A few weeks ago Russia announced that it was deploying new missiles to South Ossetia, eliciting an angry response from Georgia. And at the time, the unnamed Russian official who was leaking the news didn't try to avoid making it sound like a provocation; he said the missiles were "capable to effectively repel any aggression from Tbilisi."
But now, Russia seems to be walking that announcement back, saying the deployment would just be temporary. Via Civil.ge, quoting RIA Novosti:
"Tochka-U installations were deployed on the territory of South Ossetia for participation in the military exercises of our military base; they were deployed there temporarily," he said.
Karasin, however, did not specify when the rockets would be withdrawn.
That's a positive move. The recent Center for American Progress report called the missile deployment (along with another rocket deployment) the "most obvious contributing factor to Georgian insecurity." U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is on his way to Moscow, and that's the sort of thing that a diplomatic partner does as a friendly gesture. So can we thank the reset for this?
Russia has been strengthening its Caspian Flotilla, adding anti-ship missile units on the southern part of its border, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports. It's another sign that the Caspian arms race is continuing:
Russia has significantly reinforced the army and navy forces on the Caspian coast in Dagestan. According to a Defense Ministry source, a separate coastal missile battalion was made part of the Caspian Flotilla in the city of Kaspiisk.
Additional positions for coastal missiles have been created on an elevation near the city of Izberbash, i.e., not far from Caspian Sea oil deposits and close to the border with Azerbaijan. Furthermore, all missile boats from the Caspian Flotilla were redeployed from Astrakhan to the Makhachkala and Kaspiisk area to create an integrated naval task force there.
(And yes, this article is more than two months old, but I only just came across it...) The unit in Izberbash will be equipped with Bal coastal defense missiles with a 130-km range, the paper says.
One expert the paper quotes, Georgy Kovalyov, deputy general director of the Russia's Institute for Cooperation in the Caspian, said Russia was responding to the other countries on the Caspian:
"In accordance with the Caspian countries' armament programs, by 2015, some of them will increase the number of warships. Nevertheless, right now, the number of warships is less than what it was during Soviet times. However, a trend toward militarization is evident. It's perfectly obvious that [Caspian] countries are arming themselves against one another in anticipation of some kind of future military threat. But exactly why this is being done remains unclear," the expert concluded.
Kyrgyzstan's president Roza Otunbayeva visited Brussels this week and met with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. And Otunbayeva said she was asking for help from NATO in dealing with terror threats coming from Afghanistan. From her press conference with Rasmussen:
And first of all, I would stress on the issues of the neighbouring Afghanistan and I must tell you that my serious of worries about the borders; borders with Tajikistan and then with Afghanistan. This is a concern which we have. And so we must strengthen our border troops, and I talked with the Secretary General about this matter.
We faced terroristic acts last... late last year, of last year, and this is new chapter on terroristic work which we want to learn and really to develop among the people and also with the ministries relevant. This is what we want very much to learn from NATO.
And certainly we are talking about this partnership program, Secretary General, this acronyms which you mentioned, a purpose(?) under way, and the progress between Kyrgyzstan and NATO and we want to have a real progress. We talked about this, and I hope that in our development between NATO and Kyrgyzstan we reach concrete results of this year and we're looking forward to strengthen our security forces with the NATO assistance and we want to learn from this Alliance of free societies, democratic countries, how to make safe our country.
Both the U.S. and Russia have talked about setting up anti-terror training facilities in southern Kyrgyzstan, but nothing has yet come of either of those.
Azerbaijan has signed a deal to buy 24 Mi-35M helicopters from Russia, giving Baku a huge boost in its attack helicopter fleet. News.az reports:
Russian company Rostvertol signed a deal in September-October 2010 to sell 24 Mi-35M attack helicopters to Azerbaijan, Rostvertol General Director Boris Slyusar said yesterday.
The agreement came to light as the general director announced Rostvertol's 2010 trading figures...
The Mi-35M is a multi-purpose attack helicopter, designed to destroy armoured hardware, provide aerial fire support for ground troops, carry paratroopers, evacuate the wounded and transport cargo in its hold and external cradle.
Azerbaijan currently operates 15 Mi-24 attack helicopters, but in addition to more than doubling the fleet the Mi-35Ms are a significant step up from those in capability, with upgraded weapons, engine and night flying capability.
There is no word on how much Azerbaijan is paying, but in 2008 Brazil bought 12 of the same helicopters for $150 million, suggesting that this purchase is somewhere in the $300 million range.
The press from Azerbaijan's neighbor and foe, Armenia, is of course alarmed, as you might expect since that buy is almost equal to Armenia's entire defense budget. One article is titled "Armenia’s strategic ally continues arming Azerbaijan," and another tries to pour cold water on the whole thing:
The Committee on Foreign Relations of the U.S. Senate has produced a report (pdf) on water conflicts in South and Central Asia, recommending that the U.S. do more to help prevent them.
The report is called "Avoiding Water Wars: Water Scarcity and Central Asia's Growing Importance for Stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan." It doesn't explicitly address the chance of war between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over water, but it quotes former CENTCOM commander Anthony Zinni saying: ‘‘[w]e have seen fuel wars; we’re about to see water wars.’’
The substance of the report's Central Asia sections won't surprise anyone who has followed the spat between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over their water issues. But the more interesting parts of the report concern what the U.S. ought to do about it. For one, the authors call attention to the wide disparity in U.S. spending on the issue:
We pay too little attention to the waters shared by their [Pakistan and Afghanistan's] Indian and Central Asian neighbors—Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. For example, in 2009 the United States provided approximately $46.8 million in assistance for water-related activities to Afghanistan and Pakistan compared with $3.7 million shared among all five Central Asian countries for these efforts.
And the recommendations are, thankfully, the sort of modest and technical projects that 1. could actually get done and 2. could actually do some good. For example, the report recommends providing technical assistance on measuring water flow and volume. The countries in the region aren't working with solid data, which of course increases the chance of disagreements:
Russian officials say that they're going ahead with plans to sell anti-ship cruise missiles to Syria, an action that could have a trickle-down effect of lifting the de facto arms embargo Israel now maintains against Georgia. Israel imposed the ban after Russia reportedly asked them to. Israel hadn't sold much to Georgia before the 2008 war with Russia, but the use of Israeli unmanned drone aircraft was one of the few tactical bright spots for Georgia in that conflict.
According to Georgian analyst Giorgi Melitauri, speaking in 2008, Russia threatened to sell arms to Israel's foes like Syria and Iran if Israel didn't comply with the request:
"The request probably focused on the UAVs. They would have hinted that, in the event of Israel's failure to comply with the request, Russia would supply weapons to the Arab countries, Lebanon, Iran and Pakistan. It should therefore come as no surprise that Israel made this move. Preventing Russia from supplying heavy weapons to the Arab countries is more important to Israel than its own export of light weapons to Georgia. It is common knowledge that the Interior Ministry's police units are armed with Israeli-made pistols. Russia certainly does not care whether the pistols that the police officers carry are produced in Israel or Argentina."
Subsequent Wikileaks-released U.S. diplomatic cables confirmed that theory.
The U.S. can maintain its global primacy if it (among other things) plays Russia off China, India, Iran and Turkey off Russia and Turkey off Iran. That's the analysis of globe-spinner extraordinaire Robert Kaplan, along with his brother Stephen (apparently recently retired as a top CIA official).
The essay, America Primed, is in the new edition of The National Interest and doesn't deal too explicitly with the Caucasus or Central Asia. But it's all about how the U.S. (assisted by the "Anglosphere," other English-speaking countries like Canada, the U.K. and Australia) can maintain dominance on the Eurasian continent. And that requires American leadership to make sure that no other country -- in particular China, Russia or Iran -- gets too powerful. What does that entail, specifically?
For one, playing India off Russia (and "punishing" Pakistan):
Out of national pride, and because of its own tense relationships with China and Pakistan, India needs to remain officially nonaligned. But that will not stop New Delhi from accepting more help from the United States, especially as India now wants to wean itself off Russian arms and replace them with better quality American equipment. Washington should require no quid pro quo from India to make it even more powerful in the region; this is about more than public pronouncements and diplomatic atmospherics, this is about quietly delivering arms, transferring technology and supplying intelligence data to one nation to punish another for taking billions of American dollars without providing the crucial help we require in return.
Also, encouraging Turkey, even with an apparently growing Islamist orientation, to counterbalance Iran:
Latin America may seem an unlikely diplomatic priority for Abkhazia, thousands of miles away from the tiny, breakaway territory on the Black Sea. But Abkhazia's de facto foreign minister, Maxim Gvindjia, on his fifth trip to the region, says Latin America is a key to the territory’s efforts to build diplomatic and trade ties around the world.
Azerbaijan has been trying assiduously to get additional U.S. military aid, and U.S. diplomats have considered the idea of providing weapons in exchange for cooperation on the Turkey-Armenia peace process, according to some recently released U.S. diplomatic cables.
The Russian magazine Russian Reporter has published three cables dealing with Azerbaijan, all from 2009, in an article they call "The Azerbaijanian Machiavelli." (To see the cables in English, scroll down to the bottom.)
In one cable, the U.S.'s then-ambassador to Baku Anne Derse describes how Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev asked for various concessions, including weapons sales, that would assuage Baku's concerns over the Ankara-Yerevan talks:
Aliyev asked Ambassador Derse to explore whether any of the following are possible (reftel a): -- Progress on walking back Section 907, -- Defensive military sales, particularly air defense, and -- High-level actions to show commitment to solving NK. Either delivering on one of these items or showing a willingness to have serious dialogue on these requests could be enough to "buy" Azerbaijani silence on Turkey-Armenia.
Some relatively simple possibilities for rejuvenating our bilateral ties in the near term include:
-- A statement from the Administration that supports previous Administrations' positions that 907 unsuitably restricts the President's authority to carry out the foreign relations of the United States, and that the Administration opposes any new conditionality on the President's waiver authority.
Every year the U.S. Director of National Intelligence has to give a "threat assessment" to Congress, outlining what the U.S. intelligence community thinks Washington ought to be worried about around the world. This is generally pretty boilerplate stuff, and the five-paragraph section of this year's report (pdf) on "The Caucasus and Central Asia" is no different. It highlights the Russian presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the increasing tension in Nagorno-Karabakh, and the instability of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- all of which is obvious without spending $80 billion a year.
But one bit of this year's report stood out as somewhat curious. There is only one country in the region whose internal political situation is discussed:
Georgia's new Constitution strengthens the office of the Prime Minister after the 2013 presidential election. President Saakashvili has not indicated his future plans but the option is available for him under the new Constitution to serve as Prime Minister.
Is this a bad thing -- the emergence of a Putin-style autocracy in Georgia? Or a good thing -- the continued presence of a dependable U.S. ally? The report doesn't say.