Sunday, April 6, 2014

The New Great Game Round-Up #45

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.  

Thanks to the Ukraine crisis, the Cold War military alliance NATO does not need to pretend anymore that it is fighting terrorism and can continue its never-ending struggle against Russia right out in the open. The terror threat was quickly replaced by the Russian threat and NATO is non-stop fear-mongering about a Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine. U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO's top military commander, is leading the way and if he is to be taken seriously, Russian troops will have conquered Ukraine by now. On Tuesday, NATO foreign ministers met in Brussels to discuss an appropriate response to the non-existent buildup of Russian forces on Ukraine's eastern border. The U.S.-led military alliance considers, among other things, to expedite the encirclement of Russia: 
Nato plans stronger military ties to ex-Soviet states south of Russia

Before the meeting, a Nato committee drafted plans "for promoting stability in eastern Europe in the current context" by increasing military co-operation with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova – all in Russia's "near abroad" and considered by Moscow as falling within its sphere of influence.

A confidential seven-page paper leaked to the German news weekly Der Spiegel proposed joint exercises and training between Nato and the three countries, increasing the "interoperability" of their militaries with Nato, and their participation in Nato "smart defence" operations.
The paper also proposed opening a Nato liaison office in Moldova, military training for Armenia, and projects in Azerbaijan aimed at securing its Caspian Sea oil and gas fields.

NATO Eyes Ex-Soviet States, Russia Eyes Iran

While Azerbaijan and Moldova have been eyed as future NATO members for quite some time, Armenia is a vital member of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Russia's only ally in the South Caucasus. The above-mentioned NATO committee must have missed that the Armenian government has decided to join Russia's team in the new Cold War and demonstrated this during the recent vote in the UN General Assembly, when Armenia was one of only 11 nations rejecting the anti-Russian resolution. Armenia's arch-enemy Azerbaijan, on the other hand, enjoys a very close relationship with NATO and the Aliyev regime is definitely interested in further cooperation:
Number of Azerbaijani officers increases in NATO

Azerbaijan plans to increase the number of the officers serving in NATO in summer, the press service of the Defense Ministry reported on March 25.

At the present time, seven officers of the Azerbaijani Armed forces serve at several NATO headquarters. 
Furthermore, about 900 servicemen's are expected to participate at 90 events in the framework of the Individual Cooperation Program with NATO in 2014. Some 81 of the events are scheduled to be held in foreign countries and nine of them in Azerbaijan. Over 1000 Azerbaijani soldiers attended 100 events in this program last year. Most attention was paid to the issues of defense strategy, military training , military education, material-technical supply, logistics , international humanitarian law , budget and resource management and others.
Due to its strategic location, Azerbaijan is of pivotal importance to Washington and Brussels. The country in the South Caucasus serves as base for NATO's regional jihadi operations and Azerbaijani gas is expected to lessen Europe's dependence on Russian gas. Therefore, Azerbaijan might benefit significantly from the Ukraine crisis but, to the dismay of Washington, the same goes for neighboring Iran: 
Iran, Russia working to seal $20 billion oil-for-goods deal: sources

Iran and Russia have made progress towards an oil-for-goods deal sources said would be worth up to $20 billion, which would enable Tehran to boost vital energy exports in defiance of Western sanctions, people familiar with the negotiations told Reuters.

A Russian source said Moscow had "prepared all documents from its side", adding that completion of a deal was awaiting agreement on what oil price to lock in.

The source said the two sides were looking at a barter arrangement that would see Iranian oil being exchanged for industrial goods including metals and food, but said there was no military equipment involved. The source added that the deal was expected to reach $15 to $20 billion in total and would be done in stages with an initial $6 billion to $8 billion tranche.

Moscow has repeatedly warned the West that it is prepared to change its stance on Iran if the warmongers in Washington and Brussels are determined to play Cold War. The oil-for-goods deal could be the first step towards a strategic partnership between Moscow and Tehran, considering that some voices in Russia are already calling for closer military cooperation with Iran. At the latest when the first S-300 air-defense systems are delivered to Iran, the Obama administration will be starting to realize that provoking Russia was not the best idea. Faced with the sanctions-busting oil deal, the United States, concerned about the future of the Petrodollar, is threatening to impose new sanctions against Russia but this will not deter the Kremlin from doing business with Iran [emphasis mine]:
Russian Government Working on New Iran Oil Deliveries Scheme

The Russian Cabinet of Ministers is discussing a new scheme for possible Iran oil deliveries via an independent trader, instead of Russia's oil giant Rosneft, the Kommersant business daily said Friday, citing Russian government sources.

"This will be a company registered in Russia, which does not work on the international markers, as opposed to Rosneft. In other words, there will be no pressure tools on it," Prime business news agency cited Kommersant sources as saying.

 

Afghanistan Troubles CSTO, SCO

Washington's new sanctions would certainly have more teeth than the previous travel bans, which have targeted, among others, Viktor Ivanov, the head of Russia's anti-drug service. Ivanov was not amused and accused the United States of deliberately obstructing further anti-trafficking cooperation in order to hide its responsibility for the drug crisis in Afghanistan. It is a debatable point whether Russia is interested in fighting drug trafficking or in getting its share of the multi-billion dollar opium business in Afghanistan. However, the biggest achievement of the United States and NATO in Afghanistan is beyond dispute:
Afghan H-bomb: Record opium harvest, billions burn in 'war on drugs'

Since the US came down on the Taliban and occupied Afghanistan in 2001, heroin production in the country has surged almost 40-fold. One year ago the estimated number of heroin addicts dying due to Afghan heroin in the preceding decade surpassed well over one million deaths worldwide.
Last year, Afghanistan harvested a record quantity of opium. The annual report of the International Narcotics Control Board maintains that Afghan poppy fields now occupy a record 209,000 hectares, a 36 percent increase from 2013.
NATO's efforts in "combating" Afghan drug trafficking and the reluctance of the military alliance to cooperate with other players were also heavily criticized by CSTO chief Nikolai Bordyuzha this week, when he met with CSTO foreign ministers in Moscow to discuss the precarious situation in Afghanistan. In the run-up to the presidential elections, foreigners have been leaving the country like never before during an election period and although the violence did not stop the Afghan people from voting, the prospects for Afghanistan are bleak. Hence the CSTO is concerned about the security of its neighboring member states:
CSTO expecting Afghan armed gangs' breakthrough attempts

The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is expecting breakthrough attempts by Afghan armed gangs across member-states' borders, but rules out a large-scale invasion, CSTO Secretary General Nikolai Bordyuzha said in an interview with ITAR-TASS.

According to the CSTO secretary general, the number of clashes on the Tajik-Afghan border has increased by several times to 35 in the past six months. "These are attempts by armed gangs to break through the state border of Tajikistan, they are drug mafia and armed groups engaging in other things, such as politics," Bordyuzha said.

On top of that, CSTO is expecting attempts to ideologically influence the population of Central Asia countries and set up underground extremist groups in CSTO member-states which would be led by Afghan emissaries.
© Photo Ministry of Foreign Affairs Belarus

CSTO Secretary General Bordyuzha also addressed concerns regarding the planned deployment of Iskander-M missile systems near the Kazakhstan-Russia border and emphasized that the Russian-led military alliance does not intend to deploy any Iskanders in Central Asia because the powerful missile system is obviously not the appropriate weapon to deal with threats emanating from Afghanistan. Instead the CSTO will join forces with the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to pursue a more reasonable strategy. At the beginning of this week, SCO defense ministers met in the Tajik city of Khujand to discuss plans for post-2014 Afghanistan:
Russia, Uzbekistan Floating Plans To Create "Buffer State" In Afghanistan

The most intriguing suggestion to come out of the meeting, though, is that regional countries are apparently discussing plans to strengthen regional power brokers in northern Afghanistan as a means of combating the spread of instability into Central Asia and Russia. "Russia and its allies in the SCO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, after the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan, will create on its borders with the [post-Soviet states] several buffer territorial formations, which will prevent the infiltration of instability from that country into other governments," Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported, citing "military-diplomatic sources," saying that plan was discussed in the closed session of the Khujand meeting. "Similar mini-governments existed in Afghanistan in the 1990s."
As previously discussed, especially Uzbekistan's government is in favor of creating "mini buffer states" in northern Afghanistan and there have already been talks with Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is one of the preferred regional power brokers. If CSTO and SCO go ahead with these plans, this will most likely entail a rapprochement between Uzbekistan and Russia. Relations between the two countries have been problematic in the past, as demonstrated by Uzbekistan's withdrawal from the CSTO in 2012.


