The United States and the European Union have taken renewed interest in constructing a pipeline to take natural gas from Turkmenistan across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan and westward to Europe. The move is motivated by a desire to further decrease Europe's dependence on Russian gas in the wake of Moscow's newly assertive foreign policy posture, but regional analysts say the pipeline could also increase tensions around the Caspian.
European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic visited Ashgabat this week for talks with energy ministers of Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan. He told Reuters that the EU expects to start receiving gas from Turkmenistan by 2019.
"[W]e discussed all aspects referring to the trans-Caspian pipeline," Sefcovic said. "We made a big step in the strategic direction... Now there is a political decision that Turkmenistan will become part of this project and will feed the European direction."
The possibility of a trans-Caspian pipeline has been long discussed but has been hindered by a number of obstacles, not least of which is the opposition of Russia, which stands to lose market share in Europe were the pipeline to be built. Russia is the single-largest supplier of gas to Europe, holding about 30 percent of the market share (and far more in some Eastern European countries). And the volatility in Moscow has renewed efforts in Brussels and Washington to reduce that dependency.
The Pentagon will provide Uzbekistan with patrol boats and vehicles worth up to $6.2 million to help the country in its counternarcotics efforts, the U.S. embassy in Tashkent has announced.
The short announcement didn't detail the number or types of boats and vehicles, but it did say that they will be allocated to Uzbekistan's State Border Protection Committee of the National Security Service and the State Customs Committee.
Security along the Amu Darya river, which separates Uzbekistan from Afghanistan, has long been a priority of U.S. security assistance to Tashkent; even in the period between roughly 2004 and 2012 when military aid to Uzbekistan was restricted due to congressional sanctions, aid and training for border forces continued.
"In early 2007, the Department of Defense sold the Government of Uzbekistan fourteen patrol boats to promote the security of the Amu River, part of which runs along Uzbekistan's southern border with Afghanistan," reported one 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable. "The Border Guards Termez Riverine Squadron maintains and operates these boats, and DOD conducts annual training on the use of these craft. Training includes basic small craft maneuvering, maintenance, shallow river patrolling techniques, night patrolling, interdiction techniques and radar-assisted patrolling."
Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon at a meeting with senior security officials April 22. (photo: president.tj)
While heavy fighting has broken out in northern Afghanistan, near the border of Tajikistan, officials in Dushanbe say they have the situation under control.
Last week, the Taliban formally announced the beginning of their spring offensive. While attacks have spiked across the country, northeastern Afghanistan has seen unusual amounts of violence. Earlier this month fighting broke out in Afghan Badakhshan, the narrow panhandle bordering the Tajikistan region of the same name. Dozens of fighters on both sides were reportedly killed in those clashes.
Now, heavy fighting has erupted in Kunduz, about 60 kilometers from the border of southern Tajikistan. That fighting has killed at least 30 people and forced President Ashraf Ghani to delay his planned trip to India on Monday. (It's also reportedly come close to the Tajikistan consulate in the city.)
The violence has of course not gone unnoticed in Dushanbe. Last week President Emomali Rahmon convened senior security officials to discuss Afghanistan and ordered "increasing military readiness for the protection of state borders, and the fight against terrorism, extremism and illegal drug trafficking."
Special operations troops from SCO member state militaries at the opening ceremony of joint exercises in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
The China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization is holding joint exercises with special operations forces from Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan -- and they're doing it at a military base in Kyrgyzstan that the United States spent $9 million to build.
The SCO exercises taking place this week involve 20-25 special operations troops from each participating country (all the member states except Uzbekistan, which typically sits out SCO military exercises). During the five-day exercise the troops will practice deploying to mountain areas, deploying from helicopters, seeking and destroying terrorist groups, rescuing hostages, and treating and evacuating wounded troops. Pretty standard stuff for a joint special operations exercise.
What makes this drill stand out is the site: the base of the Scorpions special operations unit in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. Readers may recall that this is the base that U.S. Central Command and the U.S. embassy in Bishkek spent $9 million to build. It's no wonder it was attractive to the SCO, given that a Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cable from the opening ceremony of the base in 2009 described it as "the gold standard in Central Asian construction ... far exceeds any other facility the Kyrgyz currently have." The facility includes
"officer and enlisted housing, classroom training facilities, a multipurpose facility, a dining facility and shower/sauna complex."
Kazakhstani and Russian pilots take part in the ceremony handing over four Su-30SM fighter jets in Taldykorgan, Kazakhstan. (photos: Ministry of Defense, Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan has acquired four state-of-the-art fighter jets from Russia, part of a deal that could include up to 36 of the aircraft by 2020 in what Kazakhstan media called "one of the biggest deals on the defense market in the last decade."
The Su-30SM fighters were handed over at a ceremony April 17 at the Taldykorgan air force base. "This shows the increasing military power of the Kazakhstan armed forces... The Su-30SM will substantially improve the defense of the air borders of the republic of Kazakhstan," said the commander of Kazakhstan's air forces, General-Major Nurlan Ormanbetov.
The Su-30SM is a so-called Generation 4++ fighter, and thus far has only been ordered by the Russian air force. (The only 5th-generation fighter in operation is the Lockheed Martin F-22.)
Russian newspaper Vedemosti reported that the deal (which includes training on the new aircraft for pilots and mechanics) was worth 5 billion rubles (about $90 million at the current exchange rate). That was "close to the price for the Russian air force" thanks to the favorable pricing for Russia's allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. If Kazakhstan buys all 36 aircraft, the deal would total $2 billion, Vedemosti reported.
