A Russian warship, the Alexander Otrakovsky, passes through the Bosphorus on March 9 with heavy Turkish coast guard and police security. (photo: Yoruk Isik)
Russian warships passing through the Bosphorus are getting stronger protection from the Turkish coast guard and police, in an apparent response to heightened security concerns.
Last week two ships carrying cargo for the Russian military in Syria passed through the straits, which connect the Black Sea to the Mediterrannean, accompanied by three Turkish coast guard vessels, an Istanbul police department vessel, and a police helicopter. This week at least three more Russian warships have gotten the same protection.
This level of protection is unprecedented in recent years, said Can Devrim Yaylali, a Turkish naval expert and author of the blog Bosphorus Naval News. Normally the Russian ships are accompanied by a single Turkish coast guard vessel, Yaylali told The Bug Pit in an email interview.
Russian warships, by international treaty, are allowed to pass freely through the Bosphorus. That has been the source of some tension recently, as the two countries are at odds over the war in Syria and Turkey's shooting down of a Russian air force jet last year.
Nevertheless, the Turkish coast guard gives an escort to every foreign warship that passes through, Russian or otherwise. But what explains the new level of security? Yaylali suggests that the Turkish authorities probably got intelligence about a possible attack on a Russian ship. "Otherwise the Turks would not bother so much to protect Russian ships, especially in this political climate," he said.
The Murena amphibious assault ship, due to enter the Caspian Flotilla in 2017. (photo: Almaz Shipbuilding, Khabarovsk)
Russia's plans to introduce a new amphibious assault ship into its Caspian Flotilla has raised questions among just which of its neighbors' shores Russia envisages assaulting.
The new ship will join the Caspian Flotilla next year, according to a report by the Ministry of Defense-run TV Zvezda. The ship is designed to carry marine assault teams, including 140 troops and one tank or two armored personnel carriers, up to a beach.
"There is a valid reason for strengthening the Caspian Flotilla with this vessel," TV Zvezda reported. It quoted military analyst Alexander Mozgovoy: "The region is extremely unstable. There are both our North Caucasus republics, where terrorist groups appear quite often, and also the nearby states."
Russian military blogger Andrey Shipilov picked up the story and wrote a post entitled "Russia prepares for an invasion of the countries of the Caspian." He notes: "The equipment is purely offensive, the only function of which is to seize coastal territories. And just as it is written in the story, it's very necessary on the sea now; the only open question is which state's territory is the target of this necessity?"
General Raheel Sharif, chief of staff of Pakistan's armed forces, received an honor guard in Dushanbe. (photo: Pakistan Army)
The chief of Pakistan's army visited Tajikistan this week, vowing Pakistan's "full support" in Tajikistan's fight against terror. The visit was the first by the general to Central Asia.
General Raheel Sharif met Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon on Tuesday; the two discussed "cooperation between national armies and law enforcement agencies of Tajikistan and Pakistan in the fight against modern threats and challenges, including terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking," according to Rahmon's website.
General Sharif, for his part, "offered Pakistan’s full support in capacity building of Tajikistan forces to counter terrorism," according to the Pakistan Army website. Rahmon also reportedly praised the Pakistan Army's "phenomenal achievements" in operations on the border with Afghanistan, calling them a "role model for rest of the world."
Central Asia has not typically been a priority area for the Pakistani military, but Sharif's predecessor visited Tajikistan and Kazakhstan in 2013. This appears to have been Sharif's first visit to the region. (It's also worth noting that Sharif, in addition to army chief of staff, is probably the most powerful political figure in Pakistan today.)
Tajikistan is something of a hot spot for foreign military assistance these days. Sharif's visit came one day after a senior Chinese military official met Rahmon in Dushanbe and promised that "China is willing to further enhance military cooperation and multilateral counter-terrorism collaboration with Tajikistan."
Russia's senior defense industry official has made an unexpected visit to Baku, as a Russian newspaper reports that Azerbaijan is refusing to pay for a shipment of Russian arms.
"The fall in oil prices has affected everyone, and Azerbaijan is no exception," an unnamed Russian defense industry official told the newspaper Kommersant. As a result, a shipment of weapons ordered several years ago by Azerbaijan is currently sitting in port waiting for payment, the official said.
An early version of a story on the Sputnik Azerbaijan site cited an Azerbaijani military expert backing that up, but some time after it was published all references to Baku's failure to pay were erased.
In an apparent effort to sort out the situation, Russia's deputy prime minister in charge of defense industry, Dmitry Rogozin, arrived in Baku for a previously unannounced visit on Wednesday night. On Thursday, Rogozin posted a photo with him and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev on his facebook page with the caption "Following positive negotiations with the leader of friendly Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev." There was no indication of what may have resulted from the positive negotiations.
Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli in a January visit to the Pankisi Gorge. (photo: MoD Georgia)
Georgia's government is pushing to get more military recruits from the Pankisi Gorge, a region that has recently been known more for sending Islamist militants to fight in Syria.
The Georgian Ministry of Defense announced on Monday that it had signed up 33 youths from Pankisi to join the military after a substantial government outreach effort. That effort included military representatives spending two weeks in the remote region recruiting, and a visit by Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli, where she assured residents that they would be able to pray, celebrate religious holidays and eat halal food. "I’m sure that people have much more information about the Georgian Army in Pankisi at this moment and the next call-up will have a better outcome,” Khidasheli said Monday in announcing the recruiting haul.
