A Russian tank en route to victory in the 2014 international tank biathlon. (photo: mil.ru)
Russia hosted -- and won -- the second international tank biathlon competition, an event Moscow appears to be trying to turn into a major forum for military cooperation with friendly customers/potential weapons customers.
While last year's inaugural event featured just three other competitors -- fellow Collective Security Treaty Organization members Armenia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan -- this year saw an additional eight countries taking part: Angola, China, India, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Serbia, and Venezuela.
Tank biathlon is about what you would imagine, a tank race combined with shooting; teams that miss targets have to do a penalty lap. Russia won (as it did last year), with Armenia coming second, China third, and Kazakhstan fourth -- at least according to the Russian tabulation of results. In the Kazakhstan Ministry of Defense's statement about the event, they said they got second, with China third and Armenia fourth. (The Russian sources compare the teams based on time, the Kazakhstan one on points; it's not clear what the relationship is between the two.)
Map of NDN routes, including those through Russia. (photo: U.S. Transportation Command)
Russia does not intend to block U.S. and NATO military transit routes to Afghanistan, President Vladimir Putin said, in spite of the recent spike in tensions with the West.
The U.S.'s Northern Distribution Network has been the quiet success of U.S.-Russia relations over the past several years; as of last year 100,000 containers of U.S. and NATO had been shipped to and from Afghanistan through Russia (and Central Asia and the Baltic states). The U.S. set up the route so as to not be dependent on its volatile relations with Pakistan, a decision that was vindicated in 2011 when Pakistan -- shut down its territory to U.S. and NATO military cargo. And even while NATO and Russia have suspended nearly all cooperation, the NDN keeps operating.
Ninety percent of Turkmenistan’s exports are hydrocarbons. And 70 percent of all Turkmenistan’s exports went to China last year. So news that Iran, one of the country’s top three gas buyers, will soon stop importing Turkmen gas cannot be welcome in Ashgabat. It is almost like Turkmenistan threw off the Russian yoke only to shoulder China’s.
On August 11, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh said Iran would no longer need Turkmen gas as of next year, news agency Trend.az quoted him as saying. Zanganeh explained that Iran is ramping up domestic production.
It is quite a turn of events for Turkmenistan. In early 2010 a new, second pipeline bringing Turkmen gas to Iran was launched. At that time leaders in the two countries spoke about gas imports to Iran reaching up to 20 billion cubic meters (bcm) annually. A new gas-compressor station started operation in western Turkmenistan in December 2013, built specifically to export more gas to Iran.
With the power of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or, as it now calls itself, the Islamic State) growing and the amount of territory it controls increasing, Ankara is now facing some uncomfortable questions about what role it played in facilitating the organization's rise.
In a Washington Post piece from last week, reporters Anthony Faiola and Souad Mekhennet provide a fascinating insight into this issue, visiting Reyhanli, a Turkish town on the Syrian border where until recently ISIS fighters had the run of the place. From their article:
Before their blitz into Iraq earned them the title of the Middle East’s most feared insurgency, the jihadists of the Islamic State treated this Turkish town near the Syrian border as their own personal shopping mall.
And eager to aid any and all enemies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Turkey rolled out the red carpet.
In dusty market stalls, among the baklava shops and kebab stands, locals talk of Islamist fighters openly stocking up on uniforms and the latest Samsung smartphones. Wounded jihadists from the Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front — an al-Qaeda offshoot also fighting the Syrian government — were treated at Turkish hospitals. Most important, the Turks winked as Reyhanli and other Turkish towns became way stations for moving foreign fighters and arms across the border.
At first blush, it seems Kazakhstan's strongman President Nursultan Nazarbayev likes to keep business in the family. A daughter heads his party in the rubber-stamp parliament; his sons-in-law held various official positions and became fabulously wealthy. So why is it not surprising that Kazakhstan is paying the wife of Nazarbayev’s most distinguished advisor, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, hundreds of thousands of pounds for her legal services?
Citing an anonymous source, The Telegraph broke the story today. The paper describes Cherie Blair as known for her “ardent” defense of civil liberties and human rights. Kazakhstan is known for muzzling free speech and locking up critics. The contract with Mrs Blair’s law firm Omnia Strategy doesn’t concern those sensitive issues, however. Instead, the paper reports, Mrs Blair will review Kazakhstan’s “bilateral investment treaties.”
The first stage of the review, which was expected to take as little as three months, is worth £120,000 [$200,000], sources have told The Sunday Telegraph.
A second phase of the project is worth a further £200,000 to £250,000 for another three to four months’ work, it is understood. Omnia Strategy, which Mrs Blair set up in 2011, also has an option to complete a third stage of the legal project for the Ministry of Justice at a fee to be decided, according to the source.
Mrs Blair is understood normally to charge clients £1,150 an hour but will bill the Kazakh taxpayer at a reduced rate of £975 an hour if the Ministry of Justice, based in the capital Astana, continues to employ Omnia on the legal review into its third stage.
While European and North American food producers might be worried about the sting of Russia's new ban on western produce, Turkish exporters could soon be celebrating.
As the Wall Street Journal reports, Moscow's ban -- enacted in response to western sanctions on Russia to punish it for its role in the current crisis in Ukraine -- is providing Turkey with an opportunity for expanding its agricultural exports:
Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision last week to block certain food imports from the European Union and the U.S. is a potential boon for Turkey just as Islamist insurgents in Iraq choke off trade to key markets for Turkish goods. Exporting food to Russia could also help make up for slowly recovering demand from the EU, Turkey's biggest market.
Shipping more fruit, vegetables and dairy products would also aid Turkey in plugging an annual trade deficit of about $20 billion with Russia.
"This is 100% positive, we need to seize this opportunity, Russia can devour everything we produce," said Ahmet Ozer, vice president of the general assembly at the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce. "We don't have energy like Russia, but we have agriculture, water and farmlands; we must work them and sell our produce."
Last year, Turkey sold $7 billion worth of goods to Russia, which Mr. Ozer said could jump by 25% as Moscow turns to Ankara, among others, for food it previously imported from Australia, Canada, Norway, the U.S. and the EU.
A worldwide club for companies, governments and civil-society groups which support publicizing information about revenues received from energy and mining operations, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, known as EITI, puts public transparency at the center of its creed.*
For Human Rights Watch, however, that’s the rub. Azerbaijan’s increasingly frequent liking for prosecuting or harassing critical human-rights activists, youth-activists, opposition members and independent journalists does not signal a deep respect for transparency or good governance, the group argues.
“Azerbaijan is blatantly violating EITI rules, and EITI cannot afford to be complicit in this hypocrisy,” charged senior business and human-rights researcher Lisa Misol in an August 14 statement.*
Azerbaijan, an EITI founding member, joined the movement in 2003, and was deemed compliant in 2009. Today, its State Oil Fund sits on the EITI board.
The movement has not yet responded publicly to HRW’s criticism.
In its own response, Azerbaijan might be sorely tempted just to press the Play button on a pre-recorded rebuttal. Rarely a week goes by that the government argues that it’s not violating the law in prosecuting activists and journalists, but upholding it.
When Russia banned many Western agricultural products last week in response to Western sanctions, it created a $9.5 billion hole for other countries to fill. Immediately, officials across Central Asia optimistically announced plans to help plug the gap.
But sudden shortages created by the ban have all but guaranteed to increase inflation in Russia, a major food importer. And Central Asians will suffer likewise because their expected jump in exports will leave fewer products available to local consumers, thus driving up prices at home.
All this highlights a paradoxical mix of opportunities and risks for Kazakhstan, a member of the Moscow-led Customs Union whose economy often feels ripple effects from Russia. Aside from the immediate pros and cons of the food ban, Kazakhstan is clearly spooked by Russia’s deepening confrontation with the West over its support for rebels in Ukraine, concerned about the fallout from a slowing Russian economy.
Kazakhstan’s response to the food ban paints a picture of a junior partner struggling to navigate the shoals between an increasingly isolationist Kremlin and its own ambitions of greater global integration.
When the Shanghai Cooperation Organization exercises kick off August 24, the organization that is often promoted as an "alternative to the West" will be benefitting from American and European contributions.
Kazakhstan will be transporting its troops on the C-295 it bought from Airbus. And Kyrgyzstan's contribution will be made up largely of soldiers from the 'Scorpions' and 'Ilbirs' special forces units that the U.S. has spent a lot of money and time training.
In 2009, for example, the U.S. ambassador to Bishkek opened a brand-new base for the Scorpions, built with $9 million of U.S. Central Command's money. "The compound, which consists of 12 buildings, landscaping and accompanying infrastructure, is truly the gold standard in Central Asian construction and far exceeds any other facility the Kyrgyz currently have," according to a U.S. diplomatic cable describing the event. The U.S. also has spent millions to both train and equip the Scorpions and Ilbirs.
This isn't exactly news: The Scorpions and Ilbirs units have participated in several SCO exercises in the past, including drills in 2007, 2010, and 2012.
Russia has settled on a location for its planned air base in Belarus scheduled to start operating next year, the head of the air force has said.
The base will be located in Baranovichi, in western Belarus, said Lieutenant General Viktor Bondarev. “We will set up a base in Baranovichi. We are only waiting for an intergovernmental agreement to be signed,” he said.
The base will host Russian Su-27 aircraft, four of which were deployed to Baranovichi in December. But it hadn't been clear where the base would ultimately be located. When Russian officials announced plans for the base last summer they said it would be at a base in Lida; by November they were saying that "several potential locations have been identified in Belarus, but that further consultations were needed with the neighboring former Soviet nation's authorities."
"We never planned this in Lida, everything will be in Baranovichi," Bondarev said Monday, despite the fact that it was Bondarev himself who had originally identified Lida as the site.