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.
U.S. Army vehicles and soldiers arrive in Georgia for joint military exercises Noble Partner. The heavy equipment was ferried from Bulgaria across the Black Sea. (photos: U.S. Army)
The United States Army is conducting first-of-their-kind joint military exercises in Georgia to train for NATO rapid-response missions.
While the U.S. and Georgia have conducted plenty of joint military exercises befofe, this one will be the "most robust" one to date, according to Pentagon officials. One innovation: the U.S. shipped 14 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles across the Black Sea from Bulgaria to Georgia, along with several other support vehicles. While U.S. military officials reportedly thought that the presence of Bradleys on the Black Sea "might provoke a reaction by the Kremlin," so far that doesn't seem to have happened. (One also wonders whether they crossed paths with the two Chinese frigates now in the Black Sea.)
"This is the first time that the U.S. Army has deployed a mechanized company worth of equipment across the Black Sea," the U.S. Army said in a press release. As the old military cliche goes, amateurs talk about strategy, professionals talk about logistics. "[This] movement from Varna, Bulgaria, across the Black Sea to the port of Batumi in Georgia, opens new avenues for transport with partner nations. Expanding freedom of movement enables easier access to training with allies as well as responding quickly to contingency operations," said one American logistics officer, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Mark Shawen.
The Pentagon will provide Uzbekistan with patrol boats and vehicles worth up to $6.2 million to help the country in its counternarcotics efforts, the U.S. embassy in Tashkent has announced.
The short announcement didn't detail the number or types of boats and vehicles, but it did say that they will be allocated to Uzbekistan's State Border Protection Committee of the National Security Service and the State Customs Committee.
Security along the Amu Darya river, which separates Uzbekistan from Afghanistan, has long been a priority of U.S. security assistance to Tashkent; even in the period between roughly 2004 and 2012 when military aid to Uzbekistan was restricted due to congressional sanctions, aid and training for border forces continued.
"In early 2007, the Department of Defense sold the Government of Uzbekistan fourteen patrol boats to promote the security of the Amu River, part of which runs along Uzbekistan's southern border with Afghanistan," reported one 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable. "The Border Guards Termez Riverine Squadron maintains and operates these boats, and DOD conducts annual training on the use of these craft. Training includes basic small craft maneuvering, maintenance, shallow river patrolling techniques, night patrolling, interdiction techniques and radar-assisted patrolling."
The United States State Department has criticized its embassy in Tajikistan for its cooperation on an investigation into military aid practices there, suggesting that embassy staff in Dushanbe were giving a sanitized view of events to their superiors in Washington.
On April 7 the State Department's Office of the Inspector General released a report on the Dushanbe embassy's activities, and among the issues it investigated was U.S. military aid policy in the context of the controversial 2012 military operation in Khorog. In that operation, special forces units -- which have been the focus of extensive U.S. training and equipping programs -- opened indiscriminate fire in the town, killing about 20 civilians. That raised questions about whether the aid was in violation of U.S. laws that try to prevent military aid going to human rights violators.
When the State Department tried to look into the event and U.S. military aid policies in Tajikistan, the information they were given was written by the military officers of the embassy, rather than the diplomats who were supposed to be providing oversight, the OIG report says. That "frustrated" officials in Washington trying to investigate, and "undermined confidence that the embassy provides a full and reliable picture of local developments."
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: