South Korean naval chief Admiral Jung Ho-sub lays flowers at Azerbaijan's Martyrs' Alley in Baku. (photo: MoD Azerbaijan)
The head of South Korea's navy is on a short tour around the Caspian Sea, visiting military officials in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan to discuss security cooperation.
Admiral Jung Ho-sub visited Astana on Monday and Baku on Tuesday. The official message in each country was remarkably similar: the aim of the visit was to build naval relations with the respective countries, specifically singling out the hosting of sailors at South Korean military schools and conducting training on Korean ships.
But there was likely more to the visit than that. South Korea has been in discussions with both Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan about equipping their growing navies. In 2013, Azerbaijani officials visited South Korea with an extensive shopping list that included submarine boats, naval destroyers, transport ships.
Similarly, Korean firms have been active in seeking naval military business from Kazakhstan, including possibly building warships and constructing a new shipyard on the Caspian.
If any military deals between South Korea and the Caspian states have gone through, they haven't been made public. After the Azerbaijanis' trip to Korea in 2013, local media reported that one of Seoul's concerns about selling weaponry to Azerbaijan was the possibility of irking Russia. Nevertheless, Korea represents a relatively uncontroversial option for Astana and Baku as they pursue the increasingly sensitive process of Caspian naval armament.
U.S. and Azerbaijani military officials meet in Baku during the visit of U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus. (photo: U.S. Navy)
The United States Secretary of the Navy has visited Azerbaijan amid heightened tensions on the Caspian Sea.
Secretary Ray Mabus visited Baku on Saturday and met with President Ilham Aliyev as well as Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov. There were no details announced about the content of the discussions, but the visit seems to have been heavily covered in Azerbaijan. And Aliyev, according to the state news agency AzerTac, "noted that the situation in the region has changed a lot recently."
Some of those changes include Russia's repeated launching of cruise missiles from ships in the Caspian; the abrupt cancelation of what would have been the first-ever Iranian naval visit to Baku; and increasingly vocal support by Western officials for construction of a trans-Caspian pipeline to carry gas from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan and on to Europe. All of that, presumably, would have given Mabus and Aliyev a lot to talk about.
Mabus arrived in Baku from Dushanbe where, curiously, the local media seems to have ignored the visit and the U.S. account only mentions him visiting American diplomatic and military officers in Tajikistan. Tajikistan, being landlocked, doesn't have a navy but Mabus also oversees the U.S. Marine Corps, who have been involved in training Tajikistan's special forces units.
Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court have identified Georgian military units trained by the United States as being suspected of war crimes, possibly jeopardizing future American aid to those units.
Last month, the ICC prosecutor's office formally requested the authority to start investigations into war crimes in the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia over the disputed territory of South Ossetia. According to the prosecutor's initial report, Georgian and Russian military forces, as well as units of the de facto South Ossetian security forces, all were implicated in war crimes.
In the Georgian case, the crimes involved attacks on Russian units of the Joint Peacekeeping Forces under the Sochi agreement between Georgia and Russia, which formally ended the conflict. Intentionally attacking peacekeepers is a war crime under the Rome Statute, under which the ICC operates. From the ICC report:
During the night from 7 to 8 August 2008 the Georgian armed forces conducted a military operation against JPKF HQ and the base of the Russian Peacekeeping Forces Battalion (RUPKFB) claiming that it had lost its protected status. According to the Russian authorities, 10 peacekeepers belonging to the Russian peacekeeping contingent were killed and a further 30 were wounded as a result.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is interviewed by Kazakhstan's Mir TV in Astana. (photo: State Department)
As United States Secretary of State John Kerry heads home after an unpecedented five-country tour of Central Asia, the U.S. role in the region remains more uncertain than it's been since the 1990s.
The mere fact that the trip happened was the biggest news to come out of it. It was the first time a high-ranking U.S. official had done this five-country tour that has of late become the standard for world leaders (though Japan, India, and China have all sent their presidents, rather than their top diplomat as the U.S. did).
The tour came at a time when U.S. interest in the region seems to be waning as a result of the (albeit now delayed) drawdown from Afghanistan, and so appeared to be an attempt to demonstrate that no, the U.S. isn't gone just quite yet. Also noteworthy -- throughout the entire trip Kerry barely mentioned the much-derided New Silk Road Initiative, which had been the supposed centerpiece of the State Department's post-Afghanistan Central Asia policy.
Kerry's trip also inagurated the "C5+1" format of talks, with the foreign ministers of all five Central Asian states plus the U.S. In an area with remarkably little interregional cooperation, that is actually a genuinely novel and potentially important new platform. But what might it be used for?
Iran's Damavand frigate, which made its first visit to Russia, but skipped a planned trip to Baku without explanation. (photo: MoD Iran)
Iran's navy appears to have quietly scrapped plans to make its first-ever visit to Azerbaijan.
Iranian officials announced earlier this month that a three-ship contingent from their Caspian fleet would be visiting Baku after a stop in Astrakhan for joint exercises with Russia's Caspian Flotilla. The stop in Russia seems to have gone as planned, but on Friday Iranian military officials announced that the ships had returned home to Iran, with no mention of the previous Azerbaijani plans.
"The Iranian fleet of warships comprising Joshan (Shield) and Peykan (Arrow) warships and the hi-tech Damavand destroyer which embarked on a 12-day voyage in the Caspian Sea on October 18 and after conducting joint naval drills with the Russian Navy and berthing at Russia's Astrakhan port returned home today," Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari told the Fars news agency. (It's worth noting that the tour was originally said to be 14 days.)
So what happened to Baku? Although the planned visit was reported in the Azerbaijani media at the start of the trip, there seems to have been no mention since then about the visit or that it had been canceled.
Screenshot of Russian MoD-produced video of launch of Kalibr rocket from the Caspian Sea.
Less than a month after its first-ever launch of a cruise missile from the Caspian Sea, the Russian navy has done it again, this time as part of a large-scale test.
The test, which Russia's military said was aimed at testing its system of its missile command system, involved simultaneous launches of various sorts of missiles from land, aircraft and warships from Kamchatka to Komi to southern Russia.
For Caspian watchers, the most interesting element of the exercise was the launch of a Kalibr missile from the ship Velikiy Ustyug of the Caspian Flotilla. This, recall, was one of the ships -- using the same type of missile -- that participated in the long-range strikes against Syrian targets earlier this month.
That test was widely interpreted as a demonstration of Russia's growing ability to strike targets from long distances. One American naval analyst said the test showed Russia's capacity for "distributed lethality," or dispersing its strike capability around many small sources.
"The Russians are adopting distributed lethality faster than the US,” said the analyst, Bryan Clark, a naval analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, in an interview with Defense News. “The arguments made for distributed lethality are to put firepower on a bunch of smaller ships, have them disperse, in turn increase targeting problems for the enemy, and you may be able to generate the same kind of firepower if you concentrate the platforms."
Tajikistan's government provided the Taliban in Afghanistan with weapons in exchange for the release of four soldiers who had been captured by the Taliban on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, a Taliban official has said.
The four Tajikistani soldiers were captured last December after they got lost hunting for firewood, and were released in June with the help of Qatari mediation. The terms of the exchange weren't announced at the time, but now an unnamed senior Taliban leader, in an interview with the American website The Daily Beast, said that it involved a shipment of weapons from Dushanbe.
The deal was done by the son of a Taliban leader and a scrap metal dealer in Dushanbe, the official said. "In exchange for the guards’ release, the Taliban wanted weapons," the Daily Beast reported. “'Dr. Tahir Shamalzai [the Taliban envoy] traveled from Kabul airport to Dushanbe, inspected the weapons, and crossed with the weapons from Tajikistan into Afghanistan,' a senior Taliban leader tells The Daily Beast."
The details about the arms shipment are unclear: "Our sources use words like 'big' and 'significant,' but won’t go into details," the website reported. "A Taliban sub-commander in Kunduz who goes by the name Qari Omar tells The Daily Beast that the then-commander of forces there, Mullah Rahmatullah, was pleased with the deal."
The Daily Beast frames the event as part of a larger Russian-Taliban cooperation, which seems improbable; the much simpler explanation is that Tajikistan had access to weapons that the Taliban wanted, and needed to get its soldiers back. The Taliban official made no mention of the Qatari role.
A series of airspace violations related to Russian airstrikes in Syria has raised tensions between Russia and Turkey, adding a military dimension to what has long been a political disagreement over how to deal with the violence in the Middle East.
The controversies began shortly after Russia began its air campaign in support of the Syrian government. Turkish authorities said that Russian jets had entered its airspace from Syria on two occasions, on October 3 and 4. Russia claimed the incursion was an accident caused by the weather but Turkish, NATO, and American officials argued that it was intentional.
The point, said Turkish military expert Aaron Stein, was a warning to Turkey to not challenge Russia in Syria. "Turkey's historical adversary [Russia] is intentionally breaching Turkish air space, obviously to send a message to Turkey," he told RFE/RL.
Days later, Turkish military transport helicopters crossed into Armenian air space on two occasions, October 6 and 7. As in the earlier Russian case, Ankara explained the situation by bad weather, but it was widely interpreted as being a retaliatory measure, albeit an understated one, by Ankara. "Armenia was the least challenging place to respond in a deescalated way," said Emil Sanamyan, a regional security analyst, in an email interview with the Bug Pit. "The Russians and Armenians got the point and just ignored it."
Afghanistan's Uzbek leader and vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum has kicked off an offensive in the northern part of the country, just two weeks after traveling to Russia to arrange an increase in military aid.
On Wednesday, Afghanistan's security forces started an operation in the province of Jawzjan, which borders Turkmenistan, led personally by Dostum. The offensive is meant to beat back recent Taliban gains in the north, both in Jawzjan and in neighboring Faryab, which also borders Turkmenistan. Dostum led another offensive in Faryab in August, but his advances were quickly reversed.
Dostum's increasing involvement in the fighting in northern Afghanistan comes as he has also apparently sought to strengthen his ties to the former Soviet states to the north. He visited Grozny and Moscow earlier this month, meeting with officials including Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, to arrange increased Russian military aid.
After arriving in the north, Dostum appeared on Afghan television and publicly thanked his northern neighbors. "The countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, from Russia to Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, all of these states are ready to stand with us against [the Islamic State], against extremism, against the bloody Taliban," he said.
Iran's Damavand frigate, which is making its first visit to Russia. (photo: MoD Iran)
Iranian warships are on a rare trip around the Caspian, calling on their neighbors in Russia and Azerbaijan in a period of new uncertainty for the sea.
Three Iranian vessels are scheduled to berth in Astrakhan, the home of Russia's Caspian Flotilla, on Wednesday. After three days in Astrakhan, the ships will head to Baku and then back to Iran. According to Iranian media it is only Iran's second naval visit to Russia and apparently its first to Azerbaijan.
Russia, the dominant power in the Caspian, makes these sorts of small, friendly naval visits around the sea somewhat regularly. In August, a small contingent of Russian ships visited the Iranian coast and conducted joint exercises.
But Iran's first such visit was in the summer of 2013, and then only to Russia. The visit to Baku isn't the only novelty; this time Iran is sending its new frigate, the Damavand, Iran's most powerful ship on the Caspian which was launched earlier this year.
Although the Caspian is the site of much greater attention these days as a result of Russia's surprise missile launch to Syria, this visit was no doubt planned well in advance. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu visited Tehran in January and on the agenda was more naval port calls.