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.
Azerbaijan's policeman-in-chief has evaluated the March 11 protest and reached a conclusion: the reason why an Egypt-style revolution did not happen is because most young Azerbaijanis love and cherish their president, Ilham Aliyev.
The president, it seems, was not distracted by young protesters’ calls for more democracy and less corruption; apparently, he was focused on tackling what his supporters might term more serious problems, such as rising egg prices.
Those supporters might concede that, yes, there were a few impressionable young minds who were led astray and encouraged by “certain forces” (a regional euphemism for the opposition and/or general forces of evil) to challenge the rule of the egg-cartel-battling president.
“The radical opposition and its leaders, unchanging as set decorations, are willing even to make a pact with the devil” to get more power and justify their “formal presence” on the political stage, charged the Interior Ministry.
But Usubov might well assert that Azerbaijan's police have the best interests of any "wayward" young activists -- and other government critics-- in mind.
The U.S. is planning to help Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan develop their navies, emphasizing the increasing importance of Caspian Sea security and the possibility of the sea's militarization, with all five bordering countries (including Iran and Russia) planning to build up their strength in the oil- and gas-rich sea.
In a just-released 875-page document (pdf), the State Department (which administers military aid, not the Pentagon) gives more information about what it plans to spend its money on. As previously reported, the Obama administration is proposing to cut its military aid to the Caucasus and Central Asia by about 8 percent, from $36.7 million in last year's request to $34 million this year. More than half that aid, $18 million, is earmarked for Georgia. But in the initial announcement, there wasn't much explanation for where the money is going. ($34 million, after all, is a drop in the $47 billion ocean of the total proposed State Department budget.)
Reading through the plans for military aid in the region, the most intriguing thing is that there is a clear emphasis on aid for the navies of the countries that border the Caspian. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are all planning on building navies more or less from scratch, rich with oil money and anxious to protect their investments (and flex their muscles). The U.S. has helped these countries with their naval capabilities in the past, with the ill-fated Caspian Guard program and by donating some leftover patrol boats to the three countries. But that was before any of these countries got serious themselves about their navies, and was a bit ad hoc. It's hard to tell how serious the new plans are, and of course the amounts of money are still pretty small, but it does seem to be a concerted effort to build naval capacity in the Caspian.