When news broke a couple of years ago that Russia was selling S-300 air defense systems to Azerbaijan, the immediate assumption was that this had to do with Armenia. The sale suggested a huge shift in Russia's military policy toward the south Caucasus: Russia has a big military base in Armenia and provides Yerevan with weaponry. So why would it be arming the other side? There were all sorts of theories: it was done to intimidate Armenia into signing a long extension of the base agreement with Russia, or that it was pure mercenary motives. Some noted that the range of the S-300s was enough to cover Nagorno Karabakh (over which a war will presumably be fought) but not Gyumri, Armenia, where the Russian base is.
But what if we were all looking in the wrong direction for the threat, to the west rather than to the south? That's what analyst Anar Valiyev today told The Bug Pit in Baku. He says the S-300 is in fact one of the weapons that Baku has been buying to protect against an Iranian attack. He argues that a war over Karabakh would be fought only on the territory of Karabakh, that Armenia (under pressure from Russia) would not to expand the war into Azerbaijan proper, like an attack on Baku's oil and gas installations (which the S-300s are protecting). Therefore, there's no need to protect Baku from an Armenian attack. So, by process of elimination, it's Iran.
Saakashvili in Chicago, trying to channel Ferris Bueller?
There was a lot of discussion and speculation before the NATO summit in Chicago about what would be done with Georgia. Membership was off the table, but U.S., NATO and Georgian officials dropped frequent hints that Tbilisi would get some sort of boost.
The official statement of the summit didn't really add anything to previous statements, other than a mention of the "litmus test" of democratization that Western officials have mentioned before: "We stress the importance of conducting free, fair, and inclusive elections in 2012 and 2013."
While that may not be especially encouraging to Tbilisi, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did say that she hoped that "this summit should be the last summit that is not an enlargement summit." But there are three other aspirant states: Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro, and those Balkan countries are probably closer to membership than is Georgia. Clinton said she hoped Macedonia "can join the alliance as soon as possible," and didn't use any such language for Georgia (or the other Balkan countries).
President Mikheil Saakashvili, at the summit, said that Georgia's victory was being grouped with the Balkan countries:
Central Asia's presidents would have a lot to talk about at the NATO summit taking place in Chicago, given that the summit is focusing on Afghanistan and the Central Asian states play a key role in NATO transport to the theater. But all five of Central Asia's presidents are a no-show at the NATO summit in Chicago, in spite of being on NATO's official list of "leaders expected to attend" and being regular attendees of the last few summits. Instead, they all seem to have sent their foreign ministers.
It's a strange snub, and intriguing because these five countries never do anything in coordination. Information on their decisions are of course hard to come by, and so it's not certain if they are in fact coordinated, but it sure seems that way.
One Kyrgyzstan analyst, Orozbek Moldaliyev, told KyrTag that it's because of Russia:
"One can make various guesses and speculation about why none of the leaders of Central Asian countries responded to the invitation and why all of them are sending their foreign ministers. One of the main reasons, which is on the surface, could be solidarity with Russia," Moldaliyev told KyrTAg.
Moldaliyev pointed out the recent CSTO directive to harmonize members' foreign policies, which is as reasonable explanation as any for the collective no-show, especially since Armenia's Serzh Sargsyan also seems to be skipping it.
Recent naval exercises by Azerbaijan were conducted against a nominally "terrorist" enemy, but the details of the exercise suggested that Baku was in fact drilling for a naval engagement with another country. The exercises, called “Protection of Oil and Gas Fields, Platforms, and Export Pipelines,” took place last month, as analyst Anar Valiyev recounts in an analysis for Jamestown's Eurasia Daily Monitor. The exercises involved about 1,200 troops, 21 ships, 20 speedboats and eight helicopters, and the Azeri forces involved shot down a terrorist aircraft (?), boarded hostile ships, and most notably, "located and destroyed an enemy submarine":
[T]he nature of Azerbaijani military exercises suggested that actions are directed against an enemy possessing a helicopter, a ship and even a submarine. It is hard to imagine that certain terrorist group would be able to acquire such arms or equipment, especially when taking into consideration the fact that the Caspian Sea does not have direct access to open waters.
Valiyev concludes, reasonably, that the exercise enemy in fact represented Iran, an assumption backed up by the recent purchase of anti-ship missiles from Israel. This recalls the Caspian component last year's exercises of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, in which Russia and Kazakhstan practiced a scenario involving an attack from the south of the sea consisting of exactly the sorts of aircraft that Iran possesses.
The United States and Kazakhstan are exploring the idea of expanding the amount of military cargo passing through Kazakhstan into and out of Afghanistan. The focal point of the discussions is the Caspian port city of Aktau.
Pakistan has agreed to reopen its border to U.S. and NATO supplies to Afghanistan, charging more than it did before -- and presumably taking money out of the pockets of Afghanistan's neighbors to the north, who were filling in while Pakistan implemented its blockade.
The new agreement with Pakistan will cost the coalition in Afghanistan an additional roughly $365 million a year, McClatchy reports, citing unnamed officials. Just days before, a U.S. senator, Claire McCaskill, reported that Pakistan's refusal to allow NATO transport to Afghanistan -- which it did in retaliation for a strike killing several Pakistani soldiers -- was costing $38 million a month. It's not clear whether those two numbers are commensurate -- as the blog Danger Room reported, the U.S. has been keeping cost figures of Afghan transit close to its vest, because it doesn't want to give Pakistan information that would allow it to drive a harder bargain. But assuming the numbers are commensurate, the new deal with Pakistan would save the U.S. a bit of money -- $8 million a month -- from what it had been paying on the NDN. $38 million times 12 also comes pretty close to the figure of $500 million per year that Deirdre Tynan reported the U.S. was paying to the NDN countries. But the Pentagon hasn't provided many details of that, either, so it's also not clear whether this is the same figure McCaskill cited.
