When news broke last week that the U.S. Congress had mandated that the Obama administration "normalize" military relations with Georgia, which would include the sale of defensive weapons to Tbilisi, it seemed inevitable that this would spark a furious reaction from Moscow. The Kremlin had said that this, more than anything else, was the issue that would ruin the reset. And Russia has been overreacting to all sorts of related issues lately, like a slight shift in NATO's rhetoric towards Georgia. The Kremlin tried to gin up a controversy about Georgia harboring anti-Russia "terrorists," and has made several threats about the U.S.'s European missile defense plans.
And yet, it's now a week after Congress passed the law, and the response from Moscow is... crickets. I've asked a variety of knowledgable sources in Moscow, Tbilisi and Washington for their theories on this. Here are some of their ideas:
-- Russia is too occupied with its own domestic crisis to worry about Georgia. This might have something to do with it, but if so, it would invalidate Georgians' theories that the recent "terror" plot was a ploy by the Kremlin to rally the Russian public around an external enemy. If they were looking to do that, this very real action by Congress would have been a lot more useful a foil than an apparently imagined terror plot.
Kazakhstan is boosting its naval presence in the Caspian to compete with the other littoral states, the country's naval commander, Captain Zhandarbek Zhanzakov, has said. In an interview with the newspaper Express-K (in Russian). This contradicts somewhat his assertion to EurasiaNet last year that Kazakhstan was building a navy to deal with "terrorists," but seems more in line with reality. Translation via BBC Monitoring:
We badly need the navy. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the establishment of the five Caspian littoral states, the issue of adopting a new convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea has become acute. The convention has not been agreed upon yet. The demand for energy resources in the world increases the strategic importance of the Caspian region, where geopolitical interests of both regional and leading world powers are focused. Against the background of this, preserving the balance of forces in! the Caspian Sea zone remains to be the key issue.
An analysis of the naval forces of our neighbours shows their rapid development in order to change the current state of affairs in their favour. For example, two frigates - "Tatarstan" and "Dagestan" - equipped with modern missile systems and the new generation gunnery ship "Astrakhan", built using stealth technology, joined the effective combat strength of Russia's Caspian fleet. A coastal infrastructure, including observation posts are being developed in the water area of the Caspian Sea.
Development of integration processes with NATO and the United States enabled Azerbaijan to secure assistance in developing its national naval forces. Iran is also increasing its forces in the Caspian Sea.
Each Collective Security Treaty Organization member country will get a veto over any new foreign military bases in member states, the group agreed at a summit today in Moscow. From RIA Novosti:
"Now, in order to accommodate extra-regional military structures on the territory of the CSTO, it will be necessary to obtain official approval of all [CSTO] members,” [Kazakhstan President Nursultan] Nazarbayev said.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev added that “all parties reached a mutual agreement” on the decision.
The CSTO includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The most obvious effect of this is that Russia now can veto any future U.S. bases in Central Asia. As the saga between India and Tajikistan has recently shown, and the last Manas-is-closing scare did earlier, Moscow already has quite a bit of say over this issue. But would Uzbekistan listen if Moscow told them they couldn't host some foreign base? Might Uzbekistan try to veto a new Russian facility in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan? It seems very doubtful Russia would listen then.
An analysis in Kommersant (in Russian) says that while, publicly, the organization is most focused on the threat to the region from instability in Afghanistan, behind the scenes the real fear is "the West's rising influence on post-Soviet territories." And it includes an interesting tidbit about U.S. regional anti-drug initiatives. Translation via Johnson's Russia List:
US Special Forces have trained units in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan that have served as “praetorian guards” for those respective countries' presidents, according to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.
The military spending bill passed this week by Congress includes a provision calling on the U.S. to "normalize" military relations with Georgia, including the sale of weapons. The timing of the bill (which still has to be signed by President Obama) is provocative, coming as U.S.-Russia relations have been going through a rough spell and the Kremlin accused Georgia of harboring anti-Russian terrorists on its soil. Meanwhile, things seem to have been going Georgia's way; in addition to this news, the U.S. and NATO have noted "significant progress" in Georgia's NATO accession process, and NATO officially designated Georgia as an "aspirant" country for the first time.
The bill (pdf) includes a section 1242 (full text below) on Georgia, which calls on the Secretaries of Defense and State to develop a plan within 90 days "for the normalization of United States defense cooperation with the Republic of Georgia, including the sale of defensive arms." It also calls on NATO and NATO candidate countries "to restore and enhance their sales of defensive articles and services to the Republic of Georgia as part of a broader NATO effort to deepen its defense relationship and cooperation with the Republic of Georgia."
Russia's Secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev claimed that Georgia is harboring anti-Russia terrorists, in an interview with the newspaper Argumenty i Fakty on Wednesday:
“The multi-ethnic peoples of Russia and Georgia are inextricably tied to each other. Saakashvili is carrying out a policy that is far from the interests of the Georgian people. More and more Georgian soldiers are being sent to take part in combat operations abroad [in ISAF operation in Afghanistan]. Training of individuals for carrying out terrorist acts in Russia is conducted on the territory of Georgia”, Patrushev said.
To some observers, the timing of that statement is suspicious, coming just days after the huge protests that have made the Russian government look vulnerable for the first time since Vladimir Putin took power in 2000. The Georgian government-run PIK-TV suggested that Patrushev's comments were meant to distract people from internal issues and rally around the central government. Their video report is in Russian, but helpfully subtitled in English. They interview Giorgi Baramidze, minister for Euro-Atlantic integration:
“Unfortunately it is not the first stupid and groundless statement that the Russian government has made. It is likely to have been caused by the intensified tension in its internal politics.”
And Alexey Malashenko, of the Carnegie Moscow Center:
Azerbaijan and Russia are wrapping up three days of negotiations in Baku on the new terms of the Gabala radar station that the Russian military operates in Azerbaijan. The talks were led by Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiyev and Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov, and they don't seem to have come yet to any agreement on the use of the radar, whose current lease expires in December 2012.
Azerbaijan is asking for a higher rent -- increasing from $7 million a year to $100 million, according to an Azerbaijani member of the parliamentary defense committee, as well as more local employment and more mitigation of the station's environmental effects. Russia, in turn, is reportedly proposing to build a new station (the current one was built in 1985) that would have a much smaller footprint, and to keep the current rent (which according to most sources is actually $10 million a year). From Nezavisimaya Gazeta (in Russian):
Meanwhile, on the eve of the start of the Baku round of negotiations, an unexpected statement was made by Vladimir Savchenko, general director of the Academician Mintz Radio Engineering Institute, who reported that Russia plans to complete construction of the latest radar, "Voronezh-VP" in Gabala (Azerbaijan) in 2019 . This station will replace the previous generation Daryal radars.
"The Voronezh-VP is a high-technology station that can be prefabricated. With regard to timing, the plan is to complete it by 2017-2019, but it all depends on the goodwill of our esteemed neighbors. The final agreement will be secured on a political level," Savchenko said....
The gate to the Ayni air base outside Dushanbe: what's going on inside?
India is quietly using the Ayni air base in Tajikistan, hosting a contingent of helicopters and fighter jets in cooperation with Russia, an Indian journalist reports. Saurav Jha, writing in World Politics Review (subscription required, but free trial available), while the Tajikistan government has denied that it would allow anyone but Russia to use the base, the truth is otherwise:
However, an Indian official directly involved in renovating the airfield told World Politics Review that an Indian air force contingent, including Indian Mi-17 helicopters and leased Russian fighter jets, is currently deployed to the base under joint Indo-Tajik control. The Russian equipment will be maintained by Russian contractors, creating “a sort of joint control over these assets.” His comments echo recent reports of negotiations between the three parties for joint use of the base.
Jha also theorizes on why everyone is keeping this quiet: to avoid offending China and Pakistan.
An Iranian political official threatened to attack Turkey's NATO missile defense system if the U.S. or Israel attack Iran, repeating a similar threat from a general a month ago. From the Fars News Agency:
Vice-Chairman of the Iranian Parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission Hossein Ebrahimi informed that Iran is making plans towards finding ways to neutralize the NATO missile defense system to be installed in Turkey, and warned that in the case of any attack on Iran, it will definitely hit that system....
Last month, Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Aerospace Commander Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh underlined Iran's crushing response to any enemy aggression, and warned that Tehran will target the NATO missile shield in Turkey in case it comes under attack.
"We have prepared ourselves, if any threat is staged against Iran, we will target NATO's missile shield in Turkey and will then attack other targets," General Hajizadeh said addressing a congregation of 10,000 Basij (volunteer forces) members in the Western town of Khorramabad in late November.
The threat got a lot of attention in the Turkish press, but most of it dismissive. Today's Zaman reported that the Iranian Foreign Ministry says that those threats aren't official policy:
However, Turkish officials contacted by Today's Zaman Monday clarified that the Iranian foreign ministry has assured Turkey they do not back such threats and the threats do not reflect ministerial policy. The officials also repeated Ankara's position that Turkey should only acknowledge statements from Iranian officials actually in charge, including the Iranian president and the foreign ministry.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at a November 2011 meeting of the NATO-Georgia Council in Tbilisi.
For the first time, NATO officially named Georgia as an "aspirant" country, a category that had previously been limited to three Balkan nations: Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro. In its communique after the foreign ministers' meeting last week in Brussels, NATO said:
We applaud the significant operational support provided to NATO by our aspirant partners the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia¹, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Georgia.
We reaffirm our Open Door policy and our strong commitment to the Euro-Atlantic integration of our aspirant partners, in accordance with previous decisions taken at the Bucharest, Strasbourg-Kehl and Lisbon Summits. Democratic values, regional cooperation, and good neighbourly relations are important for lasting peace and stability. We welcome progress aspirant countries have made and we encourage them to continue to implement the necessary decisions and reforms to advance their Euro-Atlantic aspirations.
Georgia, naturally, praised the move. From Civil.ge:
Giorgi Baramidze, the Georgian state minister for Euro-Atlantic integration issues, welcomed the wording of the communiqué, saying it was “the first time when Georgia was named in an official NATO document in a status of NATO membership candidate country.”
And Russia, just as naturally, condemned it. From a press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, on the the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia website: