Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Russian officers take place in the opening ceremony, in Tajikistan, for the CSTO joint exercises "Poisk 2016" (photo: CSTO)
Russia and several of its allies have wrapped up their first-ever joint military reconnaissance exercises in Tajikistan where they "eliminated" a make-believe ISIS commander who was plotting to seize power in Central Asia.
The exercises took place in Tajikistan's Romit Gorge, where -- incidentally -- Tajikistan security forces last year killed a rogue general who had mutinied and whom Dushanbe (unconvincingly) claimed was part of ISIS. They involved 1,500 military intelligence officers from Russia and its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization -- Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
The primary purpose of the exercise seemed to be to work out joint operations of the CSTO countries' reconnaissance units and equipment (i.e. the forces that allow armed forces to locate and target enemy units). In one phase, for example, helicopter crews dropped paratroopers close to enemy formations and cut off their lines of communication. In another, they used their electronic reconnaissance equipment to target enemy communications points.
A senior American NATO official has signaled support for a proposal to create a regular alliance naval presence on the Black Sea, where tension has been rising between Russia and its maritime neighbors.
"There are some very valuable discussions under way among the allies who live on the Black Sea ... of more closely integrating their naval forces and operations," said NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow, an American diplomat, referring to Bulgaria, Turkey, and Romania, Reuters reported. "We need to consider a more persistent NATO military presence in the region, with a particular focus on our maritime capabilities."
Vershbow was apparently referring to an idea, promoted by Romania, to creating a permanent NATO presence on the sea. Romanian officials also have said that their proposal envisages cooperation with non-NATO partners on the Black Sea, in particular Georgia and Ukraine, as well as the United States. The proposal looks to be considered at the alliance's June summit in Warsaw, as the alliance continues to build up its military presence along Russia's borders.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, never shy about thrusting his once-obscure country on to the global stage, has unveiled perhaps his most ambitious initiative ever: to rid the world of war.
The new program, announced during Nazarbayev's recent trip to Washington, is called "21st Century: A World Without Wars" and is laid out in a document, "Manifesto: The World. The 21st century."
Nazarbayev's rule has featured several globally ambitious initiatives, like integrating all of Eurasia, bringing the world's religions together and eliminating nuclear weapons. The new anti-war manifesto is an outgrowth of the last, and Nazarvbayev unveiled it at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington.
And as with Kazakhstan's other global projects, it's difficult to separate Nazarbayev's desire to do good from his desire for glory. “The government is not insincere about this issue, but it is certainly also used for public diplomacy issues,” said Togzhan Kassenova, an associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment, in an interview with Foreign Policy magazine.
The United States has for the first time formally designated Tajikistan as a "country of particular concern" with respect to religious freedom, while at the same time waiving any potential sanctions that could entail because the country is of "important national interest" to the U.S.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which annually reviews countries' religious freedom practices, has determined that Tajikistan violated the rights of Muslims, Protestants, and Jehovah's Witnesses. Since 2012 the commission has recommended Tajikistan be placed on the list of the worst violators of religious freedom around the globe. For the first time this year the State Department agreed, adding Tajikistan to a list that also includes Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. It's unclear what pushed the State Department to finally lose patience this year, but no doubt the dramatic crackdown on the country's only significant opposition political party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, contributed.
By law, this designation could require the U.S. to curtail various forms of aid to Tajikistan, including military aid. But the law in question gives the president significant latitude as to exactly what sorts of sanctions to apply -- they could be limited, for example, to a "private demarche" or the "delay or cancellation of one or more cultural exchanges."
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter meets with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk. (photo: president.gov.by)
The United States and Belarus are intensifying their military cooperation, as Minsk -- nominally a close ally of Russia -- seems to be trying to diversify its options.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter visited Minsk at the end of last month, where he said Washington "hope[s] to build a foundation for improving our bilateral relations, including in the security and defense arena." Carpenter also mentioned "progress that we have seen over the past six months," apparently referring to the release of some political prisoners. That was the pretext for the U.S. and the European Union loosening some sanctions on the country, though it appears that the West's increasing attentions to Minsk may be more motivated by geopolitical considerations vis-a-vis Russia.
Carpenter met with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a surprisingly high-level reception for someone of his rank in the Pentagon bureaucracy. The main result of the visit appears to have been an agreement to exchange military attaches. (The U.S. embassy in Minsk has been operating on a skeleton crew since 2008 when the Belarusian government forced them to downsize.) During the visit it also emerged that defense talks between the two sides began last year, with the previously unreported visit of a Belarusian defense ministry official to Washington.
With Nagorno Karabakh's worst violence in two decades having abated, Armenia and Azerbaijan are taking stock of how loyally their allies and partners responded to the crisis. And in most cases, both sides have found the responses wanting.
The major outside player in the conflict remains Russia, but its actions and the subsequent reactions followed a well-worn path: Armenia complained that its ostensible ally was providing weapons to its enemy, Russia justified that policy in terms of a balance of power, and nothing concrete changed.
While Armenia is a treaty ally of Russia, hosts a Russian military base, and gets discounted Russian weaponry in return, oil-rich Azerbaijan has rearmed itself, with the aim of retaking its lost territory, buying most of its arms from the very same Russia.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin visited the region at the end of last week, part of a Russian diplomatic blitz that seems to have succeeded in tamping down the violence for the time being. And both officials made it clear that Russia did not intend to change its policy of supplying both sides.
“If we consider for a moment that Russia gave up that role, we all will see clearly that such place won’t remain vacant. Weapons will be bought from other countries, and that won’t make weapons less deadly. However, it could ruin the current balance to some extent,” Medvedev said. "Everything is done in compliance with the contracts. Both these countries are our strategic partners," Rogozin said.
Turkish and Ukrainian warships carry out joint exercises near Odessa. (photo: MoD Ukraine)
Turkey's naval ships have made simultaneous port calls to all the Black Sea countries except Russia, in an apparent military-diplomatic show of force as tensions on the sea continue to simmer.
As part of this year's iteration of the annual Deniz Yildizi (Sea Star) exercises, Turkish ships made port calls over last weekend to Batumi (Georgia), Varna (Bugaria), Constanta (Romania), and Odessa (Ukraine). These countries, all engaged in conflicts with Russia of varying severity, are increasingly finding common cause on the Black Sea. Turkey, though, is the only naval power with anything close to Russia's strength.
"The scope of the exercise shows that Turkish Navy intends to show a strong presence in the Black Sea," wrote Turkish naval blogger Can Devrim Yaylali. "This is an impressive way of showing the flag, an important message."
When the deadliest fighting in decades broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh in early April, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and the rest of the world struggled to figure out what was going on. Did Azerbaijan, as it claimed, really seize villages and strategic heights? Were there really hundreds of casualties on each side? How did the fighting start?
A photo released by the de facto Nagorno Karabakh armed forces, which they said is an Azerbaijani ThunderB drone that they shot down.
The recent surge of violence in Nagorno Karabakh has brought attention to Azerbaijan's increased reliance on arms from Israel, including two types of drones not previously known to be in Baku's arsenal.
In one case, Azerbaijan was reported to have used a "Harop" loitering munition, known somewhat fancifully as a "kamikaze drone" because it is itself the bomb. According to Armenian media, on April 4 the Harop hit a bus carrying soldiers to the front and killed five or six of them. It was believed to be the first ever combat use of the system anywhere, reported Jane's Defence Weekly. Azerbaijan sources claim to have used the Harop in other attacks, as well.
In another episode, the armed forces of Nagorno Karabakh released photos of a ThunderB surveillance drone that they claimed to have shot down on April 2.
And in a third episode, Azerbaijani sources claim that their side destroyed "six enemy tanks" using an Israeli-made Spike missiles.
None of these weapons were previously reported to be operated by Azerbaijan. (While it was known that Azerbaijan bought the marine version of the Spike missiles, it's not clear whether it somehow used those for this attack or had secretly also purchased the land forces version, as well.)
In an apparent attempt to assuage Russian concerns, Chinese defense officials have clarified their intentions to create a military bloc along with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. They emphasize that it is not to be a "Central Asian NATO" and would "complement" the efforts of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, of which Russia is a member, rather than exclude Moscow.
The initiative in question was announced during a visit by General Fang Fenghui, the chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, during a visit to Kabul last month. Details have been scant, but the initiative was a surprising one given China's traditional deference to Russia in Central Asia security affairs. And Russian media have accused their Western counterparts of deliberately misconstruing the initiative in an effort to sow discord between the two giant neighbors.
"Western media outlets branded the suggestion as a 'Central Asian NATO' claiming to threaten Russia’s influence in the region," wrote the Russian state news agency Sputnik wrote.