Foreign Ministers of the SCO member states, in Beijing
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is strengthening its ties with two countries aligned to the West, Turkey and Afghanistan. The foreign ministers of the SCO states met last week in Beijing, in advance of next month's summit there, and apparently one of the decisions made was to admit U.S.-occupied Afghanistan as an observer country, and NATO member Turkey as a dialogue partner.
The Voice of Russia quotes political analyst Stanislav Tarasov saying that the move with Turkey is a "real breakthrough":
"The situation around Turkey is unique. Turkey has been sticking to pro-Western policies. It has been trying to join the EU for ten years but it was in vain so now it has to develop a new scenario of drifting to the East, which implies changes in Turkey’s foreign policy."
That ignores certain moves Turkey has made to strengthen its cooperation with NATO, notably its decision to host NATO missile defense radar. That is certainly a bigger commitment than being a dialogue partner in the SCO. Still, it's an intriguing move, and expect Turkophobes in the West to use this against Ankara.
As for Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai just gave an interview to Russian media, and though the subject of the SCO didn't come up, Karzai framed Afghanistan's security in terms that include a lot of the countries in the SCO (either as members or observers):
“Security is an issue that is not related to us alone… Had it been an Afghan issue, the Americans would have never come here – as they didn’t before September 11 ,” Karzai said, speaking to journalists from RIA Novosti, the Rossiya24 and Russia Today television channels in Kabul.
The plot is thickening in the alleged Georgian-Chechen Sochi Olympics terror plot: the Abkhazian security services are casting doubt on the Russian version of events. According to the Russian Antiterrorism Committee, an arms cache discovered in the Gudauta region of Abkhazia was intended to be used by Chechen terrorists, with assistance from the Georgian security services, to stage an attack in Sochi. The Abkhazian official news agency, Apsnypress, even cited the State Security Service of Abkhazia as confirming that account.
But now a source in the Abkhazian government is saying that the arms cache was not intended for Sochi, but for use in Abkhazia. From a report in the newspaper Kommersant (translation by BBC Monitoring):
Part of the alleged Chechen-Georgian arms cache discovered in Abkhazia
The Russian and Abkhazian security services say they have broken up a Chechen-Georgian plot to carry out terrorist attacks against the Sochi Olympics. According to a report from the Abkhazian official news agency ApsnyPress, the leader of the "Abkhazian Jamaat," an organization affiliated with the Caucasus Emirate, was arrested and a cache of weapons uncovered in the Gudauta region of Abkhazia. The list of weapons Apsny provides is pretty substantial, and includes a variety of anti-aircraft weaponry and grenade launchers.
The operation was masterminded by the leader of the Caucasus Emirate, Doku Umarov, with "direct involvement" of the Georgian security services and their allies in Turkey, according to a statement by the Russian Antiterrorism Committee:
Russian Federal Security Service was able to establish that the militants were planning to move these weapons during the 2012-2014 to Sochi and to use them to commit terrorist acts before and during the Olympic Games. Russia managed security services at an early stage to prevent the thugs attempting to launch their criminal plans....
They [the weapons] were brought into Abkhazia from Georgia. According to operational data, their transfer to Russia directly involved the Georgian special services and allied representatives of illegal armed groups in Turkey. The ringleader of an international terrorist organization "Caucasus Emirate" Umarov, maintaining close ties with the Georgian special services, coordinated all the activities of the organization of delivery of the commission of terrorist acts in close proximity to Sochi and marking these caches.
The Antiterrorism Committee website also has a number of photos of the alleged cache.
Kazakhstan's work to get rid of the nuclear weapons that it inherited after the fall of the Soviet Union is a well told story -- primarily by Kazakhs themselves, who rarely miss an opportunity to tout their nonproliferation record. But a new, apparently previously untold episode in that story has now come to light, via one of its protagonists, former Bush administration nonproliferation official William Tobey, writing in Foreign Policy magazine. In the early 1990s, the U.S. helped Kazakhstan seal off a series of underground tunnels at Semipalatinsk that had been used for Soviet nuclear testing. But a decade later, it required some touchup work, Tobey writes:
The extreme weather conditions and the passage of time eventually cracked and eroded the material sealing the testing tunnels. By 2004, scavengers looking for scrap metal to sell had broken into some of them. Reports of the looting alarmed U.S. officials, who feared that fissile material could be at risk. The U.S. government encouraged and aided the Kazakh government to improve security at the site until more permanent measures could be implemented. Astana declared an exclusion zone, where a ban on trespassing was strictly enforced, and mounted patrols to guard the tunnels and the surrounding area.
Then, in a mission Tobey calls "formerly secret" and which just finished this year, the U.S., Russia and Kazakhstan cooperated to fill in the tunnels more thoroughly:
They decided to fill the test chambers with a specialized grout, which bonds chemically with fissile material to render it useless for weaponization. In some tunnels, it would be necessary to mine horizontally to reach the test chamber where the nuclear experiments took place.
Tobey details some of the U.S. assistance given to the project: