Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ukraine Allows Gazprom to Upgrade Its Gas Pipelines

[Photo Credit: Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at the joint press conference. Moscow, April 29, 2009. Photo courtesy of the Cabinet Press Office/ForUm (]

On Wednesday, April 29, the Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko paid a one-day visit to Moscow to attend the meeting of the Russian-Ukrainian intergovernmental Economic Cooperation Committee and to meet with her counterpart, the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. As expected, gas transit issues topped the agenda of Tymoshenko's brief but productive visit, which produced a number of important results.

Chief among them is Moscow's pledge not to fine Ukraine for failing to purchase 40 billion cubic meters of gas from Russia in 2009 in accordance with the bilateral contracts signed on January 19. The relevant provisions of those contracts stipulate that Ukraine is obliged to pay for the aforementioned amount even if Kyiv decides not to purchase all of it. However, the global economic downturn forced Ukraine to scale down its gas consumption thereby violating its contractual obligations vis-à-vis Russia's Gazprom in the first quarter of 2009.

In exchange, Tymoshenko invited Russia to participate in the EU-led overhaul of Ukraine's gas transportation system. It should be recalled here that the EU-Ukraine declaration on the modernization of Ukrainian gas transit system, which was signed in March, stung Moscow because it excluded Russia. During the joint press conference with Putin, which followed the six-hour talks, Tymoshenko stated, "I think everyone understands that it is impossible to modernize the gas transport system without Russia's participation. We have invited Russia to be a key player in the modernization of our gas transport system."

Ukraine's two other relatively less important concessions to Russia ought to be mentioned as well. Tymoshenko expressed Ukraine's commitment to assisting Russia with its accession to the World Trade Organization. In addition, she assured Moscow that Ukraine does not supply Georgia with weapons and does not intend to do so in the foreseeable future. In the aftermath of the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008, the issue of Ukrainian weapons deliveries to Georgia has been a major irritant in bilateral relations.

The Ukrainian experts praised Tymoshenko's visit to Moscow. Jamestown analyst and Ukraine expert Roman Kupchinsky told the Jamestown Foundation Blog that it must be made clear that Tymoshenko did not give Russia any ownership rights over the Ukrainian gas transport system. The decision to grant Gazprom the right to participate in the modernization of Ukrainian gas transport system Kupchinsky interprets both as a pragmatic step in placating Russia and a reasonable measure to lower the overcharged rhetoric in the area of Ukrainian-Russian energy relations.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Distrust between Russia and EU builds over Eastern Partnership initiative

The meeting of the EU-Russia Permanent Partnership Council on April 28 in Luxembourg presented another vivid example of growing differences over the recently launched EU outreach initiative to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova called the Eastern Partnership (EaP). Conceived by Poland and supported by Sweden, the EaP was formally introduced to the EU in May 2008. It is primarily aimed at forging closer ties between the EU and the six ex-Soviet republics by encouraging democratic changes and free market reforms with targeted assistance programs. The EaP was officially endorsed by the EU on March 20, 2009 and it will be launched at the EU summit in Prague on May 7.

From the outset the EaP caused considerable anxiety in Moscow. At the Brussels Forum in March, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov famously lashed out at the EU for using the EaP as a vehicle for carving out a "sphere of influence" in the post-Soviet space. Lavrov's comments set the stage for his meeting with the Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg (Czech Republic currently holds the EU rotating presidency) in Luxembourg. Before the meeting Schwarzenberg dismissed Lavrov's misgivings regarding the EaP when he told the press, "He knows himself it's nonsense." The Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt stated that Lavrov's comment in March "speaks for itself that he thinks in terms of influence immediately."

At the meeting in Luxembourg the Russian side apparently sought and, at least according to Lavrov, received assurances from the EU that the EaP will not be directed against Russian interests in the post-Soviet space. At the press conference following the EU-Russia meeting, Lavrov guardedly noted, "We heard an announcement from Brussels that this is not an attempt to create a new sphere of influence and that it is not a process which is directed against Russia. We want to believe in this guarantee but I won't deny that some comments on the initiative made by the EU have concerned us." Schwarzenberg attempted to further reassure the Russians when he told the media, "I am sure Russia will see this time that it's not against them. It [EaP] is purely a development project."

