The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Ross passes through the Bosphorus straits on December 3. (photos: U.S. Navy)
An American warship has entered the Black Sea and three more NATO ships have docked in Istanbul as tension rises on the Bosphorus straits, a source of contention between Russia and Turkey for centuries.
The U.S. Navy destroyer the USS Ross entered the Black Sea on December 3. These visits to the sea are relatively routine, but this is the first such American visit to the Black Sea since Turkey shot down a Russian bomber jet on the Turkey-Syria border. In addition, warships from three other NATO members -- Canada, Portugal, and Spain -- have moored at Istanbul in an apparent show of support. Turks interviewed by Euronews were reportedly "reassured" by the NATO ships' visit.
The visits come as there has been a flurry of discussion in the Russian and Turkish press about the role the Bosphorus straits might play in the conflict between the two countries. The Bosphorus is the only outlet of the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, and so Russia depends on it as its only warm water access to the rest of the world.
According to the 1936 Montreux Convention, Turkey is obliged to allow free traffic through the straits, except in the case of war or the imminent threat thereof. While this is, in theory, a huge strategic advantage that Turkey holds over Russia, to actually close off the straits would no doubt be seen by Russia as an act of war and it's very unlikely Ankara would take such a step unless the situation between the two countries dramatically worsened.
NATO has struck a blow to Georgia's membership aspirations, announcing that the country is still expected to pass through a stage of accession, the so-called MAP, that officials in Tbilisi have lobbied to skip.
"At the 2008 Bucharest Summit we agreed that Georgia will become a member of NATO with MAP as an integral part of the process; today we reaffirm all elements of that decision," NATO foreign ministers announced after a meeting Wednesday.
Georgia has sought MAP, without success, for many years, and of late Tbilisi has taken a new tack: Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli has been trying to convince NATO members that the MAP, or Membership Action Plan, is an unnecessary "intermediate step" for Georgia. "There should be no intermediary steps between Georgia and NATO," she tweeted in October.
So Wednesday's move, reaffirming the necessity of MAP, was yet another setback in Georgia's quest for NATO accession. "That Khidasheli has been unable to secure even that is unsurprising, but it does represent a symbolic blow considering that Georgia is already in many ways 'beyond' the MAP stage -- not to mention the amount of diplomatic energy Tbilisi spent on this initiative," said Michael Hikari Cecire, a Caucasus expert and associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, in an email interview with The Bug Pit.
Russia's would-be military allies have been nearly silent on Moscow's rift with Turkey over the latter's shootdown of a bomber jet on the Turkey-Syria border last week, resulting in some consternation about what good the alliance is.
Russia leads the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military-security bloc whose other members are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Russia called an urgent session of the CSTO's permanent council the day after the Su-24 was shot down, where Russian representatives showed their allies evidence that showed that their plane had not crossed into Turkish airspace, as Ankara had claimed.
The CSTO issued a statement afterwards saying that the participants called the shootdown "a grave violation of international norms with the gravest consequences." But the phrasing of the statement was ambiguous; as Belarusian website tut.by put it, "it wasn't specified whether this was Russia's position or the joint position of the CSTO."
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov meet in Iran on November 23. (photo: kremlin.ru)
The disruption of air traffic over the Caspian Sea is a sacrifice necessary for the sake of fighting terrorism, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said.
Russia's launch of cruise missiles from warships in the Caspian against targets in Syria prompted several airlines, including Kazakhstan's flag carrier Air Astana, to suspend flights over the sea in mid-October. Last week, Russia launched another salvo of missiles from the Caspian to Syria.
Putin's recent comments came during a meeting with Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov at a gas conference in Iran. It was raised in a curious fashion: Berdymukhammedov brought it up and said it was something that worried Kazakhstan, without mentioning what his own opinion might be.
"Our Kazakh colleagues are very worried about what is happening above the Caspian Sea," Berdymukhammedov said, according to a Kremlin transcript. This is connected with military issues. So the issue has arisen connected with international civilian air traffic, should traffic be altered, the flight level. I don't know if you are aware of this issue, but our Kazakh colleauges are very concernd about this."
Putin's answer was basically: we're the ones fighting terrorism on everyone's behalf, so don't complain about these kinds of inconveniences.
Turkey has shot down a Russian warplane that crossed into its airspace amid tension over Russia's targeting of ethnic Turkmen forces in Syria which Turkey considers its "brothers and sisters."
Since Russia's bombing campaign in Syria began about two months ago Russian jets have repeatedly crossed into Turkish airspace. Until now Turkey has been relatively sanguine about those incursions (though it did send a couple of military helicopters into Armenian airspace which observers interpreted as a message to Russia).
But by Tuesday, Ankara's patience had apparently worn out. After what Turkey claimed was a 17-second violation of its airspace, and ten warnings, Turkish F-16 jets shot down the Russian Su-24. It was apparently the first exchange of fire between a NATO member and Russia since the end of the Cold War.
Turkey's decisionmaking was likely heavily influenced by the fact that Russia had of late been targeting units of ethnic Turkmens, culturally and linguistically close to Turks, in northern Syria. “That definitely played a role in how they responded to this incursion as compared to other ones," said Aaron Stein, a fellow at the Washingon-based Atlantic Council, in a conference call with reporters.. "This isn't just another Russian bombing campaign” but one that attacks what Turkey considers to be its sphere of influence, Stein added.
Residents of Tajikistan's southern city of Kulyab are lamenting the imminent departure of the Russian military presence there, which is slated to move to the capital, Dushanbe in two months.
News of the base closure broke last week, after which it emerged that the Russian soldiers in Kulyab would be moving to other facilities within Tajikistan and that the Kulyab facility would be handed over to the government of Tajikistan.
"The redeployment was agreed with the Ministry of Defense of Tajikistan and is going according to plan. It is in the interests of increasing the military readiness and the growth of the military potential of the units," said Yaroslav Roshchupkin, a spokesman for Russia's Central Military District, reported RIA Novosti. "The military base in Kulyab will be handed over to the jurisdiction of the government organs of Tajikistan."
The overall size of the Russian military presence in Tajikistan won't change, Roshchupkin added. "Of the three Russian military objects in the region, two will remain -- the Kurgan-Tyube motor rifle regiment and the 'Okno' optical-electrionic structure of the Russian Aerospace Defense Forces."
But that didn't really answer the question of why the move was being made. It's particularly curious given the amount of attention Russia has been paying to the purported threat of radical Islamists militants spilling over from Afghanistan into Central Asia. Kulyab is only about 40 kilometers from the Afghan border, and as such would seem to be ideally placed to protect against that spillover threat.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Rosenblum gives a press conference in Ashgabat on November 18. (photo: U.S. embassy, Ashgabat)
Turkmenistan's government has told the United States that it doesn't need help in protecting its border with Afghanistan, a senior American diplomat has said.
If true, this means Turkmenistan has changed its mind. Earlier this year U.S. military officials said that Ashgabat had asked for aid to help guard its southern border, which over the past couple of years has been the site of repeated clashes between Taliban militants in Afghanistan and Afghan and Turkmen security forces.
"The Turkmens recently expressed a desire to acquire U.S. military equipment and technology to address threats to their security along their southern border with Afghanistan," said General Lloyd Austin, the commander of U.S. Central Command, in testimony to Congress in March. "We will do what we can to support those requests."
This week, Deputy Assistant Secretary State Daniel Rosenblum visited Ashgabat, and gave a press conference on November 18 where he was asked about U.S. cooperation with Turkmenistan vis-a-vis border security.
"We have seen reports, some in the press and elsewhere, about incidents happening on the border not just recently but going back to last year on the Afghan-Turkmen border," Rosenblum said. "There was one incident that we have heard about in which some Turkmen border guards were killed. We have discussed this with our partners here in Turkmenistan, representatives of the government as well as other international organizations. And the Turkmenistan government has said that it feels they can guarantee the Turkmen border and doesn't require any additional assistance from outside."
Screenshot of Russian MoD-produced video of launch of Kalibr rocket from the Caspian Sea against targets in Syria on November 20.
Russia has launched another salvo of missiles at Syrian targets from the Caspian Sea, the Russian Ministry of Defense has announced.
"On November 20, the Caspian Flotilla warships launched 18 cruise missiles at seven targets in the Raqqa, Idlib and Aleppo provinces of Syria. All the targets were hit," said Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu in an update given Friday on Russian military operations in Syria. In addition, 29 long-range bomber aircraft from the Caspian Sea (it wasn't specified where precisely) have carried out strikes in Syria.
This was the second cruise missile attack from the Caspian, after the pioneering strike of October 7 in which Russia brought the Caspian region into the Syria conflict, at the same time demonstrating its military dominance over the sea.
The hardware was the same this time around, Kalibr rockets fired from the Dagestan missile carrier ship and the Uglich, Grad Sviyazhsk and Veliky Ustyug missile boats.
"The task of delivering Kalibr long-distance cruise missile strikes at Islamic State targets in Syria has been accomplished," said Sergey Yekimov, a deputy commander of the Caspian Fleet. "All 18 Kalibr missiles have been successfully fired. Results will be reported after objective control data are received."
The long-running drama over Turkey's controversial decision to buy a Chinese missile system appears to have ended with a move to scrap the purchase altogether.
An unnamed Turkish official told Reuters on Sunday that the $3.4 billion program has been canceled. Daily Sabah, a pro-government newspaper, cited its own sources saying that Turkey would now pursue building the system by itself.
The program had been a geopolitical touchstone, with the original competition pitting four competitors from the U.S., Russia, China, and a European consortium. The announcement, in 2013, that Ankara was choosing the Chinese HQ-9 air defense system, set off a massive, twisting controversy. Ankara's original justification for choosing the Chinese system was that it was the cheapest, and also included the most generous offers of technology transfer, which would allow Turkey to acquire the blueprints for the system so that it could eventually build its own system.
But that decision angered Turkey's NATO partners, which objected that they couldn't integrate the Chinese system into NATO's larger air defense umbrella because it could compromise the security of NATO data. Many in China and Turkey complained that this was merely a pretext, and that Western governments were trying to bully Ankara into choosing a European system for commercial reasons.
About 4,500 Islamist militants are operating in northern Afghanistan near the borders of Central Asia, and are planning to create an "emirate" consisting of much of the territory of the region, Russian officials have said.
"According to the information we have, in that area groups of militants are moving toward the border of the [former Soviet Union], in particular to the borders of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan," said Alexander Manilov, coordinator of the Commonwealth of Independent States border guard services, at a meeting on Thursday of the group in Astana. (The CIS is an organization of post-Soviet states.)
"Therefore one of our tasks today is to discuss how to liquidate these threats on the border and that they don't cross into the CIS countries," he said. "According to estimates about the Afghan border, around 4,500 militants, terrorists, are located in the Afghan territories bordering immediately on the CIS countries."
"I believe this is significantly more than it used to be before," Manilov added. "I think there are real threats - from penetrations across the border to attempts to destabilize the states on the [Afghan] border."