Sunday, December 8, 2013

The New Great Game Round-Up #32

The Great Game Round-Up brings you the latest newsworthy developments regarding Central Asia and the Caucasus region. We document the struggle for influence, power, hegemony and profits between a U.S.-dominated NATO, its GCC proxies, Russia, China and other regional players.

Ukraine, the largest country in the post-Soviet space, aroused Brussels' and Washington's anger by refusing to sign the European Union Association Agreement. Instead Kiev gave in to pressure from Russia and preferred to renew talks on joining the Moscow-led Customs Union. However, because the country is eyed not only as a future EU member but more importantly as a significant addition to Washington's North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Ukrainian government has now to deal with Orange Revolution 2.0. So another Russian neighbor of great interest to the EU and NATO, Georgia, assured its friends in the west that they will not have to worry about similar developments in the South Caucasus:
Georgian president says Russia cannot stop moves towards EU

The Georgian president Giorgi Margvelashvili says Russia has no means of influence that could divert Georgia from its course toward integration with Europe and interrupt the signing of the Association Agreement next year.
© Photo EPA/Zurab Kurtsikidze

Georgia, NATO & Russian Missiles

At the EU's third Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, Georgia initialed the Association Agreement, a preliminary step before it is expected to be signed next year. U.S. Secretary of State and professional warmonger John Kerry hailed this as "historic" and the United States can hardly wait for the process to be finished. In the meantime, the former Soviet Republic is doing its best to please Washington in order to join the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Georgia will reform its military according to NATO standards and offered to participate in the post-2014 mission in Afghanistan as well as in NATO's latest excessive project, the NATO Response Force (NRF):
Rasmussen: NATO To Include Georgia In Global Strike Force

“Georgia, has offered to join the Response Force in the future, and been accepted. I would therefore anticipate that Georgian troops would be made available for the force as of 2015,” Rasmussen said, adding that it would be the first time “Georgia has joined NATO’s rapid-reaction team.”
As Rick Rozoff has noted, "Global Strike Force" would be a much more accurate name since the purpose of the NRF is to deploy air, naval and infantry ground forces "anywhere in the world, at short notice, for a comparatively prolonged period of time". Of course, Tbilisi wants some reward for its willingness to sacrifice Georgian soldiers: 
Georgia Expects NATO Membership Nod Next Year

At the next NATO summit Georgia expects serious consideration of its future in the alliance, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili said in an interview with Rustavi-2 TV Channel.
Discussions are underway on this issue, according to the president.
Although the North Atlantic Treaty Organization praises Georgia's contribution and successful reforms, President Margvelashvili might have to wait a little bit longer. NATO's public face, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, regularly states that Georgia is "very close" to the military alliance but a few weeks ago he had already reassured the Kremlin that no Russian neighbor will fall prey to NATO's relentless expansion as early as 2014:
No NATO Membership For Georgia, Ukraine in 2014 – Official
Ukraine has decided to abandon its long-standing bid to join NATO, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told journalists in Brussels on the eve of a Russia-NATO council meeting. The Georgian government is still interested in closer cooperation with the alliance, but will not succeed in becoming a member in 2014, he said.
However, as everybody in Russia knows, forbearance is not acquittance. So Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov addressed the issue after a recent NATO-Russia Council meeting in Brussels when he was asked about Russia's relationship with its neighbor in the South Caucasus [emphasis mine]:
Lavrov on Ties with Georgia, 'Borderisation' and NATO Expansion

Lavrov said that NATO enlargement, not only in the context of Georgia but in general, represents “continuation of Soviet-old inertial logic of the ‘cold war’.”

“It implies not only preserving the dividing lines, which we have all committed to remove, but it’s also implies moving them [these lines] further to the East, which fundamentally contravenes commitments that we have undertaken at the highest level on indivisibility of security,” Lavrov said. “No one should take steps creating risks to the security of partners.”

Moscow was not amused by NATO's Steadfast Jazz Exercise, the largest military drill since 2006, which Secretary General Rasmussen described as a "graduation test" for the NATO Response Force. In early November, about 6.000 personnel from all 28 NATO member states and three partner nations (Sweden, Finland and Ukraine) improved their interoperability on land, sea and in the airspace over Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. In light of this, it is not hard to guess why Russia will deploy more S-300 missile systems in Belarus [emphasis mine]:
Russia plans to bring more S-300 air systems to EU border in Belarus