The Pankisi Gorge, about 160 kilometers northeast of Tbilisi, is populated largely by Kists, a Muslim group related to the Chechens and Ingush across the border in the Russian North Caucasus. The region's most famous son, at the moment, is Tarkhan Batirashvili, better known as Omar al-Shishani, a senior commander of ISIS in Syria. Before that, it was the focus of the United States's first serious training-and-equipping effort in Georgia, when in the early days of the War on Terror American soldiers helped drill Georgians to "operate in Pankisi-like conditions."
Ukraine is planning a "substantial enhancement" of its military position around the Black Sea and on the border of Crimea as part of a strategy of regaining the territory that Russia annexed two years ago.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced the initiative on Friday, commemorating the second anniverary of the Russian annexation. "Crimea was, is and will be an integral part of the Ukrainian state and the country-criminal will be forced to return the loot," Poroshenko said.
"I am confident that we will certainly return these two administrative territories under the Ukrainian sovereignty. This extremely complex and promising process has already begun. Today, I have instructed to organize a special session of the National Security and Defense Council to clarify our strategy for the reintegration of Crimea," he said.
This strategy will include building up Ukraine's military capacity along the Black Sea and the Kherson oblast, which borders Crimea, Poroshenko added: "The Ministry of Defense and the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine are instructed to submit proposals for substantial enhancement of military capacity of Ukraine in Kherson region and along the entire Black Sea coast. Russia has increased its military presence in the region, completes the peninsula’s transformation from a flourishing international resort into a big military base, which poses a nuclear threat not only to Ukraine, but also to all countries of the Black Sea region."
South Ossetia's authorities are fighting among themselves about the future of the country's armed forces, with the territory's de facto defense minister accusing political opponents of wanting to dissolve the military and fully hand over the responsibility for its defense to Russia.
At issue is the implementation of the agreement signed last March by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his de facto South Ossetian counterpart Leonid Tibilov on "alliance and integration" between Russia and South Ossetia, including a "common space of security and defense."
Russia officially recognized South Ossetia as an independent country in 2008, after it fought a war with Georgia over the tiny territory, still recognized by most of the rest of the world as a part of Georgia. Since then, Russia has been formalizing its control over the territory, though only up to a point: a South Ossetian proposal last fall to hold a referendum on joining Russia was quietly ignored by Moscow, which apparently decided it didn't have anything to gain by this particular annexation.
In any case, the March 2015 agreement between Moscow and Tskhinvali called for "particular units of the armed forces of South Ossetia to enter the structure" of the Russian military. But the devil is in the details, and the two sides are now working out legislation on how to implementat the agreement. South Ossetia's defense minister, Ibragim Gasseyev, accused the South Ossetian parliament of conniving to eliminate the local armed forces altogether.
Russia has announced the details of a new shipment of arms it is sending to Armenia, a relatively rare move likely connected with Russia's ongoing tension with Turkey.
Last week, the Russian government announced that it would be providing Armenia with a $200 million credit to buy equipment including multiple-launch rocket systems, anti-tank missiles, handheld antiaircraft missiles and upgrades to tanks.
The credit was announced last year, as an apparent concession by Russia amid large-scale street protests in Armenia against the country's Russian-owned electricity company. But the details of the weapons to be acquired weren't released, which is the normal practice with Russian arms deliveries to Armenia, said Emil Sanamyan, an analyst who closely follows Caucasus military affairs.
In general, Armenia prefers to cultivate an air of mystery about what weaponry exactly it is acquiring, partly to keep its rival, Azerbaijan, off-guard but also because it likely is acquiring far less and so has little to gain by flaunting it. Azerbaijan, by contrast, tends to exaggerate its purchases in an effort to intimidate.
(That said, Azerbaijan's purchases are still substantial, and a large portion of them also come from Russia. This week, the Stockholm International Peace Research institute released a report noting that Azerbaijan was the largest importer of arms in Europe over the period 2011-15, and that it accounted for nearly five percent of Russian exports over that period.)
Azerbaijan is walking a narrow line on Syria, trying not to offend either of its powerful neighbors, offering apparently contradictory statements this week about where its sympathies lie.
In an interview with an Austrian newspaper, Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov expressed qualified support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "Currently, President Assad is the only guarantor of the integrity and security of Syria," Azimov said. "His army is a legal institution. We welcome a political process, in which Assad would remain in power until the election of his replacement."
Azimov also criticized Russian airstrikes in support of Assad: "I believe that the Russian airstrikes are inefficient and costly." But Azimov's comments were overall seen as surprisingly favorable to Russia. "This may req some explaining before #Azerbaijan Pres Aliyev comes to Washington," former U.S. ambassador to Baku Richard Kauzlarich wrote on his twitter account.
"Support for Assad means that the country is together with Russia and Iran, defending the dictatorship. It is also important that Azerbaijan and Turkey expressed the opposite position on the Syrian issue. In the whole ... interview Azimov confirms that Azerbaijan is close to the dictatorial regimes, such as Russia and Iran, and it is against the position of the free world," said Azerbaijani oppositionist Isa Gambar.
The United States plans to give Central Asia an additional $50 million in military aid under a new program, with the bulk of the aid focused on Tajikistan, budget documents released by the White House show.
The money would be part of the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, a Pentagon program launched in 2014 aimed at training militaries around the globe to fight terrorism. In the past, all of the funding in the program has gone to countries in the Middle East and Africa, but starting this year Central Asia would receive $20 million from the fund, and next year, $30 million.
"The [Department of Defense] proposes allocating CTPF funds in Central Asia to counter the Taliban, ISIL, and other regionally-based terrorist groups, and to promote stability in the region. A key partner nation in the region is Tajikistan," the DoD wrote in budget justification documents released last week. "CTPF funding will support [counterterrorism] partners in a region where war in Afghanistan and other regional pressures challenge the security interests of the U.S., its allies, and partners."