Belarus has announced that it tested its new rocket-launcher system in China, the latest sign of an increasing military partnership between the two countries. And Belarus's president Aleksandr Lukashenko took the opportunity to take swipes at both Russia and NATO countries, suggesting Minsk may be more comfortable with Beijing than with any of its neighbors in Europe.
The Polonez multiple-launch rocket system is Belarus's highest-profile defense industry innovation, and took the spotlight at the country's May 9 Victory Day parade this year. Many analysts have suggested that it bears traces of Chinese origin and may use rockets (which Belarus doesn't produce) from China. So the fact that it was tested in China certainly gives credence to that speculation.
But the press release announcing the test, which featured comments from Lukashenko, was unusually feisty for the genre. "Our ally, Russia, is not so active in supporting our aspirations. We will talk about that separately with the Russian president," Lukashenko said, without citing which aspirations were not being supported. "But we thank the People's Republic of China and its leadership for this support."
Lukashenko also took aim at NATO, though he was a bit more understanding to his western neighbors: "They constantly publicly demonstrate their activities, especially on our borders," he said. "This activity can not but alarm us. But this isn't really an issue. We understand the propaganda aspect of these acts. You need to keep your powder dry. We have always said this."
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with the foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states in Moscow on June 3. (photo: Kremlin)
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization will "upgrade" Iran's status in the group if Tehran reaches an agreement with international powers on its nuclear program, Russia's foreign minister has said. Meanwhile, China is pushing for the organization to take a greater role in regional security.
The SCO foreign ministers met in Moscow this week in preparation for the July 9-10 summit in Ufa. It has been clear for some time that this would be an expansion summit, at least for India and Pakistan. Those countries are now observers, but have sought full membership for years. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that: "If relevant decisions are made in Ufa, they will pave the way for the SCO’s extension, and India and Pakistan will have an opportunity to launch the initial procedures for joining the SCO."
The SCO now includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. China has been the main driver of the organization, and in recent years it had taken on more of an economic role than the military or security role it seemed to aspire to when it formed in 1996. But the crisis in Ukraine has reenergized Russia's attempts to find non-Western allies, and since then Moscow given the SCO much more of its attention.
Three Chinese warships are have visited Istanbul while a Turkish vessel made a stop China, a "rare moment in naval diplomacy" while the two countries are navigating some rocky shoals in their military relationship.
The guided-missile frigates Linyi and Weifang and the supply ship Weishanhu arrived in Istanbul on May 24 for a five-day stay. (The Linyi and Weifang, recall, were the ships that recently took part in joint Russian-Chinese exercises in the Mediterranean and Russian Victory Day celebrations in Novorossiysk on the Black Sea.)
Meanwhile, a Turkish frigate, the TCG Gediz, visited the Chinese port of Qingdao from May 22-24. The TCG Gediz is on a long trip around the Far East, stopping in 14 countries, and although the stop in China has garnered the most attention, Turkish analysts saw the tour as part of a broader pivot to Asia. "As a Nato member, Turkey is sending everyone the message … that it can collaborate with everyone in the military field, not only with the allies of Western countries," Selcuk Colakoglu, vice-president of the Ankara-based think tank International Strategic Research Organisation, told the South China Morning Post.
Update, May 26: According to Kazakhstan's Agriculture Ministry, the number of confirmed saiga deaths now exceeds 85,000.
Over a thousand saiga antelopes have been found dead in northern Kazakhstan. Conservationists had been hoping that populations of this rare steppe-roaming ruminant were recovering.
The corpses have been found in Kostanay Region in northern Kazakhstan, the Ministry of Agriculture said in a May 13 statement that did not specify the precise figure.
The cause of death is unknown. Experts are running tests on the dead animals and on the surrounding soil and water, with the results expected in a week, the ministry said.
Last time there was a case of mass saiga deaths in this region, in 2012, the cause was established as pasteurellosis, a disease that attacks the lungs and which killed nearly 12,000 saigas – a species listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List – in an epidemic in 2010.
The latest deaths have occurred just as conservationists have been reporting something of a success story in the saiga population's recovery. The distinctive creature has a long, humped nose that allows it to filter air during the dusty summer months and breathe warm air during the freezing winters.
The Chinese navy is making a rare visit to the Black Sea, as two warships have passed through the Bosphorus en route to take part in May 9 Victory Day celebrations in Russia.
The two ships, the frigates Linyi and Weifang, crossed into the sea on May 4, reported the Bosphorus Naval News blog (which also has several photos of the ships). The ships' visit has still not been publicly announced, but an unnamed source in the Russian Ministry of Defense told news agency RIA Novosti that the ships were headed to the port of Novorossiysk to take part in ceremonies celebrating the 70th anniversary of victory in World War II.
The two Chinese ships are also slated to participate in the first-ever joint Russian-Chinese naval drills in the Mediterranean Sea later this month, in which the two navies will practice "navigation safety, at-sea replenishment, escort missions and live fire exercises." Another interesting storyline: Russia is reportedly interested in buying the types of frigates China has sent, and that China is reportedly using the visit in part as a sales pitch.
Special operations troops from SCO member state militaries at the opening ceremony of joint exercises in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
The China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization is holding joint exercises with special operations forces from Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan -- and they're doing it at a military base in Kyrgyzstan that the United States spent $9 million to build.
The SCO exercises taking place this week involve 20-25 special operations troops from each participating country (all the member states except Uzbekistan, which typically sits out SCO military exercises). During the five-day exercise the troops will practice deploying to mountain areas, deploying from helicopters, seeking and destroying terrorist groups, rescuing hostages, and treating and evacuating wounded troops. Pretty standard stuff for a joint special operations exercise.
What makes this drill stand out is the site: the base of the Scorpions special operations unit in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. Readers may recall that this is the base that U.S. Central Command and the U.S. embassy in Bishkek spent $9 million to build. It's no wonder it was attractive to the SCO, given that a Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cable from the opening ceremony of the base in 2009 described it as "the gold standard in Central Asian construction ... far exceeds any other facility the Kyrgyz currently have." The facility includes
"officer and enlisted housing, classroom training facilities, a multipurpose facility, a dining facility and shower/sauna complex."
Reports that Russia is uncomfortable with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) stepping into banking are nothing new. In particular, Moscow’s quiet efforts to block the creation of an SCO development bank that would funnel largely Chinese credit into Russia’s backyard have featured at the organization’s meetings in recent years.
But a thought-provoking analysis by Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Center, published last week by Russia in Global Affairs, suggests the Kremlin is mistaken, placing fears about appearing to be a junior partner over a sound geopolitical strategy that could give it a measure of control over China’s Central Asia policy.
The SCO – which groups China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – has tried hard to convince the world it is more than just a club for dictators. China’s push to include economic initiatives on the SCO agenda was a part of this process, Gabuev notes, and a development bank has been on the table at SCO powwows since 2009.
Just days after Turkey's defense minister said that its new, controversial air defense system would not be integrated with NATO's, the president's spokesman openly contradicted him.
"As one of the most important countries in NATO's security line, we will definitely ensure this integration and harmony," said Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Kalin did not address the other recent plot twist in this long-running saga -- that Ankara's decision on whether to continue as planned with a Chinese system, or instead switch to a Western one, would be based on how the bidding countries mark the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
But his statement does -- again -- make it appear likely that Ankara will eventually reverse course and decide to go with a Western, NATO-compatible system. NATO officials have repeatedly argued that they could not integrate a Chinese system into their own for security purposes, and failing to integrate NATO's system would be a big handicap for Turkey. By not integrating with NATO "Turkey will lose half of its radar capabilities,” one unnamed defense analyst told Hurriyet Daily News.
Turkey analyst Aaron Stein notes that Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz, whose remarks initially set all this off, may not know what he's talking about, and in any case the decision is not going to be made in the defense industry but in the presidential palace.
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."
A few weeks ago, Russia’s state-run Gazprom announced it would sharply and immediately cut the amount of gas it purchases from Turkmenistan. Now Turkmenistan’s authoritarian government has responded with a rare outburst. Unfortunately for Ashgabat, these days there’s not much it can do but screech.
Russia is an “unreliable partner,” a think-tank inside Turkmenistan’s own state energy company, Turkmengaz, said in a February 16 rant published on its website.
The article – “Will Gas Exports of Turkmen Gas to Russia Recover?” – criticizes Russia and Gazprom for all of the unhappiest moments in an up-and-down relationship that has seen deliveries of Turkmen gas to Russia drop from a peak of around 45 billion cubic meters per year (bcm) in 2008 to the 4 bcm the Russian giant says it will now import in 2015.
The piece expressed outrage at Gazprom’s failure to fulfill a 2008 agreement to build a Trans-Caspian pipeline and fingered Gazprom for an unexplained pipeline explosion in April 2009 that marked the beginning of the decline in its purchases.
Gazprom and its affiliates “periodically violate agreements at interstate, intergovernmental and interdepartmental levels,” the article notes.