A German Patriot missile system. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
NATO is reportedly looking at ending its deployment of air defense units on the Syrian border, prompting objections from Ankara.
The German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that the U.S., Germany, and the Netherlands are considering ending their deployment of Patriot missile batteries by the end of the year. The systems were deployed in January 2013 in response to the intensified fighting there. The fighting, of course, has not died down, but the threat of a chemical attack has diminished. That, in combination with the fact that the soldiers from Germany and the Netherlands who operate the systems have been overstretched by the long deployment, have led to the reconsideration of the mission, Der Spiegel's sources said.
But Turkey isn't ready for them to go. “Turkey thinks that such a move doesn't serve relations between allies,” one Turkish foreign ministry official told Today's Zaman. Another diplomatic source told Hurriyet Daily News, "At a moment when there are serious security problems [in the region], a decision to withdraw these systems from Turkey would be inappropriate and unsuitable to the [values of our] alliance."
A GM-400 air defense radar, recently purchased by Kazakhstan. (photo: ThalesRaytheonSystems)
During its big defense expo last month, Kazakhstan announced that it is buying air defense radars from French-American company ThalesRaytheonSystems.
Air defense radars aren't the sexiest piece of military hardware, but this was an interesting move given Kazakhstan's large dependence on Russia for air defense. Russia and Kazakhstan are in the process of setting up a joint air defense system under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization; in May, Kazakhstan's senate ratified the deal. And as part of this arrangement, Russia gave Kazakhstan several S-300 air defense systems in January. Other CSTO partners Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are in various stages of joining the system as well. “Such cooperation greatly enhances the defense potential of Russia and its partners, and contributes to strengthening peace and stability in Eurasia,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said last year.
The U.S. has substantially cut its aid for Central Asian security forces, according to newly released Pentagon data.
The report (pdf) details spending under Section 1004 of the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows the U.S. Department of Defense to train and equip foreign security forces involved in counternarcotics missions. In 2012, the Pentagon seemed to make Central Asia, in particular Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, a major focus. But according to the new data, that effort may have been abandoned.
The new data covers the first half of Fiscal Year 2014, from October 2013 through March 2014. Compared to the last full data (pdf), from 2012, there are big cuts across the board (even taking into account that the new numbers are for half a year, and the 2012 numbers for a full year):
Kazakhstan: $187,000 - from $8.7 million
Kyrgyzstan: $1.2 million - from $21.3 million
Tajikistan: $1.1 million - from $15.4 million
Uzbekistan: $156.000 - from $5.7 million
The training that took place under this program was directed less at the military and more at the security services like the GKNB; in 2012 the U.S. trained at least 350 GKNB officers from Tajikistan and 100 from Kyrgyzstan. (It was Tajikistan's GKNB, recall, which arrested political scientist Alexander Sodiqov and accused him of spying.)
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has set up a new "anti-terror unit" in an apparent effort by China to deepen cooperation with Russia and Central Asia in its fight against Uyghur nationalist groups.
The director of the SCO's anti-terror section, based in Tashkent, gave a series of interviews to Chinese media last week and gave a handful of new details about the organization's security efforts in Central Asia. From China Daily:
"Many terrorists who carried out deadly attacks in China watched or listened to video or audio files online with extremist ideological content, but such materials are produced or uploaded outside China," Zhang Xinfeng, director of the Eurasian grouping's regional anti-terrorist structure executive committee, said at its headquarters in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan.
"The regional anti-terrorist structure decided to set up a special unit at the end of 2013 to deal with the new situation."
Xhang doesn't elaborate in that interview on what the new unit is, but in another interview, with the Global Times he reports that "our anti-terrorist structure established a joint expert team from all SCO members later last year to deal with the threat from the Internet." (Members of the SCO are China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.)
The German government released its annual report on the country's arms sales around the world, and what made headlines was the fact that defense exports jumped 38 percent from 2012 to 2013. But in the Caucasus and Central Asia, Germany regularly denied export licenses on grounds of poor human rights records, ongoing conflicts, and the possibility of the equipment being resold to third countries. The report (pdf, in German) specifies the criteria under European Union policy regarding arms exports.
Kazakhstan, for example, was denied exports worth 160,000 Euros under EU criteria having to do with "Respect for human rights in the country of final destination as well as respect by that country of international humanitarian law," "Internal situation in the country of final destination, as a function of the existence of tensions or armed conflicts," and "Existence of a risk that the military technology or equipment will be diverted within the buyer country or re-exported under undesirable conditions." Unfortunately the report doesn't specify what equipment was requested but denied (and in this case, doesn't explain what "tensions or armed conflicts" are going on in Kazakhstan).
Kyrgyzstan was denied four licenses totaling 12,000 Euros under the criteria of "Respect for human rights in the country of final destination as well as respect by that country of international humanitarian law" and "Internal situation in the country of final destination, as a function of the existence of tensions or armed conflicts."
The deaths of two Armenian soldiers on the border with Azerbaijan has led to predictions that Armenia will carry out a "substantial" attack in retaliation.
On June 5, Armenia's defense ministry reported that two of its soldiers had been killed along the border with Nakhcivan, the exclave of Azerbaijan cut off from the rest of Azerbaijan and bordering Turkey, Iran, and Armenia.
"Azerbaijan has shown its true face and prompted us to be prepared for a war," said deputy speaker of parliament Eduard Sharmazanov, according to BBC Monitoring. Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian told a representative from the OSCE that "ongoing escalation in the current operational environment is prone to entail unforeseen consequences for the Azeri side."
And a retired Armenian general, Arkady Ter-Tadevosyan, in an interview with RFERL, said he had "specific information" that Armenia is preparing a "substantial strike" on Azerbaijan in retaliation for the two soldiers' deaths. "If we don't carry out counterattacks soon, the Azerbaijanis will conclude that we're weak. We just need to attack, and the attack needs to be noticeable. I don't only expect, but I know, that such an attack is being prepared."
And there are reports that Armenia has already counterattacked. Again via BBC Monitoring:
On 8 June, opposition Azadliq paper quoted unidentified local social media users as saying that Armenian troops attacked from the direction of Lakataq village in Naxcivan's Culfa District bordering Armenia, adding that the enemy captured "several heights" in the area.
Col. Mirbek Imayev, chief of staff of the Kyrgyz National Guard, with a symbolic key he received from U.S. officers at the formal closure of the Manas air base. (photo: Capt. Cory OBrien, 376th Air Expeditionary Wing)
As the United States shuts down its air base in Kyrgyzstan, people in the region are assessing the legacy of 12 years of American military presence in the country. And for the most part, the conclusion is: good riddance.
The reaction in Kyrgyzstan was muted, said Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "The news portals of Kyrgyzstan were silent about the news that caused such a lively reaction in Russia. It was as if there had not been 12 and a half years of the presence of a foreign army, painful incidents, corruption scandals and the 'strengthening of American-Kyrgyzstani friendship.'" (Scare quotes as in original.)
And indeed, according to an informal press review conducted by The Bug Pit, there did seem to be more commentary on the closure coming from Russia than from Kyrgyzstan itself. Russian website Lenta.ru ran an interview with Kyrgyzstan analyst Toktogul Kakchekeev, who described the base in thoroughly negative terms. He said that former president Askar Akaev allowed the establishment of the base as a "PR move ... so that Kyrgyzstan could be called an island of democracy in Central Asia. But the people wanted to be together with Russia."
The American warship USS Taylor makes a port call to Batumi, Georgia, in May. (photo: U.S. Navy)
The United States is planning a "stronger presence of U.S. ships in the Black Sea" as Russia accused the U.S. and NATO ships that have been on the sea recently as "spying" on Russia's own Black Sea Fleet. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Romania on Thursday, and he made a stop at the USS Vella Gulf, which was on a port call at Constanta as part of its tour around the Black Sea. The Vella Gulf’s port visit in Romania “a clear expression of [the] commitment" that the U.S. and NATO have expressed recently toward strengthening their military presence in the countries neighboring Russia "“which is becoming even more important in the wake of Russia’s actions in Ukraine." From a Pentagon press release:
Another example, Hagel said, is Obama's announcement this week that he will ask Congress for up to $1 billion to enhance the readiness of U.S. and allied forces in Europe, including more U.S. troop rotations for exercises and training and a stronger presence of U.S. ships in the Black Sea. “The U.S. has maintained a regular naval presence in the Black Sea since mid-March, with the USS Truxton, the USS Donald Cook and the USS Taylor all conducting port calls in Romania, and we will sustain this tempo going forward,” he said. “We are also stepping up our cooperation with other partners and allies surrounding the Black Sea, including Bulgaria, Georgia, Turkey, and Ukraine.”
Russia has repeatedly complained about the increased Western military presence on the Black Sea. On Wednesday, Itar-Tass quoted an unnamed source in the "military-diplomatic corps" as saying that a French frigate in the Black Sea was spying on Russia:
The frigate Surcouf is conducting maneuvers in the northern part of the Black Sea, periodically approaching 50-60 kilometers from the coast of Crimea. According to available data, the NATO warship is conducting electronic surveillance of military objects of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, deployed on the peninsula along the coastline, as well as of important administrative and strategic objects on the coastal territory."
The source added, helpfully, that Russia was watching the French ship, as well: "All the actions and maneuvers of the French 'uninvited guest' are being recorded, including its compliance with norms of international maritime law."
According to the expert's data, the frigate passed along the Caucasus coast, the coast of Crimea, lingered alongside Novorossiya and relocated to the northwestern part of the sea. "Now the French ship is heading in the direction of Odessa, but whether it will stop there is not yet known. In any case, the visit of the Surcouf to Odessa, if it happens, will not remain a secret."
The presence of foreign warships on the Black Sea is regulated by the Montreux Convention, which limits them to 21 days at a stretch. Recall that one U.S. warship, USS Taylor, stayed on the sea longer than 21 days because it needed repairs. That circumstance was never noted by Russian officials, who complained about the violation. But in a piece from RT on Thursday, headlined "NATO’s merry-go-round electronic surveillance in the Black Sea," they took a swipe at that assertion:
The USS Taylor actually became a rare example of a ship that violated the Montreux Convention by exceeding the limited time of deployment to the Black Sea by 11 days, as the crew claimed the vessel ran aground on February 12 and had to undergo maintenance in the Turkish port of Samsun.
Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania meets NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Brussels on June 4. (photo: NATO)
Georgia was one of the main topics of the discussion as defense ministers from NATO countries met in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday, which focused on the alliance's response to Russia's newly aggressive behavior. But in spite of the dramatically altered circumstances, the discussion about Georgia repeated the same themes and phrases that have been used for the last several years. Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen reiterated that he supports Georgia's territorial integrity and opposes Russia's recognition of the de facto independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and that Georgia is making progress towards NATO accession. And when journalists tried to pin him down about what, exactly, Georgia might expect at the upcoming summit in Wales, he was vague, saying "more remains to be done to open the door to NATO membership," without specifying who needs to do more.
The news, perhaps, was the dog that didn't bark: the request for NATO "defensive weapons" to be deployed to Georgia, which seemed not to be mentioned at all in Brussels. It was just a month ago that Defense Minister Irakli Alasania made the public request while in Washington, and NATO officials said they would look into it, comparing it to the deployment of air defense systems to Turkey's border with Syria. But since then, the proposal faced criticism from all sides.
U.S. airmen load cargo into a plane as they prepare to shut down the base in May 2014. (photo: Transit Center at Manas)
The United States's most prominent military outpost in Central Asia, the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan, formally closed its doors on Tuesday. The commander of the base handed over a symbolic golden key to Kyrgyzstan military officials, and the U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan said the last of the American troops will be gone this week.
In its 12 years of operation, Manas handled 5.3 million military personnel from 26 countries as the main transit point for troops entering and leaving Afghanistan, the base's commander, Colonel John Millard, said at the ceremony.
Those 12 years saw plenty of rocky periods of negotiations between Bishkek and Washington over the base's presence, as the Kyrgyzstan government faced both pressure from Russia and widespread public suspicion over the base. In 2009, the Kyrgyzstan government announced that it would close down the base, only to reverse its decision after the U.S. upped the rent from $17 million to $60 million annually. But President Almazbek Atambayev campaigned in 2011 on a promise to shut the base down, and whatever the U.S. offered to keep it open apparently wasn't enough, and last year announced that they would leave the base and the transit operations would move to Romania for the remainder of the Afghanistan mission.
As if to symbolize the rocky relationship, the last news item to come out of Manas was the conviction on Monday of a U.S. civilian contractor at the base who attempted to rape a local woman; he was sentenced to four years in prison.