As Russia, China and Central Asian countries plan for post-2014 Afghanistan, they are floating plans to create "mini buffer states" in northern Afghanistan in order to stanch the potential flow of Islamism and violence into the post-Soviet space.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the China-led security organization that also includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, held a meeting of member state defense ministers this week in Khujand, Tajikistan. The participants made the usual vague public statements about how the SCO was playing a key role in regional stability. “We do not share the West’s optimism about the chances of stabilising the situation in Afghanistan following continued actions by international terrorist and Islamic extremist organisations,” said Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. “The SCO is turning into one of most important structures, to our mind, not only in Central Asia, but also in the East,” he added. The defense ministers also discussed the upcoming iteration of the annual Peace Mission joint military exercises, to be held this year in August in China's Inner Mongolia.
Russia has hastened to assure its Central Asian allies that they will not be involved in any military moves in Ukraine, a sign that Moscow is aware of the growing worry about its new assertiveness.
The issue is the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led post-Soviet security bloc that includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The group thus far has seen a lot more talk than action, and plenty of questions remain about what it will actually do. On Monday, Kyrgyzstani MP Tursunbai Bakir Uulu expressed concern that the CSTO might embroil Kyrgyzstan in the conflict in Ukraine:
"The agreement was ratified, but before the events in Ukraine. I don't want to be a hostage to these agreements. You know, that the [Russian] Federation Council took a decision that, if the need arose, they could intervene militarily in Ukraine. If tomorrow war breaks out between Russia and Ukraine, we would be obliged to fight on Russia's side. We need to withdraw from these agreements so we don't get drawn into a war in Ukraine."
Russia's new political-military bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, has been widely criticized for its inaction in the face of real threats to security in the region that it covers, most recently when fighting broke out between CSTO member states Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. But it's rare that the organization has had to explain itself: it operates, for the most part, in countries where the press doesn't often challenge authority figures. But when Yevgeniy Denisenko of Kyrgyzstan newspaper Vecherniy Bishkek interviewed the CSTO's secretary general, Nikolay Bordyuzha, he actually asked the question that outside observers of the organization have been asking:
Denisenko: However, threats to stability in the CSTO do not come only from outside, but from inside, too. It is sufficient to recall the events in the Kazakh town of Zhanaozen [the riots of December 2011], the conflict on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border [in 2010] and the current incident involving the use of weapons on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. Does it not seem to you that concentrating on foreign dangers, the CSTO is underestimating the internal risks?
Bordyuzha: There are questions that should be solved bilaterally. The Kyrgyz-Tajik incident is one of them. That was a border incident and no-one except these two states themselves and those responsible for the demarcation and delimitation of the border, can solve this question. It is another matter that the CSTO can act as a mediator, which is what we are doing. This role involves providing the platform for a deeper discussion of the problems that have emerged.
Denisenko: However, in this case we are talking about colleague countries, CSTO members.
Russia has agreed to give Kazakhstan S-300 air defense systems, as well as to share a Russian missile-testing range in the country with Kazakhstani troops, the two countries' defense ministers announced.
The S-300 gift had been announced some time ago, but nothing had been said about it for years, leading to speculation that Russia had rescinded the offer. But on a visit to Astana on January 31, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said that Moscow would deliver five "divisions" of S-300PS (consisting of 12 units per division) this year.
A paramilitary band led by a veteran of the Tajikistan civil war has reportedly been deployed to the border with Kyrgyzstan, prompting Bishkek to send an official note of protest to Dushanbe. Arkady Dubnov, the top Russian journalist covering Central Asia, reported this week that Shoh Iskandarov, a former opposition commander who later joined the government, is leading a paramilitary group of about 150 men in the Isfara region. That's near the Kyrgyzstan border, which was recently the site of fighting that included heavy weaponry. Although the situation has calmed somewhat since the fighting on January 11, and both sides have agreed to pull back their forces, the alleged arrival of Iskandarov adds a potentially dramatic new element into the tense situation.
Tajikistan has yet to officially comment on whether or not Iskandarov is in fact getting involved in the border conflict, but Kyrgyzstani website 24.kg reported that the Kyrgyzstan Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent an official note of protest to Dushanbe over his arrival, complaining about the "unacceptable massing of armed forces in the border region."
The Collective Security Treaty Organization, Russia's post-Soviet security bloc, has laid out its priorities for the upcoming year, and it appears that the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan conflict -- the year's most pressing security issue -- remains low on the agenda.
On January 21, CSTO General Secretary Nikolay Bordyuzha gave a press conference in Moscow with the intention of summarizing the organization's goals for 2014. And tellingly, the CSTO's official account of the event contains no mention of the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan conflict. He did, however, speak about it. A report in the Russian official military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda said that Bordyuzha "spoke out against the use of force by CSTO units for the settlement of the conflict between member states of the organization. Speaking of the recent Tajik-Kyrgyz border incident, he expressed the opinion that this is an issue between the two countries and no one, except for them, can resolve it."
And according to ITAR-TASS, Boryuzha said that the organization's involvement has been limited to phone consultations: "We are in constant contact with the heads of government, discussed measures for the containment of this conflict. Today there remain several unresolved questions such as the closure of checkpoints from the Kyrgyz side and the presence on the border of military forces of both republics," he said.
As tensions continue to simmer between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan after a border clash over the weekend, it's looking like the two countries are being left to resolve their differences by themselves. A particularly noteworthy absence: Russia's nascent political-military bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which has declared for itself the lead role in providing security in Central Asia but which has so far taken a low-profile approach so far to the conflict between two of its member states.
The CSTO has yet to make any public statement on the event, during which several troops on each side of the border and which (according to Kyrgyzstan) involved some heavy weaponry. All that we know is that the "leadership structures of the CSTO" have been in contact with the security services in each country. This, while the CSTO has been taking on such ambitious missions for itself as creating a joint air force, joint rapid-reaction forces, capabilities to defeat cyberterrorism and even "color revolutions."
In discussions of Eurasian security, "2014" has become a byword for a turning point in the region. WIth the planned pullout of U.S. and NATO combat troops from Afghanistan, Central Asia (and to a lesser extent the Caucasus) is entering an uncertain future. Predicting the future is obviously a futile endeavor, but for the sake of discussion, here's what The Bug Pit expects to be covering over the next 12 months:
1. Nagorno Karabakh. This is a no-brainer. There were some positive signs toward the end of 2013, with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan meeting for the first time in two years. Nevertheless, the cross-border skirmishes continued, and the large forces that have made things between the two countries so tense -- like Azerbaijan's rapid military buildup and each country's dehumanization of the people on the other side of the border -- have not abated. So the renewal of conflict seems only a matter of time.
2. The Pamirs. After Tajikistan's central government suffered a humiliating defeat in its attempt to bring the region under its control in the July 2012 military operation in Khorog, it has been the conventional wisdom that the government will eventually try again. Now the presidential elections have passed, and tensions have risen again.
Obviously spooked by developments in Ukraine, Russia's new political-military bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, held a roundtable discussion discussing how the organization can better fight against the "color revolutions" that, in the mind of many in Moscow, are orchestrated by Western governments.
Russian newspaper Kommersant reported on the meeting, which took place last week:
Participants came to the conclusion that "Western enemies of Russia" are manipulating international election monitoring organizations, actively influencing the minds of internet users, creating a distorted picture of the mood of society through non-governmental organizations and the media. They advised the CSTO to engage in the production of "instruments of counterpropaganda" and that Russia should not be afraid to act on the internal political life of neighboring countries.
The CSTO's secretary general, Nikolay Bordyuzha, was at the event, and spoke in somewhat purple prose about the danger that Russia's allies now face:
One is struck by the perfidy of the organizers and leaders of these revolutionary transformations, who pursue purely mercenary goals and do not shy away from using any means to attain them, including those out of the bounds of legal and ethical norms... One is shocked by the cynicism of the scene, when a high-ranking official of a respected government, devoted to democratic values, publicly flirts with a radical nationalist and inveterate anti-Semite.
CSTO forces take part in the Unbreakable Brotherhood 2013 exercises in Chelyabinsk, Russia. (photos: MoD Russia, Kazakhstan)
The Collective Security Treaty Organization is holding its second-ever peacekeeping exercises, in Russia's Chelyabinsk region. About 2,500croops from all CSTO members -- Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- are taking part in the exercise, named "Unbreakable Brotherhood 2013," up from 950 in the previous year's drills
The scenario of the drill involved a conflict in the fictional CSTO member state of Uralia, and the peacekeepers were tasked with protecting a convoy of humanitarian aid from "extremists" trying to attack it. The peacekeeping forces provided air cover for the convoy using Mi-24 helicopters, set up checkpoints in the conflict zone and successfully apprehended some extremists who were trying to smuggle weapons.
The larger context of the drill, though, included fights over resources in the region and interethnic tension, giving some sense of the circumstances in which the CSTO imagines that these peacekeeping forces might someday be used:
The situation was based on a possible scenario of events that may occur in CSTO collective security regions in view of the rising tensions between leading global powers and military political unions, an escalation of interethnic contradictions and the fight for energy resources.
The parties in conflict tried to reach their political and strategic goals using political means and military force. The conflict had been started due to historical territorial, interethnic and religious contradictions as well as economic ones.
The tensions had been fueled primarily due to social and economic reasons, the rising interference of international terrorist and extremist organizations, and tensions in interethnic relations.