Azerbaijan has agreed to buy $1.6 billion in weapons from Israel, a massive deal that is likely Azerbaijan's largest single arms purchase ever. The deal will include drones, anti-aircraft and missile defense systems, Israeli officials have told news agencies. The deal would be almost equal to Azerbaijan's stated 2012 defense budget of $1.7 billion (though will certainly be spread out over many years).
The timing of the deal is misleading: regardless of the ongoing ratcheting up of tension between Israel and Iran, and increasing attention to Israel's intelligence activities in Azerbaijan, these weapons are destined to be used not against Iran, but against Armenia, which controls the breakaway Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Though it's tempting to think otherwise. The AP reports:
Israeli defense officials Sunday confirmed $1.6 billion in deals to sell drones as well as anti-aircraft and missile-defense systems to Azerbaijan, bringing sophisticated Israeli technology to the doorstep of archenemy Iran.
The sales by state-run Israel Aerospace Industries come at a delicate time. Israel has been laboring hard to form diplomatic alliances in a region that seems to be growing increasingly hostile to the Jewish state.
Its most pressing concern is Iran's nuclear program, and Israeli leaders have hinted broadly they would be prepared to attack Iranian nuclear facilities if they see no other way to keep Iran from building bombs...
As Iran's nuclear showdown with the West deepens, the Islamic Republic sees the Azeri frontier as a weak point, even though both countries are mostly Shiite Muslim.
The presidents of Russia and Kyrgyzstan, Dmitry Medvedev and Almazbek Atambayev, meet in Moscow.
Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev has something to bring home from his visit to Moscow: $15 million in past due rents for the various military facilities that Russia operates in Central Asia. From RIA Novosti:
Both Russia and the United State have important military bases in the country. However, Washington has paid its lease "without any delays," Kyrgyz media said.
Russia has not paid "the measly rent" for its Kant air base for four years, Atambayev told Ekho Moskvy radio.
He also complained that Russia did not meet its obligations. "They should be training our pilots. Well, they're not," he said.
Russia also is looking at forgiving some of Kyrgyzstan's $500 million debt to Moscow, reports Bloomberg:
Russia’s government understands the former Soviet state is facing a “severe financial and economic situation” and is ready to look at alternatives, it said....
Kyrgyzstan hopes to repay part of its debt to Russia by transferring shares from defense company OAO Dastan, Russian news agency Interfax reported, citing an interview with Kyrgyz Finance Minister Akylbek Zhaparov.
That would be an intriguing turn in the saga over Dastan, which has been a bargaining chip between Russia and Kyrgyzstan but more recently was the subject of interest from India, so that will be something to keep an eye on.
Atambayev seems to be playing the same sort of hardball with Russia as he is with the U.S. and its Manas air base, and while in Moscow publicly suggested that Kyrgyzstan didn't need any Russian military facilities, reports ITAR-TASS:
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili visits Afghanistan Feb. 20
A top Pentagon official is visiting Tbilisi this week, and high on the agenda will be hammering out the details of the much vaunted "new level" of defense cooperation between the U.S. and Georgia. As was the case during President Mikheil Saakashvilil's recent visit to Washington, there was a rhetorical disconnect between the U.S. and Georgian sides about what is the way ahead for military ties between the two allies.
The Georgian side again focused on the concept of "self-defense capabilities," i.e. weapons. “The United States is very much interested in increasing Georgia’s self-defense capabilities,” said Nino Kalandadze, the deputy foreign minister.
The American side, by contrast, focused on more institutional reforms in the Georgian military, as could be seen in the speech the Pentagon official, Celeste Wallander, gave at Georgia's National Defense Academy. While Wallander said that the two sides are "advancing our relationship into new areas of cooperation," she spent far more time lecturing the cadets on the need for the military to be apolitical, suggesting that was more important than any hardware:
A Russian Foreign Ministry official has said that the U.S. might use its air base at Manas to attack Iran. At a Moscow briefing today, spokesman Alexander Lukashevich echoed the recent claim of Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek Atambayev that a U.S.-Iran war could embroil Kyrgyzstan:
"It cannot be excluded that this site could be used in a potential conflict with Iran," foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told reporters. "We hope that such an apocalyptic scenario will not be realised...."
Lukashevich said using the airbase as a launch-pad to strike Iran would require "changes or rather violations" to the lease agreement between Washington and Bishkek.
"The statements from Washington which do not rule out a military solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis have caused serious worries in the Central Asian region," he said.
"The worries are shared not just by Kyrgyzstan -- where a debate has erupted about the risk of a retaliatory strike from Iran -- but other Central Asian countries," he added.
Now, if the U.S. wanted to attack Iran, it would have no shortage of launching pads. It has an air base in neighboring Turkey, an entire naval fleet in Bahrain, and of course a substantial military presence in Afghanistan. Why they would choose to use distant Kyrgyzstan, which would require crossing at least two other countries' airspaces along the way, instead of those far easier options, is something that neither Atambayev nor Lukashevich have explained.
Recall that the Iranian ambassador to Bishkek spoke out publicly to quash such speculation when Atambayev first voiced it. When it's the Iranian official who is the voice of reason, well...
The story of the alleged incursion by an Uzbekistani drone into Kazakhstani airspace has taken a strange turn: The Kazakhstan government on Tuesday officially confirmed that the incursion happened, while aviation experts have cast doubt on the video that purports to show the drone, saying the "drone" appears to be a radio-controlled model.
The story was originally reported by Kazakhstani TV station KTK, which cited unnamed officials, But on Tuesday a spokesman for Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry, Altai Abibullaev, confirmed the incursion at a briefing:
"Staff of the Committee of National Security border troops confirmed that violation by an Uzbek UAV violated [Kazakhstan's] airspace. The relevant services in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are negotiating with each other. Official information on the incident was sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs [of Uzbekistan]," he said. "I think that as a result of these joint efforts the Kazakh side will be further informed," concluded Abibullaev.
Screenshot of KTK video showing alleged Uzbekistani drone incursion into Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan government officials have accused Uzbekistan of violating its airspace with an unmanned drone aircraft, backing the claim up with video showing the purported incursion. The incident happened February 16 in the area of Beyneu, on the far western end of the Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan border, according to KTK TV, citing sources in the security services. The government also has released a shaky video of the drone, which you can see at KTK's site. The drone, to The Bug Pit's untrained eye, could be either a Hermes 450 or a General Atomics MQ-9. And it's engaging in some un-dronelike behavior, buzzing close to the ground near some apartment blocks.
The UAV crossed the border of our country and went deep into the territory of Kazakhstan. The incident was reported to KTK correspondents by informed sources in the power structures. The aircraft was located in the Kazakh air space for about fifteen minutes. And it went unnoticed by air defense units because it flew at too low an altitude. The drone, presumably belonging to Uzbekistan, flew near two border posts, turned around and headed back toward the border and escaped to a neighboring state. Representatives of the Air Defense Forces and the intelligence units of the Ministry of Defense are involved in the situation. Whether the Uzbek authorities will be sent a protest note, is still unknown.
(Tengri News picked up the story and translated it into English, as well.)
Russia has reportedly convinced its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization not to participate in a new U.S. counterdrug program in Central Asia, apparently concerned that it would give the U.S. too much leverage over the regional governments. The program, called the Central Asia Counternarcotics Initiative, would promote regional cooperation in countering drug trafficking by setting up task forces in all five Central Asian countries and hooking them up with similar task forces in Afghanistan and Russia.
But Russia has apparently taken a dim view of the proposal, reports the Russian newspaper Kommersant:
Moscow is convinced that the main objective of this initiative is strengthening the military and political presence in a region that Moscow regards as its area of special interests. As a result, Russia has managed to persuade the CSTO members to not participate in it.
The key problem, according to Kommersant's sources:
As planned by the United States, the task forces must have very wide powers, and most importantly, full access to secret operational information supplied to law enforcement agencies and intelligence services of the Central Asian countries. Moscow feared that this would give the U.S. an opportunity to gather sensitive information and then use these data to blackmail the governments in the region.
RFE/RL spoke with American diplomats involved in the effort, who confirmed that it was blocked:
A U.S. official familiar with the matter confirmed that Washington's delegation was unable to reach a final agreement at the meeting but said the plan has not been rejected.
Still, the official described the outcome as "a big surprise."
The Russian military base in South Ossetia will soon include a battalion for Ossetians, which government officials say will act as a "forge" to build a capable military in the quasi-independent country, but which looks just as much like a blow against the territory's fragile sovereignty. The government news agency RES quotes Ministry of Defense of South Ossetia spokeswoman Galina Guchmazovа:
"The citizens of South Ossetia, who want to continue to serve in the army, now will be provided with opportunity to acquire new knowledge, learn military discipline and matériel at a level consistent with the Russian armed forces. - Ossetian battalion of the Russian military base will be the forge of professional military personnel for the Republic of South Ossetia."
Emphasis added. What does it mean, those who want to "continue to serve"? Does that imply that South Ossetia's own defense forces are to be discontinued?
The Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded quickly, connecting the creation of the battalion to a more general militarization of the territory and the Russian military threat:
[T]he Russian Federation is continuing to build up its military forces, to strengthen its military infrastructure and to deploy offensive weapons in Georgia's occupied regions. These regions have, in fact, been turned into large military bases and their inhabitants are either employed in the Russian military bases themselves or are serving with the Russian occupation troops, as most recently attested by the fact of the creation of the so-called "Ossetian battalion".
From top: Nearly all US troops going to and from Afghanistan transit through the airbase in Manas, Kyrgyzstan.; Barracks, or top-secret intelligence gathering facilities?; Wing commander headquarters.
Over the past year, the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan has expanded its programs of outreach to the local community and to Kyrgyzstan's military and government, strengthening the base's role as a public diplomacy tool of the U.S. government.
Most of what the base (officially called the Transit Center at Manas) does has nothing to do with Kyrgyzstan. Its two main missions are serving as a transit and processing point for nearly all troops entering and leaving their tours in Afghanistan, and as a base for aerial refueling aircraft. Those are functions that can't as easily be carried out in Afghanistan itself. Most troops arrive to Manas on chartered civilian aircraft, which can't land in Afghanistan because of the security situation there. (At Manas, they transfer on to military aircraft for the rest of the trip into Afghanistan.) And the U.S. and NATO have maxed out Afghanistan's existing airport space with attack aircraft, as well as smaller transport planes and helicopters, requiring larger planes like the refueling tankers to be based outside the country.
As a result of Manas's sole focus on Afghanistan, there isn't any inherent connection between the base and Kyrgyzstan, other than the high-level negotiations that take place between Bishkek and Washington over the base's presence, rent and so on. And there remains a great deal of suspicion among Kyrgyz people and government officials about what exactly it is that goes on at Manas (suspicion enthusiastically fueled by Russian media). That, in turn, has fueled recurrent drama over the base's continuing presence in Kyrgyzstan; current President Almazbek Atambayev has frequently threatened to shut the base down.
The White House today released its proposed budget for the upcoming year, and the big news from The Bug Pit's area of interest is that the U.S. is now giving the same amount of military aid to Uzbekistan as it is to the rest of the Central Asian republics. Last year, Uzbekistan was budgeted a mere $100,000 in Foreign Military Financing aid, which allows countries to buy U.S. equipment. Still, that was the first FMF money Uzbekistan had been budgeted since 2005, because of Congressional concerns about human rights. But according to the budget documents (pdf) released today, in the current fiscal year Uzbekistan's aid has been bumped up to $1.5 million, and it is slated to get the same next year. That's still small potatoes compared to the big U.S. military aid recipients: Pakistan is budgeted to get $350 million, Egypt $1.3 billion and Israel $3.1 billion. And this also is dwarfed by the cash these countries get as reimbursement for being part of the Northern Distribution Network. But Uzbekistan's aid package is now the same as its neighbors': Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also are budgeted to get $1.5 million, Kazakhstan $1.8 million and Turkmenistan $685,000.
The countries of the Caucasus get more: Armenia and Azerbaijan $2.7 million each, and Georgia $14.4 million (though we'll have to wait and see if any of that includes weaponry). Except for Uzbekistan's aid, and a doubling of Tajikistan's aid, there aren't many changes from last year. And the documents contain very little explanation of the aid packages for these countries. Georgia does get highlighted briefly: