The State Department has released its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism" reviewing terrorism activity from the past year and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the ISIS is the overwhelming focus throughout the report, but also in the former Soviet Union.
"The ongoing civil war in Syria was a significant factor in driving worldwide terrorism events in 2014," State wrote in the report's introduction. "The rate of foreign terrorist fighter travel to Syria – totaling more than 16,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 90 countries as of late December – exceeded the rate of foreign terrorist fighters who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years."
The report continues State's practice of describing governments' perceptions of the threat of terrorism, rather than Washington's own perception. The introduction of the section on South and Central Asia reads: "Central Asian leaders have expressed concern about the potential terrorist threat posed by the return of foreign terrorist fighters to the region in the wake of ISIL’s growth in the Middle East and the drawdown of U.S. and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan."
Last year's report expressed substantial skepticism about Central Asian government's claims about terror threats; that skepticism is less apparent in this report's newly written sections on ISIS. However, a senior State Department official testified before Congress earlier this month on ISIS in Central Asia and downplayed the threat, noting that the vast majority are not recruited in Central Asia but abroad, particularly in Russia.
Moscow is driven by the principle of "parity" in its arms supplies to rivals Armenia and Azerbaijan, a senior Russian defense official has said, in comments that are likely to further erode Armenia's confidence in its ostenible military ally, Russia.
"I know that the sale of arms by Russian manufacturers is carried out by the decision of the Russian leadership taking into account the necessity of observing parity," Nikolay Bordyuzha, the secretary general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, said at a press conference June 18. "In addition to the arms Azerbaijan buys, arms are delivered and sold to Armenia in quite large quantities. And that allows a sort of parity to be maintained."
Armenia is a member of the CSTO, a post-Soviet defense bloc, while Azerbaijan is not. The CSTO has been dogged by doubts about its effectiveness, but Armenia is the most loyal member, seeing the alliance as a instrument of Russian support against Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan has been extravagantly rearming itself with the aim of retaking Nagorno Karabakh, its territory that it lost to Armenian forces in a war in the early 1990s. The fact that Azerbaijan has been making many of those purchases from Russia has been causing increasing discomfort in Yerevan. Earlier this year the scale of those sales was revealed for the first time, with Russia supplying a whopping 85 percent of Azerbaijan's total weapons acquisitions.
Belarus has announced that it tested its new rocket-launcher system in China, the latest sign of an increasing military partnership between the two countries. And Belarus's president Aleksandr Lukashenko took the opportunity to take swipes at both Russia and NATO countries, suggesting Minsk may be more comfortable with Beijing than with any of its neighbors in Europe.
The Polonez multiple-launch rocket system is Belarus's highest-profile defense industry innovation, and took the spotlight at the country's May 9 Victory Day parade this year. Many analysts have suggested that it bears traces of Chinese origin and may use rockets (which Belarus doesn't produce) from China. So the fact that it was tested in China certainly gives credence to that speculation.
But the press release announcing the test, which featured comments from Lukashenko, was unusually feisty for the genre. "Our ally, Russia, is not so active in supporting our aspirations. We will talk about that separately with the Russian president," Lukashenko said, without citing which aspirations were not being supported. "But we thank the People's Republic of China and its leadership for this support."
Lukashenko also took aim at NATO, though he was a bit more understanding to his western neighbors: "They constantly publicly demonstrate their activities, especially on our borders," he said. "This activity can not but alarm us. But this isn't really an issue. We understand the propaganda aspect of these acts. You need to keep your powder dry. We have always said this."
Georgia and France have finalized a blockbuster air defense deal that was the source of a major political crisis in Tbilisi last year, though many of the details of the deal and the crisis remain shrouded in mystery.
Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli on June 15 signed an agreement with the company ThalesRaytheonSystems in Paris on the purchase of “advanced” air defense systems that will “guarantee country’s air defense,” Khidasheli said, according to Georgian news website Civil.ge.
But that's about all that is known: the exact type of system, its price, or anything else is being kept secret. “I cannot speak about the details of the agreement we signed today. Information about such type of procurements, weapon should be top state secret, otherwise we can now continue our conversation in Russian and they will not even need to spend money on translation to learn information about this agreement,” Khidasheli told the Georgian state broadcaster.
Qatar has brokered the release of four Tajikistani border guards who had been held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan since December.
The news came from the Qatari foreign ministry on June 14, but thus far the border guards haven't appeared in Tajikistan, nor has the Tajikistan government commented.
“Under the directives of HH the Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, Qatari mediation succeeded in the release of four soldiers from Tajikstan who were captured by Taliban in December on the Northern borders of Afghanistan,” the Qatari statement said. “Qatar is using all its resources and diplomacy to save lives."
The four guards were kidnapped while gathering firewood on the border with Afghanistan; their commanding officer was later sentenced to eight and a half years in prison for ordering the men to gather the firewood.
Within days after the kidnapping the Tajikistan government said that they knew where the four were being held and that they would be released imminently, but since then little information has come out.
The intriguing element of the reported release is the Qatari angle. It's not known what Qatar did to secure the guards' release, but the Taliban regularly kidnap foreigners for exorbitant ransoms.
A senior State Department official has downplayed the threat of Central Asian fighters joining ISIS amid heightened concerns after a high-ranking Tajikistan police official announced that he had joined the radical Islamist group.
