Senior United States diplomats have visited Tashkent for their regular consultations with the government of Uzbekistan, and in spite of continuing tension over Afghanistan and human rights, the Americans were unusually positive in their assessment of ties with Uzbekistan.
"Had a very productive meeting with President Karimov on the growing bilateral relationship and cooperation on regional and global challenges," tweeted Nisha Biswal, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia. "Very impressed by the candid conversations with govt of Uzbekistan and civil society on subject of prison management and prison conditions," she added later. The delegation included 22 American officials from seven different government agencies.
Interestingly, in her public remarks Biswal appeared to have not uttered the words "human rights." The U.S. government has come under frequent criticism from human rights groups for overlooking the country's appalling record on human rights for the sake of strategic considerations. But U.S. officials nearly always meet with human rights activists when they visit the country, and at least mention the issue of human rights in their public statements. (Also unusually, while Biswal held a press conference in Tashkent the transcript wasn't released. The State Department didn't respond to a request for comment.)
A map of recent U.S. military activities around Russia's borders. (source: defense.gov)
An ongoing Russian military buildup in Crimea could help Moscow to control the entire Black Sea, the top United States military official in Europe has said.
General Philip Breedlove, Commander of U.S. European Command, visited Kiev this week, and when reporters asked him about Russian military activities, he said the Pentagon was "very concerned":
[W]e are very concerned with the militarization of Crimea. We are concerned in two respects. One, that the military forces in Crimea constitute an illegal annexation of that piece of Ukraine and that these forces are able to hold that land and, in an extreme sense, could possibly produce force from that land.
Secondarily, we are concerned that the capabilities in Crimea that are being installed will bring effect to almost the entire Black Sea. And this is of concern. Costal defense cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles and other capabilities that are able to exert military influence over the Black Sea. And finally, as you know, in March of this year the Defense Ministry of Russia announced that it would move nuclear capabilities into Crimea, and we continue to be concerned about this and watch for indications of it.
A flurry of high-level military visits between Washington and Tbilisi appears to be setting the stage for wider-scale exports of weaponry from the U.S. to Georgia.
Last week, the highest-ranking officers of the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army in Europe both visited Georgia, and earlier this month, Chief of General Staff of Georgian Armed Forces Major General Vakhtang Kapanadze visited Washington, and met with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, as well as top officials from the U.S. Army and Marine Corps and the head of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which regulates American arms exports.
During his visit to Tbilisi, General Ben Hodges, the commander of U.S. Army Europe, said that Maj Gen Kapanadze's visit included discussion of "weapons procurement." The statement was reported variously in various media, but U.S. Army Europe confirmed to The Bug Pit that Gen Hodges said:
I am aware of the discussions that happened in Washington DC last week with regards to the weapons procurement. First of all I think it would be inappropriate for me to talk specifics about a meeting that happened at a level way above my head between my Nation's representatives and Georgia.
International tension over water in Central Asia is growing, but the United States can offer only modest help in preventing conflict, a panel of experts has told a Congressional committee.
The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats held a hearing November 18, "Water Sharing Conflicts and the Threat to International Peace."
Water conflict in Central Asia takes different forms, from the international (as seen in the dispute between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan over the latter's proposed Rogun Dam project) to the local (as seen in recurring border skirmishes between residents of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in the Ferghana Valley).
Russian President Vladimir Putin at the CSTO Parliamentary Assembly session in Moscow on November 6. (photo: Kremlin)
The head of Russia's post-Soviet security bloc said that instability in the region is "in most cases" the result of external manipulations, particularly by the United States. Russian officials also said the group was pursuing ties with countries from around the world, in particular Iran.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization held a session of its parliamentary assembly in Moscow on November 6. In addition to full CSTO members Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan, the parliamentary assembly includes Afghanistan and Serbia. And that group may expand to include Iran, said the speaker of Russia's state Duma, Sergey Naryshkin.
“We believe that in the long term, that experience may be expanded and representatives from the parliaments of other countries, for instance, Iran, might be invited into the CSTO Parliamentary Assembly,” Naryshkin said.
And more broadly, the CSTO is pursuing closer ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China, Iran, Latin America and countries of the Caribbean, said the group's general secretary, Nikolay Bordyuzha.
Most interesting were Bordyuzha's claims about the U.S. and other Western countries fomenting dischord in the CSTO region. While this isn't an especially new theme for Russian officials, Bordyuzha's comments contained an unusual amount of detail. From the CSTO's account of the event:
Twenty five years ago, he said, "We used to do big, complex NATO exercises in all environments, but the world has changed. We haven’t been doing as many of those in the last 10, 15 years. But I think Ukraine has told us we need to up our game and I think that’s the plan in the near future.”
Hudson was apparently at the Pentagon to discuss with U.S. Navy officials how to beef up NATO's naval forces. “Six or seven destroyers … isn’t going to defeat a complex enemy,” he said. “But it will sustain a theater, ... it will put all the connectivity into a region in place so that the follow-on forces can deliver.”
One wonders what sort of scenario would entail a NATO "defeat" of Russia. The U.S. has already stepped up its rotation of ships into the Black Sea and has promised to do more. Vice Adm. Hudson also said last month that NATO would increase its presence in the Baltic Sea, as well. (That plan has no doubt been given new currency as a result of Sweden's claims that a Russian submarine has been snooping around its waters.)
The Russian government has criticized a NATO plan to construct military training facilities in Georgia, while coming under fire itself for hosting a NATO facility on Russian soil.
When NATO announced last month that it would set up a range of expanded cooperation programs with Georgia, including joint training facilities, the reaction from Moscow was inevitable. On October 8, Russia's foreign ministry issued a statement expressing “concern in connection to the Georgian media reports about plans to deploy military infrastructure on the territory of Georgia in the interests of NATO.... Such actions would create threat to emerging stability in the Transcaucasus region."
Left unmentioned was the increasingly uncomfortable fact that Russia itself hosts a NATO cargo transit facility in Ulyanovsk. It was set up in 2012 to help NATO forces get equipment to and from Afghanistan, and even then it was somewhat contrary to Russia's consistent anti-NATO rhetoric. Then-Russian ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin -- one of the leading producers of that anti-NATO rhetoric -- was put in the unlikely position of defending the facility, saying it would only involve harmless items like toilet paper and Mars bars.
The biggest headline to come out of the weekend's Caspian Sea summit in Astrakhan, Russia, was that the five countries along the sea agreed to prevent any outside military presence from the sea. This has been a longstanding goal of the sea's two biggest powers, Russia and Iran, the result of worries that the U.S. and/or NATO would somehow gain a military foothold on the sea via security cooperation programs with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, or Turkmenistan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, summing up the summit's results and formal declaration, said:
The declaration sets out a fundamental principle for guaranteeing stability and security, namely, that only the Caspian littoral states have the right to have their armed forces present on the Caspian. This was the way the situation developed over history, and we do not seek to change it now. In general, only the five Caspian countries that have sovereign rights over the Caspian Sea and its resources will resolve all matters pertaining to the region.
An Azerbaijan coast guard vessel patrolling the Baku harbor, 2012. (photo: The Bug Pit)
The presidents of the five countries on the Caspian Sea are meeting in Astrakhan, Russia, on Sunday and will agree to "prevent" the military presence of non-littoral countries on the sea, a Russian official has said.
Russia and Iran, the two largest powers on the sea, have long been trying to exclude external powers -- read, the United States -- from establishing a military presence on the sea. The negotiations on this have gone on very much behind the scenes, but the newly independent Caspian countries -- Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan -- have relied to varying degrees on the U.S. to get their new navies up and running. And Azerbaijan, in particular, seemed to be resisting this push to exclude external forces.
"Yes, there are some [American] programs, according to which rearmament of the naval and coast guard forces are being carried out, but this is no cause for alarm that some Caspian country could be a corridor for the military presence of other countries in the Caspian region," said pro-government Baku analyst and journalist, Tofik Abbsov, in an interview in April. He added that reports to the contrary were common in the Russian media and served to "escalate the atmosphere of non-existent trends of tension."
But now Russia and Iran seem to have worn down Baku's resistance. "A political statement was prepared for the summit containing a provision about preventing military presence of non-regional states in the Caspian Sea. There were difficult consultations on the issue, but the sides managed to agree on this principle," said Yuri Ushakov, a Russian presidential aide, on Friday.
Georgia has offered to host a training base for anti-ISIS Syrian rebels, marking a dramatic new step in Tbilisi's efforts to contribute to American-led military operations in the Middle East. That's according to Foreign Policy magazine, citing American and Georgian sources. But the Georgian government denied the report, saying it has no plans either to host a base or commit troops.
"[The training center] was something we offered, but is still under consideration," Georgian Ambassador Archil Gegeshidze told Foreign Policy...
The potential scale of the Georgia-based training program remains unclear, but Gegeshidze noted that it could host anti-IS fighters from multiple countries, not just Syria. "It's a counterterrorism training center for any nationality," he said.