The U.S. is planning to help Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan develop their navies, emphasizing the increasing importance of Caspian Sea security and the possibility of the sea's militarization, with all five bordering countries (including Iran and Russia) planning to build up their strength in the oil- and gas-rich sea.
In a just-released 875-page document (pdf), the State Department (which administers military aid, not the Pentagon) gives more information about what it plans to spend its money on. As previously reported, the Obama administration is proposing to cut its military aid to the Caucasus and Central Asia by about 8 percent, from $36.7 million in last year's request to $34 million this year. More than half that aid, $18 million, is earmarked for Georgia. But in the initial announcement, there wasn't much explanation for where the money is going. ($34 million, after all, is a drop in the $47 billion ocean of the total proposed State Department budget.)
Reading through the plans for military aid in the region, the most intriguing thing is that there is a clear emphasis on aid for the navies of the countries that border the Caspian. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are all planning on building navies more or less from scratch, rich with oil money and anxious to protect their investments (and flex their muscles). The U.S. has helped these countries with their naval capabilities in the past, with the ill-fated Caspian Guard program and by donating some leftover patrol boats to the three countries. But that was before any of these countries got serious themselves about their navies, and was a bit ad hoc. It's hard to tell how serious the new plans are, and of course the amounts of money are still pretty small, but it does seem to be a concerted effort to build naval capacity in the Caspian.
The "most important" interest for the U.S. in Central Asia is the support of those countries for the war in Afghanistan, a top U.S. diplomat said yesterday. Robert Blake, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, testified before a Congressional committee, and in his written testimony (pdf) highlighted the Afghanistan connection:
The President’s Fiscal 2012 budget request includes a 6% decrease in funding for the region compared to budgeted levels for Central Asia in FY 2010. This decrease reflects our commitment to a lean, strategically targeted budget that will advance our interests in Central Asia. The most important of these is the support of Central Asian states for international efforts in Afghanistan.
Blake highlighted what the various Central Asian countries are doing to help the effort in Afghanistan, including Kazakhstan's scholarships for Afghan students, Uzbekistan's and Turkmenistan's provision of electricity to northern Afghanistan, and of course the Northern Distribution Network and Manas air base.
So Kyrgyzstan President Roza Otunbayeva's visit to Washington is over, and while publicly the agenda was dominated by her acceptance of the "International Women of Courage" award and talk of democracy, we can assume that behind the scenes the discussions were heavy on the issue of the Manas air base that the U.S. operates in Kyrgyzstan.
A couple of weeks ago, the Kyrgyzstan parliament proposed a law that would tax fuel going to Manas, to the tune of about $40 million a year, which the U.S. is "vehemently opposing."
Otunbayeva, in her public comments, did not mention the base at all. I did talk to someone with knowledge of her visit, who says that Otunbayeva guaranteed that the base will function normally for at least another year, when a new government will take over.
And she met with President Obama and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and the White House's official statement afterward mentioned Manas, in very conciliatory terms:
President Obama reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to support Kyrgyzstan’s efforts to consolidate its democracy. He thanked Otunbayeva for Kyrgyzstan’s support for the Transit Center at Manas and said the U.S. has taken steps to improve transparency about the Transit Center and payments connected to it, and pledged to maximize the benefits for the Kyrgyz people.
The mention of transparency and maximizing benefits of course refers to the ongoing controversy about the mysterious fuel deals that the Pentagon has made with companies Mina Corp. and Red Star to supply fuel, which have caused a lot of indignation in Kyrgyzstan.
