U.S. Army officers load Abrams tanks on to a ferry in Varna, Bulgaria, to ship them to Georgia for NATO military exercises. (photo: U.S. Army)
The United States is for the first time shipping its tanks across the Black Sea for joint exercises with Georgia.
The U.S. Army's 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division loaded the tanks on to ferries in Varna, Bulgaria, in order to ship them to Batumi ahead of the second annual Noble Partner military exercises to be held later this month. The exercises will include 650 American troops, as well as 500 from Georgia and 150 from the United Kingdom.
Last year's Noble Partner (the first such exercise) was noteworthy for the fact that the U.S. shipped Bradley Fighting Vehicles across the Black Sea for the occasion. It was the first such movement of heavy U.S. materiel across the sea and was a vivid illustration of the U.S.'s ability to project power around Russia's periphery. This year's addition of tanks to the mix ups the stakes a little more.
A senior American NATO official has signaled support for a proposal to create a regular alliance naval presence on the Black Sea, where tension has been rising between Russia and its maritime neighbors.
"There are some very valuable discussions under way among the allies who live on the Black Sea ... of more closely integrating their naval forces and operations," said NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow, an American diplomat, referring to Bulgaria, Turkey, and Romania, Reuters reported. "We need to consider a more persistent NATO military presence in the region, with a particular focus on our maritime capabilities."
Vershbow was apparently referring to an idea, promoted by Romania, to creating a permanent NATO presence on the sea. Romanian officials also have said that their proposal envisages cooperation with non-NATO partners on the Black Sea, in particular Georgia and Ukraine, as well as the United States. The proposal looks to be considered at the alliance's June summit in Warsaw, as the alliance continues to build up its military presence along Russia's borders.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter meets with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk. (photo: president.gov.by)
The United States and Belarus are intensifying their military cooperation, as Minsk -- nominally a close ally of Russia -- seems to be trying to diversify its options.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter visited Minsk at the end of last month, where he said Washington "hope[s] to build a foundation for improving our bilateral relations, including in the security and defense arena." Carpenter also mentioned "progress that we have seen over the past six months," apparently referring to the release of some political prisoners. That was the pretext for the U.S. and the European Union loosening some sanctions on the country, though it appears that the West's increasing attentions to Minsk may be more motivated by geopolitical considerations vis-a-vis Russia.
Carpenter met with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a surprisingly high-level reception for someone of his rank in the Pentagon bureaucracy. The main result of the visit appears to have been an agreement to exchange military attaches. (The U.S. embassy in Minsk has been operating on a skeleton crew since 2008 when the Belarusian government forced them to downsize.) During the visit it also emerged that defense talks between the two sides began last year, with the previously unreported visit of a Belarusian defense ministry official to Washington.
General Philip Breedlove, commander of U.S. European Command, visits a farmer in Georgia whose land was divided by a Russian-built fence on the administrative boundary with South Ossetia. (photo: MoD Georgia)
The top United States military official in Europe has visited Georgia, promising "bigger and better" joint military exercises and telling Georgians that to deter Russian aggression they should build ties with NATO and the U.S.
General Philip Breedlove, commander of U.S. European Command, visited Georgia March 22-23. Breedlove has become known as one of the most anti-Russia hawks among current U.S. officials, and in Tbilisi he did not disappoint:
As your brave valiant nation has witnessed, Russia continues to extend its coercive and corrosive influence on its periphery. Now it's also trying to reestablish leading and aggressive role in a world stage. Russia automatically seeks to overturn the established rules and principles of the international system, fracture the unity of the free world and to challenge our solidity.
Top: A chart, by Security Assistance Monitor, measuring the level of dependency on U.S. military aid of various countries. Bottom: Georgian soldiers participate in U.S. military training in Germany in 2014 before being deployed to Afghanistan. (photo U.S. Army Spc. John Cress Jr)
By Pentagon budget standards, the countries of the former Soviet Union are relatively insignificant recipients of American military aid, dwarfed by the billions given annually to Israel, Egypt, and Pakistan. But a new study has shown that some of the security forces in the region are unusually dependent on American aid.
The survey, by the Washington advocacy organization Security Assistance Monitor, compared the amount of military and police aid the U.S. gave to every country in 2014 to the countries' respective defense budgets. And it found that among the ten countries where U.S. aid made up the largest proportion of the defense budget, three were former Soviet republics: Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
Georgia was the fourth-most dependent country, with $158 million in U.S. security assistance compared to a defense budget of $387 million. Tajikistan was seventh, its budget of $104 million supplemented by $29 million in U.S. aid. (Tajikistan will surely climb up the list soon, as it's slated to get $50 million over the next two years in additional anti-terrorism funding from the Pentagon.)
Kyrgyzstan was sixth on the list, but this is somewhat misleading: in 2014, Kyrgyzstan got $90 million in U.S. aid, but nearly all of that ($81 million) was payment for the Manas air base, which the U.S. was forced to leave that year. The $81 million is an estimate based on the best information SAM was able to get (a SAM analyst told The Bug Pit that they are working to try to get more precise information from the Pentagon). It may have simply been an accounting quirk. In any case, the Manas rent money wasn't really military aid, but a cash payment to the Kyrgyzstan government, even if for U.S. bookkeeping purposes it's classified as military aid.
The United States plans to give Central Asia an additional $50 million in military aid under a new program, with the bulk of the aid focused on Tajikistan, budget documents released by the White House show.
The money would be part of the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, a Pentagon program launched in 2014 aimed at training militaries around the globe to fight terrorism. In the past, all of the funding in the program has gone to countries in the Middle East and Africa, but starting this year Central Asia would receive $20 million from the fund, and next year, $30 million.
"The [Department of Defense] proposes allocating CTPF funds in Central Asia to counter the Taliban, ISIL, and other regionally-based terrorist groups, and to promote stability in the region. A key partner nation in the region is Tajikistan," the DoD wrote in budget justification documents released last week. "CTPF funding will support [counterterrorism] partners in a region where war in Afghanistan and other regional pressures challenge the security interests of the U.S., its allies, and partners."
The United States would give Georgia a big boost in aid to help it "resist Russian aggression" under a budget proposal announced this week by the White House. But Washington is deemphasizing military aid to Georgia, and a huge increase in Pentagon funding for a greater U.S. military presence around Russia's borders dedicates relatively little to Tbilisi.
The U.S. plans to give Georgia $63 million in general Economic Support Fund money in fiscal year 2017, up from $38 million this year, according to State Department budget documents. That money "will support Georgia’s democratization, economic development, Euro-Atlantic integration, and resistance to Russian aggression" and will be "targeted towards enhancing energy security and economic opportunities for populations susceptible to Russian influence."
But that aid is mainly for civilian programs, and American military aid to Georgia is set to decrease under this proposal. Aid to Georgia marked as Foreign Military Financing, intended for military equipment, will decrease from $30 million this year to $20 million in fiscal year 2017. Next year's funding is intended "to advance Georgia’s development of forces capable of enhancing security, countering Russian aggression, and contributing to coalition operations. This will include support in areas such as upgrades to Georgia’s rotary wing air transport capabilities, advisory and defense reform, and modernization of Georgia’s military institutions."
United States intelligence believes that Georgia could reverse its strategic orientation toward the West under Russian pressure, the country's top intelligence official has said.
The U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified to Congress on Tuesday, offering the U.S. intelligence community's annual "Worldwide Threat Assessment." The short section dealing with the Caucasus and Central Asia offers some interesting insights into how American government spooks and analysts see developments in the region. Perhaps the most intriguing statement is that on Georgia, which suggests that Georgia may be rethinking its Euro-Atlantic orientation, in part due to Russian efforts:
Even as Georgia progresses with reforms, Georgian politics will almost certainly be volatile as political competition increases. Economic challenges are also likely to become a key political vulnerability for the government before the 2016 elections. Rising frustration among Georgia’s elites and the public with the slow pace of Western integration and increasingly effective Russian propaganda raise the prospect that Tbilisi might slow or suspend efforts toward greater Euro-Atlantic integration. Tensions with Russia will remain high, and we assess that Moscow will raise the pressure on Tbilisi to abandon closer EU and NATO ties.
Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli speaks December 10 at the Washington think tank Heritage Foundation. (photo: MoD Georgia)
Georgia's government is asking the United States to store some of its weaponry in the country in the case it were needed quickly to defend against Russia. The U.S., while announcing an ambitious plan to "preposition" equipment in several NATO countries on Russia's border, is so far declining to do so in Georgia.
By the end of next year, the U.S. Army hopes to have what it calls "European Activity Sets" placed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, the top Army commander in Europe, General Ben Hodges, said this week. The sets would consist of vehicles and weaponry so that American soldiers coming to the area for training, or for a quick deployment, would have gear waiting for them.
Hodges added that the army is not now considering additional sites. But Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli, visiting Washington this week, is lobbying for Washington to change its mind and to include Georgia in that list.
“Putting more security in [the] Baltics or eastern border of NATO is the same value for us as putting it in Georgia, because deterring Russia anywhere means more security for Georgia,” Khidasheli said in an interview with the newspaper Defense News. “But at the same time, we hope that Georgia will be part of that deal, as well, and we will get our share in this entire picture of European security setup … we will see. We’re negotiating all those issues and I’m very optimistic that we will get our portion from this.”
The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Ross passes through the Bosphorus straits on December 3. (photos: U.S. Navy)
An American warship has entered the Black Sea and three more NATO ships have docked in Istanbul as tension rises on the Bosphorus straits, a source of contention between Russia and Turkey for centuries.
The U.S. Navy destroyer the USS Ross entered the Black Sea on December 3. These visits to the sea are relatively routine, but this is the first such American visit to the Black Sea since Turkey shot down a Russian bomber jet on the Turkey-Syria border. In addition, warships from three other NATO members -- Canada, Portugal, and Spain -- have moored at Istanbul in an apparent show of support. Turks interviewed by Euronews were reportedly "reassured" by the NATO ships' visit.
The visits come as there has been a flurry of discussion in the Russian and Turkish press about the role the Bosphorus straits might play in the conflict between the two countries. The Bosphorus is the only outlet of the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, and so Russia depends on it as its only warm water access to the rest of the world.
According to the 1936 Montreux Convention, Turkey is obliged to allow free traffic through the straits, except in the case of war or the imminent threat thereof. While this is, in theory, a huge strategic advantage that Turkey holds over Russia, to actually close off the straits would no doubt be seen by Russia as an act of war and it's very unlikely Ankara would take such a step unless the situation between the two countries dramatically worsened.