International tension over water in Central Asia is growing, but the United States can offer only modest help in preventing conflict, a panel of experts has told a Congressional committee.
The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats held a hearing November 18, "Water Sharing Conflicts and the Threat to International Peace."
Water conflict in Central Asia takes different forms, from the international (as seen in the dispute between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan over the latter's proposed Rogun Dam project) to the local (as seen in recurring border skirmishes between residents of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in the Ferghana Valley).
Russian President Vladimir Putin at the CSTO Parliamentary Assembly session in Moscow on November 6. (photo: Kremlin)
The head of Russia's post-Soviet security bloc said that instability in the region is "in most cases" the result of external manipulations, particularly by the United States. Russian officials also said the group was pursuing ties with countries from around the world, in particular Iran.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization held a session of its parliamentary assembly in Moscow on November 6. In addition to full CSTO members Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan, the parliamentary assembly includes Afghanistan and Serbia. And that group may expand to include Iran, said the speaker of Russia's state Duma, Sergey Naryshkin.
“We believe that in the long term, that experience may be expanded and representatives from the parliaments of other countries, for instance, Iran, might be invited into the CSTO Parliamentary Assembly,” Naryshkin said.
And more broadly, the CSTO is pursuing closer ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China, Iran, Latin America and countries of the Caribbean, said the group's general secretary, Nikolay Bordyuzha.
Most interesting were Bordyuzha's claims about the U.S. and other Western countries fomenting dischord in the CSTO region. While this isn't an especially new theme for Russian officials, Bordyuzha's comments contained an unusual amount of detail. From the CSTO's account of the event:
Twenty five years ago, he said, "We used to do big, complex NATO exercises in all environments, but the world has changed. We haven’t been doing as many of those in the last 10, 15 years. But I think Ukraine has told us we need to up our game and I think that’s the plan in the near future.”
Hudson was apparently at the Pentagon to discuss with U.S. Navy officials how to beef up NATO's naval forces. “Six or seven destroyers … isn’t going to defeat a complex enemy,” he said. “But it will sustain a theater, ... it will put all the connectivity into a region in place so that the follow-on forces can deliver.”
One wonders what sort of scenario would entail a NATO "defeat" of Russia. The U.S. has already stepped up its rotation of ships into the Black Sea and has promised to do more. Vice Adm. Hudson also said last month that NATO would increase its presence in the Baltic Sea, as well. (That plan has no doubt been given new currency as a result of Sweden's claims that a Russian submarine has been snooping around its waters.)
The Russian government has criticized a NATO plan to construct military training facilities in Georgia, while coming under fire itself for hosting a NATO facility on Russian soil.
When NATO announced last month that it would set up a range of expanded cooperation programs with Georgia, including joint training facilities, the reaction from Moscow was inevitable. On October 8, Russia's foreign ministry issued a statement expressing “concern in connection to the Georgian media reports about plans to deploy military infrastructure on the territory of Georgia in the interests of NATO.... Such actions would create threat to emerging stability in the Transcaucasus region."
Left unmentioned was the increasingly uncomfortable fact that Russia itself hosts a NATO cargo transit facility in Ulyanovsk. It was set up in 2012 to help NATO forces get equipment to and from Afghanistan, and even then it was somewhat contrary to Russia's consistent anti-NATO rhetoric. Then-Russian ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin -- one of the leading producers of that anti-NATO rhetoric -- was put in the unlikely position of defending the facility, saying it would only involve harmless items like toilet paper and Mars bars.
The biggest headline to come out of the weekend's Caspian Sea summit in Astrakhan, Russia, was that the five countries along the sea agreed to prevent any outside military presence from the sea. This has been a longstanding goal of the sea's two biggest powers, Russia and Iran, the result of worries that the U.S. and/or NATO would somehow gain a military foothold on the sea via security cooperation programs with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, or Turkmenistan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, summing up the summit's results and formal declaration, said:
The declaration sets out a fundamental principle for guaranteeing stability and security, namely, that only the Caspian littoral states have the right to have their armed forces present on the Caspian. This was the way the situation developed over history, and we do not seek to change it now. In general, only the five Caspian countries that have sovereign rights over the Caspian Sea and its resources will resolve all matters pertaining to the region.
An Azerbaijan coast guard vessel patrolling the Baku harbor, 2012. (photo: The Bug Pit)
The presidents of the five countries on the Caspian Sea are meeting in Astrakhan, Russia, on Sunday and will agree to "prevent" the military presence of non-littoral countries on the sea, a Russian official has said.
Russia and Iran, the two largest powers on the sea, have long been trying to exclude external powers -- read, the United States -- from establishing a military presence on the sea. The negotiations on this have gone on very much behind the scenes, but the newly independent Caspian countries -- Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan -- have relied to varying degrees on the U.S. to get their new navies up and running. And Azerbaijan, in particular, seemed to be resisting this push to exclude external forces.
