Over 3,000 soldiers from Kazakhstan and Russia are taking part in joint military exercises in eastern Kazakhstan. The exercises, called "Shygys-2011" ("East" in Kazakh), started June 20 and last until the end of the month. The focus seems to be on air force cooperation, in particular in repelling an air invasion. There is an intriguing explanation of the scenario by the chairman of the joint chief of staff of Kazakhstan, Saken Zhassuzakov:
For the first time, we have been working on repelling cruise missiles. We did not have such missions before. It is topical because the analysis made for the latest events happening in the world shows that the first strikes are the ones with cruise missiles, which can be fired from the range of one and a half, two and three thousand miles, and almost without the use of an aircraft.
So, what latest events in the world involving cruise missiles could he be talking about? It's pretty hard to imagine how anything in Kazakhstan or Russia would end up in a U.S./NATO/Libya-type scenario, but perhaps I don't have the strategic vision that these guys do.
(The link above also has some video of the exercises.)
Another intriguing development: the Russian Caspian Flotilla is going to take part in joint exercises with the Kazakhstan armed forces (presumably its nascent navy), called Center-2011 (in Russian), some time this summer.
Russia has strongly objected to the visit of a U.S. naval cruiser to Batumi, Georgia, arguing that it is a provocation because the U.S. ship is part of the missile defense system to which Russia is strongly opposed.
On the surface, the visit of the ship, the USS Monterey, has nothing to do with the missile defense controversy. It is in the Black Sea for joint U.S.-Ukraine exercises including "counter-piracy operations; non-combatant evacuation operations, as well as board, search and seizure trainings." Other countries taking part are Azerbaijan, Algeria, Belgium, Denmark, Georgia, Germany, Macedonia, Moldova, Sweden, Turkey and the UK. The U.S. Embassy says the visit is a normal training mission:
The USS MONTEREY is operating in the Black Sea to conduct joint maritime training with several countries adjoining the Black Sea. U.S. ships have regularly deployed in the Black Sea region for many years and represent the continuing U.S. commitment to Black Sea regional stability and maritime security.
But that hides a more insidious intent, Russia argues. The Monterey is equipped with the Aegis radar system, and as such would be part of the European missile defense shield that the U.S. wants to build around Russia. And so the visit, Russia says, is a wolf in sheep's clothing. Via RIA Novosti:
"The Russian Foreign Ministry earlier expressed concern that along with negotiations on cooperation in the global air defense system, [the U.S.] is conducting simultaneous 'reconnaissance' operations near the borders of our country," the ministry said.
The possible scuppering of Kazakhstan's planned deployment to Afghanistan appears to be a result of genuine parliamentary opposition to the move, heightened by the still-mysterious and probably unrelated bombing in western Kazakhstan. That's the analysis of Roger McDermott, a very knowledgable source on Kazakhstan military issues, writing in Jamestown's Eurasia Daily Monitor.
McDermott suggests that it was the combined effect of public opposition to the deployment -- in particular by veterans of the Soviet Afghan war -- and the apparent terror attacks:
In isolation, such campaigning stood little chance of success. What no official had foreseen was an unexpected terrorist incident in Aktobe, on the country’s Caspian coast....
The confluence of several factors, partly predictable and unforeseen developments, influenced senators to draw back from approving the bill. In the hiatus between announcing the agreement and seeking to conclude the ratification process, explanations offered to the wider society did not eliminate the misperception that Astana may become a direct combatant.
McDermott adds, however, that the parliamentary rejection is "neither final nor outright." There is a provision in the country's constitution which requires decisions like this to be made by a joint session of parliament, not by two separate votes by the two houses:
Armenia is producing unmanned drones for military use, the country's deputy air force commander has said, according to RFERL:
“We have quite serious unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), even those capable of carrying out objectives deep inside enemy territory,” Colonel Armen Mkrtchian told journalists. “They are made in Armenia.”
Mkrtchian refused to give any details of domestic drone manufacturing, which exists only in a limited number of countries. He would not say if Armenian-made UAVs are designed only for surveillance missions or air strikes as well.
This is the first time Armenia has publicly said it has drones, which this report calls "official confirmation" of what had been rumors for a long time. But rival Azerbaijan -- which already uses drones close to the line of contact over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh -- and Armenia seem to take opposite tacks when it comes to discussing their military buildups. Azerbaijan brags about how much it is spending on new defense systems, while Armenia slyly drops rumors that it, too, is keeping up. But both approaches lend themselves to exaggeration -- and the little amount of information that Armenia has "confirmed" here seems like it might be part of a disinformation campaign.
But it could just as likely be true. Armenia would be joining a rapidly growing list of drone manufacturers -- and doing its best to keep up with Azerbaijan.
What does the TV show The West Wing have to do with U.S. and Western policy toward Central Asia? The former is a part of the "discourse of danger" created around Central Asia that leads to poorly conceived policies toward the region, argue two academics in a new, thought-provoking paper, "Contesting danger: a new agenda for policy and scholarship on Central Asia."
The paper is only available to those with academic library access, but the authors, John Heathershaw and Nick Megoran, summarize it in a piece on openDemocracy. In brief, it argues that a vague view of Central Asia as "obscure, oriental and fractious" has contributed to ill-informed policymaking. The paper traces an interesting history of this discourse, with a particularly compelling (at least to me, not having watched the show) of how Central Asia was portrayed on The West Wing, and how that dovetails with the Washington conventional wisdom on Central Asia. There was a running storyline on the series across several episodes:
[T]hese episodes feature a plot to assassinate the fictional President Isatov of Kazakhstan (once again mistaken at first, this time for Uzbekistan) and a regional oil company head which leads to a rigged election, civil conflict (‘the Kazakh people are rioting in the streets because they’ve been screwed out of an election’) and the invasion of the country by China and Russia (a ‘war over oil’). The two Great Powers are kept apart only by a massive American intervention of around 150,000 troops. As C. J. Cregg (Allison Janney, who plays White House chief of staff ) comments, ‘I’m trying to keep China and Russia from annihilating the Northern Hemisphere over oil in Kazakhstan.’
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit has concluded, doing little to dispel perceptions that it is an anti-Western talk shop. The two pieces of news that have gotten the most attention from the summit are the statement opposing U.S. missile defense plans, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling on the group to form a new world order to replace the current one that is "managed and run by slavers and colonizers of the past." There was also some pointed commentary on the "Arab Spring," with the suggestion that Arab countries develop democracy "in accordance with their own history and cultural traditions."
But there were some substantive developments as well. As expected, the group made a step toward admitting India, Pakistan and Iran as new members. Those three countries are currently all observer states of the SCO, along with Mongolia, which appears not to have taken this step -- on which more in an upcoming post. There was talk of Afghanistan joining as an observer during this summit, though that appears not to have happened.
And the SCO signed an agreement on cooperation on drug trafficking with the United Nations, signaling the group's increasing legitimacy among established international organizations.
And although there doesn't seem to have been much specific action taken in the economic realm, there seems to have been a lot of discussion of greater economic cooperation among SCO states. From China Daily:
It appears that Kazakhstan has gotten cold feet about its proposed deployment of four officers to Afghanistan. Last week, the upper house of the parliament rejected the bill authorizing their deployment, but that move seemed like it could have been a bit of political theater. Now the lower house of parliament -- which approved the bill a month ago -- has now said it won't support the bill. RIA Novosti quotes one member of the lower house, Nurtai Sabilyanov:
"Given the opinion of the senate and the public, the Majilis [lower house] will return the agreement to the government and it will have no legal effect because of the non-ratification by parliament," Sabilyanov said.
Majilis ratified the agreement with NATO on May 18 but the upper house turned the bill down on June 9 pending a decision from a joint parliamentary session.
"We must not send [our] military to Afghanistan, it is clear to all," he said.
Another MP, Tasbay Simambayev, wrote in the government newspaper Liter that senators "breathed a sigh of relief" when the bill was voted down: "Our country should not be dragged into someone else's wars." His piece (not online, via BBC Monitoring) focused on the threat of terror that Kazakhstan would expose itself to. But there also was an intriguing reference to "ambiguous reaction from our close partners":
Many arguments were voiced in favour of the need to increase the Kazakh military's combat experience, that we need a closer cooperation with the North Atlantic alliance, that we are bound by agreements and so on. But the point is that no international, foreign policy activity should harm Kazakhstan's reputation and security.
There is something about the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that brings out the armchair geopoliticking among the world's pundits. As the SCO begins its 10th annual summit in Astana, there have been a slew of analysis and opinion pieces from around the world bombarding anyone with a Google alert for "shanghai cooperation organization." One thing these geopoliticians especially love: citing Halford Mackinder, the early 20th-century scholar who famously theorized the importance of what we now call Eurasia. His famous maxim:
"Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland;
who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island;
who rules the World-Island controls the world."
Is there anything that Mackinder can teach us today, other than "Central Asia is important"? it would seem that some pretty significant changes in the world's strategic environment have happened since he wrote. The era of air travel and ballistic missiles, for example, has had an irrevocable impact on the importance of land power, it would seem. And doesn't the fact that the one power to have actually implemented Mackinder's maxim -- the Soviet Union -- collapsed spectacularly suggest that it may need revision?
Writing in 1904, he argued that it was the rise of the transcontinental railroad that would accrue such massive importance to Central Asia:
The spaces within the Russian Empire and Mongolia are so vast, and their potentialities in population, wheat, cotton, fuel and metals so incalculably great, that it is inevitable that a vast economic world, more or less apart, will there develop inaccessible to oceanic commerce....
Is not the pivot region of the world's politics that vast area of Euro-Asia which is inaccessible to ships, but in antiquity lay open to the horse-riding nomads, and is to-day about to be covered with a network of railways?
World leaders are streaming into Astana for the 10th summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization today and tomorrow. Its identity is still evolving -- it's part military alliance, part regional development bank, part geopolitical talk shop -- but it must be doing something right, because other countries keep wanting to join. Its military function -- which a few years ago was the main focus of the organization -- has declined relatively in importance as Russia, the SCO member most interested in defense cooperation, has shifted its energies to building up the Collective Security Treaty Organization. And the SCO is instead increasing its economic activities, a reflection of China's desire to get a greater foothold in Central Asia.
So where is the organization heading? I asked Alexander Cooley, who follows the SCO closely, about what he expects from the summit.
Q. What will you be looking for out of the summit? What should we be looking for to get ideas about where the SCO is going?
A. Beyond broad platitudes about friendship and enduring "good neighborliness," I would be interested in seeing what specific measures they announce on the non-security side of things, especially the economic agenda. This has been Beijing's priority for a couple of years now, but it has not made much headway. Also, look for a possible announcement of infrastructure projects that will be funded by the SCO's "Anti-Crisis Fund." With a pledge to give up to $10 billion, this could serve as the region's main source of foreign developmental investment and will further accelerate the re-orientation of the region's infrastructure towards China. I would also be interested in whether the group releases a statement about the Middle East uprisings. At the last Astana Summit in 2005 the group was fixated on denouncing the Colored Revolutions and backing the Uzbek government in the wake of Andijan.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization may not have done much last summer when ethnic violence broke out in Kyrgyzstan, but it won't stand idly by again, the group's head says. Nikolai Bordyuzha, the CSTO's secretary general, said the group is monitoring the situation, according to Regnum.ru:
"We are monitoring the situation in Kyrgyzstan, we know that there are elements of aggravation," - he said.
However, according to Bordyuzha, the Kyrgyz government to take proactive measures, including the transfer of additional units. "If you will continue worsening, the Council of CSTO will take appropriate action. We are ready for any action and have adequate capacity," - said Bordyuzha.
But Kyrgyzstan -- lately quite sensitive about foreigners opining about their ethnic troubles -- has reacted angrily to the CSTO's statement. According to a different Regnum story, Bishkek's ombudsman, Tursunbek Akun, said "neither the CSTO nor any other organization has the right to interfere in the internal affairs of Kyrgyzstan." And he said that the situation, anyway, was different now than it was last summer, when the government and its security forces were weak because of the recent change in government.
The CSTO has been lately talking up its willingness to intervene, saying also that just because it didn't get involved last year in Kyrgyzstan doesn't mean it wouldn't do so in Nagorno Karabakh if fighting broke out there. Does this mark the era of a new, more assertive CSTO? It'll be interesting to watch...