The joint military exercises of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will involve about 7,000 troops, the largest number in an SCO exercise in many years, as the organization seems to be taking on a new prominence in the wake of collapsing Russia-West relations.
The bulk of the troops exercising, as in past years, appear to be from China. Russia announced that it is sending about 900 troops, as well as hardware including four Su-25 jets and eight Mi-8MT helicopters. Kazakhstan said it is participating with about 300 troops from an air-mobile unit. From Tajikistan, more than 200 soldiers are participating, including members of an unnamed "rapid reaction unit." (An aside: one wonders if it is one of the special forces units that the U.S. has trained.) Uzbekistan, as usual, does not seem to be participating at all. Kyrgyzstan is sending about 500 soldiers. So if it's 7,000 total, that's about 5,000 from China.
The exercises, Peace Mission 2014, will be held August 24 to 29 in China's Inner Mongolia region. But participating countries have already started moving their troops toward China. "Loading up -- that's already a stage of the exercise. We're trying to improve, getting used to loading up our equipment," said Ruslan Muzdybayev, the deputy commander of Kazakhstan's air mobile forces for military readiness.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev visits frontline troops August 6. (photo: president.az)
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev made a morale-raising visit to troops along the front lines of fighting with Armenia, escalating the rhetoric around the recent conflict even while the shooting appears to have died down.
On Wednesday, Aliyev visited troops near the Aghdam region (which overeager Azerbaijani media had reported that its forces had already won back) and, in a military uniform, delivered a stemwinder of a speech, which he the next day summarized on twitter.
"We are not living in peace, we are living in a state of war. Everyone must know this," he said. "The war is not over. Only the first stage of it is. But the second stage may start too."
He also seemed to support the theory that the uptick in fighting was intended to sharpen international attention on the conflict. "Azerbaijani citizens are not pleased with the activity of mediators because the main mission of mediators is to settle the conflict, not to keep it in a frozen state and conduct confidence building measures," he said. "The Azerbaijani army is showing its strength, which is having an impact on the talks... If the Azerbaijani army starts an offensive, the enemy will find itself in a very difficult situation. This is known to us, the enemy and the mediators. Therefore, I believe that the developments of recent days will prompt mediators to take some action."
Nevertheless, fighting appears to have died down and Aliyev is scheduled to meet with his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan in Sochi, Russia, on Friday and Saturday.
Uzbekistan is asking Germany for an increase in rent paid for the use of the air base at Termez, on the Afghanistan border, which the Germans have operated since 2002, according to local media reports. Reports also suggest that Germany is considering helping Uzbekistan expand the airport at Termez.
"Since November of last year there have been negotiations between Tashkent and Berlin on reexamining the status of the agreement on Germany's use of the transit hub at the Termez airport," according to a piece on CentrAsia.ru, widely republished in the Uzbekistani media. "In particular, according to informed experts, the Uzbek side, with the aim of maintaining the infrastructure of this important military-strategic object in good condition, proposes increasing the rent paid for Germany's use of the Termez airport."
The piece concludes: "Continuing to prolong the resolution of the 'Termez question,' Germany risks not only being left with nothing, but also ruining its relations with Uzbekistan, the key government of Central Asia playing an important role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. It seems the Germans don't realize that the money they are trying to save on the rent paid for the use of the Termez airport is not worth the strategic importance that this object has for Germany."
Uzbekistan has taken the rare step of commenting publicly to deny reports that it plans to allow the United States to set up a military base in the country.
The rumors arose after the recent visit to Uzbekistan by the head of U.S. Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, and the report on a website with good sources in Uzbekistan's government saying that the Austin was discussing setting up a base in Termez, on the Afghanistan border.
The report was implausible in many ways -- it said the U.S. was going to pay $1 billion a year in rent -- but Uzbekistan's government nevertheless saw fit to deny it. "Uzbekistan's laws do not allow to host any foreign military bases on its territory," Adilbek Kaipbergenov, spokesman for Uzbekistan's foreign ministry, told AFP.
The U.S. also denied it: “Gen. Austin has no knowledge of any plans for a possible U.S. base in Uzbekistan,” a CENTCOM spokesman told the Army Times. “He did not discuss any such options with the Uzbeks during his trip.”
The Uzbekistan opposition website uznews suggests that it was Russia's negative reaction to the rumors that may have spooked Tashkent.
Speaking on Russian radio station Govorit Moskva, Ilya Drozdov, a member of the Russian parliament and a CIS and Eurasian integration committee member, stated that if Uzbekistan really did allow the U.S. to re-open a military base, then Russia should throw out all Uzbek migrant workers from Russia. “I think then we need to take strong action at the highest level of government.” says Drozdov,
The death toll in fighting between Armenians and Azerbaijanis continued to rise, reaching at least 18 as the two sides blamed each other for the escalation and Russia began efforts to try to defuse the crisis.
As sporadic fighting continued through the weekend, Azerbaijan's losses grew to 13, by Baku's count, while Armenia's grew to five by their count. Both sides said the others' losses were greater than reported; Armenia said 25 Azerbaijanis had been killed since July 28, when the fighting flared up, while Azerbaijan claims that 70 Armenians died just August 1-2.
In an interview with state television, the defense minister of the de facto Nagorno Karabakh Republic, Movses Hakopyan, blamed the Azerbaijani defense minister, Zakir Hasanov, for provoking the conflict in order to "prove himself" after being recently appointed. And he expressed confidence in his forces: "Ignorant and shortsighted acts by the enemy have shown that he is capable of anything, however if large-scale military activity begins, the armed forces of Karabakh have nothing to worry about," he said. "I think that after the recent events the people of Azerbaijan have to understand toward what its leadership's adventurism is leading. The number of losses will only increase and our borders won't change, and if some change happens it will come at the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan."
At least eight Azerbaijani soldiers and two Armenian soldiers have been killed in three days of battle, the largest number of fatalities since 1994 when the two sides signed a ceasefire over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh -- a ceasefire that appears to be growing increasingly untenable.
Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry said that eight of its soldiers had been killed over three days of fighting. According to the Azerbaijani side, "Armenian reconnaissance and sabotage groups attempted to cross contact line along the border line. Azerbaijani Armed Forces defeated all attacks of the enemy. As a result of fights, the Armenians gave casualties and retreated," APA reported. "Defense Ministry reports that the contact line is fully under the control of Azerbaijani servicemen and their blood will be avenged."
Armenia says that Azerbaijan's casualties may have even been greater: an anonymous senior defense ministry official told AFP that Azerbaijan had lost 14 troops in the fighting. "Azerbaijani subversive groups were ambushed," the official said. "As a result, they have 14 dead and lots of wounded. There are no casualties or wounded on the Armenian side." And the Defense Ministry of the de facto Nagorno Karabakh republic said the day before that two of its soldiers were killed as a result of an attempted incursion by Azerbaijan.
The blog CommonSpace.eu said that while there is "atill no clear information about the latest incidents" the number of killed represented "the most serious incident on the line of contact since the cease-fire came into affect in 1994." James Warlick, the United States representative to the OSCE's Minsk Group which is dealing with the conflict,
The head of United States Central Command has visited Uzbekistan as the U.S. works to "rebalance" its policies toward Central Asia, a policy which officials increasingly admit has been excessively focused on security.
General Lloyd Austin, head of CENTCOM, visited Uzbekistan and met with President Islam Karimov among other officials. There was no official word on what the visit was about. Voice of America Uzbek service's Navbahor Imamova, who has good sources on these issues, says that her sources say the visit was "purely maintenance" and included "no basing talk."
That didn't convince everyone, and the Uzbekistan news website uzmetronom reported that Austin was in Uzbekistan to negotiate a new U.S. military base there, and that the U.S. was offering Tashkent a billion dollars a year for the privilege, and that Germany was opposing it behind the scenes. That's all pretty unlikely, but it's interesting coming from uzmetronom; the site is well connected to the country's security services and in Uzbekistan there are obviously strict limits on what can be published. Whatever the reason, the report was of course eagerly picked up by the Russian media.
In March, Austin testified to Congress about the U.S. military's posture in the CENTCOM area, and said this about Uzbekistan:
Georgian soldiers take part in American training in Germany to prepare them for deployment to Afghanistan, 2012. (photo: Spc. Robert Sheets, U.S. Army Europe)
The United States is preparing a military aid package of about $35 million to help Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine defend themselves against Russia.
The money would be part of a much larger, $1 billion European Reassurance Initiative that the White House announced about two months ago. Part of the plan, as announced originally, would be to: "Build the partner capacity of close friends such as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine so they can better work alongside the United States and NATO, as well as provide for their own defense."
At a recent Congressional hearing on the Initiative and other Pentagon funding programs, U.S. officials gave a little more detail about how that $1 billion would be apportioned. And they revealed that the largest amount of money would go to bolstering the presence of U.S. troops in Eastern Europe. From the testimony (pdf) of Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work:
Approximately $440 million will go to increase the U.S. military presence in Europe by:
• Enabling rotation of elements of an Army armored brigade combat team into Europe;
• Providing additional funds for expanded naval deployments in the Black and Baltic Seas;
• Augmenting NATO’s Air Policing mission; and
• Either temporarily delaying withdrawal of Air Force F-15C aircraft from Europe or increasing aircraft rotations to Europe.
And most of the rest would go to NATO allies in Eastern Europe:
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses his security council, July 22. (photo: kremlin.ru)
When Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed his security council on July 22, one statement in particular piqued the interest of Russia's allies -- er, friends: "Russia is fortunately not a member of any alliance. This is also a guarantee of our sovereignty," Putin said. "Any nation that is part of an alliance gives up part of its sovereignty."
That line was greeted with confusion and curiosity by many in the member countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. This is the political-military bloc that Russia created to, as the name implies, provide collective security in the post-Soviet space. But doesn't collective security require giving up some sovereignty? Several experts quoted in a piece on the Kazakhstani website kursiv.kz suggested that Putin's statement suggest that it sees its fellow-members of the CSTO (and, for that matter, the Eurasian Union) as unequal partners to whom Russia has no obligations.
"Moscow's interests, expressed in the efforts to define the borders to which it can expand its territory, striving to defend the 'Russian world,' by definition can not coincide with the interests of its CSTO partners," said Russian expert on Central Asia Arkady Dubnov. "So, acting exclusively in its own interests, Russia demonstrates that the CSTO isn't an alliance but a mesalliance -- that is, an unequal marriage."
Sign reading "Don't Say Everything You Know, But Know Everything You Say," at a submarine base in Balaclava, just outside Sevastopol. (photo: The Bug Pit)
The city government of Sevastopol has proposed that Russia make it a Soviet-style "closed" city, which foreigners and even Russians living even in other parts of the country would not be able to visit.
On July 22, members of the Sevastopol legislative assembly formally appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials asking them to impose "restrictions on the stay of people not permanently residing in and not registered in Sevastopol." The annexation of Crimea to Russia earlier this year was accompanied by a remarkable degree of Soviet nostalgia, but the return of closed cities takes that nostalgia to an unexpected extreme.
According to the website sevastopol.su (yes, ".su" as in "Soviet Union"): "The initiators of the appeal are motivated by the fact that Sevastopol is the main base of the Black Sea Fleet of Russia and a factor of stability in the entire region, and so requires a special regime of secrecy and ensuring its security. The deputies believe that the unstable circumstances in the world and the fundamentally aggressive attitude of the Western community towards Russia can attract a host of provocative acts in Crimea and Sevastopol."