A U.S. warship launches Tomahawk missiles against targets in Syria on April 7. The strikes have been seen in the Caucasus as a sign of the Trump administration's resolve to stand up to Russia. (photo: U.S. Department of Defense)
The United States missile strikes on Syria have gladdened pro-Western hearts among in the Caucasus, where they have been seen as a sign that the new Trump administration is willing to act tough against Russia.
“I think what happened April 7 in Syria, the launching of the Tomahawk missiles, changed the situation very dramatically," said David Shahnazaryan, a senior analyst at the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center and a former senior Armenian security official. "The Kremlin now must be much more careful. Maybe this will slow down, a little bit, the possibility of another war" in the Caucasus, he said.
Shahnazaryan was speaking at the South Caucasus Security Forum, held April 20-21 in Tbilisi, a gathering of Atlanticist foreign policy wonks from around the region. The uncertain foreign policy of the Trump administration was, naturally, a running theme throughout the event. And if there had been any worries that Trump might be soft on Russia, the Syrian missile strikes appear to have dispelled them.
“We saw how lost and how frightened Russians were" after the strikes, said Nodar Kharshiladze, the founder of the Georgian Strategic Analysis Centre and a former deputy minister of both defense and internal affairs. "Yes, they [the Russians] will come up with something nasty, but the initial reaction, they were very confused, they simply didn't know what to do. That shows that, when it's done properly, deterrence works very well. They recognize force when they see it, and they recognize weakness when they see it.”
Another speaker, former Georgian ambassador to Washington Batu Kutelia, even saw traces of legendary cold warrior Ronald Reagan in Trump's emerging foreign policy. (This is high praise in Tbilisi, which features the only statue to Reagan in the former Soviet Union.)
The United States and Romanian navies practiced storming the beaches of the Black Sea, a relatively rare example of practicing an attack in the region that Russia considers its own and where it increasingly feels under siege.
The USS Carter Hall, an amphibious dock landing ship, exited the Black Sea on March 22 after taking part in the exercises, Spring Storm 2017. U.S. or NATO exercises in the Black Sea have become fairly dog-bites-man news -- and NATO has promised to conduct them even more frequently -- but these are novel in that they are practicing an explicitly offensive scenario.
The U.S. Navy didn't say much about the goals of the exercises, except that they were " to enhance tactical unit and staff interoperability between Romanian and U.S. naval forces." But images and video of the exercise depicted U.S. Marines and Romanian troops storming the beach with amphibious armored vehicles and hovercraft known as LCACs, Landing Craft Air Cushion. They were accompanied by air support.
"We're going to conduct an assault from ship to shore and attack their position," explained one unidentified Marine in the video.
Russia has been relatively quiet officially about these particular exercises, particularly considering their potentially provocative scenario. "Of course we're following them and we're ready for any developments," one anonymous source in Russia's Black Sea Fleet told Pravda.
The USS Porter transits the Bosphorus out of the Black Sea on February 13 after conducting exercises and, its commander said, being buzzed by Russian planes. (photo: U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams)
Russian planes buzzed a United States warship in the Black Sea as it was conducting NATO exercises, American officials said. Russian officials denied that they had done anything aggressive but still criticized the presence of U.S. ships in the sea, indicating that U.S.-Russia military tension is continuing even under the U.S.'s new, ostensibly Russia-friendly, leadership.
The incident took place on February 10, the last day of Romania-led naval exercises in the Black Sea. Four separate Russian planes made low passes over the USS Porter, which was participating in the exercise. The ship's commander described the actions as "unsafe and unprofessional," a U.S. military spokesman said.
Russia denied the charges. "All of our flights were conducted and are being conducted over the neutral waters of the Black Sea in accordance with international rules and safety requirements,” Major General Igor Konashenkov said in a statement.
But Konashenkov dropped a little shade on the U.S., as well. “If the U.S. destroyer, as the Pentagon official claims, conducted a 'regular' patrol mission in the vicinity of Russia, tens of thousands miles away from their own shores, it is strange to be surprised about the no less regular flights of our aircraft over the Black Sea,” he said.
Georgian Foreign Minister Mikheil Janalidze meets with U.S. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in Washington on February 10. (photo: MFA Georgia)
Eager to keep relations with the United States on the front foot, Georgian Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze has traveled to Washington to meet with senior American officials as Tbilisi seeks to shore up ties with a new administration that has at times demonstrated an affinity with Georgia's nemesis, Russia.
Relations between the U.S. and Georgia have steadily grown closer since the early 2000s, when the distant Caucasian state found itself in a privileged position in the George W. Bush White House’s foreign policy agenda.
But Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency has raised doubts about the future of cooperation between Washington and Tbilisi, given his new administration’s reputedly Russia-leaning inclinations.
No doubt hoping to keep ties on an even keel, Janelidze met on February 10 with U.S. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and recently confirmed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, along with an assortment of members of Congress. Janelidze’s visit was likely meant to both confirm U.S. support and use the opportunity to assert Georgia’s carefully cultivated image as a regional stalwart for the new administration.
The USS Porter transits the Bosphorus Straits on February 2 en route to the Black Sea, where it is conducting joint exercises with NATO. (photo: US Navy, Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams)
NATO is conducting some of its biggest naval exercises ever in the Black Sea, even as a new administration in Washington has cast into doubt how much the United States is interested in confronting Russia.
The latest round of exercises, Sea Shield 2017, started February 1 and are scheduled to last until February 10. The exercises will include eight ships from Romania, two from Turkey, and one each from Bulgaria, Canada, Spain, and the U.S.
The drills are aimed at "demonstrating our continued commitment to security and stability in the region," said Commander Andria Slough, commanding officer of the USS Porter, the American ship in the exercises. "Our upcoming operations are meant to help us improve interoperability, sharing of information and experiences, and the ability to work together toward peace and prosperity."
That's pretty standard stuff for the past few years, since Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea prompted the U.S. and NATO to significantly step up their naval presence in the Black Sea. This is the third iteration of Sea Shield since the exercise started in 2015, and has been accompanied by a number of other such drills.
President-elect Donald Trump's nominees for his top foreign policy, defense, and intelligence posts testified before Congress this week, and expressed hardline positions on Russia that contrast markedly with their boss's more ambiguous opinions.
Trump's views on Russia, NATO, and associated issues have received substantial scrutiny, given that they are fairly far from the mainstream in Washington. But other than a personal admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a skepticism -- supposedly rooted in his busisnessman's dealmaking instincts -- of the U.S.'s alliances, Trump hasn't been very detailed about what he will actually do when in power.
So the Senate confirmation hearings for Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, and Mike Pompeo -- to head the State Department, Pentagon, and CIA, respectively -- were highly anticipated events, as senators can grill Trump's lieutenants in detail about the administration's foreign policy direction.
And what emerged was that their opinions on Russia and its neighborhood are far more conventional than their boss's. All described Russia as a threat rather than as a partner (as Trump has), expressed trust in the U.S.'s allies (Trump has suggested they weigh the U.S. down), and said they took seriously allegations that Russia meddled in the presidential elections (Trump has repeatedly played down the accusations).
Of particular interest was Tillerson's testimony: as CEO of Exxon/Mobil he had done substantial business in Russia, worked personally with Putin, and got the Order of Friendship award from Russia. All that made many in the U.S. and Russia suspect that he may be a pro-Russia voice in the administration.
Michael Flynn, then director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testifies before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in 2014. (photo: DIA)
President-elect Donald Trump's top national security adviser has expressed a variety of contradictory opinions about affairs in the former Soviet Union, making it difficult to assess what policies the next White House administration may pursue in the region.
Trump has appointed Michael Flynn, a retired three-star general and former top intelligence official, as his national security adviser. Flynn has been Trump's closest foreign policy adviser since early in the presidential campaign. Other key posts like the heads of the Pentagon and State Department have yet to be named, but Flynn seems to enjoy a high level of Trump's trust and appears likely to be the most influential White House voice on foreign policy.
Flynn, as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012-4, was obliged to give an annual tour d'horizon of the perceived military threats to the U.S., but these tended to reflect Washington conventional wisdom. After being fired from that job, an unleashed Flynn became significantly more extreme -- and erratic -- in his views.
United States Secretary of State John Kerry has created a diplomatic stir in the Caucasus by arguing that the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan "aren't ready" to resolve their conflict over the contested territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
Kerry's remarks about Karabakh were made only offhandedly, in the context of a larger discussion about diplomacy and international negotiations. Discussing the recent deal over Iran's nuclear program, Kerry contrasted that situation -- where the parties were genuinely interested in a resolution because of the risks that failure would bring -- to the Caucasus.
"There are some frozen conflicts in the world today -- Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan-Armenia, where you can’t quite see that right now because the leaders aren’t ready, because the tensions aren’t there," Kerry said. (Underscoring his pessimism, he contrasted Armenia and Azerbaijan unfavorably with the Palestine-Israel peace process, which he characterized as "difficult but you can see how you could get there if people made a certain set of decisions.")
More than 20 years after Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a cease fire to end the fighting over Karabakh, which ended Armenian forces in de facto control of Karabakh, the two sides seem farther apart than ever. And so to anyone following the Caucasus, Kerry's statement on Karabakh was not especially controversial, as the "tensions" that he referred to are mostly pushing in the direction of war, rather than peace.
Azerbaijan, suffering increasing public discontent as a result of a struggling economy, was able to rally citizens around the flag by launching an offensive in Karabakh in April. And in Armenia, radical nationalists staged a rebellion over the summer in order to pressure the government from conceding any ground to Azerbaijan over Karabakh.
“Before Georgia actually joins NATO, the country has to take care that a U.S. military base is located on the territory of Georgia,” he said, the news website Democracy and Freedom Watch reported. “When they talk about non-bloc status and legalizing Russian military bases in Georgia, our response should be the following: to redirect the policy in another direction, the location of U.S. or any other NATO member states’ military base and we will fight for this.”
The Republicans are part of the current ruling Georgian Dream coalition, but are competing separately in the upcoming elections. It's also worth noting that Usupashvili's wife and fellow party member is Tinatin Khidasheli, the recently departed defense minister.
The United States and Bulgaria will conduct joint air patrols for the first time under the NATO aegis, a new (albeit relatively mild) show of force by Washington in the Black Sea region.
The patrols will take place in mid-September, with two American F-15s patrolling alongside Bulgarian MiG-29s. “NATO takes its responsibility to ensure the safety and integrity of our airspace very seriously. This mission is a demonstration of solidarity and support for our ally Bulgaria,” NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow said in a statement.
Recall that earlier this month Russia deployed S-400 air defense systems to Crimea in order to deter what some Russian officials called NATO's "air hooligans." That, in turn, followed a statement made at NATO's July summit in NATO that it would implement "appropriate measures, tailored to the Black Sea region" and that "options for a strengthened NATO air and maritime presence will be assessed."
And just last week, Russian air, sea, and land forces took part in snap drills around the Black and Caspian seas, which focused on air defense.