Russian gunboats during a 2011 exercise on the Caspian Sea. (photo: mil.ru)
The foreign ministers of the countries surrounding the Caspian Sea met in Moscow on Tuesday, in preparation for a summit this fall. Diplomatic activity around the sea is not new, and the major dispute -- how to divide up the sea between the five countries -- remains unresolved. But as with everything else in the post-Soviet space, the crisis in Ukraine has changed the calculations in the Caspian, making for an unusual amount of turbulence in the normally stagnant diplomatic waters.
The most interesting potential storyline of the meeting was that Russia had convinced the other four countries -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan -- to agree to forbid the military presence of any other country on the sea. This was based on a report in Russian newspaper Kommersant, which quoted a "diplomatic source from one of the Caspian countries" saying that "Moscow managed to convince its partners that no outside power should influence decisions about the Caspian. In particular, the issue is about limiting the deployment of military forces of third countries, especially the U.S., to the Caspian."
It's not clear to what extent the issue came up at the meeting. At a press conference afterwards, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was asked about "the intention of some non-Caspian countries to gain a presence, including military, without taking into account the interests of the countries in the region?" Lavrov answered: "Responsibility for the state of affairs in the Caspian region rests with the Caspian countries... We are open to cooperation with outside countries, if they are ready to do so on the basis of the rules and principles that the five Caspian countries agree on among themselves."
Russia is gearing up for an ideological battle with the West, using its post-Soviet security apparatus to counter the threat of "color revolutions" around its borders.
The Russia-led political-military bloc the Collective Security Treaty Organization recently held a roundtable in Minsk on countering "color revolutions," the motley collection of recent popular uprisings that, in the Kremlin's mind (or perhaps only its propaganda), are orchestrated by the U.S. and include such disparate revolutions as Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Tunisia, and Syria. "All so-called 'color revolutions' are carefully prepared in advance by the creation and training of 'leaders' and special groups capable of organizing protest actions of the population aimed at creating informational-psychological pressure on the government," said CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha at the event. And he called for the "collective response using the CSTO" to combat those threats in CSTO countries (which, in addition to Russia, include Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan).
The CSTO has been making those sorts of statements for a while, but the events in Ukraine seem to have sharpened its focus on color revolutions. Bordyuzha, however, has been fairly vague about what, exactly, the CSTO could do about the issue. Аn analysis was published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta making some more concrete suggestions about what the CSTO and Russia could do. One of its suggestions was to work with the press, and the fact that it came out the same day as the Minsk roundtable suggested that the article may itself be part of the strategy.
The author, Aleksandr Bartosh, is more explicit than Bordyuzha can be about who, exactly, are organizing these color revolutions:
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev meets his Iranian counterpart, Hasan Rouhani, in Tehran. (photo: president.az)
Tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran have been tense over the past few months, with border skirmishes, Tehran accusing Baku of being in cahoots with Israel and Baku claiming to break up Tehran-linked terror plots. In spite of this rocky patch, top Azerbaijani officials have visited Tehran, with President Ilham Aliyev meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Azerbaijan's Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov meeting with top Iranian military officials.
Aliyev's visit "created an opportunity for rapid development of relations between the two countries in various spheres," said General Hassan Firuzabadi, chief of staff of Iran's armed forces. Firuzabadi also reportedly said that "We have today discussed the issues on organization of military trainings, friendly meetings, provision of techniques and weapons for the Azerbaijani Army."
Hasanov, for his part, reiterated Baku's promise that it would not allow any other country (read: Israel) to attack Iran from its territory.
Iran's president is apparently planning a trip to Baku in the next month. The visits are part of a general pivot toward Central Asia, said the Iranian Fars News Agency. "Iran has recently enhanced efforts to boost political, economic and cultural ties and cooperation with the regional and neighboring countries, specially the Central Asian states."
Azerbaijan, unsurprisingly, was the region's leader, with defense expenditure nearly quintupling over the last decade. And that was the second-greatest increase in the world over that period, beaten only by Afghanistan, which obviously started from a relatively low level in 2004. The data from the Caucasus and Central Asia:
Armenia: $427 million in 2013, up 115 percent since 2004.
Azerbaijan: $3.44 billion in 2013, up 493 percent since 2004
Georgia: $443 million in 2013, up 230 percent since 2004
Kazakhstan: $2.8 billion in 2013, up 248 percent since 2004
Among the report's other findings:
-- Over the last year, Russia’s military spending increased by 4.8 per cent, "and for the ﬁrst time since 2003 it spent a bigger share of its GDP on the military than the USA."
-- Over the same period, Kazakhstan saw among the biggest defense spending increases in the Asia-Pacific region, with a ten percent increase, despite enjoying what SIPRI called an "essentially peaceful security environment."
-- Turkey entered the list of 15 top defense spenders worldwide, spending $19.1 billion in 2013.
-- China's defense spending in 2013 increased 7.4 percent over the previous year.
The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook, just arrived in the Black Sea, in a file photo. (photo: Morgan Over. U.S. Navy)
Russia continues to complain about the U.S. and NATO's naval presence in the Black Sea, suggesting the Kremlin is going to keep pushing to limit western military influence in the sea.
After Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized the U.S. and Turkey for ignoring the Montreux Convention, the 1938 treaty that regulates the naval presence in the Black Sea, the Kremlin has doubled down on its criticism, saying that the U.S. had kept a warship in the sea for longer than the 21 days it is allowed. Turkey -- which enforces the convention -- had responded to that accusations, saying they "do not in any way represent the truth"
In an April 20 statement, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the Turkish statement "extremely bewildering" and that the USS Taylor had stayed 11 days longer than it was supposed to. "Turkey did not inform us about the overstay. We have expressed our concern to the Turkish and US side in a verbal note," the statement said. "We presume that Turkey, as well as non-neighboring countries, will in the future strictly observe their obligations with respect to the convention."
The USS Taylor, recall, had run aground in the Black Sea and had to be serviced in Samsun, Turkey, as a result (a fact the Russian statement didn't mention).
At the same time, Russia responded strongly to the entrance of another U.S. warship into the Black Sea, the USS Donald Cook. An unnamed Russian Defense Ministry source told ITAR-TASS that, given the presence of a French warship already in the sea and the planned arrival of two more, we can say that NATO is building a naval grouping in the Black Sea in the vicinity of the Russian border for the first time since 2008." The source went on:
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is presented with a gift horse during his visit to Mongolia. (photo: DoD)
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Mongolia, promising to increase military cooperation with the country and saying that it was a key part of the U.S. "rebalance" to Asia.
Hagel's visit came at the end of a ten-day trip around Asia, which also included stops in China and Japan. He promised to increase cooperation, like joint training. The promise of increased help seemed modest: "As Mongolia invests in defense modernization, the United States will continue to work with our Mongolian partners to improve joint training and exercises," Hagel said in a press conference with his Mongolian counterpart, "And this will include increasing opportunities for Mongolia to observe and participate in multilateral exercises. We will also work together to increase the ability of our forces to work even closer together." The two sides also signed a "joint vision" document formalizing the promise of increased cooperation.
And he framed his visit in geopolitical terms:" A strong U.S.-Mongolia defense relationship is important to America's rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region. I have noted that point in the last 10 days I've been in the region and the minister and I discussed it this afternoon," Hagel said.
"The [joint vision] document is mostly symbolic but is likely to irritate Beijing, which has accused Washington of trying to hold back its rise by cultivating military ties with smaller Asian neighbors," the AFP wrote, which seems accurate.
NATO is planning to increase its cooperation with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova as a result of the crisis in Ukraine. But regional experts say that NATO is nevertheless likely to remain a marginal factor in the security and geopolitics of the Caucasus.
The German newspaper Der Spiegel originally reported NATO's plans, which then were largely confirmed by NATO's special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia James Appathurai in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (available only in Azeri and Romanian). They include boosting training with all three countries, increasing the interoperability of the countries' militaries with NATO, and, in the case of Azerbaijan, helping to protect oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea.
Armenia's government appreciates its cooperation with NATO both as a balance against Russia and as a way to improve its armed forces, but it's skeptical that the cooperation will amount to much, said Yerevan-based analyst Sergey Minasyan. "After the Ukrainian events ... Armenia should be worried that closer cooperation with NATO would anger Russia, especially if the West-East tensions continue," he said in an email interview with The Bug Pit. "At least in the South Caucasus the West, including NATO, is too far while the 'angry Russians' are already here," he said. "If Brussels think it can offer Armenia something more serious as a real addition to the current level of security cooperation, that would be very welcomed by Yerevan, but it seems too unrealistic from here."
A Chinese HQ-9 air defense system, possibly no longer headed soon to Turkey. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Amid the continuing controversy over Turkey's selection of a Chinese company to build a sensitive air defense system, Turkey's top state defense industry official has been demoted and there are reports Ankara may be considering trying to build the whole thing itself.
Recall that the controversy began in September, when after a drawn-out competition, Turkey announced that it had chosen the Chinese HQ-9 air and missile defense system. The Chinese system was competing against ones from Russia, the U.S., and Europe, so the competition appeared to have -- rightly or wrongly -- a geopolitical component. Turkey's announcement resulted in a significant amount of U.S. and NATO pressure; Turkey's Western partners are concerned about the possibility that China could gain sensitive NATO data via the system.
Over the last month or so, there have been several indications that Turkey is rethinking its choice. Unnamed sources told the newspaper Hurriyet that the U.S. and European companies that lost out are considering changing their offer to give Turkey more of the sensitive technology involved in building the system (a key Turkish criterion for the program and one which the Chinese company, by all accounts, was best at). That also, though, would increase the price (and the Chinese system was already cheaper).
The guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook, reportedly en route to the Black Sea (photo: Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Adam Austin)
As the U.S. prepares to send another warship into the Black Sea, it is facing Russian accusations that the increased American military presence there is illegal.
The U.S. is planning on sending its fourth warship to the Black Sea since February. Pentagon officials confirmed that another warship would be heading soon to the Black Sea. "This is to reassure our allies of our commitment to the region. ... It is a direct result of the current situation in Ukraine," said U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman. (NBC News reported that the ship would be the guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook and that it would be heading to the Black Sea in the next few days.) The new deployment comes on the heels of another ship's visit in March and two more in February.
That appears to be too much for the Kremlin. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said April 3 that the U.S. has violated the Montreux Convention, the 1938 treaty that regulates the number and kinds of ships that can enter the Black Sea.
"There exists the Montreux Convention, which gives extremely clear criteria limiting the deployment of warships not belonging to the Black Sea governments in regard to tonnage and length of stay," Lavrov said.
"We have noticed that US warships have extended their deployment beyond the set terms a couple of times lately, and at times they did not always comply with the regulations that are set within the Montreux Convention."
As Russia, China and Central Asian countries plan for post-2014 Afghanistan, they are floating plans to create "mini buffer states" in northern Afghanistan in order to stanch the potential flow of Islamism and violence into the post-Soviet space.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the China-led security organization that also includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, held a meeting of member state defense ministers this week in Khujand, Tajikistan. The participants made the usual vague public statements about how the SCO was playing a key role in regional stability. “We do not share the West’s optimism about the chances of stabilising the situation in Afghanistan following continued actions by international terrorist and Islamic extremist organisations,” said Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. “The SCO is turning into one of most important structures, to our mind, not only in Central Asia, but also in the East,” he added. The defense ministers also discussed the upcoming iteration of the annual Peace Mission joint military exercises, to be held this year in August in China's Inner Mongolia.