the recent SCO Peace Mission 2010 military exercise, whereby China transported troops to Kazakhstan by rail.
There isn't any actual evidence to suggest that China's railroad expansion plans hide an aggressive military intention, only speculation. But this is still a reminder that it's not only the U.S. military that could benefit from a "New Silk Road."
Turkey is ratcheting up the tension with the U.S. over the purchase of next-generation fighter jets, saying that it is putting "on hold" its purchases of F-35s because the U.S. is refusing to share with Turkey some software codes that control aspects of the plane's operations. From Today's Zaman:
Defense Minister Vecdi Gönül said on Tuesday, following a meeting of the Defense Industry Implementation Committee (SSİK), that the negotiations over the F-35 procurement tender had not yielded “satisfactory results.” He said, “We will evaluate the order in the next meeting, in light of the progress made in the talks by then.” He said much ground had been covered in the talks in terms of technology sharing, but this was not enough for Turkey to accept the jets.
An earlier story in the same newspaper explained in more detail the so-called "code crisis":
Though Ankara plans at this point to purchase around 100 of these fighter jets, there is the awareness in the Turkish capital that without the codes in question, possession of the jet planes will only be partial. There are assertions at hand that the F-35s will be controllable from outside sources, that they may be defenseless against electronic warfare and that no changes will be able to be made to their software.
An anonymous Turkish official puts the issue in stark terms:
The U.S. tried to help Georgia lobby other countries against diplomatic recognition of the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- but it made an exception for Uzbekistan, which it didn't want to pressure for fear of endangering the military supply lines that pass through Central Asia. That's according to Spanish newspaper El Pais, quoting a Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cable. Translation by Google:
Only three countries seconded to Russia's recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Nicaragua, in September 2008 and Venezuela and Nauru, in 2009. The fear that Belarus imitate the example of Caracas caused "great excitement" to the Georgians, despite a U.S. warning against "overreaction."
Georgia appealed to the U.S. and Spain to "American pressure on states" and prevent them follow the example of Venezuela and Nicaragua. The negotiations were "successful", although as warned Assistant Secretary of Defense, Alexander Vershbow, Georgia should understand that Washington had "a limited role in some countries." The White House refused to put pressure on Uzbekistan, for example, for fear that it influenced their negotiations on transit routes to Afghanistan.
(Emphasis added.) Unfortunately WikiLeaks hasn't released the cable yet, so we can't see it for ourselves. (And this report is from more than a month ago, but I don't see anyone reporting it in English.)