*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 in Central Asia and the Caucasus region between a U.S.-dominated NATO, its GCC proxies, Russia, China and other regional players.
As anticipated last week, the CSTO leaders agreed on Monday during the Collective Security Council meeting in Sochi to provide Tajikistan with joint assistance in order to reinforce the Tajik-Afghan border. Tajikistan's President Emomalii Rahmon gave further details of the projects which will be supported by the Collective Security Treaty Organization [emphasis mine]:
“The government of republic and its relevant bodies will solve a number of tasks related to strengthening the Tajik-Afghan border. Among these tasks are constructing new buildings of frontier posts, restoring warning and signaling systems and providing border troops with means of air patrol and surveillance as well as radar aids,” Rahmon said.
CSTO Addresses Terror Threats
Russian troops are apparently not part of the aid package for now but this issue might be discussed if the situation along the border deteriorates significantly. President Putin stressed how important it is for the CSTO to address threats emerging from Afghanistan:
“Unfortunately, there are reasons to think that the intensity of Afghan drug trafficking and the activity of terrorist groups will grow considerably,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said after a CSTO summit in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi on Monday, September 23.
He noted that extremists were already trying to spread their operations to neighbouring countries, including the CSTO’s Asian member states.
However, Afghanistan is currently not the only country worrying the Russian-led military alliance. The conflict in Syria was high on the agenda in Sochi and all CSTO members declared their opposition to military aggression by the Obama regime and its allies. In a joint statement adopted at the end of the summit, the CSTO leaders also strongly condemned "any manifestation of terrorism and violence against the peaceful population". While Obama does not have a red line for beheading prisoners with kitchen knives, eating organs, raping women and children and mass executions of prisoners, the Collective Security Treaty Organization cannot ignore the activities of terrorist groups in Syria because they pose a serious threat to CSTO states as well:
The group could not turn a blind eye to such a serious problem as affairs in Syria, Putin said, noting that armed groups operating on the territory of that state had not emerged from nowhere and would not evaporate. “The problem of terrorism spilling from one country into some other is quite real and may directly affect interests of any of our countries,” he added.
Vladimir Putin stopped short of explaining that the al-Qaeda mercenaries are working on behalf of Washington but this is pretty obvious at this point. So Moscow is justifiably concerned about the next targets of the terrorists. Gordon M. Hahn, senior associate for the Russia and Eurasia Program at the CSIS, outlined how victory of NATO and its al-Qaeda foot soldiers in Syria would affect the situation in the North Caucasus ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi:
"Now add in the Syrian situation. A robust U.S. air assault on Syria resulting in the demise of the Assad regime in Syria could significantly undermine stability in Russia’s North Caucasus, strengthening and provoking concerted action by the Caucasus Emirate (CE) mujahedin to carry out attacks before or during the Games in Sochi and/or elsewhere in Russia afterwards, including attacks with chemical weapons acquired as a result of jihadi advances in the Syrian civil war. The CE mujahedin, or at least elements among them, have been promising to attack the Games since 2010, and this summer CE amir Doku ‘Abu Usman’ Umarov called on the mujahedin to attack Sochi in order to prevent the Games from being held and to attack the Games if they begin."
Chemical weapons in the hands of Doku Umarov and his jihadi friends?! That is certainly the last thing Moscow wants to see. So the Russian authorities step up their preparations in Sochi. Six Pantsir-S short-range air defense systems have been delivered to the Russian military ahead of schedule to protect Russian airspace along the southern borders during the Olympic Winter Games:
The system is designed to take on a variety of targets flying at low level, including cruise missiles and aircraft, and can effectively engage targets at up to 20 kilometers.
But air attacks have never been preferred by the Caucasus Emirate anyway. Instead suicide bombings are the usual modus operandi, as we are reminded week after week:
Two police officers were killed and 16 people injured in a suicide bombing Monday morning in Russia's troubled North Caucasus republic of Dagestan, according to police.
Violence in the Russian Republic of Dagestan has risen in recent months. Gun battles between security forces and militants are now an alarmingly common occurrence.
Sometimes the insurgents come out on top, sometimes the security forces prevail:
Russia’s anti-terrorism committee said Friday that an alleged warlord and four suspected militants had been killed in a raid on a home in the restive southern republic of Dagestan.
Pinning his hopes on the deterrence effect, Russian President Putin introduced a bill which would establish harsher sentences for terror-related offenses. However, similar measures have so far failed to accomplish their purpose.
Ukraine: Future EU, NATO Member?!
Besides NATO-sponsored terrorism, NATO's encirclement of Russia continues to be a major concern for the Kremlin. Therefore the relationship with Belarus is vital and joint biannual military exercises are conducted to cement ties between the two neighboring countries. Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, travelled this week to the Khmelevka range on Russia’s Baltic Sea coast to observe the final stage of Zapad 2013. Baltic officials, alarmed by the activities, criticized the six-day drills on their doorstep:
Russian military exercises trigger Baltic concern While Russia calls Friday’s war games an antiterrorism exercise, they suggest an escalation “into a conflict with NATO member countries,” said Estonian Defence Minister Urmas Reinsalu. “An exercise of this nature is certainly negatively affecting the security environment in the region.”
But at the same time, preparations for the next large-scale NATO exercise in the Baltic region are well under way. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2004 extending the territory of the U.S.-led military alliance right up to the Russian border. Latvia and Poland will host the upcoming "Steadfast Jazz" exercise:
NATO Plans Major East European Exercise, Reassures Russia After years of fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, NATO is planning a major exercise in Eastern Europe in November to brush up its conventional warfare skills, but insists it is not practicing with Cold War foe Russia in mind.
The last time Moscow trusted NATO was when Washington promised never to expand the organization beyond Germany's borders. We all know how that eventually unfolded. Now Russia's biggest neighbor in the post-Soviet space, Ukraine, is eyed as future member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization:
NATO sees great potential for co-operation with Ukraine NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow has said that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will support the European aspirations of Ukraine. At the same time, he noted that NATO respects Ukraine’s choice to adhere to the non-aligned status. “The topic of Ukraine’s national security and its relations with international organizations is important, and recent developments in your country as well as in Russia, Republic of Moldova and Armenia have made it even more urgent,” he said.
Relations between Ukraine and Russia have deteriorated during the last few years with disputes over gas being a major contentious point. According to Ukrainian Prime Minster Mykola Azarov, an unequal energy partnership is driving the two countries further and further apart. In addition to economic conflicts, there is also the issue of Ukraine's integration into the European Union which is strongly opposed by the Kremlin.
The Russian government fears that Ukraine's EU membership could go hand in hand with its accession to NATO. Instead Moscow wants Kiev to join the Customs Union, a Russian project which is competing with the EU. Vladimir Putin hopes to expand the Customs Union into a Eurasian Union, a political and economic union of post-Soviet states [emphasis mine]:
Ukraine's geography becomes crucial for Russia's perennial need of a buffer zone vis-a-vis the West and the fear is that alongside the EU integration there could also be membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Moreover, Moscow's Eurasian Union project, which aims at integrating the former Soviet republics under its leadership, loses its shine without Ukraine's inclusion.
At a meeting with European politicians in Yalta, Kremlin adviser Sergei Glazyev noted that there might be Russian sanctions if Kiev signs the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement at the summit in Vilnius in November. But sanctions are not the only thing Kiev should be afraid of:
Glazyev warned there could be a political and social cost of EU integration insofar as separatist movements might spring up in the Russian-dominated eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, which may in turn prompt Russian intervention.
In late 2004, when Ukraine's Supreme Court abrogated Yanukovych's victory due to the CIA's successful Orange Revolution, officials in eastern Ukraine began to talk about home rule and secession. But in the end this did not happen and Ukraine was further removed from the Russian sphere of influence. Now Moscow is apparently threatening to support separatist movements and to intervene on the side of the secessionists in a scenario similar to 2004. Since it is anybody's guess what NATO's reaction to Russian intervention in Ukraine would be, the potential for conflict in regard to Ukraine's EU membership must not be underestimated.
Armenia Sticks With Russia
At least, Russia's CSTO partner Armenia does not cause problems for the Kremlin and prefers the Customs Union over the European Union:
Armenia chooses Russian trade deal over EU Armenia has decided to hang its hat with its former Soviet ally Russia instead of joining a European free-trade agreement, President Serzh Sarksyan announced after meeting with Vladimir Putin.
Yerevan's decision is reasonable, since Russia is Armenia's largest trading partner and the largest foreign investor, accounting for nearly half of Armenia's foreign investment. The two countries maintain close economic and military ties. According to Armenian press reports, Russia plans to expand its military presence in the small country in the South Caucasus:
Haykakan Zhamanak: Russia to expand military presence in Armenia Moscow is going to expand its military presence in Armenia. Haykakan Zhamanak has learnt that the 102nd Russian military base in the Armenian city of Gyumri will be equipped with additional personnel in the near future. A spokesman for the Armenian Defense Ministry, Artsrun Hovhannisyan, neither confirmed nor refuted the information.
Armenia is very important for Moscow because it is Russia's last ally in the Caucasus surrounded by NATO member Turkey and soon-to-be NATO members Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Especially Armenia's arch-enemy Azerbaijan will monitor these developments closely. The Azerbaijani government has enough time to worry about more Russian troops in Armenia since the upcoming election is not really an issue:
Azerbaijan: Presidential Campaign in Name Only? There are three weeks to go before energy-rich Azerbaijan’s presidential vote on October 9, but a race is nowhere to be seen. No political ads adorn the capital, Baku, and no candidate spots are running on private TV channels. The incumbent strongman, 51-year-old Ilham Aliyev, is not even bothering to run an active campaign.
It is safe to say that Ilham Aliyev will win his third term as President. In Azerbaijan, political dissent is hardly tolerated. If opposition politicians bring up the rampant corruption of the Aliyev regime, they are threatened and pelted with water bottles. And critical journalists face even worse:
Thirty-eight-year-old Elmar Huseynov, editor-in-chief of Monitor magazine and one of the most critical journalists of President Ilham Aliyev’s policies, was shot and killed in front of his Baku apartment back in early March, 2005. The crime shocked Azerbaijanis, prompting a condemnation from President Aliyev, along with a promise for a rapid and thorough investigation.
To this day, the crime has not been solved and since Huseynov's death, another journalist has been killed and more than 200 incidents of violence against journalists have been recorded. So Aliyev's power in Azerbaijan remains unchallenged. In Tajikistan, the presidential elections are also approaching and, as well as in Azerbaijan, the outcome of the election is predetermined. Several Tajik opposition groups decided to join forces and nominated a single candidate, prominent human rights advocate Oynihol Bobonazarova, who is close to the Soros Foundations Network.
But although her credentials "are beyond reproach", Bobonazarova will not have a chance against incumbent President Emomalii Rahmon. However, the upcoming elections could have taken an unexpected turn if the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and its splinter group, Jamaat Ansarullah, had managed to pull off the planned terror campaign [emphasis mine]:
Suspected Tajik terrorist confesses on TVThree accused members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Jamaat Ansarullah terrorist groups September 24 admitted on Tajik TV that they planned to detonate several bombs in Dushanbe before the November 6 presidential election. They were among 10 suspects whom authorities arrested earlier in September. In the broadcast on Channel One, the accused ringleader, Alimurod Makhanov, who has various aliases, confessed to joining the IMU in 2011 and rising since then to the position of IMU and Jamaat Ansarullah emir for Tajikistan and the surrounding region. He has links with the Taliban and sent five Tajik men to IMU terrorist training camps in Waziristan, he said.
The IMU is currently working to destabilize Afghanistan's Badakhshan Province in accordance with Washington's plans. Tajikistan's intelligence service, the State Committee for National Security (known by its Russian initials GKNB), recently pointed to a build-up of IMU and Jamaat Ansarullah forces on the Tajik-Afghan border:
Last week, the Afghan National Army in Warduj, Badakhshan Province, killed 44 militants (including some foreigners) from the Taliban, al-Qaeda, the IMU and Jamaat Ansarullah, he said. During the same operation, the Afghans arrested four Tajiks, including one IMU and three Jamaat Ansarullah members, he said. One of the suspects, Mirali Ohunov, was planning to assassinate the Badakhshan governor and security chief. Ohunov faces terrorism charges in Afghanistan.
Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst
Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here