CSTO Rapid Reaction Forces drill in Kazakhstan. (photo: CSTO)
Russia and its allies are practicing military drills involving a "separatist" force supported by sympathetic co-ethnics across the border, trying to provoke the central government into a disproportionate use of force, justifying an invasion by the bordering country.
That scenario may sound a lot like what's going on in Ukraine. But in the ongoing exercises, Russia is on the otherside: fighting against the separatists, carrying out what might be called an "Anti-Terror Operation" to regain control of the border territory.
The exercises, of the Collective Security Treaty Organization's rapid reaction forces, took place this week in Kazakhstan, and involved about 3,000 soldiers from CSTO members Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. And the public description of the scenario for the exercises is much more detailed than it has been in past years, providing an intriguing look into what Russia (the dominant power in the group) sees as the threats it could be facing in its region.
The parallels to Ukraine are far from exact -- in the CSTO exercises, the conflict is in Central Asia and there is fighting on both sides of the border. And here, the separatists are supported by the West and are known as the "brown" forces, presumably an allusion to the fascists that Russia believes it's fighting in Ukraine. The scenario, published on the CSTO website, is worth quoting at length:
A joint operation [is undertaken] to localize an armed conflict on the territory of a CSTO member state, 'Karania,' which according to the scenario of the exercise, has appealed to the CSTO with a request for military assistance."
As the breakaway territory of Abkhazia lurches toward a de-facto presidential vote this Sunday, one key question hangs over the outcome — will this Black-Sea region take the plunge and move for still closer ties with Russia?
Whether via annexation or other means, merger with Russia is proving the separatist theme of the year in post-Soviet parts. South Ossetia, Abkhazia’s separatist sibling, also claimed by Georgia, already has expressed a longing for such a deal.
The Abkhaz say they don’t want to go that far, but candidate Raul Khajimba, the presumed frontrunner, has pledged that, if elected, he’d be willing to get rid of the de-facto border between Abkhazia and its protector, Russia.
“Open borders will allow us to resolve many questions in calmer conditions,” he told Russia’s Gazeta.ru on August 20. There’s “[n]othing dangerous” about this for either side, he continued.
But just don’t call such plans an “association” agreement, Khadjimba emphasized to Russia's state-run RIA Novosti. After all, that’s what Abkhaz-public-enemy-number-one, Tbilisi, has going with the European Union.
Instead, “[w]e’re talking about integration processes with Russia,” he said.
Such “processes” would include “the realization of security for our tiny Abkhazia, the creation of conditions for strengthening border cooperation, questions about social-economic cooperation . . . “ Khajimba continued.
If that sounds like a merger, think again, the onetime KGB hand advised. "Abkhazia cannot become any part of Russia," he told Gazeta.ru.
These days, it may sometimes seem that few among Georgia’s former ruling United National Movement have escaped the scrutiny of the country’s eager-beaver prosecutors. But there’s always someone new.
This time, it’s 42-year-old Davit Bakradze, a former foreign minister and parliamentary speaker under ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, and now the head of the United National Movement’s opposition faction in parliament.
On August 20, an unknown individual purporting to be Bakradze distributed to news outlets via Facebook alleged correspondence between the British retail bank chain HSBC and the ex-parliamentary speaker and his wife about a former account, apparently held in their names, that had contained 287,000 pounds (just over $476,000 at 2014 rates).
While such tip-offs might not seem, at first glance, watertight sources of information, the prosecutor’s office rolled up their sleeves and started — yep, you guessed it — a criminal investigation.
Bakradze had not named such a bank account in any of his declarations about his financial assets since the account’s opening in 2009, prosecutors claimed. Nor did its balance correspond with the official income of the ex-parliamentary speaker “and his family members,” they added in a statement.
“[T]he information reported via mass media contains elements of an offence under the Criminal Code,” they concluded.
The defense ministers of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey visit an Azerbaijani military unit in Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan. (photo: mod.gov.az)
The nascent alliance between Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey took a big step forward this week when the defense ministers of the three countries met trilaterally for the first time and promised to carry out joint military exercises.
The three ministers, meeting in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan on August 19, agreed to work on "tripartite exercises to enhance the combat capability of the armed forces of the three countries and the achievement of mutual understanding during joint military operations, including the organization of joint seminars and conferences, cooperation in military education, development of military technology, the exercises for the protection of oil and gas pipelines," said Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov after the meeting.
While the specific results of the meeting may have had to do with protecting joint infrastructure like the pipelines and railroad projects that the three countries work on together, the geopolitical import of the meeting was undeniable. With Russia's new assertiveness and the recent spike in tensions in Nagorno Karabakh, Georgia and Azerbaijan are keen to get support wherever they can. "Georgia is very fortunate to have such great neighbors and strategic allies like Azerbaijan and Turkey," said Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania. "And these challenging times from the security standpoint in the wider region we need to cooperate more closely and we need to be very tightly in touch with each other to defend the critical infrastructure that is very integral to our development."
The breakaway territory of Nagorno Karabakh, always on the lookout for ways to boost its population, has offered to shelter Yazidis fleeing from Islamic-State terrorists in Iraq.
“The Armenian people cannot be indifferent to what is now being done to the Yazidi people,” David Babaian, spokesperson for Karabakh’s de-facto president, Bako Sahakian, commented to RFE/RL’s Armenian service on August 19. “The Yazidis are the only people who have become an integral part of the Armenian people.”
According to local news outlets, Armenia is estimated to have a Yazidi population of about 40,000. Data is not available for how many Yazidis live in Karabakh, a predominantly ethnic Armenian region claimed by Azerbaijan.
Babaian skirted discussions of how the region’s de-facto officials would provide for any Yazidi arrivals, however — a sensitive question, given Azerbaijan’s claims that Karabakh and its main champion, Armenia, want to rework the territory’s ethnic makeup.
Armenia’s foreign ministry told RFE/RL that no Yazidis from Iraq have requested asylum or fled to Armenia as yet.
Rallies, though, were held on August 13 in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, to show support for Iraq’s Yazidis, and in neighboring Georgia, which has been estimated to have a Yazidi community of about 20,000.
Kyrgyzstan’s local government councils are infested with gangsters, according to the Interior Ministry.
Speaking at a meeting of parliament’s Ata-Meken faction on August 20, Interior Minister Abdulla Suranchiev named over 20 figures in local governments across Kyrgyzstan that he alleges have ties to organized crime.
Not all of the councilors Suranchiev named have criminal records. Details on the accused, later relayed by 24.kg, were limited to names, dates of birth and presumed association with alleged criminal leaders such as Kamchybek Kolbayev, Maksat Abakirov and Almas Bokushev.
Cynics believe Ata-Meken party leader Omurbek Tekebayev engineered the expose as a PR stunt ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections. Ata-Meken has suffered serious brand damage since scraping into the legislature in 2010. Political rivals have accused three of its members, including Tekebayev, of looting during the 2010 revolution. Another scandal struck the party in 2012 when it emerged that one of its candidates for a municipal seat in Jalal-Abad Province was a seasoned criminal with the record to prove it.
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.