U.S. and Azerbaijani military officials meet in Baku during the visit of U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus. (photo: U.S. Navy)
The United States Secretary of the Navy has visited Azerbaijan amid heightened tensions on the Caspian Sea.
Secretary Ray Mabus visited Baku on Saturday and met with President Ilham Aliyev as well as Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov. There were no details announced about the content of the discussions, but the visit seems to have been heavily covered in Azerbaijan. And Aliyev, according to the state news agency AzerTac, "noted that the situation in the region has changed a lot recently."
Some of those changes include Russia's repeated launching of cruise missiles from ships in the Caspian; the abrupt cancelation of what would have been the first-ever Iranian naval visit to Baku; and increasingly vocal support by Western officials for construction of a trans-Caspian pipeline to carry gas from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan and on to Europe. All of that, presumably, would have given Mabus and Aliyev a lot to talk about.
Mabus arrived in Baku from Dushanbe where, curiously, the local media seems to have ignored the visit and the U.S. account only mentions him visiting American diplomatic and military officers in Tajikistan. Tajikistan, being landlocked, doesn't have a navy but Mabus also oversees the U.S. Marine Corps, who have been involved in training Tajikistan's special forces units.
Shifty U.S. envoys have been spotted lurking in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan digging for dirt on a competitor whose cheap crop could squeeze out America’s own exports.
At least that’s the yarn some media in Uzbekistan are spinning.
The U.S. Embassy has rubbished the claim.
In a report on October 16, website 12news.uz alleged that three suspicious elements were recently seen in the fields in Qashqadaryo Region, posing as journalists and officials from Uzbekistan’s Foreign Ministry.
“The ‘Uzbekistan Foreign Ministry staff and journalists’ turned out to be diplomats from the US Embassy in Tashkent, who had specially gone to the remote region to find some kind of problems which it would be possible to trumpet to the entire word as ‘the grossest cases of violations of human rights and restrictions on freedoms,’” the website wrote.
12news.uz speculated that the fact-finding team was motivated by a desire to thwart the rising sales of “comparatively cheap cotton from Uzbekistan” on world markets, which it said “in no way suits American farmers.”
The embassy was categorical in its denial.
“The allegations in this story are inaccurate, and we strongly disagree with the characterizations contained in the article,” spokeswoman Natella Svistunova told EurasiaNet.org by e-mail.
Pointing out that diplomats are free to travel under the Vienna Convention, Svistunova said embassy staff had traveled to various parts of Uzbekistan, carrying identification.
Svistunova said embassy staff “always correctly represent themselves, when asked.”
One of the embassy’s goals “is to better understand changing practices in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest,” Svistunova said.
The United States diplomatic mission in Uzbekistan has been targeted in a firebomb attack in an unusual incident that will kindle chatter of a possible new terrorist menace in the repressive Central Asian nation.
Attacks on diplomatic missions in the heavily policed country are rare, but not unprecedented.
The US Embassy was targeted by bomb attacks on diplomatic and security targets in Tashkent in 2004 that killed two security guards at the Israeli Embassy.
This most recent attack occurred early September 28. The US mission said in a statement that “an unidentified assailant tossed two improvised incendiary devices onto embassy grounds,” one of which exploded.
Nobody was injured in the blast, but the embassy was closed as a precaution. The mission has now returned to business as usual, the statement said.
The embassy offered no possible motivation for the attack, which would have required the assailant to approach a robustly patrolled building surrounded by high razor-wire walls and guarded by U.S. Marines and local police.
The embassy said it was cooperating with authorities to investigate the attack and that it had identified “no specific threat information against Americans and/or American interests.”
Terrorist attacks are extremely rare in Uzbekistan, where the presence of police and security service officers is ubiquitous and stifling. This blast came three weeks after an explosive device detonated at Tashkent’s Chorsu Bazaar in an incident that the authorities belatedly explained was a security exercise.
Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli and General Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Europe, meet in Tbilisi on September 7. (photo: MoD Georgia)
The United States is practicing how quickly it can deploy its military to Georgia in order to respond to "Russian aggression," Georgia's defense minister has said.
General Ben Hodges, the commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, visited Tbilisi and spoke September 7 at a conference, "Georgia: Europe’s New Geopolitical Landscape: Security, Economic Opportunity, Freedom and Human Dignity for the Frontline States." Hodges also met with Minister of Defense Tinatin Khidasheli and senior Georgian military officials.
"There were a lot of interesting nuances when he discussed joint Georgian-American exercises," Khidasheli said after the meeting. "In particular, one of the objectives of these exercises will be to see how quickly the US military vehicles and soldiers will arrive in Georgia in case of aggression – something that the General stated publicly.”
"For me, as Defence Minister, General Ben Hodges’ speech was very interesting. He made some interesting points, especially when talking about Russia,” she continued. "He very clearly and directly said that Russia had been busy with aggression for 20 years. I think when an American General says such phrases, it means a lot.”
However, it's not clear exactly what Hodges' words were. The press office of U.S. Army Europe, asked by The Bug Pit to clarify Hodges's remarks, provided a transcript of his answers to reporters' questions at the conference, but they contained nothing about U.S. forces responding to Russian aggression in Georgia.
According to a report on the website civil.ge, Hodges's remarks were somewhat vaguer:
The USS Donald Cook enters the Odessa, Ukraine, harbor to start the joint Sea Breeze 2015 exercises. (photo: U.S. Navy)
The United States, Ukraine, and other allies are conducting joint naval exercises in the Black Sea, which the American commander says Russia has greeted, somewhat uncharacteristically, "cordially."
This year's iteration of the annual Sea Breeze exercises was kicked off September 1 in Odessa, with U.S. naval officials and Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk present.
Yatsenyuk took the opportunity to paint the exercise as an anti-Russian effort, saying that drills like this will "turn the Black Sea into a safe area and to make the Russian Federation, which illegally annexed Crimea, realize that any illegal actions will be curbed by our joint efforts." In Odessa Yatsenyuk also announced that the country's new military doctrine, for the first time, identifies "an enemy and an aggressor" -- Russia.
But a senior U.S. naval official took pains to emphasize Russia's equanimity with respect to these exercises. Russia has in the past greeted the U.S. naval presence in the Black Sea with some mildly aggressive gestures, but not this time. When the USS Donald Cook, the American ship taking part in the drills, entered the Black Sea a Russian frigate was waiting. It hailed the warship and its commander by name and “welcomed him to the Black Sea,” said Vice Admiral James Foggo, deputy commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe in a telephone press conference with American reporters. "It was cordial," he added.
General Lloyd Austin and other U.S. officials in Tashkent for meetings with President Islam Karimov on military cooperation. (photo: president.uz)
A senior American military official has visited Uzbekistan to discuss unspecified military cooperation issues.
General Lloyd Austin, the commander of U.S. Central Command, visited Tashkent on July 27 and met with President Islam Karimov and other officials. Uzbekistan's press release on the event said that Afghanistan was the topic of conversation, among other issues of regional security. RIA Novosti, citing "a source close to the negotiations," said the talks focused on the delivery of over 300 armored vehicles that Washington has promised. CENTCOM does not appear to have commented on the visit at all.
All that is fairly routine, and the talks also likely dealt with the possibility of further U.S. military aid that officials in Washington have hinted at. Meanwhile, Russia also recently ratified a deal under which Moscow would write off $900 billion in Uzbekistan's debt in order to open up new lines of credit for military purchases.
State Department officials have defended the provision of armored vehicles to Uzbekistan against criticism that it is irresponsible to reward a government with such a poor record of treating its citizens, while more military aid to Tashkent appears to be in the works.
In January, the State Department announced that it was giving more than 300 used Mine-Resistant Armor-Protected (MRAP) vehicles to Uzbekistan, the largest transfer of U.S. military equipment to a Central Asian country. It was surprising move given that Uzbekistan's star in Washington seemed to be falling: the U.S. is pulling out of Afghanistan and so neighboring Uzbekistan is no longer a critical partner in the war effort.
Nevertheless, the U.S. wants to help Uzbekistan and the MRAPs are "purely defensive vehicles" and would only be used by the Ministry of Defense forces and not by police units of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Daniel Rosenblum.
Rosenblum was testifying before Congress at a June 25 hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, "Civil and Political Rights in Uzbekistan and Central Asia: Implications for Post-2014 U.S. Foreign Policy." He was asked by the commission's chairman, Massachusetts Democratic Rep. James McGovern, what the "rationale" was for giving the vehicles to Uzbekistan given the country's poor human rights record, which includes firing on and killing hundreds of its own civilians in 2005 protests.
The State Department has released its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism" reviewing terrorism activity from the past year and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the ISIS is the overwhelming focus throughout the report, but also in the former Soviet Union.
"The ongoing civil war in Syria was a significant factor in driving worldwide terrorism events in 2014," State wrote in the report's introduction. "The rate of foreign terrorist fighter travel to Syria – totaling more than 16,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 90 countries as of late December – exceeded the rate of foreign terrorist fighters who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years."
The report continues State's practice of describing governments' perceptions of the threat of terrorism, rather than Washington's own perception. The introduction of the section on South and Central Asia reads: "Central Asian leaders have expressed concern about the potential terrorist threat posed by the return of foreign terrorist fighters to the region in the wake of ISIL’s growth in the Middle East and the drawdown of U.S. and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan."
Last year's report expressed substantial skepticism about Central Asian government's claims about terror threats; that skepticism is less apparent in this report's newly written sections on ISIS. However, a senior State Department official testified before Congress earlier this month on ISIS in Central Asia and downplayed the threat, noting that the vast majority are not recruited in Central Asia but abroad, particularly in Russia.
The U.S. Navy has rejected claims that Russian jets forced an American warship to retreat after getting too close to Russian waters in the Black Sea.
The USS Ross has been patrolling the Black Sea since May 23, part of the U.S.'s stepped-up military presence in the region. And according to an unnamed source in the security structures of Crimea, Russian Su-24 aircraft forced the American ship to change course because it was nearing Russian waters and "acting provocatively and aggressively," reported RIA Novosti.
The Russian news agency Sputnik noted that: "The incident comes on the same day as fugitive Georgian ex-leader Mikheil Saakashvili's appointment as governor of Ukraine's Black Sea-bordering Odessa region." It did not elaborate on what the connection between the two incidents might be.
Over the past year there have been several similar minor episodes between the U.S. ships patrolling the Black Sea and the Russian military. In one such incident last April, a Russian Su-24 buzzed the USS Donald Cook, which the Pentagon called "provocative." And according to a story widely distributed in the less reputable parts of the Russian internet, the Russian jet managed to shut down all of the American ship's electronic equipment, an experience which so demoralized the crew that 27 of the sailors requested retirement shortly after. (An English-language version can be seen here.)
U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan Susan Elliott posing with two OMON officers in 2013. (photo: twitter)
The senior Tajikistan police official who apparently defected to ISIS had taken part in United States training on five seperate occasions, a State Department official has said.
Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, the head of the Ministry of Interior special forces OMON units, claimed in his ISIS promotional video that he gone to the U.S. three times for counterterrorism training, including with American mercenary firm Blackwater. "Listen, you American pigs: I've been to America three times. I saw how you train soldiers to kill Muslims," he said. "You taught your soldiers how to surround and attack, in order to exterminate Islam and Muslims."
That claim was confirmed by the State Department on May 30. "From 2003-2014 Colonel Khalimov participated in five counterterrorism training courses in the United States and in Tajikistan, through the Department of State's Diplomatic Security/Anti-Terrorism Assistance program," spokeswoman Pooja Jhunjhunwala told CNN.
OMON has been one of the key elements of U.S. security cooperation in Tajikistan, which has focused on training and equipping the country's various special forces units. That training has been controversial, even before there was any ISIS connection: while the special forces are Tajikistan's most capable units and would be used to combat genuine security threats, they also are a key element of President Emomali Rahmon's repressive rule and have been implicated in indiscriminate force in suppressing internal opposition.