"Yes, there are some [American] programs, according to which rearmament of the naval and coast guard forces are being carried out, but this is no cause for alarm that some Caspian country could be a corridor for the military presence of other countries in the Caspian region," said pro-government Baku analyst and journalist, Tofik Abbsov, in an interview in April. He added that reports to the contrary were common in the Russian media and served to "escalate the atmosphere of non-existent trends of tension."
But now Russia and Iran seem to have worn down Baku's resistance. "A political statement was prepared for the summit containing a provision about preventing military presence of non-regional states in the Caspian Sea. There were difficult consultations on the issue, but the sides managed to agree on this principle," said Yuri Ushakov, a Russian presidential aide, on Friday.
Georgia has offered to host a training base for anti-ISIS Syrian rebels, marking a dramatic new step in Tbilisi's efforts to contribute to American-led military operations in the Middle East. That's according to Foreign Policy magazine, citing American and Georgian sources. But the Georgian government denied the report, saying it has no plans either to host a base or commit troops.
"[The training center] was something we offered, but is still under consideration," Georgian Ambassador Archil Gegeshidze told Foreign Policy...
The potential scale of the Georgia-based training program remains unclear, but Gegeshidze noted that it could host anti-IS fighters from multiple countries, not just Syria. "It's a counterterrorism training center for any nationality," he said.
U.S. troops board an aircraft headed to Afghanistan at the Mihail Kogalniceanu air base in Romania, which this year replaced the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan. (photo: U.S. Army Europe)
Kyrgyzstan's truck drivers say they are suffering because the U.S. military has shifted traffic to Uzbekistan in the wake of the closure of the Manas air base, which operated in Kyrgyzstan until earlier this year. But the U.S. military denies that any decrease in traffic is connected to the base closure.
The director of Kyrgyzstan's Truck Drivers' Association, Temirbek Shabdanaliyev, told website KNews that as a result of the Manas closure, 2,000 truckers are now out of a job:
"After the departure of the Manas Transit Center our truck drivers were left without work. Shipments through our territory to and from Afghanistan immediately stopped, for some reason traffic now goes through Uzbekistan. Before, every week our drivers carried out 300-400 trips to Afghanistan and back, now they sit idle."
"Now these 2,000 drivers are left without work, unemployment increased. Very many drivers are parked without work, and tension and dissatisfaction among the drivers is growing."
Screen shot of video of the opening ceremony of the Rapid Trident 2014 U.S.-led military exercises in western Ukraine.
Georgia and Azerbaijan are among the participants at U.S.-organized military exercises now underway in western Ukraine, while Armenia -- which was originally scheduled to take part -- is absent.
The exercises, Rapid Trident, have been held every year since 1995 and this year involve about 1,300 soldiers and are being held in Yavoriv, in Lviv province. Obviously this year's exercises are being held under very different circumstances than previous iterations have been. And naturally they are being seen by the Kremlin as yet another way in which the U.S. and its European partners are carrying out an anti-Russian agenda using Ukraine as a proxy.
For Bug Pit readers, the most interesting element of Rapid Trident 2014 is the participation of the South Caucasus states. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia have all taken part in previous versions of the exercise. Unsurprisingly, given its firm pro-West, anti-Russia stance, Georgia has taken part again, sending a platoon to Ukraine for the drills.
Also unsurprisingly, Armenia is not taking part. As a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led post-Soviet military bloc, it would be awkward if Armenian troops were training alongside NATO forces. (Interestingly, though, as late as March Armenia was still being listed as among the scheduled participants in Rapid Trident 2014; apparently they changed their minds between then and now.)
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meets a Georgian soldier during his visit to Tbilisi. (photo: MoD Georgia)
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Georgia, and on the agenda was Georgia's planned purchase of American military helicopters and Georgia's joining the emerging U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition.
The deal for Blackhawk utility helicopters has been in the works since at least 2012. But this is the first time it seems to have been discussed very publicly, and the two sides seem to be getting close: "One of the things that I noted here is that [Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania] and I discussed as to how we go forward on Georgia's request for helicopters and pricing and availability -- that being the next step as to how that works," Hagel said at a press conference in Tbilisi.
It wasn't announced how these would be financed, but this variant -- the Sikorsky S-70i, produced in Poland -- cost about $5 million each. Georgia's defense budget for this year is under $400 million -- that is, about 80 Blackhawks -- and that has to cover troops' pay and care in addition to any new equipment procurement. Alasania has previously said that Russian-type helicopters are too expensive to maintain given the difficulty Georgia has getting spare parts. Those are "credible complaints," said Michael Cecire, a Washington-based Georgia analyst, in an email interview with The Bug Pit. "But why US platforms, specifically? Partially for the prestige and symbolism, but also likely with an eye on reinforcing bilateral ties and building those prized business relationships with US defense companies," he said.