Despite the fact that there is much uncertainty about the EaP to begin with, as demonstrated in this thoughtful analysis by RFE/RL's Ahto Lobjakas, the Kremlin's increasing paranoia of encirclement turns all Western initiatives in the post-Soviet space, however benign they may be, into a zero-sum competition for influence in the best traditions of XIX and XX centuries geopolitics. Furthermore, the EaP implementation in states like Belarus, as David Marples discusses in Eurasia Daily Monitor, will be highly questionable in the long term considering the essential incompatibility between the EU standards and the authoritarian nature of the political system in that country. In sum, the EaP emerges as a major irritant in EU-Russia relations and over time it may turn out to be an insurmountable obstacle.

Russian Ministry of Defense Announces Drastic Personnel Cuts

Today Russian Deputy Defense Minister, Army General Nikolai Pankov made public the preliminary results of an unannounced military proficiency test among officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) in the Russian Armed Forces. The results are rather appalling. One in every five senior military officers failed to pass the proficiency test and will be fired. Commenting on the test results General Pankov noted, "We do not intend to keep in the Armed Forces officers, who are unfit for the positions they occupy and with the high rank of an officer. The Minister of Defense made a decision about an unannounced proficiency test for officers and non-commissioned officers of the Armed Forces. And already a significant number of senior officers are considered unfit for the positions they occupy and they will be fired from the ranks of the Armed Forces."

About 85 percent of officers and 70 percent of non-commissioned officers took the proficiency test as of today. The Central Testing Commission, which was set up to administer the proficiency test in the Russian military, reported that the test results of 249 senior military officers (including generals and colonels, who serve as acting generals) disqualified 50, while 66 will be retained and 133 will undergo rotation. In addition, General Pankov announced that this year alone the officer corps of the Russian Armed Forces will be reduced by some 36,000 officers, who will be dismissed from the military service.

The drastic personnel cuts are in line with the Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov's program of reforms to overhaul the traditionally top-heavy Russian military. It should be noted that at present the Russian officer corps represents a whopping 32 percent of the total number of servicemen in the Russian Armed Forces. According to General Pankov, out of the total number of 205,000 officers, who are to be dismissed from the military by the target year of 2012, 53,000 will be socially unprotected because by then they will not have reached the mandatory threshold of 20 years of military service, which guarantees social protection by the state, including guaranteed housing. Releasing such large numbers of unemployed military personnel amid growing unemployment and worsening economic conditions is potentially fraught with major problems in terms of social instability.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Medvedev Replaces Russian Military Intelligence Chief

On Friday, April 24, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sent into retirement the head of the Chief Intelligence Directorate (GRU) General Valentin Korabelnikov. The 63-year-old Korabelnikov, who had been heading the GRU since 1997, is replaced with his deputy, Lieutenant General Alexander Shlyakhturov. The RIA Novosti reports that Korabelnikov consistently opposed the military reforms planned by the Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, who intends to abolish GRU's status as an independent federal agency. In particular, Korabelnikov protested the plans to disband GRU's three elite Special Forces brigades and to subordinate the regional GRU units to the regional army command. According to a GRU source, Korabelnikov submitted retirement requests on a number of occasions, but they were all turned down until now. In line with the protocol befitting such high-level reshuffling, President Medvedev awarded the retiring general with an honorary order and it had already been leaked that Korabelnikov will be retained as a civilian advisor to the Chief of General Staff. Nevertheless, the resignation of the member of the "old guard" in the Russian top brass clears the way for the implementation of Serdyukov's ambitious military reforms at least as they pertain to GRU. At the same time, Russian defense analyst Alexander Golts interprets Korabelnikov's dismissal as belated expression of Kremlin's anger at GRU's performance during the Russia-Georgia war in August 2008.

GRU is Russia's largest intelligence agency and its chief, who also holds the title of Deputy Chief of General Staff, is appointed by the President. GRU functions under the authority of the General Staff of Russian Armed Forces and it is directly subordinated to the Chief of General Staff. GRU collects and analyzes intelligence through its military satellites and vast network of operatives abroad. The strength of GRU's human intelligence collection can be judged by the fact that there are six times as many GRU agents in foreign countries as there are their colleagues from Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), Russia's primary external spying agency. In the interview published in the Russian mainstream newspaper Izvestia in November 2006, General Korabelnikov stated, "If it is necessary we are ready to operate in any locale on the face of this planet. Our military intelligence convincingly and repeatedly demonstrated its effectiveness during the war in Vietnam, Cambodia, Arab-Israeli conflict, in Angola, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Iraq and other crisis points and regions of the world."

Friday, April 24, 2009

Poland, Norway and Turkey to Share Early Warning Radar Data with Russia

At a news conference held in the town of Białystok (eastern Poland) late on Thursday, April 23, Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich unveiled the details of the trilateral initiative by Poland, Norway and Turkey to share early warning radar data with Russia. As envisioned, a command-and-control center will be set up in Warsaw to receive data on airborne threats from three early warning radars in Poland, Norway and Turkey. The Warsaw-based command center will then exchange data on airborne threats with Moscow. Klich considers the planned construction of center in Warsaw "an important element of cooperation with our partners in the East," which underscores that the dialogue between Poland and Russia is "not only political."

Subsequently commenting on Klich's statement the Polish Defense Ministry spokesman Robert Rochowicz noted that this was "a trilateral initiative by Poland, Norway and Turkey" without providing additional details.

The reaction of the United States has been pointedly muted thus far. According to the Russian news agency RIA Novosti, the U.S. military abstained from making comments other than to state that "the matter should be discussed with NATO officials." This raises questions regarding the level of NATO endorsement of the trilateral initiative.

Meanwhile, Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin responded positively by hailing the trilateral initiative "as an example of practical cooperation, which will restore elements of trust between Russia and the alliance." Rogozin stated that in a reciprocal gesture Russia will establish a similar center to exchange early warning radar data with NATO.

The leading Russian defense analyst and security expert Pavel Felgenhauer told the Jamestown Foundation blog that while the exchange of radar data is technically feasible, it is politically sensitive and depends largely on the overall atmosphere of East-West relations. Felgenhauer pointed out that Russia and United States agreed to establish a joint U.S.-Russian global missile launch early warning center years ago (in accordance with the provision regarding the creation of the Joint Data Exchange Center of the U.S.-Russian Strategic Stability Cooperation Initiative signed by Presidents Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin on September 6, 2000), but it failed to materialize. In addition, it is not clear what info will the proposed command center in Poland share with Russia and what will Moscow send in return. Felgenhauer noted that the Russian military, following its old habits, is likely to view any radar data received from Poland as "deliberately planted malicious disinformation," and the existence of the NATO center in Warsaw as more evidence of NATO encirclement of Russia.

[Photo Credit: Defense Minister Bogdan Klich viewing Polish troops. February 11, 2009. Photo courtesy of Rzeczpospolita/Seweryn Sołtys/Źródło: Fotorzepa.]

NATO Exercises Conclude in Azerbaijan

The Regional Response 2009 military exercises, which are carried out in the framework of NATO's Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, conclude in Azerbaijan this weekend. The exercises commenced on April 18 and are due to end on April 26. Focused on multinational peacekeeping operations and intended to contribute to Azerbaijan's Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) with NATO, the Regional Response 2009 consists of three-day staff and five-day field exercises. The defense attaches and representatives of defense ministries from Bulgaria, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Poland, Russia, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine and United States are attending the exercises as participants or observers. At the opening ceremony, Commander of U.S. Army Europe, General Carter F. Ham praised Azerbaijan's contribution to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, where Azerbaijan maintains close to one hundred soldiers.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Russian, Georgian and South Ossetian Sides Meet to Defuse Tensions in the Conflict Zone

The first meeting of Russian, Georgian and South Ossetian sides in accordance with the terms of the incident prevention and response mechanism agreed upon during negotiations in Geneva in February was held today in the Georgian village of Ergneti close to the border between the breakaway region of South Ossetia and Georgia proper. The representatives from OSCE and EU Monitoring Mission also attended this meeting. According to Shota Utiashvili, head of the Analytical and Information Department of the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs, who headed the Georgian delegation, the sides failed to make "progress on concrete issues." The Russian representative, first deputy chief of General Staff, Lieutenant-General Sergei Antonov told the Itar-Tass news agency that the sides agreed to meet twice a month and to establish a 24-hour phone hotline to report incidents. Even though the Georgian side already selected an officer from the Shida Kartli police department to be liaison officer for that purpose, Utiashvili expressed skepticism about the feasibility of the new communications channel. The meeting could not have been timelier considering the recent increase in Russian military presence in South Ossetia, shooting incident on April 22 on the border between South Ossetia and Georgia and the temporary detention of two OSCE observers by the South Ossetian separatists on April 21.

[Photo Credit: Russian checkpoint at the entrance to the Georgian village of Akhmaji on the border between Russian-occupied South Ossetia and Georgia. April 13, 2009. Photo courtesy of Associated Press Photo/Sergei Grits.]

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Amid Intensifying Russian Complaints Kazakhstan Boycotts NATO Exercises in Georgia

Today the Kazakh Minister of Defense Danial Akhmetov announced that his country will not be taking part in the NATO exercises in Georgia planned for May 6-June 1. This was later confirmed by the head of press service of the Ministry of Defense of Kazakhstan, Serik Shalov. Astana is weary of needlessly antagonizing Moscow and the decision to withdraw from NATO exercises at the last moment will be undoubtedly appreciated by the Kremlin. Set to assume the prestigious chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010, Kazakhstan is striving to strike a delicate balance between Russia and the West. In this context, participation in routine low-scale exercises under the NATO aegis against the backdrop of escalating warnings from Moscow in Astana's cost/benefit analysis was probably seen as counterproductive to Kazakhstan's national interests. Yet, Kazakhstan's change of mood is in stark contrast with its fellow CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) member, Armenia. Thus far, Russia's lone erstwhile ally in Transcaucasus has made no indication that it will pull out of the NATO exercises in Georgia. Moreover, the Armenian Ministry of Defense spokesman Seiran Shakhsuvarian stated that Armenia "will definitely take part" in the NATO exercises in Georgia.

The NATO command-and-staff two-part exercises codenamed Cooperative Longbow-2009/Cooperative Lancer-2009 were planned in spring of last year well before the Russia-Georgia war. Aimed mainly at improving the interoperability between the NATO and partner countries as part of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, these exercises will involve 1,300 servicemen from 19 countries (Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Canada, Croatia, Macedonia, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Moldova, Serbia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and the United States) without light or heavy weaponry. The exercises will take place in Tbilisi and at the Vaziani military base, 20 km east of Tbilisi.

Since the official NATO announcement on April 15, 2009, the Russian government has been increasingly voicing its objections to the planned exercises in Georgia. The public statements mirrored the chain of command with the opening salvo by the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko, who denounced the NATO exercises as contributing to "regional destabilization." Similar "concern" for regional stability was echoed later in the statement made by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Russia's eccentric and firebrand envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin called the NATO exercises in Georgia "insanity." On Friday, April 17, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev entered the fray when he described NATO's decision to hold military exercises in Georgia as "dangerous" and alluded to possible consequences for NATO-Russia relations. Today Rogozin specified what those consequences are when he mentioned that Russia will not take part in the meeting of the commanders of the general staffs of Russia and NATO, which was originally planned for May 7.

The Kremlin's ire is understandable because it interprets the conduct of NATO exercises as the demonstration of Western support to Mikheil Saakashvili's government, which has been besieged by the opposition protests since April 9. Thus, despite the seemingly innocuous nature of the NATO exercises, which the Secretary of the Council of Defense Ministers of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Lieutenant General Alexander Sinaisky dismissed as NATO's "political demarche," their timing appears to come into direct conflict with the Kremlin's hopes for collapse of Saakashvili's regime in Georgia amid ebbing and flowing political instability fomented by the fractious and impotent opposition.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Russia to Increase Military Presence in Kyrgyzstan

Today Nikolai Bordyuzha, the Secretary General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – the Russia-dominated military-political grouping of former Soviet states comprising Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – announced that Russia decided to increase its air force assets at Kant air base in Kyrgyzstan. Speaking to journalists during his visit to Kyrgyzstan, Bordyuzha stated: “Russia’s leadership plans to increase the number of military aircraft at Kant (air base). It is in line with the situation in Central Asia and Afghanistan.” Bordyuzha did not provide additional details regarding the number of planes, which Russia intends to send to Kyrgyzstan. Russia’s decision to increase its military presence in Kyrgyzstan should be viewed in the context of impending closure of U.S. air base at Manas, which serves as a vital transportation hub for providing supplies to the NATO and U.S. forces engaged in anti-terrorism and stabilization efforts in Afghanistan. In an overt attempt to calm Kyrgyz anxieties over the expulsion of U.S. forces from Manas, Bordyuzha even deliberately diminished the importance of Manas when he told the RIA Novosti, “I don’t think the pullout of the base from Manas will drastically impact on the state of security in Central Asia.” He insisted that the recently signed transit agreements with Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan will more than compensate for the loss of Manas by providing a more direct access route for the transportation of non-lethal cargo to Afghanistan. It should be recalled here that the Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev demanded the closure of U.S. air base in February in the course of his visit to Moscow, which yielded $2 billion economic assistance package and loan guarantees from the Russian government. Thus, seen against the backdrop of U.S. withdrawal from Kyrgyzstan, even a nominal increase in Russian air force assets here will contribute to consolidation of Moscow’s influence over this impoverished country and, broadly speaking, will increase the Kremlin’s bargaining leverage with the West vis-à-vis Afghanistan.

Israel-Russia UAV Deal Reflects Conflicting Rationales and Interests

In early April, Israel agreed to the $50 million deal to supply Russia with three different types of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). According to the details of the agreement leaked to the press, the Israeli state-owned company Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) will provide Russia with the mid-range Bird-Eye series UAVs, including Bird-Eye 400, I-View MK 150, and Search MK II. These UAVs can remain in autonomous flight for the duration of up to five hours. The Russian purchase order consists of three drones and their ground operating systems, as well as training, maintenance, technical support and an option to purchase additional units up to $100 million. This is the first weapons deal between Russia and Israel and it marks the first time since 1940 that the Kremlin approved purchase of foreign military technology.

Russia's interest in acquiring the Israeli UAVs stems primarily from the fact that its indigenous UAV production capabilities are severely lagging behind. This was particularly evident during last year's armed conflict between Georgia and Russia when towards the end of hostilities the performance of Russian Tipchak UAV was fraught with "very many problems," according to the Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Popovkin, who is responsible for defense procurements. From Moscow's perspective the urgency of UAV acquisition was also highlighted by the fact that Georgia possesses a whole fleet of UAVs manufactured by the Israeli company Elbit Systems. Tbilisi successfully deployed UAVs for reconnaissance purposes during the August conflict and prior to that. As a matter of fact, exactly a year ago on this date a Georgian UAV was shot down by the Russian MIG-29 fighter jet over the breakaway region of Abkhazia. The UN Observer Mission in Georgia subsequently produced the report describing that incident in detail.

Even though, according to the Israeli sources, the UAV contract incorporates a provision that obliges Russia not to reverse-engineer the purchased drones with the purpose of launching their domestic production, the Russian side made it abundantly clear that it intends to do precisely that. Consistent with the Kremlin's ambitious military modernization program, the acquisition of Israeli UAVs serves one purpose - to allow Russian defense manufacturers to study the Israeli UAV designs to improve domestic production. Popovkin even tactlessly joked that "as for the Israeli pilotless aircraft, we will work on them like the Chinese do" in an apparent reference to Beijing's extensive efforts to improve its military posture by copying foreign defense know how.

For Israel, the UAV deal with Russia represented a considerable departure from the established policy, which significantly restricts the transfer of defense technology and weapons to Moscow. With no objections from Pentagon, the deal was approved with the expectation that in exchange for UAVs Moscow would indefinitely halt its planned sale of S-300 strategic air defense systems to Iran, which is valued at $800 million. Instead, according to the Israeli defense sources, Tel Aviv received only vague assurances. Israeli frustration with lack of reciprocity was expressed by a recently retired Israeli official with knowledge of bilateral security talks, who acknowledged, "The most we have at this point is a vague assurance that the deal is not going ahead. But that could change at any time, and one of the relevant factors is Israel's policies on Iran."

Meanwhile, on March 18, 2009, an unnamed official from the Federal Military-Technical Cooperation Service acknowledged the existence of Russian-Iranian contract for the delivery of S-300 air defense systems, which was signed in 2007. The Russian official underscored that none of the weapons platforms had been delivered to Iran yet. The Iranian side, on the other hand, expressed confidence that the S-300 deal would go ahead. On April 15, 2009, at the press conference in Moscow, Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Safari stated, "There are no problems with this [S-300] contract. After all, these are purely defensive weapons, and any country has the right to buy them. I believe this could only worry those states that have plans to attack others."

Surely Tel Aviv did not expect Moscow to immediately drop such a valuable bargaining chip as S-300 deal in exchange for the UAV purchase, but the bitter aftertaste of lowered expectations is likely to linger among Israeli officials for some time to come.