For the second year in a row, Azerbaijan has cancelled military exercises with the U.S. without explanation. There has been little official comment; the news agency APA quotes Defense Ministry spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Eldar Sabiroglu as saying he doesn't know why it was cancelled:
Sabiroglu refused to comment, since he had no detailed information about the adjournment of the exercise.
To the question “Can this have any influence on Azerbaijan-US military cooperation?” spokesman said: “I do not believe it may happen. US-Azerbaijan military cooperation will continue,” he said.
APA also asked the U.S. embassy spokesman, who said he had no information on it:
Touching on the postponement of the US-Azerbaijan joint exercises, Terry Davidson said the exercises had been postponed by Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry.
“You’d better ask them,” he said.
Last year, the reason for the cancellation was reportedly the U.S. support for the Armenia-Turkey protocols. But the protocols are more or less dead now, so there is presumably another reason. One alternative explanation for last year's cancellation was Russian pressure (the default explanation when something mysterious happens in this part of the world). But that theory was given some credence by a WikiLeaks-released cable that discussed controversy over the 2009 version of the exercise (the only year in which the Regional Response exercise has actually taken place):
The Georgian parliament has annulled a deal allowing Russia to transit military cargo to its base in Armenia via Georgia. This is just formalizing the de facto situation -- transit via Georgia to the Russian base in Gyumri was already halted, de facto, after the war in 2008 over South Ossetia. From Civil.ge:
Georgian Parliament unanimously endorsed on April 19 government’s proposal to annul a five-year agreement with Russia setting out procedures for transit of Russian military personnel and cargo to Armenia via Georgia.
The agreement on transit of military personnel and cargo, giving Russia access to its 102nd military base in Gyumri, Armenia through land and air via Georgia, was signed in March, 2006 in parallel with a separate agreement based on which Russia pulled out its military bases from Batumi and Akhalkalaki. The both of the agreements were ratified by the Georgian Parliament on April 13, 2006.
Equipment that Armenia is buying from/being given by Russia is still allowed to transit Georgia, as was highlighted by a 2010 diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks and published by Russkiy Reporter magazine, the transit had been of concern to Georgia for fear that some of the equipment being sent to Armenia is more than Armenia might need and could be instead destined for Russian forces in Armenia with the potential of being used against Georgia:
If you could choose one word to describe Kyrgyzstan, would it be "friendly"? If so, then you and Donald Rumsfeld are on the same page.
Rumsfeld, you may recall, has released many previously classified documents from his tenure as secretary of defense to coincide with the launch of his book. But he didn't post all of the documents that were released to him. And of all publications Gawker, the gossip blog, filed a FOIA request to see all of the documents, including the ones, as they put it, that "Rumsfeld Doesn't Want You to See." You can see them all in a dauntingly unorganized 1,362-page pdf here. But before I get through that, one memo from Rumsfeld's desk that Gawker highlighted is worth looking at.
It's from April 30, 2002, and titled "COUNTRIES FOR U.S./DOD TO EMPHASIZE -- AND WHY," and offers an extremely brief (two pages) tour d'horizon of how the Pentagon saw countries around the world, including Central Asia.
Central Asia – (Evolving, looking for counterweight to Russia and PRC; enormous energy potential, secular muslims v. religious extremism)
Kazakhstan – Big; oil-rich; leading [sic] our way, see the U.S. as counterbalance to PRC and Russia.
Azerbaijan – Friendly, potential as war on [sic] forward operating base
Kyrgyzstan – Friendly
Uzbekistan – concerned about Russia, has chosen the U.S.
Afghanistan – A potential liability; U.S. has a stake in it not failing.
Turkish diplomats have sometimes referred to themselves as the region's "firemen," hustling around the region putting out brushfires before they become full-on conflagrations. A lot of this has been done through various mediation efforts (not all successful) that Ankara has been initiating in various places.
The newest Turkish mediation effort appears to be between neighbors Azerbaijan and Iran, who don't see eye-to-eye on a host of issues. The Hurriyet Daily News has more on an upcoming meeting of the three countries' foreign ministers Turkey is convening in northern Iran.
While Turkey's relations with Iran have been rapidly improving in recent years, it might be worth nothing that Turkish-Azeri relations have been less than smooth since Ankara initiated its now frozen rapprochement with Armenia in 2009.
It was just a couple of weeks ago when international mediators called on Azerbaijanis and Armenians to pull back their snipers from the front lines of Nagorno Karabakh. To no one's surprise, neither side agreed.
And now, Azerbaijan has announced a new addition to its sniper corps. The unimprovably named Azerbaijan Voluntary Military Patriotism Technical Sport Society has started teaching sniper classes to the country's youth. From News.az:
[T]he courses purposed to prepare marksmen – snipers for the army and power structures. Drawing attention to Azerbaijani war conditions, the general added that snipers to be prepared in the courses would be completely ready for battle with the enemy: 'Snipers will study here masking, use of other weapons, topography. Along with studies on hand-to-hand fighting, snipers will also study law. Azerbaijani snipers differ from Armenians, because they never fire at peaceful people'.
AFP picked up the story, and emphasized a somewhat sensational angle -- the potential of young female snipers:
Azerbaijan on Tuesday launched sniper lessons for young people, including girls, amid its bitter unresolved conflict with neighbouring Armenia in which marksmen are often used on the front line.
Teens as young as 16 are taking part in the sniper courses for civilians, which have an upper age limit of 30, and participants will also learn about fighting techniques, weapons, map-reading skills and legal issues.
As Nagorno Karabakh's first civilian airport gets set to open on May 9, Azerbaijan is threatening to "annihilate" any Armenian planes that use it. Azerbaijan argues, of course, that Karabakh belongs to them and the Armenians who now occupy it do so illegally. The shoot-down threat is almost certainly an empty one: it would be an act of war, before Azerbaijan is apparently ready and done in a way that would get international sympathies strongly on the Armenian side.
But, assuming they were serious, could Azerbaijan do it? Azerbaijani military experts say they would use surface-to-air missiles like the S-125 or S-200, according to the news agency APA:
Air Defense Troops’ experts declare that they are able to carry out measures against each military and civil aircrafts flying to Azerbaijan’s Khankendi airport. If close location of Khankendi airport to the front-line is taken into consideration, Air Defense Troops can annihilate those aircrafts by using C-125 or C-200 complexes. At the same time, it is possible to destroy navigation system of those aircrafts by using modern radioelectronic methods, and annihilate them without using any force. According to the words of experts, at present, Azerbaijan’s air defense systems can control not only the flights over Nagorno Karabakh, but also all the flights over Armenia. Civil aircrafts fly especially at altitudes of 8-10 km, their speed is lower than the military ones. Moreover, aircrafts rising from Khankendi may be annihilated till the level of maximum altitude.
In the eyes of many in this part of the world, the West has a selective memory about the messy demise of the Soviet Union. While Georgia and Armenia largely ignored Gorbachev's big day, some in ex-Soviet Azerbaijan called for suing the octogenarian ex-comrade for presiding over the Soviet army's 1990 crackdown on Baku protesters and role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The bigger news for Azerbaijani media outlets was the failure of British police to honor a request from former Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky to arrest Gorbachev for the deaths of peaceful demonstrators in Baku (1990), Tbilisi (1989) and Vilnius (1991). Saying that Gorby enjoys diplomatic immunity, a London court declined to issue an arrest warrant.
Is the U.S. military planning some sort of new facility in the Caucasus? The commander of U.S. European Command, Admiral James Stavridis, testified before Congress this morning and suggested that. In his written testimony (pdf), he described five ongoing "force posture" (Pentagon-ese for basing issues) initiatives:
The fourth initiative is developing a U.S. Transportation Command requirement for a Black Sea/Caucasus en-route location to further U.S. expeditionary capability. The European Command will meet this requirement while maximizing our basing efficiencies.
(Emphasis added.) Reading between the lines, it seems like that must mean some sort of facility in the Caucasus to help with the Northern Distribution Network, shipping cargo to Afghanistan (i.e., something comparable to the Navoi cargo hub). A significant amount of U.S. military cargo already goes through the main airport in Baku, but this suggests that the Pentagon is imagining a dedicated facility for that, whether in Baku or elsewhere. That's just speculation, though. I asked TRANSCOM public affairs officials for more information and they said they had none and referred me to EUCOM; I will update when/if I hear back.
One of the questions I hope to ask: what, exactly, is a "location"? Is this yet another euphemism for the b-word?
After an incident in which an Armenian sniper allegedly shot an Azerbaijani child across the line of contact between the two sides in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, the OSCE has called on both sides to remove their snipers from the line of contact.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis, the new chairman-in-office after Kazakhstan's chairing of the organization last year, made the comments at a briefing in Kazakhstan. From Reuters:
"Withdrawal of snipers would set a good example and would be appreciated by the political community."
"We will take what your president and your minister [referring to the Kazakh leadership] did and try to promote resolution by one millimetre, two millimetres, at least to have snipers withdrawn, at least to execute, one, two or three security measures, measures of trust. We will see how it goes."
The child's death is under dispute. According to the Azerbaijan news agency APA, the victim was a ten-year-old boy, Fariz Badalov, who was shot while playing outside his house. But Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan denied that the incident occurred:
The Armenian President noted that the recent statement is a slander, since hostilities against civilians, let alone against children, run counter to the moral portrait of Armenian soldiers. As for the certain incident, similar accusations are baseless, since even territorial peculiarities of the region make it impossible.
With nuclear reactors dangerously boiling in earthquake-affected Japan, earthquake-prone Armenia is looking at Metsamor -- the Caucasus’ only, rusting nuclear power plant -- and asking "Can this happen here?"
The ripple effect of the Japan earthquake was registered as far away as in Armenia and Georgia. Mini-quakes and a mud volcano eruption that recently took place in Azerbaijan were unrelated to Japan's earthquake, however, local seismic activity watchers said.