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.
The USS Halyburton, a guided missile frigate that the U.S. Congress refused to give to Turkey. (photo: U.S. Navy)
The U.S. Congress has approved the handover of some leftover naval vessels to allies, pointedly excluding Turkey from the list of recipients.
In late December, the U.S. finally approved the long-delayed handover of six naval frigates to Mexico and Taiwan. But the bill passed Congress only after Turkey (along with Pakistan and Thailand) were eliminated as potential recipients, for a variety of political reasons.
In the 2012 version of the "Naval Transfer Act," Turkey was to receive two Oliver Hazard Perry class guided missile frigates, the USS Halyburton and the USS Thach, which are being decommissioned by the U.S. Navy.
But the inclusion of Turkey proved controversial, as members of Congress pointed out Turkey's increasingly hostile stance toward Israel and its threats against natural gas exploration by American companies near Cyprus. "I believe we should hold off on sending powerful warships to Turkey and encourage the government in Ankara to take a less belligerent approach to their neighbors," said Representative Eliot Engel during that debate.
The United States significantly stepped up its training of Kyrgyzstan's special forces in 2013, as Washington was trying to convince Bishkek to allow its air base to remain in the country.
The U.S. trained 1,024 troops from Kyrgyzstan in fiscal year 2013 (that is, the year beginning October 1, 2012), up from 345 the year before. Of those, 880 were special forces troops which took part in six-week training courses led by their American special forces counterparts, documents newly released by the U.S. State Department show.
According to the annual report (pdf), on “Foreign Military Training and DoD Engagement Activities of Interest,” the Kyrgyzstan forces trained appeared to be mixed groups taken from various special forces units including the Alphas and Borus from the State Committee on National Security (GKNB) and the Scorpions, Panthers, and Ilbirs from the Ministry of Defense. The special forces training cost $2.6 million and was funded by Section 1004, under which the Department of Defense finances counter-drug activities around the world. They were trained in four six-week periods beginning in October 2012 and ending August 31, 2013.
U.S. officials have consistently denied that their security cooperation programs in Central Asia are linked to gaining regional governments' support for the Afghanistan military mission. But the timing of these programs are certainly suggestive of such a connection.
The United States Congress has passed a bill authorizing lethal military aid to Ukraine and additional sanctions on Russia, as well as additional measures to support Georgia and Moldova. It declined, however, to give Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine "major non-NATO ally status," which would have made it easier for those countries to get American military equipment.
The bill, the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014, passed both houses of Congress on December 13. It would apply sanctions to Rosoboronexport, the major state arms exporter, or any other country deemed to be involved in transferring weapons to Syria, or "Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova; and ... any other country designated by the President as a country of significant concern ... such as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and the Central Asia republics" against the will of the "internationally recognized governments" of those countries.
It also calls for sanctions if the Russian state gas company Gazprom withholds gas from those countries and "prioritizes" broadcasting into Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova by the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
“This legislation sends a very direct message to President [Vladimir] Putin who must change his calculus in Ukraine and abandon this disruptive path,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez.
Senior United States diplomats have visited Tashkent for their regular consultations with the government of Uzbekistan, and in spite of continuing tension over Afghanistan and human rights, the Americans were unusually positive in their assessment of ties with Uzbekistan.
"Had a very productive meeting with President Karimov on the growing bilateral relationship and cooperation on regional and global challenges," tweeted Nisha Biswal, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia. "Very impressed by the candid conversations with govt of Uzbekistan and civil society on subject of prison management and prison conditions," she added later. The delegation included 22 American officials from seven different government agencies.
Interestingly, in her public remarks Biswal appeared to have not uttered the words "human rights." The U.S. government has come under frequent criticism from human rights groups for overlooking the country's appalling record on human rights for the sake of strategic considerations. But U.S. officials nearly always meet with human rights activists when they visit the country, and at least mention the issue of human rights in their public statements. (Also unusually, while Biswal held a press conference in Tashkent the transcript wasn't released. The State Department didn't respond to a request for comment.)
A map of recent U.S. military activities around Russia's borders. (source: defense.gov)
An ongoing Russian military buildup in Crimea could help Moscow to control the entire Black Sea, the top United States military official in Europe has said.
General Philip Breedlove, Commander of U.S. European Command, visited Kiev this week, and when reporters asked him about Russian military activities, he said the Pentagon was "very concerned":
[W]e are very concerned with the militarization of Crimea. We are concerned in two respects. One, that the military forces in Crimea constitute an illegal annexation of that piece of Ukraine and that these forces are able to hold that land and, in an extreme sense, could possibly produce force from that land.
Secondarily, we are concerned that the capabilities in Crimea that are being installed will bring effect to almost the entire Black Sea. And this is of concern. Costal defense cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles and other capabilities that are able to exert military influence over the Black Sea. And finally, as you know, in March of this year the Defense Ministry of Russia announced that it would move nuclear capabilities into Crimea, and we continue to be concerned about this and watch for indications of it.