Russia's Defense Ministry has announced plans to hold large-scale military maneuvers near the border with Kazakhstan. The announcement comes as relations between Moscow and Astana sink to their lowest level since the collapse of the Soviet Union, amid heightened regional tensions over the war in Ukraine.
Military exercises involving 4,000 troops and 400 pieces of military hardware will take place in the southern region of Altay in mid-September, Major Dmitriy Andreyev of Russia’s Strategic Missile Troops said on September 3, as quoted by RIA Novosti.
Andreyev described the maneuvers – in which troops will practice repelling strikes by precision weapons and counteracting saboteurs – as part of the Strategic Missile Troops’ “training plan.” However, Kremlin-controlled RIA Novosti did not miss the chance to note that recent military maneuvers in other parts of Russia “have aroused the concern of Western countries in the context of the situation in Ukraine.”
The announcement came amid a chill in the usually warm Russo-Kazakh relationship. Kazakhstan is a close ally of Russia and a fellow member of the Customs Union free trade zone, which is set to become the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in January. The two presidents, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, generally enjoy an affable personal relationship, too.
However, Astana’s loyalty has been tested to the limits by Russian policy in Ukraine, and by Moscow’s heavy-handed attempts to dictate its own vision of the EEU on other members.
South Ossetia is poised to join a "unified defense space" along with Russia and Abkhazia, further extending Russia's military presence into what is still legally Georgian territory. This budding alliance will both "follow the example of and oppose NATO," South Ossetia's ambassador to Abkhazia told the Russian newspaper Izvestia.
Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin met the newly elected de facto president of Abkhazia, Raul Khajimba, and one of the things they discussed was the creation of a unified defense space, i.e. the Russian military taking joint control of security in Abkhazia along with the Abkhazian security forces. Fellow Georgian breakaway republic South Ossetia is going to be part of that process as well, the ambassador, Oleg Botsiev, told Izvestia.
"Currently our side is working out the possibility with the Abkhazian side of concluding an agreement with Russia on joining South Ossetia to the single defense contour," Botsiev said, adding that it wasn't yet clear whether the agreement would be trilateral or if South Ossetia's agreement with Russia would be separate.
And he said South Ossetia's agreement with Russia would differ from Abkhazia's (though his explanation of how wasn't entirely clear): "Its creation is still being discussed, though it's already clear that included in it will be first of all a military component, and then the conditions for economic and information security of our region will be drawn up."
Russia's Vladimir Putin has issued an ukaz on authorizing an agreement to accept Armenia into the Eurasian Union, a planned back-in-the-USSR bloc, but this may or may not make Armenia's membership actually happen.
Armenia's membership in the Russian- championed Eurasian Union, and its already active element, the Customs Union, has long smacked of a Nordic epic song, with multiple characters and events putting the spokes in Armenia's wheel. Customs-Union members Belarus and Kazakhstan are Armenia skeptics, and generally less keen about the Kremlin's everyone-with-a-Soviet-past-is-welcome policy.
Putin's September 1 order, though, includes unnamed, "minor" changes to the terms of Armenia's membership. It is unclear if this refers to concessions on the Armenian-championed breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Kazakhstan, with an eye to Turkic ally, Azerbaijan, which claims Karabakh as its own, strongly opposes Armenia's attempts to bring breakaway Karabakh into the Customs Union..
Recent statements by both Putin and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, though moderated by courtesies, suggest a muffled disagreement between Moscow and Astana. Some believe that Russia's stance on Armenia and its campaign in Ukraine have contributed to the reported chill.
Nazarbayev said that he would quit the Eurasian Union if the terms of membership are changed or if the membership poses threat to Kazakhstan's independent statehood. Putin issued a reminder that Kazakhstan "had never had statehood" before Nazarbayev.
A few days after President Nursultan Nazarbayev said Kazakhstan could withdraw from the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, Russia’s president appeared to threaten Kazakhstan, stressing publicly that Kazakhstan benefits by casting its lot with Russia and fanning suspicions that all is not well between the two leaders.
Speaking at an annual, town-hall style meeting with university students and young professors on August 29, Vladimir Putin fielded a question about Kazakhstan’s post-Nazarbayev future and the likelihood of a “Ukraine scenario”—presumably, a power vacuum and civil conflict.
Because it is widely assumed that the questions are either vetted or planted, the exchange has invited plenty of scrutiny. While Putin’s answer was full of seeming praise for Nazarbayev, it also cast doubt on Kazakhstan’s durability as an independent state—a sensitive issue in Kazakhstan after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.
Events in Ukraine, including Russia’s support for rebels in the east, have already set many Kazakhstanis on edge – sparking fears that by joining the EEU Kazakhstan is tying the knot with an international pariah. They understand the obvious parallels: If Russia can seize Crimea under the pretext of protecting Russians, can it not seize northern Kazakhstan, home to large ethnic Russian communities? And if Russia can support insurgents against Kiev (a charge Moscow denies), can it not do the same against Astana? The propositions will sound even more ominous once Nazarbayev, a strongman who has established few mechanisms for a smooth transition of power, is out of the picture.
The Secretary General of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization was asked whether the group, which just finished peacekeeping exercises in Kyrgyzstan, might be able to intervene in Ukraine. That he didn't say "no" made news.
“The peacekeeping forces of the CSTO were formed several years ago and has undergone military preparation," said the CSTO chief, Nikolay Bordyuzha, in an interview with RIA Novosti on Friday. "The military personnel in its ranks are well-prepared in individual relations and equipped with all the needed military and technical means. They are ready to participate in peacekeeping operations of any caliber, as was confirmed by the results of recent joint drills in the Republic of Kyrgyszstan."
And he added that it would have to be a decision made jointly by the other CSTO members, which include Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. “Deployment of the CSTO peacekeeping forces is within the jurisdiction of the Council for Collective Security of the Treaty, the supreme body of the CSTO consisting of the members’ heads of state. With their joint decision and in accordance with existing agreements, the peacekeeping forces can be deployed within and without the territory of member states."
Abkhazia's de facto president Raul Khadjimba meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin outside Moscow August 27. (photo: The Kremlin)
The newly elected de facto president of Abkhazia Raul Khadjimba has made his first trip abroad, to Russia, where he discussed with President Vladimir Putin the deepening of ties between the two countries' militaries and security services. The two sides are discussing a "unified defense space" and uniting the Abkhazian armed forces with the Russian troops in the territory under a single command. This will be worked out in a new agreement to be completed by the end of the year.
Russia already has about 3,500 troops in Abkhazia, which broke off from Georgia after a war in the early 1990s. In the wake of the 2008 war with Georgia, Russia officially recognized Abkhazia as an independent country and has already made several moves to make its military presence more permanent.
"I know that you are a proponent of expanding the relations between Abkhazia and Russia and deepening integration processes: this concerns defence, security, law enforcement activities and fighting crime, as well as the economy and the social sector," Putin said at his August 27 meeting with Khadjimba. "With regard to matters relating to defence, the state border and socioeconomic issues, we have our own proposals, and they are within the Russian side’s line of vision, so to speak. As we move forward on these issues, we are ready to continue our dialogue and talk about these topics. I think that they will develop positively," Khadjimba replied.
Not long ago, Russia was one of the primary markets for Kyrgyzstan’s agricultural goods. Then came the Eurasian Customs Union of Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan, which removed customs checkpoints between the three in 2011. Kyrgyz produce was suddenly on the other side of a wall and exports to Russia plummeted from 195,000 tons in 2008 to 7,500 tons last year, according Kyrgyzstan’s Agriculture Ministry.
Now Russia, having banned produce from the West in response to sanctions over its support for rebels in Ukraine, needs Kyrgyzstan again. Kyrgyz officials are eager to help fill Russian stomachs, but unsure just how much they can abruptly increase exports.
On August 19 local news agency KyrTAG.kg quoted Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov telling a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Commission, the Customs Union’s regulatory body, “We are lifting all restrictions on the supply of Kyrgyz fruits and vegetables. In case of unjustified barriers, contact me – we will assist.” Kyrgyz authorities also hope that Russia will terminate restrictions on meat imports.
While some locals fear Russia will export its inflation and shortages to Kyrgyzstan, officials are losing no time pointing out the benefits of closer cooperation with Russia to a reluctant population.
The Agriculture Ministry hopes to restore exports to Russia to the their pre-Customs Union peak (an increase of 2,500 percent), Zhumabek Asylbekov, head of the ministry’s Food Supply and Marketing Department, told local news agency Vechernii Bishkek on August 20.
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."
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.