Training and education is not the sexiest aspect of the military; it's much more fun to read (and write) about operations and weapons purchases. But as scholar Sébastien Peyrouse correctly points out, training is often overlooked and often more important than we think. He has a piece on Central Asian military training in The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies (the entire issue, in fact, is on “Security and Defense Reform in Central Asia.") The conclusions aren't too shocking and parallel the larger sociopolitical situation in the region: the situation overall is poor, Kazakhstan is in the best shape, but Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are hampered by their insularity and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan by their poverty:
Numerous difficulties are compounded in Central Asia: a loss of the Soviet-trained and most competent personnel; administrative sluggishness and the inertia of the administrative military machine; bad will on behalf of some of the high-ranked officers to participate in reform; rampant corruption that hampers modernization; deterioration of military morality and the military’s image in society; demotivating salaries for soldiers and officers who are not involved in the shadow economy networks, and so on. The conjunction between managing the Soviet heritage, dealing with financial difficulties, and solving 21st-century security challenges is therefore complex, and it risks impeding the overall military capacities of some of the Central Asian states.
The Armenia-Azerbaijan military balance is getting a lot of scrutiny these days, and Jane's Intelligence Review has just published a good reported analysis (subscription required) by Emil Sanamyan that has a lot of interesting points. Among them:
-- "Upon closer inspection, Azerbaijan's purported 'military budget' incorporates not just the paramilitary forces outside the Ministry of Defence but also state prosecutors and even courts, with an apparent intention to inflate the overall figure for propaganda effect."
-- "The combined Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh defence army total is estimated by Jane's to be around 300 T-72s, considerably larger than the 110 officially declared by Yerevan. Azerbaijan is thought to maintain around 350 to 400 T-72s... Baku has declared only 217 tanks, although it it likely that this figure was designed to appear under the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty ceiling of 220."
-- "[F]or now it is the Azerbaijani UAV capability that provides the most immediate potential for escalation. Armenian defence officials have confirmed that Azerbaijan has begun flying its UAVs close to the Line of Contact that separates the two sides, with several such flights reported since 2008. In mid-2010, two Armenian Su-25s were dispatched to try to intercept these UAV flights."
-- "Armenian officials also claim that Armenia has begun to domestically produce UAVs and that more than a dozen have already entered service, with the aim of co-ordinating artillery fire. These have yet to be seen publicly."
A few weeks ago Russia announced that it was deploying new missiles to South Ossetia, eliciting an angry response from Georgia. And at the time, the unnamed Russian official who was leaking the news didn't try to avoid making it sound like a provocation; he said the missiles were "capable to effectively repel any aggression from Tbilisi."
But now, Russia seems to be walking that announcement back, saying the deployment would just be temporary. Via Civil.ge, quoting RIA Novosti:
"Tochka-U installations were deployed on the territory of South Ossetia for participation in the military exercises of our military base; they were deployed there temporarily," he said.
Karasin, however, did not specify when the rockets would be withdrawn.
That's a positive move. The recent Center for American Progress report called the missile deployment (along with another rocket deployment) the "most obvious contributing factor to Georgian insecurity." U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is on his way to Moscow, and that's the sort of thing that a diplomatic partner does as a friendly gesture. So can we thank the reset for this?
Russia has been strengthening its Caspian Flotilla, adding anti-ship missile units on the southern part of its border, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports. It's another sign that the Caspian arms race is continuing:
Russia has significantly reinforced the army and navy forces on the Caspian coast in Dagestan. According to a Defense Ministry source, a separate coastal missile battalion was made part of the Caspian Flotilla in the city of Kaspiisk.
Additional positions for coastal missiles have been created on an elevation near the city of Izberbash, i.e., not far from Caspian Sea oil deposits and close to the border with Azerbaijan. Furthermore, all missile boats from the Caspian Flotilla were redeployed from Astrakhan to the Makhachkala and Kaspiisk area to create an integrated naval task force there.
(And yes, this article is more than two months old, but I only just came across it...) The unit in Izberbash will be equipped with Bal coastal defense missiles with a 130-km range, the paper says.
One expert the paper quotes, Georgy Kovalyov, deputy general director of the Russia's Institute for Cooperation in the Caspian, said Russia was responding to the other countries on the Caspian:
"In accordance with the Caspian countries' armament programs, by 2015, some of them will increase the number of warships. Nevertheless, right now, the number of warships is less than what it was during Soviet times. However, a trend toward militarization is evident. It's perfectly obvious that [Caspian] countries are arming themselves against one another in anticipation of some kind of future military threat. But exactly why this is being done remains unclear," the expert concluded.
Kyrgyzstan's president Roza Otunbayeva visited Brussels this week and met with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. And Otunbayeva said she was asking for help from NATO in dealing with terror threats coming from Afghanistan. From her press conference with Rasmussen:
And first of all, I would stress on the issues of the neighbouring Afghanistan and I must tell you that my serious of worries about the borders; borders with Tajikistan and then with Afghanistan. This is a concern which we have. And so we must strengthen our border troops, and I talked with the Secretary General about this matter.
We faced terroristic acts last... late last year, of last year, and this is new chapter on terroristic work which we want to learn and really to develop among the people and also with the ministries relevant. This is what we want very much to learn from NATO.
And certainly we are talking about this partnership program, Secretary General, this acronyms which you mentioned, a purpose(?) under way, and the progress between Kyrgyzstan and NATO and we want to have a real progress. We talked about this, and I hope that in our development between NATO and Kyrgyzstan we reach concrete results of this year and we're looking forward to strengthen our security forces with the NATO assistance and we want to learn from this Alliance of free societies, democratic countries, how to make safe our country.
Both the U.S. and Russia have talked about setting up anti-terror training facilities in southern Kyrgyzstan, but nothing has yet come of either of those.
Azerbaijan has signed a deal to buy 24 Mi-35M helicopters from Russia, giving Baku a huge boost in its attack helicopter fleet. News.az reports:
Russian company Rostvertol signed a deal in September-October 2010 to sell 24 Mi-35M attack helicopters to Azerbaijan, Rostvertol General Director Boris Slyusar said yesterday.
The agreement came to light as the general director announced Rostvertol's 2010 trading figures...
The Mi-35M is a multi-purpose attack helicopter, designed to destroy armoured hardware, provide aerial fire support for ground troops, carry paratroopers, evacuate the wounded and transport cargo in its hold and external cradle.
Azerbaijan currently operates 15 Mi-24 attack helicopters, but in addition to more than doubling the fleet the Mi-35Ms are a significant step up from those in capability, with upgraded weapons, engine and night flying capability.
There is no word on how much Azerbaijan is paying, but in 2008 Brazil bought 12 of the same helicopters for $150 million, suggesting that this purchase is somewhere in the $300 million range.
The press from Azerbaijan's neighbor and foe, Armenia, is of course alarmed, as you might expect since that buy is almost equal to Armenia's entire defense budget. One article is titled "Armenia’s strategic ally continues arming Azerbaijan," and another tries to pour cold water on the whole thing:
The Committee on Foreign Relations of the U.S. Senate has produced a report (pdf) on water conflicts in South and Central Asia, recommending that the U.S. do more to help prevent them.
The report is called "Avoiding Water Wars: Water Scarcity and Central Asia's Growing Importance for Stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan." It doesn't explicitly address the chance of war between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over water, but it quotes former CENTCOM commander Anthony Zinni saying: ‘‘[w]e have seen fuel wars; we’re about to see water wars.’’
The substance of the report's Central Asia sections won't surprise anyone who has followed the spat between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over their water issues. But the more interesting parts of the report concern what the U.S. ought to do about it. For one, the authors call attention to the wide disparity in U.S. spending on the issue:
We pay too little attention to the waters shared by their [Pakistan and Afghanistan's] Indian and Central Asian neighbors—Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. For example, in 2009 the United States provided approximately $46.8 million in assistance for water-related activities to Afghanistan and Pakistan compared with $3.7 million shared among all five Central Asian countries for these efforts.
And the recommendations are, thankfully, the sort of modest and technical projects that 1. could actually get done and 2. could actually do some good. For example, the report recommends providing technical assistance on measuring water flow and volume. The countries in the region aren't working with solid data, which of course increases the chance of disagreements: