Georgia's prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has said that he intends to get a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) next year. Getting MAP -- which would be a substantial step towards eventually gaining membership in the alliance -- has been the Holy Grail for Ivanishvili's foe, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. But Saakashvili and his allies have spared no effort to tar Ivanishvili as a crypto-Russian agent who will lead Georgia away from its Western geopolitical orientation. And while Ivanishvili has repeatedly declared his intention to continue to work towards NATO integration, this is the first time that Ivanishvili has laid out such a specific goal vis-a-vis the alliance. He made his comments at an event celebrating Georgian Armed Forces Day on Tuesday, reports Civil.ge:
“Next year we should undertake a very vigorous step and get at least MAP,” PM Ivanishvili told the audience...
“We probably won’t be able to get more than that, but we have strictly set MAP as a target and next year when there is a gathering of NATO [leaders] we should undertake a powerful step in this direction,” Ivanishvili said drawing applause from the audience.
Saakashvili's United National Movement party, of course, couldn't disagree with that:
“Receiving MAP would really be a step forward and we fully share and support what the Prime Minister has stated,” UNM MP Giorgi Gabashvili said on May 1. “The country should do everything possible both in internal and foreign policy… in order to get membership action plan in 2014.”
Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is bucking a trend by pooh-poohing scaremongering about the security threat that the Central Asian region will face after NATO troops finish withdrawing from Afghanistan next year.
Observers have voiced apprehension that the region will confront rising challenges from threats such as terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking that could destabilize the entire Central Asia region. But Nazarbayev does not subscribe to that view.
“I will say it directly: I do not accept the catastrophic theories that we read and hear from various sides,” he said on April 25, adding that he did not believe that there was some sort of “countdown timer” running, ticking off the days before coalition forces withdraw and disaster strikes.
Nazarbayev was speaking at the Eurasian Media Forum in Astana, a jamboree of assorted international media professionals and pundits organized by his daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva to discuss global and regional problems.
His remarks fly in the face of accepted wisdom about the mounting security threat that Central Asian states will struggle to cope with after 2014.
Nazarbayev’s own security chief, Nurtay Abykayev, is less insouciant than his boss, warning last month of “growing threats of instability.” “We are concerned by the ongoing activeness of terrorist and extremist organizations in the region, particularly in the run-up to the departure of NATO forces from Afghanistan.”
The logistics center that Russia set up in Ulyanovsk for NATO to use for transporting military equipment out of Afghanistan is not being used because it's too expensive, a senior NATO official has said. Alexander Vershbow, the alliance's deputy secretary general, gave a long interview to Russian newspaper Kommersant and discussed a variety of issues involving Russia-NATO relations. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the conversation was about missile defense, but there was also some interesting discussion on Ulyanovsk:
Kommersant: What is happening with the transit center at Ulyanovsk? As far as I know, there has been only one test flight with NATO cargo from Afghanistan. When will the transit center start working in full?
Vershbow: Everything is agreed on there and ready for use not just by NATO countries but by all other partners in ISAF who want to transport cargo to or from Afghanistan. The issue is the commercial aspect. NATO countries are studying the most advantageous transportation networks from the financial point of view. So, for example, transit routes through Pakistan, closed not long ago, now are fully open and that is the most inexpensive route.
Kommersant: The Russian proposal is less advantageous?
Vershbow: It's costlier. NATO governments are looking for the best proposal for the least amount of money. We're talking about a very large quantity of cargo -- tens of thousands of containers. Correspondingly, the prices have to be competitive, this is business.
Kommersant: Not long ago Russia announced it was ready to use one of its ports for these transport networks.
Vershbow: Yes, on the Baltic Sea. That was one of the variants discussed, but everything will depend on how commercially advantageous it is in comparison with the other available routes. If Russia makes a better proposal, that could gain them a greater share of this business (laughs).
Russia's Black Sea Fleet taking part in military exercises this week.
Russia's surprise, large-scale military exercises on the Black Sea are raising alarm among some of its neighbors. Russian President Vladimir Putin sprung the exercises on his military at 4 am Thursday and showed up in person, along with Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, to observe the exercises on Friday. The exercises involve around 30 warships, 7,000 servicemembers and various armored vehicles and artillery.
But the Black Sea is a complex geopolitical environment: Russia's Black Sea Fleet is based in Sevastopol, in on-again-off-again ally Ukraine. NATO members Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania also have naval forces on the sea, as of course does Russia's foe Georgia. So the international response to the exercise wasn't entirely positive. As RT put it, "The Russian naval drills came as a surprise not only to the Russian armed forces, but also for neighboring countries’ militaries as well, which were forced to rub sleep from their eyes and rush to their duties as up to 30 Russian battleships left port."
Russian officials pointed out that there is nothing to prevent them from conducting these sorts of surprise drills. “According to international practice, exercises involving up to 7,000 people do not require us to inform our partners in advance,” said Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
With its territory torn apart by separatism and with Russian troops hanging around within a stone/missile-throw away from its capital, you might think Georgia already has too much on its plate as far as security threats go. But Tbilisi, as always, likes to think several moves ahead.
During her visit to Georgia last November, the EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton invited Georgia to chip in some manpower for the bloc’s security projects, the Georgian Ministry of Defense has announced.
“We have received a proposal from [the] EU to consider Georgia’s cooperation with European security and defense institutions and contribution to its missions,” a March 18 ministry statement reads. Georgia said yes and is now working out the kinks, according to the ministry.
The details about the scope and nature of Georgia’s participation in the EU’s 500-men-strong Mali mission are not yet known. The mission will be training Mali's armed forces to deal with Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic militants who took over part of the West African country earlier this year before being repulsed mostly by French and Chadian forces, with help from Canada and the US.
The likely reasons for Georgia's decision to get involved are straightforward: Tbilisi owes a security favor to the EU for negotiating and monitoring the peace between Georgia and Russia, but, more importantly, the Mali job will help Georgia earn some points for its ultimate goal of joining the EU.
Turkey's decision in 2011 to host a radar for NATO's missile defense system has been widely interpreted as a reaffirmation of Turkey's commitment to NATO, and more generally to a western geopolitical orientation, at a time when a number of analysts and policymakers have worried that Turkey is "drifting eastward." As analyst Ömer Taşpınar put it last year, "That decision, in my opinion, was almost a make-or-break move for the Obama administration in terms of testing Turkey's commitment to NATO, testing Turkey's commitment to the trans-Atlantic partnership." More recently, on the occasion of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to Ankara, as EurasiaNet's Yigal Schleiffer pointed out, Turkish commentators again noted the significance of the decision to host the radar:
In Washington, Turkey’s realignment with the U.S. particularly after the employment of the missile radar system and Ankara’s decision to side with the Syrian opposition despite Iranian and Russian objections appeared as good news.
But that may not be a correct interpretation of Ankara's decisionmaking, notes Aaron Stein, an Istanbul-based researcher at the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies who studies Turkish defense issues. Turkey's reluctance to host the radars originally -- and then its decision, ultimately, to accept them -- both had more to do with Turkey's calculations of its own security rather than about geopolitics, he said in a brief email interview with The Bug Pit.
The slow start for NATO's logistics hub in Russia may be due to cost and fears of Russian meddling, according to a senior NATO-member diplomat, speaking to The Moscow Times. While France just signed an agreement with Kazakhstan to use a facility at Shymkent to facilitate withdrawal, "no alliance member has announced that it will use [Ulyanovsk] for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan," The Times writes. "The only cargo that has been sent through Ulyanovsk so far is a number of containers for the British contingent that were sent from Camp Bastion in Afghanistan to Britain in December. That shipment has been described as a 'trial' by both NATO and Russian officials."
A NATO-country diplomat speaking to the Times reporter offered some intriguing explanations for that state of affairs.
A senior diplomat from a NATO country told the panel that the route was considered too expensive. Experts from his defense ministry have calculated that shipping a container from Afghanistan through Ulyanovsk costs 50,000 euros, while sending it via the Termez airbase in Uzbekistan costs only 30,000 euros, the diplomat told The Moscow Times, asking not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
But Yury Gorlach, a deputy director in the Foreign Ministry's European department, argued that Ulyanovsk was worth the extra cost because it was safer. "When you send valuable cargo from Afghanistan, Ulyanovsk is an option," he said.
The senior NATO member diplomat suggested that alliance countries are reluctant not just because of financial reasons. "They do not like the idea that Russian intelligence can take a close look at what they send back from Afghanistan," he said.
Uzbekistan has asked NATO for assistance in defense education, the alliance has said in the Secretary General's annual report:
Education is a key agent of transformation and NATO is using it to support institutional reform in partner countries. The Alliance’s education and training programmes, which initially focused on increasing interoperability between NATO and partner forces, have been expanded. They now also provide a means for Allies and partners to collaborate on how to build, develop and reform educational institutions in the security, defence and military domain. Defence education enhancement programmes have been set up with Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan and the Republic of Moldova. In 2012, Iraq and Mauritania also began cooperating in this field with NATO, while Ukraine and Uzbekistan have requested assistance.
In terms of building up Uzbekistan's military capacity, this isn't going to do much: these sorts of institutional reform projects, while probably more productive in the long run, tend to be viewed skeptically by post-Soviet countries, who would much rather have "hard" tactical training or equipment aid.
So the significance of this is geopolitical. While that diverse group of countries (including Collective Security Treaty Organization members Armenia and Kazakhstan) should temper any sweeping judgments about what the geopolitical significance of this is, it's still an intriguing step by Tashkent. And as Uzbekistan has just left the CSTO, much to the consternation of Russia, this will undoubtedly be viewed in the Kremlin as evidence of Uzbekistan's drift westward.
NATO says its logistics hub in Russia will become operational soon, reports the Moscow Times:
General Knud Bartels, who chairs the alliance's military committee, told reporters Friday that containers are being shipped from Afghanistan to Britain via that route.
"A live trial along the northern distribution route is running since Dec. 3," the Danish general said after meetings with Russia's top military brass in Moscow.
Russia signed an agreement with NATO in June to allow the alliance to use Ulyanovsk, on the Volga River, as a multimodal transit hub for getting military cargo in and out of Afghanistan. But in all those intervening months, NATO has still not used the route. There has been some reporting in the Russian press that there are commercial disputes holding up the transit. Again, the Moscow Times:
National media have speculated that money is an issue and that Volga-Dnepr, the freight company that would handle the flights from the Volga Federal District hub, is demanding more payment than NATO countries are willing to spend.
But a senior representative of the alliance said Tuesday that although to his knowledge no shipping contract had been signed, both sides were testing how the hub could work in practice.
"A dry run has been completed, and a real test to ship containers from Latvia to Afghanistan and back via Ulyanovsk is expected for the next days," said Robert Pszczel, head of NATO's Information Office in Moscow.
Pszczel would not comment on why it was taking so long for the agreement to lead to actual results. He merely said "mundane commercial considerations" play a role.
U.S.-Turkey relations are at their strongest in recent years, and the most significant reason for that is Turkey's decision last year to host a new NATO radar connected to the alliance's air defense system against the missile threat from Iran. That is according to two experts who spoke this week at the Brookings Institution.
One of the experts, Brookings's Ömer Taşpınar, said that after Turkey's fallout with the U.S.'s close ally Israel, which highlighted worry that Turkey could be "moving East," relations between Ankara and Washington have rebounded to the point where some call it a "Golden Age" of bilateral relations. Part of the reason for that is the Arab Spring, which has elevated Turkey's relevance in Washington.
"But more tangible, more concrete, what put Turkey under a positive light, in 2011, was Turkey's very strategic decision to say 'yes' to most radars necessary for the anti-missile defense system under the framework of NATO. That decision, in my opinion, was almost a make-or-break move for the Obama administration in terms of testing Turkey's commitment to NATO, testing Turkey's commitment to the trans-Atlantic partnership."
Another of the experts, Soli Özel, said that the radar has ensured that the U.S. will not be excessively concerned about Turkey's political system -- that confidence in Ankara's "strategic Westerness" will override any concerns about its "political Westernness," despite concerns that Turkey may be backsliding away from democracy: