The American warship USS Taylor makes a port call to Batumi, Georgia, in May. (photo: U.S. Navy)
The United States is planning a "stronger presence of U.S. ships in the Black Sea" as Russia accused the U.S. and NATO ships that have been on the sea recently as "spying" on Russia's own Black Sea Fleet. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Romania on Thursday, and he made a stop at the USS Vella Gulf, which was on a port call at Constanta as part of its tour around the Black Sea. The Vella Gulf’s port visit in Romania “a clear expression of [the] commitment" that the U.S. and NATO have expressed recently toward strengthening their military presence in the countries neighboring Russia "“which is becoming even more important in the wake of Russia’s actions in Ukraine." From a Pentagon press release:
Another example, Hagel said, is Obama's announcement this week that he will ask Congress for up to $1 billion to enhance the readiness of U.S. and allied forces in Europe, including more U.S. troop rotations for exercises and training and a stronger presence of U.S. ships in 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. “We are also stepping up our cooperation with other partners and allies surrounding the Black Sea, including Bulgaria, Georgia, Turkey, and Ukraine.”
Russia has repeatedly complained about the increased Western military presence on the Black Sea. On Wednesday, Itar-Tass quoted an unnamed source in the "military-diplomatic corps" as saying that a French frigate in the Black Sea was spying on Russia:
The frigate Surcouf is conducting maneuvers in the northern part of the Black Sea, periodically approaching 50-60 kilometers from the coast of Crimea. According to available data, the NATO warship is conducting electronic surveillance of military objects of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, deployed on the peninsula along the coastline, as well as of important administrative and strategic objects on the coastal territory."
The source added, helpfully, that Russia was watching the French ship, as well: "All the actions and maneuvers of the French 'uninvited guest' are being recorded, including its compliance with norms of international maritime law."
According to the expert's data, the frigate passed along the Caucasus coast, the coast of Crimea, lingered alongside Novorossiya and relocated to the northwestern part of the sea. "Now the French ship is heading in the direction of Odessa, but whether it will stop there is not yet known. In any case, the visit of the Surcouf to Odessa, if it happens, will not remain a secret."
The presence of foreign warships on the Black Sea is regulated by the Montreux Convention, which limits them to 21 days at a stretch. Recall that one U.S. warship, USS Taylor, stayed on the sea longer than 21 days because it needed repairs. That circumstance was never noted by Russian officials, who complained about the violation. But in a piece from RT on Thursday, headlined "NATO’s merry-go-round electronic surveillance in the Black Sea," they took a swipe at that assertion:
The USS Taylor actually became a rare example of a ship that violated the Montreux Convention by exceeding the limited time of deployment to the Black Sea by 11 days, as the crew claimed the vessel ran aground on February 12 and had to undergo maintenance in the Turkish port of Samsun.
The U.S. State Department is skeptical about how Central Asian governments perceive the threat of terrorism in their countries, according to the department's annual review of terrorism around the globe.
In language similar to last year's report, the State Department said that "The effectiveness of some Central Asian countries’ efforts to reduce their vulnerability to perceived terrorist threats was difficult to discern in some cases, however, due to failure to distinguish clearly between terrorism and violent extremism on one hand and political opposition, or non-traditional religious practices, on the other." But this year it added a bit of texture with a mention of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: "[T]errorist groups with ties to Central Asia – notably the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihad Union – continued to be an issue even as they operated outside of the Central Asian states." (For some serious analysis of what threat the IMU poses, see this post at the Afghan Analysts Network.)
The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook, just arrived in the Black Sea, in a file photo. (photo: Morgan Over. U.S. Navy)
Russia continues to complain about the U.S. and NATO's naval presence in the Black Sea, suggesting the Kremlin is going to keep pushing to limit western military influence in the sea.
After Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized the U.S. and Turkey for ignoring the Montreux Convention, the 1938 treaty that regulates the naval presence in the Black Sea, the Kremlin has doubled down on its criticism, saying that the U.S. had kept a warship in the sea for longer than the 21 days it is allowed. Turkey -- which enforces the convention -- had responded to that accusations, saying they "do not in any way represent the truth"
In an April 20 statement, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the Turkish statement "extremely bewildering" and that the USS Taylor had stayed 11 days longer than it was supposed to. "Turkey did not inform us about the overstay. We have expressed our concern to the Turkish and US side in a verbal note," the statement said. "We presume that Turkey, as well as non-neighboring countries, will in the future strictly observe their obligations with respect to the convention."
The USS Taylor, recall, had run aground in the Black Sea and had to be serviced in Samsun, Turkey, as a result (a fact the Russian statement didn't mention).
At the same time, Russia responded strongly to the entrance of another U.S. warship into the Black Sea, the USS Donald Cook. An unnamed Russian Defense Ministry source told ITAR-TASS that, given the presence of a French warship already in the sea and the planned arrival of two more, we can say that NATO is building a naval grouping in the Black Sea in the vicinity of the Russian border for the first time since 2008." The source went on:
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is presented with a gift horse during his visit to Mongolia. (photo: DoD)
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Mongolia, promising to increase military cooperation with the country and saying that it was a key part of the U.S. "rebalance" to Asia.
Hagel's visit came at the end of a ten-day trip around Asia, which also included stops in China and Japan. He promised to increase cooperation, like joint training. The promise of increased help seemed modest: "As Mongolia invests in defense modernization, the United States will continue to work with our Mongolian partners to improve joint training and exercises," Hagel said in a press conference with his Mongolian counterpart, "And this will include increasing opportunities for Mongolia to observe and participate in multilateral exercises. We will also work together to increase the ability of our forces to work even closer together." The two sides also signed a "joint vision" document formalizing the promise of increased cooperation.
And he framed his visit in geopolitical terms:" A strong U.S.-Mongolia defense relationship is important to America's rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region. I have noted that point in the last 10 days I've been in the region and the minister and I discussed it this afternoon," Hagel said.
"The [joint vision] document is mostly symbolic but is likely to irritate Beijing, which has accused Washington of trying to hold back its rise by cultivating military ties with smaller Asian neighbors," the AFP wrote, which seems accurate.
The guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook, reportedly en route to the Black Sea (photo: Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Adam Austin)
As the U.S. prepares to send another warship into the Black Sea, it is facing Russian accusations that the increased American military presence there is illegal.
The U.S. is planning on sending its fourth warship to the Black Sea since February. Pentagon officials confirmed that another warship would be heading soon to the Black Sea. "This is to reassure our allies of our commitment to the region. ... It is a direct result of the current situation in Ukraine," said U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman. (NBC News reported that the ship would be the guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook and that it would be heading to the Black Sea in the next few days.) The new deployment comes on the heels of another ship's visit in March and two more in February.
That appears to be too much for the Kremlin. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said April 3 that the U.S. has violated the Montreux Convention, the 1938 treaty that regulates the number and kinds of ships that can enter the Black Sea.
"There exists the Montreux Convention, which gives extremely clear criteria limiting the deployment of warships not belonging to the Black Sea governments in regard to tonnage and length of stay," Lavrov said.
"We have noticed that US warships have extended their deployment beyond the set terms a couple of times lately, and at times they did not always comply with the regulations that are set within the Montreux Convention."
U.S. sailors aboard the USS Truxtun as it visits Romania during joint exercises in the Black Sea (photo: U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd class Scott Barnes)
In response to the crisis in Crimea, the U.S. has undertaken a number of military moves around the region. While Washington's military deployments are still far from a direct involvement in the conflict in Ukraine, they do raise the stakes, as the U,S, tries to walk a narrow line, reassuring its allies in the region while avoiding provoking Russia into widening the conflict.
In recent days the U.S. has sent 12 F-16 fighter jets to Poland and Lithuania for joint exercises. NATO has started reconnaissance flights over Poland and Romania, NATO members that border Ukraine. “What we are doing is reassuring our allies that we are there for them,” said U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, explaining the F-16 deployment. “This is an important time for us to make it crystal clear to all our allies and partners in the region that the United States of America stands by them.”
Nevertheless, as aviation analyst David Cenciotti noted on his blog, the reconnaissance planes NATO has sent are intended for monitoring air activity, and that has been a relatively minor element of the conflict thus far. "The news would have been much more relevant if platform specialized in mapping ground targets (as the E-8C Joint Stars or the RAF Sentinel R1) were involved in the operation: so far Moscow has mainly employed ultra-low-level flying helicopters that could be difficult to detect even for an E-3 at that distance," he wrote.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili in Washington on February 26. (photo: U.S. State Department)
The U.S. State Department has endorsed granting Georgia its long-coveted status as an aspiring NATO member, the Membership Action Plan, on the heels of Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili'shigh-profile trip to Washington. It's not clear whether this represents a substantive policy shift, but it is the first time in recent memory that the U.S. has explicitly come out in favor of MAP.
In response to a recent letter by 40 members of Congress urging the State Department to "advocate granting MAP to Georgia, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State of Legislative Affairs Julia Frifield wrote:
We believe Georgia deserves credit at the upcoming NATO Summit for the progress it has made and its demonstrated commitment to NATO operations and standards. We stand ready to support Georgia's own efforts to build a consensus within the Alliance for granting it a Membership Action Plan.
Now, that isn't the strongest statement ever, and Secretary of State John Kerry's remarks with Gharibashvili repeated what has been the standard Washington line that "We stand by the Bucharest decision and all subsequent decisions that Georgia will become a member of NATO," adding that: "The United States will work to make sure that Georgia’s progress is acknowledged by all members of this year’s NATO Summit."
(It was the 2008 Bucharest summit, recall, where NATO declined to give Georgia MAP but instead said that Georgia and Ukraine "will become members of NATO." And we see how that worked out in Ukraine...)
The General Atomics "Avenger" UAV, which may soon be based in Central Asia. (photo: General Atomics)
The U.S. is making plans to set up drone bases in Central Asia in the case that the government of Afghanistan doesn't allow U.S. troops to remain in that country past this year, the Los Angeles Times has reported. The military wants to maintain the ability to carry out attacks against militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan even if it has no military presence in those countries, and the next best options are the Central Asian states. The officials interviewed didn't specify which countries were being considered: "There are contingency plans for alternatives in the north," said one official quoted by the paper.
So which would it be? The story's publication prompted much speculation among Central Asia watchers as to where the putative base might be located. Each of the three Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan would have serious downsides from the U.S.'s perspective. Tajikistan is highly susceptible to Russian pressure, and the Kremlin is surely not inclined to let the U.S. reestablish its military presence in Central Asia. Uzbekistan might be willing to host a base and is relatively immune to Russian pressure, but is a bit of a bete noire in Washington and setting up a drone base there would surely face resistance from human rights-inclined members of Congress. And Turkmenistan would have some of the same problems as Uzbekistan, but also has a proudly held neutrality that would seem to preclude hosting U.S. drones.
One wrinkle that could affect the decision is whether the bases are run by the military or the CIA. As the Times notes, the current drone program in Afghanistan and Pakistan is operated by the CIA, which can remain covert. President Barack Obama has said he wants to shift U.S. drone programs to the military, but in this case that would require the bases to be relatively public:
The U.S. Congress has again given the State Department the go-ahead to give military aid to Uzbekistan in spite of concerns about the country's poor record on human rights, a State Department official has told The Bug Pit.
Congress imposed restrictions on military aid to Uzbekistan in 2004 after the country's government failed to implement promised political reforms. Those restrictions remain in place today. But two years ago Congress, at the urging of the Obama administration, agreed to allow the Secretary of State to waive those restrictions if it were necessary for national security reasons. That waiver needed to be renewed every six months, and the ability to waive expired in October 2013. But Congress renewed the provision and last month the waiver was exercised again, a State Department spokesperson said.
"This waiver will allow the United States to provide assistance to the central government of Uzbekistan, including equipment to enhance Uzbekistan's ability to combat transnational and terrorist threats," the spokesperson said in an email to The Bug Pit. "Examples of this equipment include night vision goggles, personal protective equipment, and Global Positioning Systems. Enhancing Uzbekistan's defensive capacity improves the security of the U.S. supply transit system to Afghanistan and our ability to support our troops there." The new authority to waive will expire September 30, 2015.
The equipment in question includes not just the examples the spokesperson noted, but also tactical surveillance drones. Uzbekistan is also lobbying for some of the used mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles the U.S. is looking to offload as it pulls its troops out of Afghanistan.
The USS Mount Whitney passes through the Bosphorus en route to the Black Sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Collin Turner.)
Two U.S. warships have entered the Black Sea in preparation for the Winter Olympics, kicking off Friday night in Sochi, Russia. The USS Mount Whitney passed through the Bosphorus into the Black Sea on February 4, and was followed the day after by the USS Taylor. The official announcement of the deployment from U.S. European Command did not mention Sochi: "Both ships will perform routine operations in the Black Sea to establish and enhance cooperation, mutual training and interoperability with regional partner nations and allies."
But it's clear that the visits to the Black Sea are timed for Sochi. The website Black Sea News reported that on February 6 the Mount Whitney reached a point about 20 miles off the coast of Sochi and began patrolling. The Mount Whitney is primarily a command-and-control ship, and Daniel Goure, a Washington-based defense analyst, told Military.com that "the communications assets of the USS Mount Whitney and the helicopter landing ability of both ships could provide a lily-pad type of presence in the event of crisis. 'You could deploy something off of the back of these ships if you had to operate,' he added. 'You also have command and control if you had to communicate with the Russian Navy and Coast Guard.'"