Moscow is set to supply Minsk with more S-300 complexes to strengthen the external border under a project of merging the countries’ air defenses. The systems are to be deployed close to the Belarus border with NATO’s Poland and Lithuania.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced plans to strengthen the joint air defense system with Belarus and to start forming similar systems with Kazakhstan and Armenia. After the 2008 South Ossetia War, Russia began rapidly arming its Southern Military District covering the territories around the Caspian Sea and Black Sea. This policy continues to this day with military vehicles and a ballistic missle system, which proved highly effective in the war against Georgia, being the latest additions:
Missile brigade of southern military district armed with missiles Iskander

The missile brigade of the Southern Military District has brought into service the set of operational tactical missiles Iskander-M on Thursday, the press service of the Southern Military District told Itar-Tass.
When former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili launched the war in August 2008 on Washington's orders, the Kremlin knew that this would not be the last attempt to destabilize Russia's North Caucasus. And NATO's current multinational training exercises in Germany only reinforce Moscow's decision to strengthen the Southern Military District:
Germany: U.S. Trains NATO Allies For War In The Caucasus
Battalions of Czech and Slovenian troops, a U.S. headquarters unit and a host of other forces, including U.S. National Guard troops from California, have been war gaming around the clock inside Hohenfels’ sprawling battleground known as “the box.” Rather than training to take on the Taliban in Afghanistan, they’re working on other combat scenarios, such as taking on a conventional enemy force in the Caucasus region. “We don’t know what the future threats are going to look like, but we do know one thing; we aren’t going to fight it alone,” said Brig. Gen. Walter Piatt, head of the Joint Multinational Training Command. “We’re going to fight with our partners. If we don’t train together we’re never going to do it live.”


EU, Russia Quarrel Over Pipelines

As if there was not enough potential for conflict in the region, the European Union refuses to give up on its dream of importing gas from Turkmenistan via the Trans-Caspian Pipeline. Apparently, only few politicians in Brussels have realized the consequences of choosing the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) over Nabucco-West. Since TAP is no real competition to Gazprom's South Stream and will affect the Trans-Caspian project detrimentally, Russia welcomed this decision. However, Brussels' ongoing efforts to promote a pipeline running under the Caspian Sea and bypassing Russia really infuriate the Kremlin:
Sergei Lavrov: “The European Union is pushing the Trans-Caspian pipeline project on Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan”

He said the EU forgets that such issues should be solved by the Caspian littoral countries not in Brussels.
Despite state-controlled Russian energy giant Gazprom, one of the biggest profiteers from Nabucco's demise, threatening war with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan over the project, the EU sticks to the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline in accordance with Washington's interests. Provoking Gazprom and Russia appears to be the new game in Brussels. In late November, the largest extractor of natural gas broke ground on a $2.7 billion pipeline in Serbia, part of its South Stream pipeline project. But this week, the European Commission called on all EU members involved in the project to renegotiate the terms of their deals and threatened to intervene [emphasis mine]: 
EU Recommends Member States Renegotiate South Stream Pipeline
Marlene Holzner, a spokeswoman for EU Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger, said on December 5 that the agreements signed with Russia's Gazprom contradicted European legislation.

"In case that Russia says we do not want to renegotiate this international agreement, then we have to advise the member states that they just will not apply this agreement because it is not according to EU legislation," she said. "If they go ahead we may have to start infringement procedures."
Gazprom reacted "surprised and disappointed", criticized that the European Commission voiced concerns only after construction works had begun and emphasized that these works "will proceed as scheduled" while remaining regulatory questions can be clarified. Serbia is also in no mood to be bullied by mad politicians in Brussels:
Serbia "won't renegotiate South Stream agreement"

"There will be no new talks between Russia, Serbia and other countries participating in South Stream about the construction of the pipeline, as all the agreements have been made at the inter-state level, and there will be no delay in works or moving of construction deadlines," the head of Serbia's state-run natural gas enterprise told Tanjug.
© Photo AP/Mikhail Metzel

Another chapter in the ongoing EU-Gazprom battle are the pending antitrust claims which the Russian energy giant hopes to settle as soon as possible. President Putin accused the European Union of attacking Gazprom in order to extend its influence over Eastern Europe. Considering this, the economic situation was probably not the only thing inspiring Putin's plan of reducing dependence on the European market [empasis mine]: 
Russia Invests In LNG Project To ‘Diversify’ From Europe
Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered the government to expand tax breaks to more deposits that will supply gas for the Novatek-led liquefied natural gas project in Russia’s Yamal peninsula, according to the Kremlin’s website.
Putin has urged domestic companies to develop seaborne liquefied natural gas (LNG) and diversify away from cash-strapped Europe where demand for gas has weakened.


Chechnya Fights "Syrian Rebels"

Vladimir Putin has to deal with multiple important issues right now but with the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi rapidly approaching, the security situation in the North Caucasus is of course one of the most pressing. So the Russian leader urged the Federal Security Service (FSB) to stay on top of developments in the threatened region. Turkey's new policy regarding Prince Bandar bin Sultan's Wahhabi gangs could lead to more work for the FSB:
Turkey deports 1,100 European fighters to countries of origin

Turkey has sent a report to European countries saying that it has deported 1,100 European citizens who came to Turkey to join al-Qaeda-linked groups fighting in Syria back to their own countries amid increasing allegations that Ankara is turning a blind eye to terrorists using its territory to cross into Syria, according to the Habertürk daily.
Jihadis from Russia's North Caucasus represent a significant percentage of the foreign terrorists fighting against the Syrian government and might take their struggle back home. Especially the presence of one female fighter from Chechnya among the "Syrian rebels" made headlines in Russia and highlighted this problem once again:
Chechen Official Fired After Daughter Found Fighting in Syria
The top migration official in the southern Russian republic of Chechnya has been fired after it was disclosed that his daughter was fighting alongside rebel forces in Syria’s civil war.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the Head of the Chechen Republic, explained the matter in his own unique way: 
“[Dadurkayev’s] daughter is among the Wahhabis and bandits who spill the blood of civilians and blow up Islamic holy sites in Syria,” Kadyrov wrote on Instagram, a social networking website the Chechen leader regularly uses to make public pronouncements.
Kadyrov has so far managed to maintain peace and stability in Chechnya by suppressing the Islamist insurgency, which is now largely confined to the Republic of Dagestan. In order to contain the threat of battle-tested terrorists from Syria, the Chechen leader decided to set up a special security unit:
Chechnya Sets Up Security Unit to Fight Syrian Radicals

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said Wednesday that a special security unit is being formed in Chechnya to deal with Syrian radicals both on the North Caucasus republic’s territory and abroad, if necessary.

Kadyrov said the move came as a response to numerous online videos in which Islamists battling government forces in Syria threaten to move to the North Caucasus when the Syrian war is over and engage in terrorist and subversive activities in the volatile region.

According to Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, terrorism is Russia's "main foe" and one key threat to Russia's national security besides the above mentioned NATO expansion. Regular attacks on security forces, police and civilians in the North Caucasus confirm Shoygu's assessment:
Russian FSB Officer Killed in North Caucasus Shootout

One Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officer has been killed and one wounded in a shootout in Russia’s volatile North Caucasus, investigators has reported.

The two officers were attacked Monday evening in the town of Baksan in the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. Unknown assailants opened fire on them from a rifle at a crossroads and then escaped.
Although more than 200 militants were "destroyed" and over 250 detained in Russia's North Caucasus in the first nine months of this year, the Russian Prosecutor General's Office is not content with the performance of local law enforcement personnel:
Russian Prosecutor General’s Office slams North Caucasus law enforcers 
Its criticisms includes such flaws as poor financing of regional and municipal programs on prevention of extremism and terrorism, inefficiency of anti-terrorism commissions, reluctance of local autonomies in protecting facilities from terrorists, inadequate evaluation of religious groups by the Russian Justice Ministry and lack of reports on reception of money from foreigners.
Moscow's law enforcers on the other hand improved their performance after the horrific terror attacks on the Moscow Metro in 2010 and Domodedovo International Airport in 2011. In recent months, arrests of supposed terrorists and extremists were the only noteworthy terror-related incidents in the Russian capital:
Group of 15 ‘religious extremists’ arrested in Moscow, explosives, weapons seized

Moscow police have arrested 15 members of Takfir Wal-Hijra, an extremist organization. The cell had a stash of weapons and explosives, which was seized in the police raid.

The cell was exposed and busted thanks to ongoing investigations into crimes not related to terrorism, the Interior Ministry reported. Members of the group were involved in various acts of crime to fund their activity.
Among the busted groups was also one Central Asian criminal organization consisting of more than 40 members, who were involved in illegal financial activities across Russia, particularly in Moscow and Russia's Perm Region. Police seized over $5.4 million and alleged that the group's funds had been used to finance Hizb ut-Tahrir, known as conveyor belt for terrorists:
Russian Police Uncover Islamist ‘Terrorist Finance’ Gang

Russian police said Monday they have detained seven leaders of an ethnic Central Asian criminal group engaged in illegal banking, that they believed was financing an international Islamist terrorist organization.

Police claim to have found evidence proving that the group financed the Hizb ut-Tahrir (Islamic Liberation Party) international political organization that was officially banned in Russia in February 2003.

The suspects laundered funds through financial channels “in the interests of natives of Central Asia illegally based in Russia,” police said.
It was not possible to independently verify the police claims about the alleged group’s activities.