The new United States embassy in Kyrgyzstan continues to be the object of elaborate conspiracy theories in the Kyrgyz and Russian press, which now suggest that Washington is sneaking in equipment to help carry out a color revolution.
This conspiracy theory was kicked off by Kyrgyzstan newspaper Delo No., which reported that the U.S. flew in 152 tons of "unknown cargo" on a Ukrainian airplane. The cargo flew under the "diplomatic pouch," the mail service by which diplomats around the world can send mail without it being inspected by the receiving country.
"The situation in the world, and in our region especially, has recently become so explosive that any actions of the Americans should be regarded with suspicion. All the more so with American diplomats," the paper wrote. "And the diplomatic pouch of any country could theoretically be used to transport anything, including weapons. Before, the Americans in Kyrgyzstan had the possibility to get any cargo, into which the Kyrgyzstani authorities couldn't stick their nose, through their military base. Now there's no base, and the U.S. embassy was was unable to hide itself with the diplomatic pouch in the Manas civilian airport."
The paper puts forward two possible explanations for the secret cargo: one, that it is carrying cash in small denominations in order to pay protesters to carry out a "Maidan" in Bishkek. Another is that it is "espionage equipment for the enormous basements of the new U.S. embassy building in Bishkek."
Tajikistan is purportedly the linchpin of Moscow's security strategy in Central Asia, but local employees of the Russian military base there have protested that they haven't been paid their wages for six months.
According to RFE/RL's Tajik service, "dozens" of locals who work at the base in Kulyab, in southern Tajikistan near the border with Afghanistan, protested on April 15 to call attention to the slow payment. Russian base officials told the service that a third party company is responsible for the support staff, but that company has said that the base hasn't paid them.
If Russia isn't in fact making its payments on the base, that bodes ill for the ambitious plans that the Kremlin has announced for the base. Earlier this month, Russia announced that by 2020 it will increase the number of soldiers stationed there from 6,000 to 9,000. (It's already Russia's largest military base abroad.)
Russia is ostensibly concerned about Tajikistan's long border with Afghanistan, and has lately been ratcheting up the rhetoric about the possibility of Islamist radical spillover from Afghanistan into Central Asia. The new Russian-led security bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, last week held a meeting in the northern Tajikistan city of Khujand, where "particular attention was given to the current situation in Afghanistan with regard to the activities of the IS international terrorist organization."
Russia's post-Soviet security bloc is facing a wave of recent criticism that the organization is more talk than action. That accusation has long dogged the organization, but the recent burst of criticism comes at an awkward time as the crisis over Ukraine means that Russia is relying more and more on its non-Western allies.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and the criticism has been coming from several of those member-states. Last month, it was reported that Tajikistan is complaining that military aid promised to its border guards has been slow to arrive.
At a press conference last week in Bishkek, CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha had to defend the organization against accusations that it was ineffective.
"Everyone who talks about the ineffectiveness of the CSTO are talking complete nonsense," Bordyuzha said. "Only analysts who don't know the real picture and don't have full information can say that."
And on Monday, Bordyuzha met with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who also expressed his skepticism. "The Belarusian President noted that he would like to discuss a number of issues which have an impact on the performance of the organization in order 'to prevent it from turning into another fictitious organization,'" the state news agency Belta reported. (The report concluded laconically: "Nikolai Bordyuzha also put forward a number of proposals regarding military cooperation. Alexander Lukashenko approved some of them.")
Georgia's defense minister has said that negotiations to acquire air defense systems remain underway, contrary to claims from his predecessor that Russia scuttled attempts to buy such weaponry from the West.
Last week, ex-defense minister Irakli Alasania held a press conference to air allegations that, in deference to Russia, the government sabotaged his efforts to acquire air defense systems from France. The political fallout continued this week, doing nothing to clear up the political controversy but shedding some more light on what is by all accounts one of Georgia's most critical military priorities.
"Over the past 22 years, air defence has been our 'Achilles' heel,'" Alasania said in a TV interview, reported BBC Monitoring. "Therefore, when I came to the [Defence] Ministry, the first thing I did together with our military men was to determine air defence as our top priority. This was a system of exclusively defensive character, and I openly spoke about it in my plans."
Irakli Aladashvili, Georgia's leading defense journalist, noted that Alasania said that the air defense system he had negotatied with France would be able to shoot down any kind of Russian aircraft, as well as Iskander ballistic missiles (which were reportedly used for the first time against Georgia in 2008). Aladashvili concludes:
The United States State Department has criticized its embassy in Tajikistan for its cooperation on an investigation into military aid practices there, suggesting that embassy staff in Dushanbe were giving a sanitized view of events to their superiors in Washington.
On April 7 the State Department's Office of the Inspector General released a report on the Dushanbe embassy's activities, and among the issues it investigated was U.S. military aid policy in the context of the controversial 2012 military operation in Khorog. In that operation, special forces units -- which have been the focus of extensive U.S. training and equipping programs -- opened indiscriminate fire in the town, killing about 20 civilians. That raised questions about whether the aid was in violation of U.S. laws that try to prevent military aid going to human rights violators.
When the State Department tried to look into the event and U.S. military aid policies in Tajikistan, the information they were given was written by the military officers of the embassy, rather than the diplomats who were supposed to be providing oversight, the OIG report says. That "frustrated" officials in Washington trying to investigate, and "undermined confidence that the embassy provides a full and reliable picture of local developments."