Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The New Great Game Round-Up #99

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.

Ukrainian oligarch-turned-President Petro Poroshenko is not very popular among his people but at least his equally criminal friends continue to support him and that is what really matters. Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was so thrilled about Poroshenko's first year in power that he wrote an op-ed for Newsweek lauding Poroshenko's reform program, better known as the "4-Ds"- de-regulation, de-bureaucratization, de-centralization and de-oligarchization(!). According to Saakashvili, his buddy Poroshenko "has succeeded in nation-building, at a rapid pace." Never mind that most Ukrainians think that Poroshenko and the current regime are to blame for Ukraine's economic problems and that they are not doing enough to stop the war in the country. One wonders what they will say when they realize that Poroshenko and Saakashvili are trying to open another front in this war:
Saakashvili announces plans to reinforce border with Transdniestria

Governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region Mikhail Saakashvili said on Tuesday he plans to reinforce Ukraine’s border with the unrecognized republic of Transdniestria.

"We have two major tasks - to reinforce the border and curb corruption. Drug and weapons trafficking across this border mean nothing good," he told a news conference in Odessa.
Engineering works aiming to block movement of military hardware and contraband started at the Transdniestrian section of the Ukrainian-Moldovan border.

Poroshenko & Saakashvili Open Another Front In Ukrainian Conflict

As discussed two weeks ago, there is some evidence to suggest that the United States and its client regime in Ukraine want to provoke a conflict with Russia by squeezing Transnistria. Saakashvili is clearly not telling the whole story when he talks about reinforcing the border and curbing corruption. Transnistria's Foreign Minister Nina Shtanski recently pointed out that Ukrainian toops are massing at the border, causing panic in the pro-Russian breakaway state. A coalition of Transnistrian activist groups immediately sent an appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, asking him to protect the people in Transnistria and recognize the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic. Moscow's worst fears appear to be coming true. One ominous development cited by the Transnistrian activists was the deployment of S-300 air defense missile systems on the border, which would raise the stakes significantly:
Ukraine to place S-300 antiaircraft missiles on border with Transdniestria
Ukrainian authorities will deploy S-300 antiaircraft missile complexes on the border with Transdniestria - a mostly Slavic-populated breakaway region of Moldova that has existed as an unrecognized Dniester Republic since the early 1990.

A report published by Odessa-based Taimer newspaper quoted the Ukrainian Defence Ministry officials as saying the missile complexes will be deployed in the Bolgrad district of the Odessa region.

"Officials at the war ministry said the S-300 missiles will ensure defence of the country in the south of the Odessa region on the border with the Dniester Republic," Taimer said.
© Photo RIA Novosti/Pavel Lisitsyn

Reports of Ukraine deploying S-300 systems in the Odessa region have sent shockwaves through Transnistria and Russia. It is seen as "an ultimatum upsetting the possibility of an air bridge" between Russia and the pro-Russian breakaway state in Moldova. Even the guys from Stratfor noticed the significance of this development: "Although the potential cost of interdicting Russian flights would be incredibly high and would essentially constitute a declaration of war against Russia, the deployment of these systems establishes the capability to do so." Only few people in Ukraine are crazy enough to shoot down Russian planes but it is probably worth mentioning that the new governor of Odessa is one of them. To make matters worse, Saakashvili is bringing in his old crew from Georgia. Media reports saying that former Georgian Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili will get a job in Odessa haven't been confirmed so far but former Deputy Interior Minister Gia Lortkipanidze is about to join his old boss:
The dark past of Saakashvili’s appointee in Odessa

Gia Lortkipanidze served under President Mikheil Saakashvili when he was in power in Georgia. A Ukrainian media outlet now reports that Lortkipanidze will head the Ukrainian Interior Ministry’s Odessa department, the city where Saakashvili is now the governor.

His appointment is controversial, as there are questions asked about his background not only by the public in Georgia, but also by UNM members.

For years, he was the deputy of Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili (now in jail in Tbilisi), but he never received media attention until the so-called Lapankuri special operation on August 28, 2012. He was one of the leading figures in this operation. After the police operation, relations between him and Saakashvili, and with Data Akhalaia, became strained.
Saakashvili praised Lortkipanidze as "a man of absolute honesty" when he talked about his appointment during a news conference in Odessa. Georgian media seems to have a different take on the former Deputy Interior Minister. As regular readers of the New Great Game Round-Up may recall, the Lapankuri special operation refers to a shootout between Georgian special forces and Chechen militants in the Caucasus gorge of Lopota near the Russian border. An investigation by Georgia's Public Defender Ucha Nanuashvili showed that the Saakashvili government "recruited, trained and equipped Chechens living in exile in Europe to join the North Caucasus insurgency." Nanuashvili’s report names Lortkipanidze as having coordinated the recruitment and training. So he is definitely the right man for the job in Odessa. Although the current government maintains that terrorist recruitment and training in Georgia ended with Saakashvili's rule, the country is still exporting a lot of jihadists:
Police in Georgia conduct special operation in Pankisi

Georgian police on Sunday carried out a special operation in Pankisi, a valley in the northeast of the country mostly inhabited by Kists, who are ethnic Chechens.

Omar Al-Shishani, or Tarkhan Batirashvili, one of the field commanders of ISIS, was born and raised in Pankisi. He left for Syria a few years ago to join the war. His father and relatives still live in Pankisi.

According to the most recent information, the special operation aimed at detaining those who allegedly have helped Georgians go to Syria, also because of suspected ties to ISIS.

 

Iran Backs Taliban To Counter U.S., ISIS In Afghanistan

It is remarkable that Georgia is now cracking down on terrorist recruitment considering that only a few months ago, the country was making headlines with an alleged offer to host a training center for NATO's "moderate Syrian rebels." The Georgian government would do anything to join the U.S.-led military alliance but more and more people in Georgia are beginning to question their NATO ambitions. Especially the country's huge contribution to the mission in Afghanistan, which has claimed the lives of 30 Georgian soldiers, is a contentious issue. About 880 Georgian soldiers are currently serving in NATO's Operation Resolute Support, meaning that the country is making the second-largest contribution after the United States. New Georgian Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli visited the soldiers in Afghanistan on her first foreign trip late last month to boost the troops' morale but it is becoming increasingly difficult to sell the mission in Afghanistan as a success:
Taliban seize villages in Sar-i-Pul

Taliban militants have seized several villages in the Sayad District of northern Sar-i-Pul province.

Officials say That Taliban captured these village after a clash with security forces that also left a policeman martyred and a militant killed.

A security official said that Taliban launched the attack while security forces were offering Friday prayers.

After Badakhshan, Kunduz, Faryab and Badghis, the northern province of Sar-e Pol is now also in the grip of violence. The fighting in northern Afghanistan is intensifying day by day, the Afghan security forces are a mess and the government in Kabul is nothing but a "show." Not exactly the best conditions for ending the violence. Moreover, the insurgents are also fighting among themselves. Ever since ISIS gained a foothold in the war-torn country, the group has been trying to outstrip the Taliban. Former Guantanamo inmate Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, who is now leading ISIS in Afghanistan, told BBC Persian in an interview that ISIS "found other ways to wage jihad after realizing Taliban are receiving instructions from Pakistani intelligence." Given the fact that neither ISIS's rise in the Middle East nor its rise in Afghanistan would have been possible without the support of foreign intelligence agencies, Dost and his fellow jihadists should probably avoid this topic:
ISIS rise in Afghanistan would threaten Russia and China: Karzai
The former Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist group in Afghanistan would not be possible without the foreign backing.
“So, if you hear ever in the coming days, or months, or years that Daesh is on the rise in Afghanistan, and is strong and expanding militarily, it will mean that it is a foreign-backed force intending to destabilize the region, particularly Central Asia, China and Russia,” he added.

Karzai put the blame for the rapid expansion of IS on “foreign interference” in Iraq and Syria saying that it was all “the result of events” there.
It is not difficult to guess which "foreign interference" Karzai was referring to. After sidelining its competitors in Syria, ISIS is now looking to expand in Afghanistan, much to the dismay of the Taliban. At the end of last month, ISIS's Afghan chapter released a video threatening the Taliban and in particular its camera-shy leader Mullah Omar. ISIS also vowed to take revenge for the fighters who had been killed by the Taliban in Nangarhar province in the middle of May. Shortly after the video was released, the group followed up its words with actions. ISIS captured and then beheaded 10 Taliban members in Nangarhar and used this for another propaganda video. While the U.S. is "taking time" to assess ISIS's expansion in Afghanistan, Iran has apparently seen enough and decided to take action. If anonymous officials and the Wall Street Journal are to be believed, Iran has begun to support the Taliban with cash and weapons in order to counter U.S. influence in the region and stop the rise of ISIS:
Iran Backs Taliban With Cash and Arms
When Abdullah, a Taliban commander in central Afghanistan, needs more rifles and ammunition, he turns to the same people who pay his $580-a-month salary: his Iranian sponsors.

“Iran supplies us with whatever we need,” he said.

Afghan and Western officials say Tehran has quietly increased its supply of weapons, ammunition and funding to the Taliban, and is now recruiting and training their fighters, posing a new threat to Afghanistan’s fragile security.

Iran’s strategy in backing the Taliban is twofold, these officials say: countering U.S. influence in the region and providing a counterweight to Islamic State’s move into the Taliban’s territory in Afghanistan.

New Pipeline Projects Leave "Land Of Fire" Out In The Cold

Betting on the re-emergence of the Taliban is probably not the worst idea but the Israel lobby in the U.S. will certainly use this information to torpedo the Iran nuclear talks, which have "virtually stalled." A diplomatic source told Russian news agency TASS that the June 30 deadline may have to be postponed again. Europe is desperate for Iranian gas but as long as the sanctions remain in place, European countries will have to make do with gas from neighboring Azerbaijan. This has led some people in Baku to believe that Azerbaijan has major leverage over Europe and can pressure European leaders into endorsing the European Games in Baku. The absence of European leaders at the lavish opening ceremony of the Games didn't go down well in the energy-rich country and Trend News Agency's Aynur Gasimova lost no time in warning the Europeans that they might regret this:
Europe, it is time to stop playing with the Land of Fire. You can get burned

Azerbaijan is known worldwide as the Land of Fire, and today Europe is playing with that fire. The result of playing with fire is for Europe itself to decide. But all the recent actions taken by the European countries’ leaders suggest that they aren’t complying with the “don’t play with fire!” rule.

The entire world’s attention was focused on the opening of the European Games in Baku. But at the same time, this same place witnessed another important event.

The heads of states, which today decide the fate of Europe’s security, gathered in Baku, however, Europe itself, because of its own stupidity, was not represented.
 

As Gasimova points out, the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Turkmenistan used the opportunity to discuss major energy projects in Baku but the notion that Europen leaders missed out on important deals and are "sacrificing their citizens' energy security" is absurd. Most energy projects discussed in Baku are spearheaded by Brussels and are aimed at bringing gas from the Caspain Sea to Europe, bypassing Russia, except for Russia's Turkish Stream pipeline. After Russian President Putin let his Turkish counterpart Erdogan wait for a couple of minutes, as usual, the two leaders held "constructive" talks on the Turkish Stream project behind closed doors in Baku. Gazprom has sent the coordinates of the onshore section of the pipeline to Turkey and is doing its best to start the construction as soon as possible. Turkish Stream's progress has not gone unnoticed in Austria, where OMV is now looking for a new project after recovering from the loss of Nabucco and South Stream:
Die Presse: OMV May Be Planning 'Russian Nabucco' Gas Pipeline

The future head of Austria’s OMV Rainer Seele appears to be planning a new route for Russian gas to Europe bypassing Ukraine jointly with Gazprom, according to Austrian newspaper Die Presse.

According to the Austrian newspaper, the new route appears to resurrecting the closed gas pipeline project Nabucco – with one major difference: instead of carrying Caspian gas to Europe it will transport Russian and possibly Iranian natural gas via Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary to Austria.
The original Nabucco pipeline project, officially buried in 2013, was designed to bring Caspian gas via Turkey and the Balkans to a central European hub in Baumgarten near Vienna in order to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. Two years later there are signs that OMV is considering a 'Russian Nabucco pipeline', according to Die Presse.
Some people in Washington and Brussels will probably fall off their chairs when they hear of OMV's plans. The pipeline which was supposed to bypass Russia and Iran could celebrate an unlikely comeback by bringing Russian and Iranian gas to Europe. Reinhard Mitschek, the former managing director of the Nabucco consortium, will promote the new project. Mitschek had already tried to win Russia and Iran as suppliers for the old Nabucco project despite strong opposition from the United States. So he knows what he is getting himself into. Although Washington and Brussels spared no effort to build Nabucco, they had to settle for the smaller and less expensive Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), which will eventually bring gas from Azerbaijan to customers in the EU. One wonders what the "Land of Fire" thinks of OMV's new Nabucco plans considering that Azerbaijan hasn't been mentioned as a gas supplier but the Aliyev regime is apparently too busy "promoting" the European Games:
Azeri government behind foreign media ban, say European Games officials

A decision to ban some foreign media from attending the inaugural European Games in Azerbaijan this month rested with the government and was not taken by the event’s organisers, officials said on Saturday.

Journalists, including the Guardian’s chief sports correspondent Owen Gibson, have been refused entry visas but organisers of the event in Baku said it was the government who was clearing individuals to enter the country based on their own set of criteria.

Apart from media, several representatives from international human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also been blocked from entering the country, ruled by the Aliyev family since 1993.