The United States State Department has laid out a new policy vision for Central Asia, with a greater focus on "countering violent extremism," harsh words for Russia, and a newly conciliatory line towards Iran.
The new vision was explained by two senior diplomats in speeches in Washington this week: one by Richard Hoagland, a longtime diplomat in Central Asia and now Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs; and another by Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
In terms of details or specific new policies, the speeches contained little new: there was still an emphasis on the New Silk Road vision of promoting regional trade and transportation, still an focus on promoting security while also pushing for greater respect for human rights.
Perhaps the most newsworthy part of the new policy is that such a high-ranking official as Blinken laid it out; Central Asia's profile has markedly decreased in Washington over the last few years as the U.S. has begun to wrap up the war in Afghanistan.
And while there weren't new policies laid out, the speech did signal some new emphases for the U.S. in Central Asia, which may be reflected in new initiatives in the future. The essence of Blinken's speech was probably these two paragraphs:
Turkmenistan has approached the United States asking for military aid to help the country address instability on its border with Afghanistan, and Washington is trying to support the requests, a senior American military official has said.
The head of U.S. Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, testified before Congress this week and gave CENTCOM's annual "posture statement," which includes rare public pronouncements of the U.S.'s official military policy toward Central Asia. This year probably the most newsworthy statement was about Turkmenistan.
While noting that "Turkmenistan’s declared policy of positive neutrality limits our opportunities for substantive military-to-military collaboration," Austin also reported that "[t]he Turkmens recently expressed a desire to acquire U.S. military equipment and technology to address threats to their security along their southern border with Afghanistan. We will do what we can to support those requests." Austin did not provide details about what sort of equipment was being considered. There have been several recent reports of increased Islamist militant activity in the northern regions of Afghanistan bordering Turkmenistan, and Russia has been pressing Turkmenistan to allow it to provide military assistance.
Austin also pointed to the growing military relationship with Uzbekistan, highlighted by the decision to give more than 300 armored vehicles to the country's armed forces. "The U.S. military relationship with Uzbekistan has strengthened considerably over the past year," Austin testified. "And, expanded U.S. Special Forces training will further improve the Uzbek military’s capacity to meet security challenges."
NATO warships deploy to the Black Sea. (photo: NATO)
A six-ship NATO naval group is conducting joint exercises in the Black Sea, and the Russian military is taking advantage of the event to carry out war games of a sort.
The NATO group is led by an American admiral aboard the USS Vicksburg, and also includes warships from Canada, Germany, Italy, Romania, and Turkey. The training "will include simulated anti-air and anti-submarine warfare exercises, as well as simulated small boat attacks and basic ship handling manoeuvres," according to a release from NATO.
An anonymous source in the Russian naval base at Sevastopol, Crimea, told agency RIA Novosti that they are following the deployment and using it as an opportunity to practice testing the NATO forces' anti-aircraft systems. The probing is being carried out by Su-30 fighters and Su-24 bombers, the source said:
"Our pilots are mainly monitoring the direction of the NATO ships and monitoring the tasks that they are carrying out on their visit to the sea," the source said. "In addition, the ships' crews are no doubt conducting exercises with our planes to practice an air attack, which gives our pilots the opportunity to gain experience maneuvering and conducting aerial surveillance both in and outside of the range of the anti-aircraft systems."
Mikheil Saakashvili, now a Ukrainian government official. (photo: president.gov.ua)
Earlier this month, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was appointed to a post in the government of Ukraine, head of the Advisory International Council of Reforms. But while "reform" may be the international brand Saakashvili had adopted for himself, his efforts for Kiev so far have centered around more short-term goals: acquiring western arms.
"Mikheil will become a representative of Ukraine abroad and, simultaneously, a representative of the international community in Ukraine," said the president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, on the occasion of Saakashvili's official appointment. "We are confident that it is Mikheil who will establish a bilateral communication between Ukraine and the world on the issue of reforms. He will involve the best foreign experience and decently represent us abroad."
But since then, Saakashvili's focus has seemed to be elsewhere. "Helping Ukraine with weapons is the top priority right now," he told Ukrainian channel Espreso TV immediately after his appointment. "I will coordinate the issue in the coming days." He wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post this week in which he argued that (in addition to Kiev implementing unspecified "tough reforms") "the military cost for Putin must be raised by supplying Ukraine with defensive weapons, specifically antitank weapons that can halt the further advance of the Russian tanks and armored vehicles."
Turkey is reportedly linking its purchase a multi billion-dollar air-defense system to whether the bidder countries recognize the Armenian genocide.
That news, reported by a number of Turkish media, is the latest unexpected turn in the multi-year saga over the arms deal. The original bidders for the deal were companies representing the United States, Europe, China, and Russia, giving the program the air of a geopolitical litmus test. When Turkey announced that it planned to give the Chinese company the contract, it faced a barrage of pressure from its NATO allies who were concerned that linking that system with NATO air defense equipment already in Turkey could expose NATO secrets to China.
All along, Turkey has denied that there was any political subtext to its decision, saying that its choice of China was related solely to questions of price and the fact that China would hand over more of the technology to Turkey. Now, though, that appears to have changed. With the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide approaching in April, Ankara is reportedly waiting to see how the various bidders mark that event.
"Rumors in political circles in Ankara said that no decision will be made over the missile defense system winner before [April 24] since Turkey wants to first see France and the U.S.'s position on the 1915 incidents," reported the pro-government Daily Sabah. "An agreement may be made with China if the U.S. and French administrations take a 'pro-Armenian' stance."
After a U.S. Congressional committee held a hearing critically examining U.S.-Azerbaijan relations, Azerbaijan's parliament responded with a retaliatory event of its own, accusing the U.S. of ignoring Baku's strategic cooperation with Washington.
On February 12, the House's Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats held a hearing, "Azerbaijan: U.S. Energy, Security, and Human Rights Interests." As expected, members of Congress and American experts on Azerbaijan criticized Baku for its accelerating crackdown on any opposing voices in the country, including the raid on and closure of the U.S. government-funded RFE/RL office.
Baku has been increasingly vocal in its criticism of the U.S., and this time took the step of organizing its own counter-hearing just two days later, "Energy and Security Cooperation: Partnership Based on Mutual Interests." Azerbaijani opposition website contact.az noted that government officials in Baku resent what they see as ingratitude for the contributions that they make to U.S. security interests:
The head of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Relations Samad Seyidov described relations between the two countries 'strategic partnership'. He further spoke about the support that Azerbaijan provides to Washington and how the US does not appreciate this.
The USS Cole on its most recent visit to the Black Sea, in October 2014. (Photo: U.S. Navy)
A U.S. Navy warship entered the Black Sea this week "to promote peace and stability in the region," according to a Navy statement, but Russia doesn't see it that way.
"The destroyer Cole entered the Black Sea February 8. From the moment it entered the Black Sea straits, surveillance units of the Black Sea Fleet have been carrying out careful tracking of the American ship," an anonymous Russian naval source told Interfax.
The ship's first stop was Constanta, Romania, where it is spending four days. It's not clear what its itinerary is after that.
In June, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Romania and promised to keep a steady U.S. naval presence on the Black Sea. "The U.S. has maintained a regular naval presence in the Black Sea since mid-March, with the USS Truxton, the USS Donald Cook and the USS Taylor all conducting port calls in Romania, and we will sustain this tempo going forward,” he said.
That seems to have been the case. In 2014, American warships spent a total of 207 days on the Black Sea, according to The Bug Pit's calculations based on the careful tracking of the Bosphorus Naval News blog, and the tempo seems to have been fairly consistent throughout that period. In 2013, U.S. warships made just two visits to the Black Sea, spending a total of 27 days.
The United States's donation of over 300 armored vehicles to Uzbekistan represents the triumph of realpolitik over the promotion of American values, Russian analysts argue.
Last week U.S. officials announced that they were donating over 300 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles to Uzbekistan; it will be the biggest ever transfer of American military equipment to a Central Asian country. It was surprising in many ways: American military interest in Central Asia had appeared to be on the wane, and U.S. military aid to Uzbekistan -- one of the worst human rights violators on the planet -- was at a largely token level, with little apparent justification for Washington to change that.
In days since the deal was announced, the response from the region has been muted. No officials from Russia or Central Asia -- including Uzbekistan -- have commented on the deal. But among Russia's Central Asian analyst community, of course, the announcement was big news. Most saw it in terms of the U.S.'s desire to improve ties with Uzbekistan, turning the latter into an American foothold in the region.
Just because Russian officials haven't said anything publicly doesn't mean that they are indifferent, said Daniil Kislov, the Moscow-based editor of the Central Asia news website Fergana News. "The transfer of American equipment to Uzbekistan raised concern among officials in Moscow," he said in an interview with Svobodnaya Pressa; the headline of the piece was "The U.S. Will Encroach On Russia From the South."
An MRAP vehicle, of the type the U.S. is donating to Uzbekistan, undergoes testing. (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
The United States is donating over 300 armored vehicles to Uzbekistan's military, American officials have announced. The deal, the largest ever transfer of military hardware from the U.S. to an ex-Soviet Central Asian states, comes just three years after Washington lifted a ban on weapons exports to Uzbekistan because of the country's poor record on human rights.
In an interview with the Voice of America's Uzbek service, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia Daniel Rosenblum said that the U.S. is giving Uzbekistan 308 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, along with an additional 20 support vehicles.
The possibility of the U.S. donating MRAPs has been discussed for some time now, but it's usually been framed in terms of getting equipment the U.S. discards as it pulls out from Afghanistan. That won't be the case with these vehicles, however, they are instead being delivered from the U.S. and other American military bases abroad under the Excess Defense Articles program, the standard way that the U.S. military gives leftover equipment to allies. Uzbekistan's government is paying the cost to ship them to Uzbekistan, Rosenblum said.
The U.S. has given Central Asian states some used gear under the EDA program in the past, notably patrol ships to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and utility helicopters to Kazakhstan. But this dwarfs any of those transfers. It's not yet clear what variant of the MRAP Uzbekistan will be getting, but the DoD has valued most of the MRAPs it's given away lately at about $100,000 each, which would make this deal worth over $30 million.
The move by the U.S. Congress to deny secondhand warships to Turkey could portend an "arms embargo" from Washington, some military officials in Ankara are warning.
Last month, Congress approved the transfer of several naval frigates to Mexico and Taiwan, excluding Turkey -- which had been slated as one of the original recipients -- over concerns about its policies toward Israel and Cyrpus.
While the ships would have been of use to Turkey only as the source for spare parts, the move nevertheless has raised alarm in Ankara, according to Hurriyet Daily News.
“These are almost useless vessels of no strategic importance for the Turkish Navy,” one senior defense official in Ankara told the newspaper. “The Americans know that the ships would not be great naval assets for Turkey. We think the decision not to transfer the ships to Turkey may be reflecting the likelihood of a broader embargo in the future.”
Another official, also speaking anonymously, suggested that the reprisal could go the other way:
A defense procurement official in Ankara said any further U.S. move “that may look like an embargo due to political rifts” would trigger reaction and risk U.S. defense business in Turkey.
“The unfriendly U.S. move came at a time when our U.S. [and European] allies are trying to convince us that going for a Chinese solution in our air defense program is not a good idea. The timing of the frigate decision is puzzling. The Americans know very well which contracts potentially involving U.S. defense business in Turkey could be jeopardized and how much harm that may make to U.S. industry,” said the official.