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.
The USS Ross enters the port of Constanta, Romania, ahead of joint U.S.-Ukraine naval exercises in the Black Sea. (photo: U.S. Navy)
United States-led, Ukraine-hosted naval exercises will start this week in the Black Sea, ahead of NATO exercises in Western Ukraine later this month. While both exercises are iterations of annual drills and so not directly in response to the events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the fact that they're going ahead is nevertheless a signal of U.S. support for Kiev.
The naval exercises, Sea Breeze, are usually held in July but were put off until September this year. They'll be led by the U.S. destroyer USS Ross and also include ships from Ukraine, Georgia, Romania, Turkey, Canada, and Spain. One apparent concession to the heightened tension in the region this year: unlike in previous years, no U.S. or NATO ships will dock in Ukraine this time.
"Much of the exercise will focus on maritime interdiction operations as a primary means to enhance maritime security," announced U.S. European Command in a statement. "The other key components of the exercise focus on communications, search and rescue, force protection and navigation."
Uzbekistan has taken the rare step of commenting publicly to deny reports that it plans to allow the United States to set up a military base in the country.
The rumors arose after the recent visit to Uzbekistan by the head of U.S. Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, and the report on a website with good sources in Uzbekistan's government saying that the Austin was discussing setting up a base in Termez, on the Afghanistan border.
The report was implausible in many ways -- it said the U.S. was going to pay $1 billion a year in rent -- but Uzbekistan's government nevertheless saw fit to deny it. "Uzbekistan's laws do not allow to host any foreign military bases on its territory," Adilbek Kaipbergenov, spokesman for Uzbekistan's foreign ministry, told AFP.
The U.S. also denied it: “Gen. Austin has no knowledge of any plans for a possible U.S. base in Uzbekistan,” a CENTCOM spokesman told the Army Times. “He did not discuss any such options with the Uzbeks during his trip.”
The Uzbekistan opposition website uznews suggests that it was Russia's negative reaction to the rumors that may have spooked Tashkent.
Speaking on Russian radio station Govorit Moskva, Ilya Drozdov, a member of the Russian parliament and a CIS and Eurasian integration committee member, stated that if Uzbekistan really did allow the U.S. to re-open a military base, then Russia should throw out all Uzbek migrant workers from Russia. “I think then we need to take strong action at the highest level of government.” says Drozdov,
The head of United States Central Command has visited Uzbekistan as the U.S. works to "rebalance" its policies toward Central Asia, a policy which officials increasingly admit has been excessively focused on security.
General Lloyd Austin, head of CENTCOM, visited Uzbekistan and met with President Islam Karimov among other officials. There was no official word on what the visit was about. Voice of America Uzbek service's Navbahor Imamova, who has good sources on these issues, says that her sources say the visit was "purely maintenance" and included "no basing talk."
That didn't convince everyone, and the Uzbekistan news website uzmetronom reported that Austin was in Uzbekistan to negotiate a new U.S. military base there, and that the U.S. was offering Tashkent a billion dollars a year for the privilege, and that Germany was opposing it behind the scenes. That's all pretty unlikely, but it's interesting coming from uzmetronom; the site is well connected to the country's security services and in Uzbekistan there are obviously strict limits on what can be published. Whatever the reason, the report was of course eagerly picked up by the Russian media.
In March, Austin testified to Congress about the U.S. military's posture in the CENTCOM area, and said this about Uzbekistan:
Georgian soldiers take part in American training in Germany to prepare them for deployment to Afghanistan, 2012. (photo: Spc. Robert Sheets, U.S. Army Europe)
The United States is preparing a military aid package of about $35 million to help Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine defend themselves against Russia.
The money would be part of a much larger, $1 billion European Reassurance Initiative that the White House announced about two months ago. Part of the plan, as announced originally, would be to: "Build the partner capacity of close friends such as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine so they can better work alongside the United States and NATO, as well as provide for their own defense."
At a recent Congressional hearing on the Initiative and other Pentagon funding programs, U.S. officials gave a little more detail about how that $1 billion would be apportioned. And they revealed that the largest amount of money would go to bolstering the presence of U.S. troops in Eastern Europe. From the testimony (pdf) of Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work:
Approximately $440 million will go to increase the U.S. military presence in Europe by:
• Enabling rotation of elements of an Army armored brigade combat team into Europe;
• Providing additional funds for expanded naval deployments in the Black and Baltic Seas;
• Augmenting NATO’s Air Policing mission; and
• Either temporarily delaying withdrawal of Air Force F-15C aircraft from Europe or increasing aircraft rotations to Europe.
And most of the rest would go to NATO allies in Eastern Europe: