In discussions of Eurasian security, "2014" has become a byword for a turning point in the region. WIth the planned pullout of U.S. and NATO combat troops from Afghanistan, Central Asia (and to a lesser extent the Caucasus) is entering an uncertain future. Predicting the future is obviously a futile endeavor, but for the sake of discussion, here's what The Bug Pit expects to be covering over the next 12 months:
1. Nagorno Karabakh. This is a no-brainer. There were some positive signs toward the end of 2013, with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan meeting for the first time in two years. Nevertheless, the cross-border skirmishes continued, and the large forces that have made things between the two countries so tense -- like Azerbaijan's rapid military buildup and each country's dehumanization of the people on the other side of the border -- have not abated. So the renewal of conflict seems only a matter of time.
2. The Pamirs. After Tajikistan's central government suffered a humiliating defeat in its attempt to bring the region under its control in the July 2012 military operation in Khorog, it has been the conventional wisdom that the government will eventually try again. Now the presidential elections have passed, and tensions have risen again.
Obviously spooked by developments in Ukraine, Russia's new political-military bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, held a roundtable discussion discussing how the organization can better fight against the "color revolutions" that, in the mind of many in Moscow, are orchestrated by Western governments.
Russian newspaper Kommersant reported on the meeting, which took place last week:
Participants came to the conclusion that "Western enemies of Russia" are manipulating international election monitoring organizations, actively influencing the minds of internet users, creating a distorted picture of the mood of society through non-governmental organizations and the media. They advised the CSTO to engage in the production of "instruments of counterpropaganda" and that Russia should not be afraid to act on the internal political life of neighboring countries.
The CSTO's secretary general, Nikolay Bordyuzha, was at the event, and spoke in somewhat purple prose about the danger that Russia's allies now face:
One is struck by the perfidy of the organizers and leaders of these revolutionary transformations, who pursue purely mercenary goals and do not shy away from using any means to attain them, including those out of the bounds of legal and ethical norms... One is shocked by the cynicism of the scene, when a high-ranking official of a respected government, devoted to democratic values, publicly flirts with a radical nationalist and inveterate anti-Semite.
CSTO forces take part in the Unbreakable Brotherhood 2013 exercises in Chelyabinsk, Russia. (photos: MoD Russia, Kazakhstan)
The Collective Security Treaty Organization is holding its second-ever peacekeeping exercises, in Russia's Chelyabinsk region. About 2,500croops from all CSTO members -- Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- are taking part in the exercise, named "Unbreakable Brotherhood 2013," up from 950 in the previous year's drills
The scenario of the drill involved a conflict in the fictional CSTO member state of Uralia, and the peacekeepers were tasked with protecting a convoy of humanitarian aid from "extremists" trying to attack it. The peacekeeping forces provided air cover for the convoy using Mi-24 helicopters, set up checkpoints in the conflict zone and successfully apprehended some extremists who were trying to smuggle weapons.
The larger context of the drill, though, included fights over resources in the region and interethnic tension, giving some sense of the circumstances in which the CSTO imagines that these peacekeeping forces might someday be used:
The situation was based on a possible scenario of events that may occur in CSTO collective security regions in view of the rising tensions between leading global powers and military political unions, an escalation of interethnic contradictions and the fight for energy resources.
The parties in conflict tried to reach their political and strategic goals using political means and military force. The conflict had been started due to historical territorial, interethnic and religious contradictions as well as economic ones.
The tensions had been fueled primarily due to social and economic reasons, the rising interference of international terrorist and extremist organizations, and tensions in interethnic relations.
Presidents of CSTO member states (except Kazakhstan, which sent its prime minister) at the CSTO summit in Sochi. (photo: CSTO)
The Collective Security Treaty Organization held its annual summit in Sochi, Russia, on Monday and the hottest topic (other than Syria) was how to strengthen the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border. The group, in the words of Russian President Vladimir Putin, resolved to "provide additional collective assistance to Tajikistan to reinforce its national border with Afghanistan." The aid will include "constructing new buildings of frontier posts, restoring warning and signaling systems and providing border troops with means of air patrol and surveillance as well as radar," said Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon, speaking at the event.
According to the official CSTO statement, "On the basis of a request from Tajikistan the member states of the CSTO will, according to their abilities, within three months render military-technical assistance to the border forces of the State Committee for National Security of the Republic of Tajikistan." Interestingly, the aid package appears not to include Russian troops, which no doubt the Russian side was pushing for. Russia has been pushing the CSTO as its primary tool for preventing the spread of instability from Afghanistan after U.S. and NATO forces leave the country starting next year. Said Putin:
We discussed the situation in Afghanistan in light of the international coalition’s troop withdrawal planned for 2014. Unfortunately, there is reason to expect a considerable rise in Afghan drug trafficking activity and in terrorist groups’ activeness.
Extremists are already attempting to spread their activity into neighbouring countries, including the Central Asian countries that are CSTO members.
Tanks of the four competitors in the biathlon show their colors. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
In a uniquely Russian bid to boost post-Soviet solidarity, the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization has held a "tank biathlon" competition. The competition is more or less what it sounds like: as in the better-known skiing version, crews compete to race their tanks around a course while shooting at targets. Russia came in first, with Kazakhstan second, Belarus third and Armenia a distant fourth.
All the crews competed in new T-72B tanks, and RIA Novosti described the event as "part sales pitch, part post-Soviet bonding exercise."
Russia remains the world’s biggest exporter of battle tanks, the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Global Arms Trade says. So this tank biathlon appeared to be an entertaining if unconventional sales pitch, Pukhov said.
“We’ll do our best to ensure that foreign armies buy our tanks in the future,” [Defense Minister] Shoigu said, announcing the event last week.
While Kazakhstan finished second, its media played up the result as a victory. The presidential communications service headlined its story "Kazakhstani tankers showed remarkable results" and Kazinform raved "Kazakhstan stuns at Tank Biathlon contest in Russia... Kazakhstani tankers did astoundingly good at the Tank Biathlon International Competition." Armenia's press, not surprisingly given their country's poor results, downplayed the results and relegated the stories to the sports section.
Russia seemed to take it less seriously; the event inspired the usually staid state news agency into an uncharacteristic display of snark:
Russia has promised to upgrade its military base in Armenia, while also helping to bolster Armenia's own air forces, as controversy continues to brew in Armenia over Moscow's huge weapons delivery to foe Azerbaijan. It's not clear to what extent the former is tied to the latter, but Armenian analysts say that Russia does appear to be trying to assuage public opinion among Armenians stung by Russia's apparent betrayal.
Secretary General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization Nikolay Bordyuzha was in Armenia last week, and though details were scarce, he appeared to endorse a CSTO base in that country, as well as creating a Caucasus-based CSTO air force. Reported RIA Novosti:
Modernization of Russia’s 102nd Military Base at Gyumri, in northern Armenia near its border with Turkey, and the airbase at Yerevan’s Erebuni Airport will begin this year and continue for several years, Artur Bagdasaryan, head of the National Security Council, said after a meeting with Nikolai Bordyuzha.
“Collective security forces are being formed in the South Caucasus region where Armenia is the sole CSTO member state. Joint air forces will also be set up here,” explained Baghdasarian.
“Armenia’s air force will be expanded,” he told a joint news conference with Bordyuzha. “Not only the air force but also the air-defense system in general will be modernized and re-equipped. The Russian military base [in Armenia] will also re-equipped. In terms of modernization, 2014 will be a very important year.”
The Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, for much of its 800 miles as open as this. (photo: The Bug Pit)
Russia's Central Asia security bloc held a summit in Kyrgyzstan this week, and the main item on the agenda appeared to be the ostensible danger of increased tension in the region as a result of the U.S./NATO pullout from Afghanistan, which is supposed to start next year. But the outcome of the summit subtly highlighted how the alliance's members -- Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- have differing agendas vis-a-vis regional security.
At the summit, the organization reportedly decided to "step up control" on the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, which would be the weak link in any security cordon between Afghanistan and the ex-Soviet world. What that means is unclear, though: Russia has been pushing Tajikistan to allow it to again police that border, as it did until 2005. But Tajikistan has been fairly adamant that it doesn't want the Russians to come back. Russia's ambassador to Tajikistan told Reuters a couple of weeks ago that Moscow wants to bring back its border troops to Tajikistan, though such a deployment would "of course" have to be agreed upon by Tajikistan, as well. Tajikistan's government has been notably silent on the issue lately, so it's not clear whether they might be mulling a change of policy and allowing Russian border troops again.
Along with this, Russia is continuing its alarmist rhetoric about the dire consequences of the U.S. pullout in 2014, reports RIA Novosti:
Azerbaijan doesn't have aspirations to join either NATO or the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a top government official said on a visit to Germany. "We envision our future security model within the framework of the Nonaligned Movement,” said Ali Hasanov, head of the presidential department for socio-political issues, said at a forum dedicated to “Azerbaijan’s European Path: Achievements and Potentialities.” Hasanov added: “Therefore Azerbaijan will neither be a member of NATO nor the CSTO, while cooperating with both.”
“It does not mean that Azerbaijan will not or can not change its choice. The choice can change anytime. Azerbaijan’s national interest is the decisive factor, if the national security interests require that it is necessary to join NATO, then it will be so. If national interests require reconsidering Azerbaijan’s participation in CSTO, this issue will be reconsidered. Our security, energy, economic, political and social interests arise from and are based on the needs, interests of the Azerbaijani people,” he said.
Given that Azerbaijan hasn't been doing anything to indicate that it intends to join either alliance, it's not exactly news that Hasanov said this. But it's an interesting statement in the context of Azerbaijan's recent rocky relations with Russia. President Ilham Aliyev has been palling around with his Georgian counterpart and Kremlin bugaboo Mikheil Saakashvili, and there has been talk of an "emerging alliance" between Georgia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. And that was before the great Eurovision scandal.
A Russian A-50 AWACS aircraft during 2012 exercises at the Kant Air Base in Kyrgyzstan.
Russia's nascent post-Soviet military bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, is planning to create a joint air force, for both transport of CSTO forces and air cover to support CSTO operations. The announcement was made during a CSTO meeting at the Kyrgyzstan military base at Koy Tash, and as is the norm with the CSTO, the promises here are lofty and the details scanty. But Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, reporting on the news, says that "the 'aviation plans' of the CSTO leadership are significant." And there is already an acronym: CAF, for Collective Air Forces (КАС in Russian).
Nezavisimaya Gazeta quotes Bordyuzha as saying that "We expect that all governments which are today able will share the appropriate air assets for the formation of the collective air forces." The paper suggests that that means that Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan will supply attack helicopters to the CAF. The paper also seems to suggest that the establishment of the CAF is connected to the strengthening of the Russian air force contingent at Kant air base in Kyrgyzstan. Though, as it says, "how the air base will be strengthened was not specified." NG adds:
It had earlier been reported that Kant would be used as a base for long-range aviation of the Russian Air Force. but this hardly means that strategic bombers equipped with nuclear weapons will be part of the CSTO CAF. However fighter and assault aviation, as well as attack helicopters from the air forces of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus (the CSTO countries possessing that military capability), judging from the Russian-Kyrgyzstan agreement on the status of the 999th air base and plans of the CSTO, are likely to be deployed at Kant.
Russian troops participating in the 2012 Peace Mission SCO exercises in Tajikistan
Over the last few years, two large multilateral security organizations that have emerged in Central Asia: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), dominated by China, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), dominated by Russia. For the most part, these two groups have looked past one another, staking out complementary, rather than competing, mandates, and including many of the same members (Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan all belong to both). But there is still under-the-surface competition between the two groups.
As the new International Crisis Group report, China's Central Asian Problem, notes, China's ambitious economic moves into Central Asia have not been matched by political or military efforts of the same scope. That's in part because the Russian influence in Central Asia's security structures remains so strong that China is reluctant to try to compete. The SCO, China's main tool for engaging in Central Asian security, has moved away from joint military training -- its 2012 exercise was the smallest since 2003 -- and more toward getting Central Asia to crack down on Uyghur exile groups. The CSTO, meanwhile, claims to be building up a joint military structure, including rapid reaction forces.
Russia is "increasingly distrustful" of the SCO, the ICG writes: