Russian warships and Turkish commercial vessels have had run-ins on consecutive days, adding to tension between the rival powers.
On Sunday, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that one of its destroyers in the Aegean Sea was forced to fire warning shots at a Turkish fishing boat because the boat was approaching dangerously close to the warship. The MoD immediately summoned Turkey's naval attache to Moscow after that incident.
Then on Monday, a Russian corvette and coast guard boat forced a Turkish commercial ship in the Black Sea to change course because it was in the way of a Russian oil-rig towing boat.
Amid tensions between the two countries as a result of last month's Turkish shootdown of a Russian jet on the Turkey-Syria border, both sides accused the other of trying to provoke them.
"Ours was only a fishing boat. It seems to me the reaction of the Russian naval ship was exaggerated," said Turkey's foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, referring to Sunday's incident. "Russia and Turkey certainly have to re-establish the relationship of trust that we have always had, but our patience has a limit," Cavusoglu said.
Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli speaks December 10 at the Washington think tank Heritage Foundation. (photo: MoD Georgia)
Georgia's government is asking the United States to store some of its weaponry in the country in the case it were needed quickly to defend against Russia. The U.S., while announcing an ambitious plan to "preposition" equipment in several NATO countries on Russia's border, is so far declining to do so in Georgia.
By the end of next year, the U.S. Army hopes to have what it calls "European Activity Sets" placed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, the top Army commander in Europe, General Ben Hodges, said this week. The sets would consist of vehicles and weaponry so that American soldiers coming to the area for training, or for a quick deployment, would have gear waiting for them.
Hodges added that the army is not now considering additional sites. But Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli, visiting Washington this week, is lobbying for Washington to change its mind and to include Georgia in that list.
“Putting more security in [the] Baltics or eastern border of NATO is the same value for us as putting it in Georgia, because deterring Russia anywhere means more security for Georgia,” Khidasheli said in an interview with the newspaper Defense News. “But at the same time, we hope that Georgia will be part of that deal, as well, and we will get our share in this entire picture of European security setup … we will see. We’re negotiating all those issues and I’m very optimistic that we will get our portion from this.”
A December 2 tweet by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin.
The Russia-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, has declared its support for Russia in its ongoing conflict with Turkey. But the fact that the CSTO's statement was issued by an Armenian general, and that all of the other CSTO members have conspicuously failed to publicly back the statement, has only reinforced the impression that few of Russia's friends are willing to take its side against Turkey.
On Wednesday, the CSTO's military committee met in Moscow and, according to the organization, unanimously condemned Turkey's shootdown of a Russian Su-24 bomber on the Turkey-Syria border last month.
"All chiefs of staff of the CSTO member states supported the position of Russia, calling the Turkish aggression treacherous. It can't be judged any other way — it was a stab in the back, as Russia said immediately," said the chief of staff of the Armenian armed forces, Colonel-General Yuriy Khachaturov.
He went on: "We support Russia in all of its decisions... The CSTO is united as never before. We will get stronger."
Chinese soldiers at the opening ceremony of the SCO Peace Mission 2012 military exercises in Tajikistan. (photo: MoD, Russia)
China places a priority on Central Asia as a site for training its military to operate abroad, with nearly half of its military exercises abroad involving Central Asian and Russian militaries, a new U.S. government report has argued.
The analysis of China-Central Asia relations in the report, by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, won't surprise too many close watchers of the region. It argues that Chinese activity in Central Asia is largely economic, that Chinese military activity there is relatively limited but growing, and that China's economic and security policy is oriented towards maintaining stability in the ethnically Uyghur and frequently restive province of Xinjiang, which borders Central Asia.
But there are a number of interesting observations in the report, which was based on interviews with experts and government officials from the U.S., China, Central Asian countries, and elsewhere.
For example, the priority that the Chinese military apparently places on Central Asia as a training ground. It notes that most of Beijing's security cooperation with Central Asia is conducted under the auspices of the Shaghai Cooperation Organization, which is dominated by China but also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
While the SCO military exercises had over the years seemed to be declining in importance, as the organization took on more of an economic role, the last major exercise, in 2014, was the organization's biggest in ten years. And SCO exercises play an outsized role in preparing the Chinese military to operate outside its borders, the report argues:
The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Ross passes through the Bosphorus straits on December 3. (photos: U.S. Navy)
An American warship has entered the Black Sea and three more NATO ships have docked in Istanbul as tension rises on the Bosphorus straits, a source of contention between Russia and Turkey for centuries.
The U.S. Navy destroyer the USS Ross entered the Black Sea on December 3. These visits to the sea are relatively routine, but this is the first such American visit to the Black Sea since Turkey shot down a Russian bomber jet on the Turkey-Syria border. In addition, warships from three other NATO members -- Canada, Portugal, and Spain -- have moored at Istanbul in an apparent show of support. Turks interviewed by Euronews were reportedly "reassured" by the NATO ships' visit.
The visits come as there has been a flurry of discussion in the Russian and Turkish press about the role the Bosphorus straits might play in the conflict between the two countries. The Bosphorus is the only outlet of the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, and so Russia depends on it as its only warm water access to the rest of the world.
According to the 1936 Montreux Convention, Turkey is obliged to allow free traffic through the straits, except in the case of war or the imminent threat thereof. While this is, in theory, a huge strategic advantage that Turkey holds over Russia, to actually close off the straits would no doubt be seen by Russia as an act of war and it's very unlikely Ankara would take such a step unless the situation between the two countries dramatically worsened.
NATO has struck a blow to Georgia's membership aspirations, announcing that the country is still expected to pass through a stage of accession, the so-called MAP, that officials in Tbilisi have lobbied to skip.
"At the 2008 Bucharest Summit we agreed that Georgia will become a member of NATO with MAP as an integral part of the process; today we reaffirm all elements of that decision," NATO foreign ministers announced after a meeting Wednesday.
Georgia has sought MAP, without success, for many years, and of late Tbilisi has taken a new tack: Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli has been trying to convince NATO members that the MAP, or Membership Action Plan, is an unnecessary "intermediate step" for Georgia. "There should be no intermediary steps between Georgia and NATO," she tweeted in October.
So Wednesday's move, reaffirming the necessity of MAP, was yet another setback in Georgia's quest for NATO accession. "That Khidasheli has been unable to secure even that is unsurprising, but it does represent a symbolic blow considering that Georgia is already in many ways 'beyond' the MAP stage -- not to mention the amount of diplomatic energy Tbilisi spent on this initiative," said Michael Hikari Cecire, a Caucasus expert and associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, in an email interview with The Bug Pit.
Russia's would-be military allies have been nearly silent on Moscow's rift with Turkey over the latter's shootdown of a bomber jet on the Turkey-Syria border last week, resulting in some consternation about what good the alliance is.
Russia leads the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military-security bloc whose other members are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Russia called an urgent session of the CSTO's permanent council the day after the Su-24 was shot down, where Russian representatives showed their allies evidence that showed that their plane had not crossed into Turkish airspace, as Ankara had claimed.
The CSTO issued a statement afterwards saying that the participants called the shootdown "a grave violation of international norms with the gravest consequences." But the phrasing of the statement was ambiguous; as Belarusian website tut.by put it, "it wasn't specified whether this was Russia's position or the joint position of the CSTO."
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov meet in Iran on November 23. (photo: kremlin.ru)
The disruption of air traffic over the Caspian Sea is a sacrifice necessary for the sake of fighting terrorism, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said.
Russia's launch of cruise missiles from warships in the Caspian against targets in Syria prompted several airlines, including Kazakhstan's flag carrier Air Astana, to suspend flights over the sea in mid-October. Last week, Russia launched another salvo of missiles from the Caspian to Syria.
Putin's recent comments came during a meeting with Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov at a gas conference in Iran. It was raised in a curious fashion: Berdymukhammedov brought it up and said it was something that worried Kazakhstan, without mentioning what his own opinion might be.
"Our Kazakh colleagues are very worried about what is happening above the Caspian Sea," Berdymukhammedov said, according to a Kremlin transcript. This is connected with military issues. So the issue has arisen connected with international civilian air traffic, should traffic be altered, the flight level. I don't know if you are aware of this issue, but our Kazakh colleauges are very concernd about this."
Putin's answer was basically: we're the ones fighting terrorism on everyone's behalf, so don't complain about these kinds of inconveniences.
Turkey has shot down a Russian warplane that crossed into its airspace amid tension over Russia's targeting of ethnic Turkmen forces in Syria which Turkey considers its "brothers and sisters."
Since Russia's bombing campaign in Syria began about two months ago Russian jets have repeatedly crossed into Turkish airspace. Until now Turkey has been relatively sanguine about those incursions (though it did send a couple of military helicopters into Armenian airspace which observers interpreted as a message to Russia).
But by Tuesday, Ankara's patience had apparently worn out. After what Turkey claimed was a 17-second violation of its airspace, and ten warnings, Turkish F-16 jets shot down the Russian Su-24. It was apparently the first exchange of fire between a NATO member and Russia since the end of the Cold War.
Turkey's decisionmaking was likely heavily influenced by the fact that Russia had of late been targeting units of ethnic Turkmens, culturally and linguistically close to Turks, in northern Syria. “That definitely played a role in how they responded to this incursion as compared to other ones," said Aaron Stein, a fellow at the Washingon-based Atlantic Council, in a conference call with reporters.. "This isn't just another Russian bombing campaign” but one that attacks what Turkey considers to be its sphere of influence, Stein added.
Residents of Tajikistan's southern city of Kulyab are lamenting the imminent departure of the Russian military presence there, which is slated to move to the capital, Dushanbe in two months.
News of the base closure broke last week, after which it emerged that the Russian soldiers in Kulyab would be moving to other facilities within Tajikistan and that the Kulyab facility would be handed over to the government of Tajikistan.
"The redeployment was agreed with the Ministry of Defense of Tajikistan and is going according to plan. It is in the interests of increasing the military readiness and the growth of the military potential of the units," said Yaroslav Roshchupkin, a spokesman for Russia's Central Military District, reported RIA Novosti. "The military base in Kulyab will be handed over to the jurisdiction of the government organs of Tajikistan."
The overall size of the Russian military presence in Tajikistan won't change, Roshchupkin added. "Of the three Russian military objects in the region, two will remain -- the Kurgan-Tyube motor rifle regiment and the 'Okno' optical-electrionic structure of the Russian Aerospace Defense Forces."
But that didn't really answer the question of why the move was being made. It's particularly curious given the amount of attention Russia has been paying to the purported threat of radical Islamists militants spilling over from Afghanistan into Central Asia. Kulyab is only about 40 kilometers from the Afghan border, and as such would seem to be ideally placed to protect against that spillover threat.