The Struggle For Tajikistan

Neighboring Tajikistan enjoys a far better relationship with Russia and hopes that the meetings within the framework of the SCO will further improve Tajik-Russian military cooperation. Moscow has already vowed to assist the Tajik authorities in protecting the Tajik-Afghan border. Furthermore, Dushanbe can count on Beijing's support. Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan, who travelled to Tajikistan this week to attend the SCO meeting, assured Tajik leader Emomali Rahmon that China will support the Central Asian country in strengthening its defense power and counterterrorism capability with some serious military aid:
China Promises Tajikistan "Hundreds Of Millions Of Dollars" In Military Aid

China's defense minister, on a visit to Tajikistan, has promised the Central Asian country "hundreds of millions of dollars" in military aid which -- if true -- would be a dramatic policy change for Beijing, which has focused more on economic ties in Central Asia.

The defense minister made the comments at a joint appearance with Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon in Dushanbe, reported ITAR-TASS:

“China is satisfied with the level of bilateral cooperation in all spheres, including military and military-technical and guarantees assistance to Tajikistan in the strengthening of its defense capacity,” Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan said. He said China would supply military uniforms and help in the training of military personnel, adding that this would involve “hundreds of millions of dollars”.

Whether China's defense minister was alluding to the expensive Chinese-sponsored training exercises under SCO auspices or really meaning "hundreds of millions of dollars" in military aid for Tajikistan is not entirely clear. At any rate, the United States will keep a close eye on China's activites in Tajikistan because Washington plans to remove the country from Beijing's and most importantly Moscow's sphere of influence:
US's New Silk Road: attempt to re-orient Tajikistan from ties with Russia

Already in April Tajikistan will witness a substantial inflow of American politicians and experts. Washington and Dushanbe are planning to conduct bilateral political consultations in the area of economy and security. But the main goal of the US delegation is to offer Tajikistan a chance to participate in the American program the New Silk Road.
 
According to Alexander Knyazev, an oriental studies specialist, another hidden goal of the American concept of the New Silk Road is to change the format of relations on the post-soviet territory. Washington's plan assumes a gradual re-orientation of Tajikistan from its traditional economic ties with Russia and Kazakhstan towards developing contacts with Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, the analyst doubts that the American project would be economically beneficial for Dushanbe.
Moreover, the CIA considers to relocate its drones to Tajikistan in the unlikely event that all U.S. forces are forced to leave Afghanistan and the United States attaches great importance to the relationship between its Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT) and the Tajik Special Operations Forces. After SOCCENT Commander Michael K. Nagata had visited Tajikistan earlier this year to meet with senior U.S. and Tajik officials, his deputy Brig. Gen. Kurt Crytzer did the same on April 1st. If the Russians are to be believed, he was one of the American visitors who will make an appearance in Tajikistan in order to steer the country away from Russia. However, the Russians will be concerned about some non-American visitors as well. Tajik President Rahmon recently invited the President of Azerbaijan, U.S. puppet Ilham Aliyev, and Saudi King Abdullah to visit Tajikistan [emphasis mine]:
Tajik president invites Saudi King to visit Tajikistan

Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Aslov yesterday met in Riyadh with Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who is First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense of Saudi Arabia.

According to the Tajik MFA information department, Aslov conveyed President Rahmon’s official message for the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

In his message, President Rahmon reportedly expresses readiness for expansion of bilateral cooperation with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and invites Saudi King Abdullah to pay visit to Tajikistan. The invitation was accepted with gratitude.