While some Central Asians are joining the group, the vast majority are recruited outside the region, particularly as labor migrants in Russia, said Daniel Rosenblum, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs.
"For the overwhelming majority of Central Asians, the conflict in Syria and Iraq is a distant phenomenon; it is not something they think about day-to-day. But a small minority of Central Asians have been successfully recruited by violent extremists to join the conflict," Rosenblum said .
Rosenblum was speaking at a June 11 hearing of the U.S. Congress's Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe titled"Wanted: Foreign Fighters -- The Escalating Threat of ISIL in Central Asia." In spite of that somewhat overwrought title, Rosenblum did not discuss the what threat ISIS may pose to Central Asia itself, though he did mention media reports of ISIS appearing in Afghanistan: "We have seen signs that ISIL is attempting to spread into Afghanistan, and that some Taliban groups have rebranded themselves as ISIL to attract funding and recruits. ISIL’s presence in Afghanistan is a relatively new phenomenon and it will take time to evaluate its long-term prospects."
Armenians hold complex, at times contradictory views toward the Russian military base in their country, a new opinion poll has found.
When asked whether it was "acceptable for a foreign state or institution to ensure Armenia’s national security," only 17 percent of Armenians found it acceptable. But then, asked if they "find the presence of any other state’s or structure’s military bases in Armenia acceptable or unacceptable?" 55 percent found it acceptable. Of those that found the presence of a foreign base acceptable, the greatest number of respondents (38 percent) said it was justified to protect against attack by Azerbaijan or Turkey, while 25 percent said "security guarantees" -- probably a broader version of the same answer.
Those responses are hard to reconcile with one another, but probably represent the ambivalence many Armenians feel toward the Russian military presence in their country as a necessary evil.
Russia operates the 102nd military base in Gyumri, Armenia's second city, and has about 5,000 soldiers stationed there. In 2010 Armenia agreed to allow the base to stay until 2044 and while Armenians have generally acquiesced to the base's presence, unprecedented protests against the base broke out in January after a Russian soldier abandoned the base and killed seven members of a local family in their home.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with the foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states in Moscow on June 3. (photo: Kremlin)
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization will "upgrade" Iran's status in the group if Tehran reaches an agreement with international powers on its nuclear program, Russia's foreign minister has said. Meanwhile, China is pushing for the organization to take a greater role in regional security.
The SCO foreign ministers met in Moscow this week in preparation for the July 9-10 summit in Ufa. It has been clear for some time that this would be an expansion summit, at least for India and Pakistan. Those countries are now observers, but have sought full membership for years. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that: "If relevant decisions are made in Ufa, they will pave the way for the SCO’s extension, and India and Pakistan will have an opportunity to launch the initial procedures for joining the SCO."
The SCO now includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. China has been the main driver of the organization, and in recent years it had taken on more of an economic role than the military or security role it seemed to aspire to when it formed in 1996. But the crisis in Ukraine has reenergized Russia's attempts to find non-Western allies, and since then Moscow given the SCO much more of its attention.
Alarms about the threat of war in Transnistria, the breakaway territory of Moldova, have been repeatedly sounded in recent days by government officials and media in Transnistria, as well as the de facto state's main sponsor, Russia.
Two weeks ago Ukraine canceled the agreement that allowed Russia to supply its roughly 1,500 troops stationed in Transnistria through Ukrainian territory. The Ukrainian route was the only way by which Russian forces in Transnistria could be reached by land; the territory's only other land border is with Moldova, which also has been restricting what limited access it was giving Russian forces to Transnistria.
While Ukraine insists that its move solely affected the agreement to supply the Russian military, many Russian and Transnistrian sources claim that Transnistria is now the subject of a full "blockade" and that Ukraine and Moldova, backed by the United States, are preparing a military assault.
Transnistria's de facto foreign minister, Nina Shtanski, said on June 1 that Ukrainian troops were massing at the border with Transnistria. "It's clear to everyone what is on the Transnistrian border: they are building tent camps, deploying soldiers. Imagine what panic this is causing among Transnistrians and especially people who live on the border with Ukraine," she said.
The U.S. Navy has rejected claims that Russian jets forced an American warship to retreat after getting too close to Russian waters in the Black Sea.
The USS Ross has been patrolling the Black Sea since May 23, part of the U.S.'s stepped-up military presence in the region. And according to an unnamed source in the security structures of Crimea, Russian Su-24 aircraft forced the American ship to change course because it was nearing Russian waters and "acting provocatively and aggressively," reported RIA Novosti.
The Russian news agency Sputnik noted that: "The incident comes on the same day as fugitive Georgian ex-leader Mikheil Saakashvili's appointment as governor of Ukraine's Black Sea-bordering Odessa region." It did not elaborate on what the connection between the two incidents might be.
Over the past year there have been several similar minor episodes between the U.S. ships patrolling the Black Sea and the Russian military. In one such incident last April, a Russian Su-24 buzzed the USS Donald Cook, which the Pentagon called "provocative." And according to a story widely distributed in the less reputable parts of the Russian internet, the Russian jet managed to shut down all of the American ship's electronic equipment, an experience which so demoralized the crew that 27 of the sailors requested retirement shortly after. (An English-language version can be seen here.)