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.
The White House wanted the United States military to monitor the 2010 massacres in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, with a drone, and the military's failure to do so had negative ramifications for future U.S. military operations in Sudan, Libya, and Syria, a new book reports.
"Within the White House," the Osh violence "triggered fears of a possible ethnic cleansing campaign to come, or even genocide," writes Rosa Brooks in her new book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon. At the time, Brooks was working as Counselor to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and she recounted getting a phone call from an acquaintance at the National Security Council. "With little preamble, he told me that Central Command needed to move a surveillance platform to a position from which it could monitor fast-breaking events in Kyrgyzstan," she writes.
The Pentagon blanched -- not because it didn't care about Kyrgyzstan, Brooks writes, but because the request didn't come through the proper chain of command, and a medium-level staffer couldn't approve something as weighty as deploying a military aircraft to a new country.
"My White House colleague was incredulous when I raised some of these concerns. 'We're talking about, like, one drone. You're telling me you can't call one colonel at CentCom and make this happen? Why the hell not? You guys' -- by which he meant the Pentagon writ large -- 'are always stonewalling us on everything. I'm calling you from the White House. The president wants to prevent genocide in Kyrgyzstan. Whatever happened to civilian control of the military?"
Georgian soldiers take part in U.S. Marine Corps training program in Georgia. (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
The United States will devote more military aid towards arming and equipping the Georgian armed forces, direct more training towards building combat skills, and help Georgia build a local training center oriented towards helping it defend itself rather than only deploying to Afghanistan.
The broad contours of the policy shift were laid out in a new agreement between the two countries announced during a visit to Tbilisi by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this month. On Monday, a U.S. embassy official in Tbilisi provided more details to The Bug Pit.
“Much like in the U.S. Army, where we've focused on deployment requirements for several years, there's been a certain level of atrophy in the core warfighting capabilities, so much of our security assistance over the next few years will address those areas: territorial defense capabilities and readiness," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Turkey's TCG Tekirdağ patrol boat, taking part in Breeze 2016 exercises off the coast of Bulgaria (photo: The Bug Pit)
Russia has announced the deployment of more advanced air defense systems to Crimea, a move to protect the region from what one official called NATO's "air hooligans."
In August, the18th anti-aircraft missile regiment of the 31st Air Defense Division, based in Feodosia, will be equipped with Russia's top-of-the-line S-400 Triumf air defense system. It's yet a further buildup of Russia's defenses along its southwestern border against what it sees as a hostile western military threat in the Black Sea. This would complement Russia's system of land-based anti-ship missile defenses along the Black Sea, which already effectively let Russia control the surface of the sea.
"Placing the S-400 air defense system on duty in Crimea effectively locks down the Crimean sky against any attack from the air. The very fact of the placement of this advanced air defense system in Crimea will keep honest all NATO aviation based in the Black Sea region," said Crimea's vice premier, Ruslan Balbek.
The deployment is most likely directed against the United States as the only air force likely to threaten Crimea by air, said retired Colonel General Igor Maltsev, a former commander of Russia's air defense force.
An adviser to American presidential candidate Donald Trump has criticized United States policy in Central Asia as unnecessarily antagonistic, giving a rare glimpse into what a Trump presidency could mean for U.S. relations in the region.
The adviser, Carter Page, spoke Thursday in Moscow, and the main theme of the talk was that Russia and China have more successfully pursued their interests in Central Asia because they deal on the basis of “respect, equality and mutual benefit.” That, he argued, was one of the reasons for the flourishing of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Central Asia.
Page contrasted that with the American approach, which he said was characterized by books like "Chaos, Violence, Dynasty," and "Predatory Regimes." (He was referring, apparently, to academic monographs by Eric McGlinchey and Scott Radnitz.) This, Page argued, was evidence of "nakedly emotional approaches to news, often involving expressions of opinion and lacking verification of factual assertion" which typified "mainstream western discourse" on Central Asia.
U.S. soldiers training at Noble Partner exercises in Vaziani, Georgia, in May. (photo: U.S. Army Europe)
The United States is shifting its military assistance to Georgia to help the country defend itself instead of preparing it for international deployments, with a new agreement signed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Tbilisi.
The agreement "defines our security partnership and the steps we will take together to further Georgia’s reliance and its resilience and its self-defense capabilities," Kerry said Wednesday at a press conference with Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili.
U.S. military aid has until recently largely been focused on making the country interoperable with NATO members' militaries, as well as lighter and more efficient in order to be more readily deployable to U.S. and European military operations abroad. That meant, for example, American soldiers were training their Georgian counterparts on how to run a checkpoint or patrol a village rather than helping them get the anti-tank or anti-aircraft weapons they would need in a war in Georgia. This allowed Georgia to ingratiate itself with its American and NATO partners, but obviously carried risks given that the country believes it is at threat from Russian attack.
"There was a tacit understanding that Georgian participation in Afghanistan had combat training that made Georgian soldiers better equipped for territorial defense, but the training wasn't territorial defense per se, or even combined arms. They definitely got into combat situations in Afghanistan, but the transferability of skills was inexact," said Michael Cecire, a Caucasus defense analyst and associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, in an email interview with The Bug Pit.