Col. Mirbek Imayev, chief of staff of the Kyrgyz National Guard, with a symbolic key he received from U.S. officers at the formal closure of the Manas air base. (photo: Capt. Cory OBrien, 376th Air Expeditionary Wing)
As the United States shuts down its air base in Kyrgyzstan, people in the region are assessing the legacy of 12 years of American military presence in the country. And for the most part, the conclusion is: good riddance.
The reaction in Kyrgyzstan was muted, said Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "The news portals of Kyrgyzstan were silent about the news that caused such a lively reaction in Russia. It was as if there had not been 12 and a half years of the presence of a foreign army, painful incidents, corruption scandals and the 'strengthening of American-Kyrgyzstani friendship.'" (Scare quotes as in original.)
And indeed, according to an informal press review conducted by The Bug Pit, there did seem to be more commentary on the closure coming from Russia than from Kyrgyzstan itself. Russian website Lenta.ru ran an interview with Kyrgyzstan analyst Toktogul Kakchekeev, who described the base in thoroughly negative terms. He said that former president Askar Akaev allowed the establishment of the base as a "PR move ... so that Kyrgyzstan could be called an island of democracy in Central Asia. But the people wanted to be together with Russia."
The American warship USS Taylor makes a port call to Batumi, Georgia, in May. (photo: U.S. Navy)
The United States is planning a "stronger presence of U.S. ships in the Black Sea" as Russia accused the U.S. and NATO ships that have been on the sea recently as "spying" on Russia's own Black Sea Fleet. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Romania on Thursday, and he made a stop at the USS Vella Gulf, which was on a port call at Constanta as part of its tour around the Black Sea. The Vella Gulf’s port visit in Romania “a clear expression of [the] commitment" that the U.S. and NATO have expressed recently toward strengthening their military presence in the countries neighboring Russia "“which is becoming even more important in the wake of Russia’s actions in Ukraine." From a Pentagon press release:
Another example, Hagel said, is Obama's announcement this week that he will ask Congress for up to $1 billion to enhance the readiness of U.S. and allied forces in Europe, including more U.S. troop rotations for exercises and training and a stronger presence of U.S. ships in the Black Sea. “The U.S. has maintained a regular naval presence in the Black Sea since mid-March, with the USS Truxton, the USS Donald Cook and the USS Taylor all conducting port calls in Romania, and we will sustain this tempo going forward,” he said. “We are also stepping up our cooperation with other partners and allies surrounding the Black Sea, including Bulgaria, Georgia, Turkey, and Ukraine.”
Russia has repeatedly complained about the increased Western military presence on the Black Sea. On Wednesday, Itar-Tass quoted an unnamed source in the "military-diplomatic corps" as saying that a French frigate in the Black Sea was spying on Russia:
The frigate Surcouf is conducting maneuvers in the northern part of the Black Sea, periodically approaching 50-60 kilometers from the coast of Crimea. According to available data, the NATO warship is conducting electronic surveillance of military objects of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, deployed on the peninsula along the coastline, as well as of important administrative and strategic objects on the coastal territory."
The source added, helpfully, that Russia was watching the French ship, as well: "All the actions and maneuvers of the French 'uninvited guest' are being recorded, including its compliance with norms of international maritime law."
According to the expert's data, the frigate passed along the Caucasus coast, the coast of Crimea, lingered alongside Novorossiya and relocated to the northwestern part of the sea. "Now the French ship is heading in the direction of Odessa, but whether it will stop there is not yet known. In any case, the visit of the Surcouf to Odessa, if it happens, will not remain a secret."
The presence of foreign warships on the Black Sea is regulated by the Montreux Convention, which limits them to 21 days at a stretch. Recall that one U.S. warship, USS Taylor, stayed on the sea longer than 21 days because it needed repairs. That circumstance was never noted by Russian officials, who complained about the violation. But in a piece from RT on Thursday, headlined "NATO’s merry-go-round electronic surveillance in the Black Sea," they took a swipe at that assertion:
The USS Taylor actually became a rare example of a ship that violated the Montreux Convention by exceeding the limited time of deployment to the Black Sea by 11 days, as the crew claimed the vessel ran aground on February 12 and had to undergo maintenance in the Turkish port of Samsun.
Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania meets NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Brussels on June 4. (photo: NATO)
Georgia was one of the main topics of the discussion as defense ministers from NATO countries met in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday, which focused on the alliance's response to Russia's newly aggressive behavior. But in spite of the dramatically altered circumstances, the discussion about Georgia repeated the same themes and phrases that have been used for the last several years. Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen reiterated that he supports Georgia's territorial integrity and opposes Russia's recognition of the de facto independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and that Georgia is making progress towards NATO accession. And when journalists tried to pin him down about what, exactly, Georgia might expect at the upcoming summit in Wales, he was vague, saying "more remains to be done to open the door to NATO membership," without specifying who needs to do more.
The news, perhaps, was the dog that didn't bark: the request for NATO "defensive weapons" to be deployed to Georgia, which seemed not to be mentioned at all in Brussels. It was just a month ago that Defense Minister Irakli Alasania made the public request while in Washington, and NATO officials said they would look into it, comparing it to the deployment of air defense systems to Turkey's border with Syria. But since then, the proposal faced criticism from all sides.
U.S. airmen load cargo into a plane as they prepare to shut down the base in May 2014. (photo: Transit Center at Manas)
The United States's most prominent military outpost in Central Asia, the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan, formally closed its doors on Tuesday. The commander of the base handed over a symbolic golden key to Kyrgyzstan military officials, and the U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan said the last of the American troops will be gone this week.
In its 12 years of operation, Manas handled 5.3 million military personnel from 26 countries as the main transit point for troops entering and leaving Afghanistan, the base's commander, Colonel John Millard, said at the ceremony.
Those 12 years saw plenty of rocky periods of negotiations between Bishkek and Washington over the base's presence, as the Kyrgyzstan government faced both pressure from Russia and widespread public suspicion over the base. In 2009, the Kyrgyzstan government announced that it would close down the base, only to reverse its decision after the U.S. upped the rent from $17 million to $60 million annually. But President Almazbek Atambayev campaigned in 2011 on a promise to shut the base down, and whatever the U.S. offered to keep it open apparently wasn't enough, and last year announced that they would leave the base and the transit operations would move to Romania for the remainder of the Afghanistan mission.
As if to symbolize the rocky relationship, the last news item to come out of Manas was the conviction on Monday of a U.S. civilian contractor at the base who attempted to rape a local woman; he was sentenced to four years in prison.
The Predator XP (photo: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems)
Kazakhstan is looking seriously at acquiring large American surveillance drones, signing a memorandum of understanding with General Atomics, manufacturer of the Predator line of UAVs. And that's just one of an extensive slate of deals that the country is working out with defense companies around the world.
The deal with General Atomics was signed at the close of Kazakhstan's biennial defense expo, KADEX. The announcement from the state defense manufacturing firm, Kazakhstan Engineering, provides no details about the content of the agreement, and the company didn't respond to request for clarification. And officials at General Atomics said they had no comment on the memorandum.
But The Bug Pit talked to a General Atomics rep at KADEX before the announcement, who said that the company was in negotiations over the Predator XP surveillance drone, and that Kazakhstan was interested in a short-term lease of the drone to test out in Kazakhstan before it decided whether or not to buy.
A Russian TOS-1A in a Baku military parade in 2013. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Just as Armenia was digesting the news that its ally, Russia, was offering a large batch of top-of-the-line tanks to its foe, Azerbaijan, it's emerged that there are other such deals in the works, as well.
APA reported that Russia will shortly deliver another batch of TOS-1A “Solntsepyok”multiple-launch rocket systems to Azerbaijan. The deal to buy those systems was announced last year, but at the time it was reported that it would be for six; now the number has grown to 18.
In addition, Azerbaijan is reportedly in talks with Russia to buy Bal-E coastal anti-ship missile systems. Russian newspaper Kommersant quoted "an informed source in the Russian military-industrial complex" as saying that "negotiations will start later, now there is an understanding that our Azerbaijani colleagues are counting on the purchase of one division of the system."
Naturally Armenia, not having any navy, will not be threatened by the anti-ship missiles. But the Solntsepyoks, on top of the earlier offer of 100 T-90 tanks, is rankling in Yerevan. “I can’t be happy with that but I have no right to stop it,” said Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian, reported RFE/RL.
A T-90 tank on display on a military parade in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Russia is offering Azerbaijan another 100 tanks, on top of 100 that it has bought over the last three years, in a move that will surely have Armenians asking what more they need to do to prove their loyalty to Moscow.
Speaking at Kazakhstan's KADEX defense expo in Astana, Konstantin Biryulin, the deputy director of Russia's Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation told Russian news agency ITAR-TASS that Azerbaijan's order of 100 T-90S tanks had been completed a month ago. And he added that Azerbaijan has an "option" to buy another 100, but that the option hasn't yet been exercised.
News last summer that Russia completed a $1 billion arms deal with Azerbaijan (which included those 100 tanks) prompted outrage in Yerevan. Armenia has been a loyal ally of Russia, and so selling such a large number of weapons to its enemy seemed like a betrayal.
But that was when Armenia was flirting with signing an Association Agreement with the European Union. Not long after the arms deal was announced, Armenia announced that it had changed its mind about the EU and would instead be joining the Russia-led Customs Union. Now Armenia is scheduled to formally join the Customs Union in June. So another big arms sale to Azerbaijan would seem like an even bigger betrayal.
Writes RFE/RL: "Armenia’s Defense Ministry on Friday refused to comment on Moscow’s apparent readiness to sell more tanks to Baku. Biryulin’s revelation is certain to spark fresh anti-Russian statements by Armenian opposition groups and the media."
A model of the Chinese Type 056 corvette on offer at the KADEX defense expo in Astana, Kazakhstan. (photo: The Bug Pit)
One of the main storylines in Kazakhstan's first defense expo, in 2010, was the upcoming deal to buy its first large naval ships. One of the main storylines in the current iteration of the expo, KADEX, is the upcoming deal to buy its first large naval ships.
Four years ago, Kazakhstan naval officials said they were poised to buy three corvettes and were in negotiations with South Korean company STX to build them. That plan apparently fell through, and the competition opened again, with candidates from Russia, Turkey, China, the Netherlands, Germany now in the running (as well as STX). And Kazakhstan's Ministry of Defense has told the competing companies that they intend to make a decision very soon.
Kazakhstan is far from the only country to see a long delay in a big military procurement project. And Kazakhstan military officials still say the navy is one of their top priorities. The MoD is also conducting a competition among foreign shipbuilders to build a new shipyard near the Caspian port city of Aktau, which would build both civilian and military ships. That, too, is supposed to be finalized this year, MoD officials said. "Shipbuilding is indispensable for the protection of the national interests of the country," said Ermek Kozhamberliyev, a senior navy official, speaking at KADEX. In addition to the new procurements, the navy will be looking at strengthening its naval infantry and in creating a unified command structure for all of the units charged with Caspian security, he said.
Iran is going to launch a Chinese-built submarine into the Caspian Sea by the middle of 2015, Azerbaijan's APA news agency has reported, citing military sources. APA said the sub is now being built at Iran's Anzali shipyard "with the participation of a Chinese company" and will be 50 meters long.
The sub will reportedly be part of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps navy (separate from Iran's regular navy) which Iran announced last year would be taking more responsibility for the Caspian, a suggestion that Tehran was elevating the importance of Caspian security.
Those are all the details APA gives, and there is ample reason for skepticism. Iran usually inflates its own military capacity, so it's not clear why they would have been scooped by the Azerbaijani media. Secondly, It's not the most reliable source; APA recently reported that Azerbaijan's Baku Shipyard would be building the country's first warship, but shipyard officials told The Bug Pit that they had no plans to build any warships.
Earlier this year Iran announced that it would soon launch its first destroyer into the Caspian. This despite the fact that Iran held a televised ceremony last year to celebrate the launching of the first destroyer in the Caspian. So it's hard to say what's going on with Iran's Caspian fleet. But they may, or may not, be getting a Chinese-built submarine next year.
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov meets NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on a visit to Brussels in 2011. (photo: NATO)
NATO formally opened its liaison office in Uzbekistan on Friday, a year after it started working and amid heightened Russian rhetoric about the western alliance encroaching on its backyard.
The opening itself was not a big deal: it only formalized a move that happened last year, which was itself described by NATO officials as just a "rotation" of NATO's representation in Central Asia from Astana to Tashkent. (NATO calls the new structure in Tashkent a "liaison office," while the preferred phrase in the Russian-language press seems to be the much more impressive-sounding "staff headquarters.") Nevertheless, the opening ceremony was held in a very different geopolitical atmosphere than obtained last year, and so it was inevitable that people would seek to try to figure out what it really meant.
Uzbekistan is unmistakably taking a different path than that of its neighbors. While Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are all (to varying degrees) participating in Russia's economic and military integration schemes, Uzbekistan has resisted. And strategic concerns have overridden Western qualms about human rights, notes Tolganay Umbetaliyeva, the director of the Kazakhstan-based Central Asian Fund for the Development of Democracy. "In spite of the fact that after the Andijan events of 2005 relations between Uzbekistan and the West sharply deteriorated, their recent improvement can be seen as the West's response to the various integration processes of the post-Soviet Central Asian states and Russia in various spheres," she told RFE/RL.