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."
Russia's allies need to get ready for peacekeeping missions because there are so many "hot spots" around the world, the head of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization said Saturday. But he added that he didn't see a need for the other CSTO members to get involved militarily in Syria -- yet.
"The situation is getting worse in every direction," said Nikolay Bordyuzha, the secretary general of the CSTO. "And in many existing 'hot spots' in the world it's today already clear that peacekeeping forces are needed. So working out practical military tasks of the Collective Peacekeeping Forces of the CSTO in military exercises is preparation for possible operations. I don't think they will be in the near future but in any case the CSTO needs to be ready to use its peacekeeping forces." Bordyuzha was speaking in Armenia at the conclusion of exercises of the organization's joint peacekeeping force.
Russian and CSTO officials have consistently said that the alliance will only deploy forces outside the CSTO area with a mandate from the UN Security Council. And it's difficult to fathom a circumstance when such a mandate might be granted, including in the current Syria crisis.
But Bordyuzha curiously seemed to want to leave the door open for the possibility that the other CSTO states -- Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- might somehow get involved in Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the final stage of the Center-2015 military exercise in Orenburg. (photo: Mod Russia)
Nearly 100,000 Russian soldiers have wrapped up the country's biggest military exercise of the year, practicing to "contain" a conflict in Central Asia.
The scenario of the exercise, said Colonel-General Vladimir Rudnitskiy, the commander of Russia's Central Military District, was the "containment of an international armed conflict in the Central Asian strategic direction."
But for an exercise supposedly oriented toward Central Asia, it included very little participation by Russia's Central Asian allies. The Russian Ministry of Defense, in its account of the exercise, repeatedly referred to the participants as "the armed forces of the member states of the Collective Security Treaty Organization," but the vast majority of the 95,000 soldiers who took part were Russian; the only other participant was Kazakhstan, which sent a handful of units. (The CSTO is a Russia-led military alliance also including Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.)
The exercise was called Center-2015, and the Center name has been in the past used for joint CSTO exercises; it's not clear why no other Central Asian states were involved this time.
In one evocative touch, Russian President Vladimir Putin watched the final stage of the exercise from Orenburg. Orenburg is best known as the garrison town from which the Russian empire conquered Central Asia in the 19th century.
Tajikistan's authorities say they have killed the fugitive general who mutinied two weeks ago. In the fight, however, the commander of the most elite special forces unit in the country, the Alfas, was killed as well.
The former general, Abduhalim Nazarzoda, was killed on September 16 at 14:00 local time after a day-and-a-half-long battle in the Romit Gorge at an altitude of 3,700 meters above sea level, Tajikistan's Interior Ministry and State Committee on National Security said in a joint statement.
During the fighting, the chief of the Alfas, Colonel Rustam Khamakiyev, and three other officers of the Alfas and OMON (a special forces unit of the Interior Ministry) were killed, the statement added.
There were earlier reports (though never officially confirmed) that Nazarzoda had been killed last week; and officials vowed that they would get him by the end of the summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Dushanbe, which wrapped up September 15.
Foreign ministers, defense ministers and heads of security councils of CSTO member nations pose for a photograph ahead of a summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on September 15, 2015. (Photo: EurasiaNet.org)
As expected, anxieties about the claimed threat posed to Central Asia by the Islamic State group and other extremist outfits dominated talk at the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) summit in Dushanbe on September 15.
Host president Emomali Rahmon set the tone with his remarks.
“Tajikistan has drawn the attention of colleagues to the current situation in the region as a whole and in Afghanistan in particular,” he said. “The specter of emergencies and security threats in the region is not diminishing, and could even grow.”
It was Russian leader Vladimir Putin that made the point about Islamic State most forcefully.
“The risk of terrorist and extremist organizations making incursions into countries neighboring Afghanistan has increased. Moreover, this threat is made worse by the fact that along with the organizations known to be active in Afghanistan, the so-called Islamic State too has increased its influence,” he said during a heads of states meeting at the summit.
Out of the three former Soviet Central Asian states that border Afghanistan, only Tajikistan is a CSTO member. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have spurned the Moscow-led alliance.
Ahead of the summit, Russian newspaper Kommersant cited an unnamed CSTO official as saying the fight against the Islamic State has led member states to consider proposals on alliance contingents being deployed outside the organization’s borders to take part in an international coalition operating under the auspices of the United Nations.
Putin appeared to be alluding to such a possibility in his remarks.
“Basic common sense and responsibility for global and regional security demands that the global community unites in the face of these threats,” he said.
Tajikistan's authorities said on Sunday that the renegade general who had attacked government security forces is still alive, contradicting reports from two days earlier that he had been killed.
The confusion and ongoing rebellion come at an awkward time for President Emomali Rahmon, as he gets ready to host Russian President Vladimir Putin and other post-Soviet leaders who are meeting in Dushanbe starting on Monday.
The conflict began September 4, when armed groups led by deputy defense minister and general Abduhalim Nazarzoda attacked police posts and military bases around Dushanbe, and then fled into the Ramit Gorge, about 50 kilometers outside the city.
A source in the security services told newspaper Asia Plus that Nazarzoda was killed on September 11. But on September 13, the secretary of the national security council Abdulrakhim Kahharov announced that Nazarzoda was still alive, though surrounded.
All this suggests that the upcoming summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization could be a bit more unpredictable than Rahmon would have liked. The confluence of the two events has clearly made the authorities uncomfortable.
Russia has given its allies half a billion dollars in discounts on weaponry, the head of Russia's post-Soviet security bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, has said.
"In recent years the volume of deliveries, purchases of weaponry by our allies for the collective forces of the CSTO has significantly increased," Nikolay Bordyuzha, the CSTO General Secretary, told Russian news agency Interfax. "Over the last few years the effect has exceeded $500 million. That is, our allies have saved as a result of the agreement on subsidies for military-technical cooperation."
And, he added, "these purchases are increasing every year."
That Russia gives discounts on weaponry via the CSTO isn't news, but we don't often hear about the amount. As a point of comparison, Russia exported about $15 billion in weaponry last year.
The main recipients of the subsidized weaponry are Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Belarus, Bordyuzha said. The other two CSTO members, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, are getting direct Russian military aid packages of more than a billion dollars each.
Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are conducting large-scale military exercises as tension along the border between the two nemeses has spiked in recent days.
Azerbaijan's defense ministry announced on September 6 that they were mobilizing 65,000 troops -- which would represent nearly the entire armed forces -- to test their readiness. The exercises also included 700 armored vehicles, 500 rockets and artillery units, 40 airplanes and 50 helicopters, and 20 naval ships, the MoD said. The exercises had not been previously announced and the MoD did not give further explanation of why they were being held.
That drill starts as Armenia is holding unprecedented exercises of its own. That exercise, called Shant 2015, is less military and more political, simulating how various branches of the government would respond in case of war.
Participants included a working group from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led political-military bloc. One of the tasks before the Armenian foreign ministry in the drill, Armenian media reported, was "what to do if one of the CSTO partners (but not Russia) does not fulfill its commitments?” Armenia's leadership has criticized its Turkic nominal allies in the CSTO, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, for supporting Azerbaijan's side in the dispute over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
Troops from Central Asia, Armenia, and Belarus are conducting military exercises with Russia near the borders of Estonia and Latvia.
The exercises are being held under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led political-military bloc. It's the CSTO's annual exercise, but this year's location -- in the Pskov region, about 40 kilometers from the Estonian border, and only a little farther to Latvia -- is an intriguing one considering the ongoing tension between Russia and the Eastern European NATO members.
During the drills, the CSTO's rapid reaction forces "will conduct a joint operation to localize an armed conflict with the aim of restoring territorial integrity and defending constitutional order in a simulated CSTO member state, working out tasks for destroying irregular armed formations," the organization said in a statement.
The CSTO also seemed to try to play down the potentially provocative scenario. "The exercise plan is based on a simulated military-political situation, which is not connected to reality but was developed only for working out training issues related to deploying operational contingents of the rapid reaction force to the Eastern European region of collective security," the statement continued.
"We're conducting exercises in the Eastern European region. One of the main goals of the exercises is to get our forces, within literally hours, to arrive in any given region of collective security," added Valeriy Semerikov, the CSTO's deputy secretary general, speaking to reporters.
An S-300PS air defense complex delivered from Russia to Kazakhstan by train. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Russia has donated five air defense complexes to Kazakhstan, a (small) part of a planned joint air defense system shared between Russia and its allies.
Kazakhstan's Ministry of Defense this week announced the delivery of five complexes of the S-300PS air defense system, which arrived by train from Russia to Almaty. The donation was announced first in 2009, then again last January, when Moscow said they would be delivered by the end of 2014.
More significantly, the donation was supposed to be of five divisions of the system, and a division consists of 12 complexes -- so Russia still has 55 more to deliver. The Kazakhstan MoD made no mention of any future deliveries, or the previous announcement, so it's not sure where things stand.
When the donation was announced last year, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoliy Antonov said that with the move "we are strengthening not only Kazakhstan, but the air defense of the CSTO," referring to the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led defense bloc that also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. (Armenia has the same system as Kazakhstan was just given, as does Belarus.)
The joint CSTO air defense system has been slow to get off the ground, though several military officials said at the end of last year that while they acknowledged that up to that point it was mainly just talk, now they were getting serious.