A screenshot from Kazakhstan TV station KTK of Russian military testing in Kazakhstan.
Members of Kazakhstan's parliament are pressing the government to get more money out of Russia for the rent it pays for its several military facilities, setting the stage for yet another negotiating battle between Russia and its ex-Soviet allies.
Last week, Deputy Defense Minister Okas Saparov testified in Kazakhstan's Senate, and got some criticism for the fact that Russia seems to be paying under market rates for the rent of its four military facilities in Kazakhstan. These include the Kapustin Yar test firing range, the Sary Shagan and Emba missile testing sites, and the 929th State Test Flight Center. For all that, Russia pays about $24 million in rent, and in some MPs' opinion, that is too little.
"I think that price is very low. In theory, it should be no less than the price of the land that Kazakhs use for agriculture. Farmers pay 2,000 tenge per hectare to rent a plot, while Russia just 424 tenge. How is that possible? After all, in the current crisis Kazakhstan could be getting tens of billions in profit for this rent," said MP Kuanysh Aitakhanov, television station KTK reported.
NATO and Georgian flags fly together as a four-ship NATO naval contingent visits Batumi, Georgia. (photo: Ministry of Internal Affairs, Georgia)
Russia is conducting snap exercises around the Black Sea and southern Russia as tensions continue to rise between Russia and Turkey. Meanwhile, a contingent of four NATO naval vessels -- including two from Turkey -- is visiting Georgia for joint exercises.
Russia began the exercises on Monday which reportedly involve 8,500 troops and 50 combat ships from the Black Sea Fleet and Caspian Flotilla. These sorts of large, unnanounced exercises have become common in Russia over the last several years, but analysts saw these particular drills as sending a message to Turkey.
"We've had many of these snap exercises over the past three years, it's a very correct element of training the armed forces. It's not at all necessary to see them as a signal to someone, but in this case it's of course also a signal to the Turks, because we are quickly and surely heading to war with them," said Alexander Khramichkin, a Russian military analyst, in an interview with newspaper Gazeta.ru.
Tension between Moscow and Ankara has remained high months after Turkey shot down a Russian military jet on the Syrian border. Most recently Russia accused Turkey of planning a land invasion of Syria, further heightening the risk of direct confrontation between the two powers.
The United States would give Georgia a big boost in aid to help it "resist Russian aggression" under a budget proposal announced this week by the White House. But Washington is deemphasizing military aid to Georgia, and a huge increase in Pentagon funding for a greater U.S. military presence around Russia's borders dedicates relatively little to Tbilisi.
The U.S. plans to give Georgia $63 million in general Economic Support Fund money in fiscal year 2017, up from $38 million this year, according to State Department budget documents. That money "will support Georgia’s democratization, economic development, Euro-Atlantic integration, and resistance to Russian aggression" and will be "targeted towards enhancing energy security and economic opportunities for populations susceptible to Russian influence."
But that aid is mainly for civilian programs, and American military aid to Georgia is set to decrease under this proposal. Aid to Georgia marked as Foreign Military Financing, intended for military equipment, will decrease from $30 million this year to $20 million in fiscal year 2017. Next year's funding is intended "to advance Georgia’s development of forces capable of enhancing security, countering Russian aggression, and contributing to coalition operations. This will include support in areas such as upgrades to Georgia’s rotary wing air transport capabilities, advisory and defense reform, and modernization of Georgia’s military institutions."
United States intelligence believes that Georgia could reverse its strategic orientation toward the West under Russian pressure, the country's top intelligence official has said.
The U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified to Congress on Tuesday, offering the U.S. intelligence community's annual "Worldwide Threat Assessment." The short section dealing with the Caucasus and Central Asia offers some interesting insights into how American government spooks and analysts see developments in the region. Perhaps the most intriguing statement is that on Georgia, which suggests that Georgia may be rethinking its Euro-Atlantic orientation, in part due to Russian efforts:
Even as Georgia progresses with reforms, Georgian politics will almost certainly be volatile as political competition increases. Economic challenges are also likely to become a key political vulnerability for the government before the 2016 elections. Rising frustration among Georgia’s elites and the public with the slow pace of Western integration and increasingly effective Russian propaganda raise the prospect that Tbilisi might slow or suspend efforts toward greater Euro-Atlantic integration. Tensions with Russia will remain high, and we assess that Moscow will raise the pressure on Tbilisi to abandon closer EU and NATO ties.
Russian officials have attacked the International Criminal Court for an anti-Russian bias in its prosecution of alleged war crimes in the 2008 war with Georgia over South Ossetia.
At the end of January the ICC gave its prosecutor the go-ahead to investigate the war. The court's prosecutor has said she is looking at crimes allegedly committed by Georgian, South Ossetian, and Russian forces during the conflict. But all sides seem to have ignored the potential charges against Georgia, with Georgia welcoming the ICC's involvement and Russia and South Ossetia criticizing it.
After the ICC's announcement that it would proceed with the investigation, Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs complained that the court was taking Georgia's side.
"The ICC prosecutor has placed the blame with South Ossetians and Russian soldiers, taken the aggressor’s side, and started an investigation aimed against the victims of the attack. Such actions hardly reflect the ideals of justice," said MFA spokeswoman Maria Zakharova in a January 29 briefing. "In the light of the latest decision, the Russian Federation will be forced to fundamentally review its attitude towards the ICC."
Kazakhstan soldiers goose-stepping in a 2015 military parade. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev has ordered a change in the way his country's soldiers march in a symbolic separation from Russia and the country's Soviet legacy.
In an order issued on Wednesday, Nazarbayev decreed that from now one, Kazakhstan's soldiers will march at a tempo of 95-105 steps per minute, with each step measuring from 60-70 centimeters. Furthermore, "the forward leg should be raised 10-15 centimeters from the ground and placed firmly on the entire sole, the toe held more freely, not extended."
This may seem to be a pretty arcane issue, but there are political implications. Russia and most post-Soviet militaries use the so-called "goose step," which uses a tempo of 120 steps per minute, at a maximum of 80 centimeters, and a straight leg.
Azerbaijan is being forced to cut its defense budget, once the pride of the nation, as a result of the collapse in oil prices.
Other oil-dependent states in the region like Kazakhstan and Russia also will likely have to make across-the-board budget cuts because of the drop in oil prices. But the situation appears most dire in Azerbaijan, not least because it is locked in a conflict with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
Azerbaijan's government has consistently bragged about its defense budget, which, starting in 2011, it claimed exceeded Armenia's entire state budget. Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hikmat Hajiyev told the American newspaper Defense News in a story published this week that that "defense spending had enabled the Azerbaijani armed forces to be supplied with requisite advanced weaponry needed to re-take 'its Armenian-held territories.'"
“It is our priority and we will continue to increase military spending," said Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev in 2014. "Over the past 10 years, our military spending has increased more than 20-fold, and our spending allocated to the armed forces is approximately twice as large as Armenia’s overall state budget."
Georgian soldiers have been accused of sexually abusing children while on a peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, according to United Nations human rights officials. Georgia's ministry of defense said it was investigating the allegations.
UN investigators have been researching claims that children in the CAR were abused by soldiers in a European Union peacekeeping mission in 2014. In a statement issued Friday, theUN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said that some Georgians were among those accused.
"While the nationalities of some of the soldiers remain unclear, three of the girls said they believed their abusers were members of the Georgian EUFOR contingent. The four girls were aged between 14 and 16 at the time of the alleged abuse," the statement said.
About 100 Georgian soldiers served in the peacekeeping force from 2014-2015. They were the second-largest troop contributor to the force, behind France. Georgia presented the mission, as it does its many contributions to American and European military endeavors abroad, as a means of raising Georgia's prestige in the West.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meets Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in Ashgabat. (photo: MFA Russia)
Russia has offered Turkmenistan help in guarding that country's restive border with Afghanistan, but Turkmenistan has turned them down, Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said on a visit this week to Ashgabat.
The top agenda item for Lavrov's two-day visit was gas. Russia's state company Gazprom announced earlier this month that it was stopping gas purchases from Turkmenistan, which used to be one of Moscow's top suppliers until China built a huge pipeline to Turkmenistan and now buys the lion's share of Turkmen gas. It's not clear what progress was made on that front, but Russian newspaper Kommersant, citing anonymous sources, reported that "in the coming days the two sides will start negotiations about the possible parameters of further cooperation in the gas sphere."
But the two sides couldn't not discuss the situation on the border with Afghanistan, which over the past two years has unexpectedly become the site of several skirmishes and incursions back and forth between the Taliban and Turkmenistan's security forces.
The official Turkmen statement about Lavrov's visit said the two sides discussed "a united position regarding the necessity of a political-diplomatic resolution of the problems in the Central Asian region, in particular those connected with the situation in Afghanistan."
Lavrov himself was a little more specific, telling reporters that Ashgabat had described some "additional measures" that they were taking on the border, and that they didn't need Moscow's help.
Russia's post-Soviet security alliance is showing more and more signs of fracturing along regional, cultural, and political fault lines, as Armenia criticizes other members for not taking its side against Azerbaijan.
Armenia is probably the most loyal member of the alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization. And Yerevan has long complained about the fact that some of the other CSTO members, like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, have supported Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia in Turkic and Muslim fora.
That tension has been heightened recently as a result of increasing violence along the line of contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces around the disputed Nagorno Karabakh territory, as well as the fallout between Russia and Turkey.
The CSTO's Turkic members, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, have sympathized with Turkey over Russia in that dispute to a degree that is suprising given Russia's far stronger economic and strategic ties in Central Asia. And if they're not willing to support Russia -- which really has the ability to either pressure or help the Central Asian states -- they are certainly far less likely to support Armenia, which which they have little in common other than a fading Soviet legacy.
The schism doesn't have only to do pan-Turkic sympathies between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. Belarus, too, has refused to take the Kremlin's side against Turkey. Just as important as any cultural ties is a reluctance among all of Russia's allies to sign up for Moscow's increasingly unpredictable foreign policy ventures.