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Author Topic: Russia-Turkey, Georgia, Caucasus, Central Asia  (Read 32530 times)
Crafty_Dog
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« Reply #100 on: March 11, 2015, 09:43:36 AM »



As Russian forces consolidate their gains in Ukraine over the flat protests of Western leaders, the specter of Russian revanchism is keeping much of Eastern Europe on edge. But lumbering tanks and legions of insta-separatists aren’t the only concern. Ukraine isn’t Russia’s only target.

Perhaps most alarming are the warning signs going off in Georgia, a steadfast Euro-Atlantic partner where a pro-Western political consensus has long been a foreign-policy calling card. A long-standing opponent of Russian military adventurism, Georgia sought escape velocity from Russian regional dominance by courting membership in Euro-Atlantic structures and earned a reputation as an enthusiastic and credible Western partner. But

    Western quiescence in the face of Russian territorial aggression is starting to have an effect.

Western quiescence in the face of Russian territorial aggression is starting to have an effect. After decades of acrimony in which Georgians have watched Russian proxies occupy 20 percent of their territory and ethnically cleanse some 300,000 of their compatriots, certain groups are starting to ask if maintaining close ties to the West is worth all the loss. Increasingly, Georgians are beginning to think that it isn’t.

The groups spearheading Russian influence operations in Georgia fly beneath the international radar under the cloak of local-language media and the oft-repeated surety of pro-Western sentiment. But they can be seen protesting in Tbilisi streets, preaching in Georgian churches, and holding improbably well-funded campaign rallies ahead of elections. The evidence shows that Russian influence in Georgia is growing stronger. (In the photo, a Stalin impersonator poses at a memorial service for the Soviet dictator in his Georgian hometown of Gori.)

But at Washington roundtables and in private conversations, Western officials and experts tend to downplay the possibility of Russian-exported propaganda taking root in Georgia. The root of this complacency is tied to regular polling from the U.S.-funded International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) that has consistently showed public support for Euro-Atlantic integration at between 60 and 70 percent. Successive governments have relied on this popular approval to justify their Western-facing foreign-policy agendas.

So support for Euro-Atlantic integration is broad. But is it deep? Those who have spent time with ordinary Georgians say the reality, as is often the case, is far more complex.

There, in a scene in the popular Georgian soap opera Chemi Tsolis Dakalebi (My Wife’s Best Friends), revelers at a wedding reception are interrupted by an announcement that Georgia has just been awarded a long-coveted “MAP” (membership action plan), a prelude to NATO membership. The announcement shocks the crowd into a stunned silence, which then gives way to raucous cheers. One character, while clapping and celebrating along with the others, turns to another partygoer and asks: “What’s a MAP?”

While the scene colorfully illuminates NATO’s outsized social, and even civilizational, pull among Georgians, it also suggests a harsher truth: that Georgian society’s Western moorings may be more emotive than well-informed. The headline numbers from public opinion polls don’t tell the whole story. Look deeper into the data, and the picture is much more worrisome.

According to an NDI poll last August, integration with the West was at best a tertiary issue for Georgians. Instead, “kitchen table” issues dominated respondents’ concerns, with worries about jobs (63 percent) and poverty (32 percent) eclipsing other issues. NATO and EU integration came in far behind at 10th and 17th, respectively. And of 21 issues polled, Georgians picked NATO and EU membership as the top issues the government spent too much time discussing.

But most concerning, buried deep in the survey results, were signs of growing support for joining the Eurasian Union, a Moscow-led EU “alternative.” A full 20 percent favored the idea of Georgian membership. This percentage has risen steadily from 11 percent in late 2013 to 16 percent in mid-2014. Who are these Georgians who would surrender their country’s sovereignty to the same power that keeps a steely grip on Georgian territory and carves other neighboring states with impunity?

Part of the answer can be found in a budding segment of the nongovernmental sector, consisting of innocuously named pro-Russian groups like the “Eurasian Institute,” “Eurasian Choice,” and “The Earth Is Our Home.” Many of these organizations pop in and out of existence as needed — the “Peace Committee of Georgia” one week, something else the next — but they are often tied to the same group of pro-Russian ideologues and policy entrepreneurs who make regular pilgrimages to Moscow and, according to Georgian officials in the ruling party and the opposition, almost certainly receive Kremlin funding. Their common message isn’t high-church Russian apologia or Soviet nostalgia, but rather “Eurasianism” and “Orthodox civilization” — Kremlin shorthand for Putinism. Appeals to Georgian social conservatism, economic vulnerability, and lingering anger over past government abuses are winning converts within a population increasingly impatient with Georgia’s unrequited love affair with the West.

In mid-2014, Eurasianist groups made headlines for their raucous opposition to an anti-discrimination bill making its way through the Georgian parliament. Their opposition centered on language in the bill banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, which opponents claimed was tantamount to promoting non-heterosexual lifestyles. But they didn’t come to the protests alone — accompanying the pro-Russian activists were unmistakably garbed clerics from the Georgian Orthodox Church.

The church, too, was nonplussed over the anti-discrimination bill and called for language protecting sexual minorities to be ejected. One of the oldest existing Christian churches in the world, the Georgian Orthodox Church is both a touchstone for Georgian nationalism and reliably polls as the most trusted institution in the country. But the church’s common cause with the Eurasianists was not limited to tactical alliances over anti-gay rhetoric. Although nominally in favor of Georgian membership in the European Union, influential factions within the Orthodox hierarchy openly stoke religious nationalism and express admiration for Russia.

Today, church representatives are increasingly seen as a vanguard for reactionary activity. In mid-2013, clergy members were on the front lines of a horrifying anti-gay pogrom in central Tbilisi. Church officials have justified protests against and attacks on Georgian Muslims. And church leaders have called the West “worse than Russia,” sometimes describing the 2008 Russian invasion as a kind of heavenly intervention against Western integration. Such language is echoed by Georgia’s Eurasianist NGOs.

The growing profile of pro-Russian organizations and the sharpening anti-Western stance of the church is converging with a third leg in an emerging pro-Russian triad: the revitalization of anti-Western political parties.

    Since the 2012 change in power, pro-Russian politicians have risen from the darkest margins of Georgian political life into an increasingly viable political force.

Since the 2012 change in power, pro-Russian politicians have risen from the darkest margins of Georgian political life into an increasingly viable political force.

Onetime pro-Western advocate turned pro-Russian political agitator Nino Burjanadze has fashioned a political coalition aimed squarely at breaking Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic consensus. In presidential and local elections in 2013 and 2014, respectively, Burjanadze managed to get about 10 percent of the vote, armed with Eurasianist rhetoric and fueled by massive influxes of what was likely Russian money. And the rapidly growing Alliance of Patriots — a populist party with anti-Western leanings, which recently held a major rally in Tbilisi — won almost 5 percent in June 2014. If these numbers hold, parliamentary elections in 2016 could very well yield a very differently oriented Georgian government. A 15 percent result would be more than enough to send pro-Russian deputies into parliament in force, shattering cross-partisan foreign-policy unity and potentially playing kingmakers in coalition talks.

Irakli Alasania, Georgia’s former defense minister, has Russia on his mind. “There are very active pro-Russia groups and thousands of protesters who are against Western integration,” he told me recently, referring to the Alliance of Patriots rally. He expressed worry that the current government is downplaying a growing Russian threat. With his own Free Democrats now part of the parliamentary opposition, the ruling Georgian Dream coalition’s ranks of solidly pro-Western parties has noticeably thinned, and the leverage of socially conservative, protectionist factions within the coalition has increased.

But this is probably only the beginning. If trends hold, Georgia’s foreign-policy consensus — long taken for granted in the West — could begin to unravel in earnest. Although Georgian Dream, to its credit, has managed to skate the knife’s edge between geopolitical pragmatism and Euro-Atlantic enthusiasm, it is increasingly losing popularity among once-hopeful voters. As things stand, parliament in 2016 looks like it will be very different from today’s parliament. The pro-Western opposition United National Movement will likely see its 51 seats slashed by half or more. In its place is likely to be a collection of openly anti-Western deputies from Burjanadze’s coalition and the Alliance of Patriots. If it stays together, Georgian Dream may well remain the largest parliamentary bloc, but the introduction of large anti-Western groupings into parliament could compel it to dilute, or even abandon, its pro-Western policies out of political necessity.

This trajectory ought to be a cause for deep concern. Even a Georgia that tried to split its orientation between the West and Moscow would likely sink into the quicksand of Russian dominance, as have each of the other paragons of this strategy — Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Kazakhstan. This result would mean the consolidation of Russian geostrategic supremacy over the Caucasus and, with it, a complete Russian monopoly over trans-Eurasian energy and trade flows.

    There are ways the West could throw a much-needed lifeline to Georgian liberals.

There are ways the West could throw a much-needed lifeline to Georgian liberals. While the association agreement with the European Union signed last June is surely a welcome symbol, and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area has great future potential, the real prize for most ordinary Georgians is the prospect of visa-free travel to the EU. If this is introduced this year, as widely hoped, this could be a real boon for Western credibility. And if not outright NATO membership, other strong gestures, such as U.S. major non-NATO ally status, would be a relatively painless upgrade that would enshrine what is essentially the status quo while recognizing Georgia’s long-outsized dedication and contributions to the Euro-Atlantic space.

What is clear is that the days of taking Georgia’s pro-Western consensus for granted are quickly coming to a close. Russian influence is resurgent across its periphery, from Eastern Europe to the Caucasus to Central Asia, and Georgia remains a long-coveted prize. It may have taken successive military interventions, information warfare, and influence operations, but Moscow looks to be turning a corner in its bid to regain Georgia — both by hook and by crook.
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Crafty_Dog
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« Reply #101 on: April 12, 2015, 01:32:10 PM »

 Why Russia Will Send More Troops to Central Asia
Analysis
April 11, 2015 | 12:59 GMT
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Russian soldiers take part in the August 2014 Indestructible Brotherhood joint military exercises at the Ala-Too training ground in Kyrgyzstan. (VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

Russia is making a concerted effort to increase its military and security presence throughout Central Asia, just not for the reasons it would have you think. Though the Kremlin is concerned with the threat of spillover violence from Islamist militancy in Afghanistan — its purported motive for deploying more troops — it is far more alarmed by what it sees as Chinese and Western encroachment into lands over which it has long held sway. It is this concern that will shape Moscow's behavior in Central Asia in the years to come.
Analysis

Central Asia has played an important role in the projection of Russian military power since the Russian Empire's expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries. During this period, Russia established military outposts as it competed with the British Empire for influence in the region. By the mid-19th century, Russia had brought modern-day Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan into its empire. In the early 20th century, the countries were incorporated into the Soviet Union.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia retained a military presence in Central Asia and played a major role in regional conflicts, such as the 1992-1997 Tajik civil war. Today Russia still has military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Kazakhstan is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military bloc dominated by Moscow. And while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are not members of the bloc, they do have important security and military ties with Russia through arms purchases.

Concerns of Militancy

Russia's long-standing influence in Central Asian military affairs frames several of the country's recent moves. On April 2, the base commander of Russia's 201st military base in Tajikistan said Russia would increase the number of troops stationed there from 5,900 to 9,000 over the next five years and add more military equipment through 2020. Then on April 3 an unnamed source in the General Staff of the Russian armed forces told Kommersant that Russia was prepared to grant Tajikistan $1.2 billion in military aid over the next few years. Russian military specialists were reportedly dispatched to Turkmenistan's border with Afghanistan on March 24 as well. Turkmen officials have yet to confirm this, but local media report that Ashgabat requested Russian assistance to protect the Afghan border.

Officially, these developments are tied to growing concern over violence spilling over from Afghanistan into Central Asia. It is a legitimate fear for many Central Asian governments as NATO and the United States draw down their forces in Afghanistan. Regional governments have voiced discomfort with the increased militant presence in northern Afghanistan, including the Taliban and the Islamic State.

Russia has echoed this fear. Russian President Vladimir Putin's special representative for Afghanistan alleged that Islamic State fighters in the north are training thousands of militants near the Tajikistan and Turkmenistan borders. Collective Security Treaty Organization summits have focused on the issue, and Tajikistan urged the bloc to do more to counter the threat at the April 1-2 Dushanbe summit.

Despite a definite uptick in militant attacks in northern Afghanistan, no concrete evidence has emerged of attacks over the border in Central Asian states. Central Asia's last major wave of regionwide militancy was 1999-2001, when the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan conducted attacks in the Fergana Valley in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The U.S. intervention in Afghanistan following 9/11, however, wiped out much of the group. Surviving elements then dispersed throughout the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area.

Since then, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan have seen some attacks by Islamist militants. But many were related to political dynamics, not the movement in Afghanistan. A spillover of Afghan militancy is possible, but so far the threat is minimal.
More Pertinent Factors

Because Islamist spillover from northern Afghanistan is still a relatively minor threat, Russia's push into Central Asia may have other motivations. Moscow is engaged in a tense standoff with the West over Ukraine, just one theater in the competition for influence along the former Soviet periphery. Central Asia is another key region in this contest. The region possesses sizable oil and natural gas resources that are attractive to the European Union as it seeks to diversify energy supplies and end its dependence on Russia. Europe has already pursued Turkmenistan to join the Trans-Caspian pipeline project.

The United States has also been active in Central Asia, particularly from a security standpoint. The United States no longer uses Central Asian military bases that had been logistical centers for operations in Afghanistan, such as the Kant Air Base in Kyrgyzstan or the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base in Uzbekistan. These bases, however, have left a regional legacy. Washington maintains some security operations that include counternarcotics training with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The United States has also expressed interest in increasing its commitment. The commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Lloyd Austin, said the United States was willing to provide military equipment and technology to support Turkmenistan's efforts to secure its border with Afghanistan. The United States also announced in January that it would grant over 200 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles to Uzbekistan previously used in the U.S. Northern Distribution Network in Afghanistan. Such gestures point to a U.S. desire to develop more cooperative security relationships with Central Asian states.

Moscow's military and security expansion efforts stem partly from its concern about these gestures. But Russia has not limited itself to deploying military personnel. Moscow has expanded the scope and membership of its Eurasian Union to include broader cooperation on issues including border controls. Kazakhstan is already a member, and Kyrgyzstan will soon join. Russia increased the number of exercises held by Collective Security Treaty Organization members. It also called on Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to cooperate more with the security bloc, though both have been hesitant.

However, Moscow's ability to solidify its position in Central Asia will be limited. Russia has a weak economy. Already, many Central Asian migrants who once worked in Russia have left, causing a decline in Russian remittances to the region. The West, and particularly the United States, will continue to have influence in the region. China, too, will continue to make economic and energy inroads.

Meanwhile, instability in the region will probably increase. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan both have potential succession crises in the offing. Moreover, demographic growth and competition over water resources are likely to threaten the region's security. Russia will see its position in Central Asia tested in the coming years. Islamist militancy is just one concern among many for Moscow and Central Asian governments.
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Crafty_Dog
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« Reply #102 on: May 24, 2015, 09:35:25 PM »

I have posted many times on this matter of the geopolitical significance of central Asia gas and how Russia needed it in order to control Europe:


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Russia Carries On With Turkish Stream Pipeline
Analysis
May 22, 2015 | 16:10 GMT

Russian energy company Gazprom has made it clear that it intends to move forward with the construction of the Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline as quickly as possible, whether or not the project can overcome political obstacles in Europe. Earlier in May, Gazprom notified a subsidiary of Italian energy firm Saipem that it could begin laying pipes for the planned 63 billion-cubic-meter pipeline in the Black Sea and also resumed a contract with Germany's Europipe for 150,000 metric tons of pipe for the project. Russia said it plans to start constructing the underwater portion of the pipeline in June.

Gazprom has already told Europe that it plans to cease using its current export route through Ukraine in 2019 and shift those natural gas supplies to the Turkish Stream pipeline. But the Europeans believe Russia will not follow through with its plans if Europe does not build the infrastructure necessary to deliver gas from Turkey to the markets currently serviced by the Ukrainian route. Meanwhile Russia has invested enough and has sufficient supplies available to at least begin construction on the first of Turkish Stream's four parallel pipelines, each with a capacity of about 16 billion cubic meters. Russia is banking on Europe caving in by the time Gazprom is ready to start constructing the other pipelines. Even if Europe does not compromise in the medium term, Gazprom can use a smaller version of Turkish Stream to supply the small but growing Turkish natural gas market.

Analysis

One of Russia's tools for influence in Europe is its status as the dominant producer of natural gas and oil for the Continent. Moscow also uses its pipeline networks to exert influence over transit states such as Belarus and Ukraine as well as European countries further downstream.

For much of the 2000s, Russia's primary export route into Europe was a main line through Ukraine that branched out as it headed west toward Austria, Italy, Germany and other major consumers. This meant that whenever Russia and Ukraine had a dispute that led to a cutoff of natural gas to Ukraine, as occurred in 2006 and 2009, it invariably impacted the supply of energy to the rest of Europe. To avoid repeating this scenario, Moscow mustered enough financial and political support to build the Nord Stream pipeline, which now delivers natural gas across the Baltic Sea directly to Germany, Gazprom's largest European customer.

South Stream was meant to be the southern route that would bypass Ukraine by delivering natural gas across the Black Sea directly to Bulgaria and then to Central and Southeastern Europe. The financial and political support for South Stream came more slowly than support for its northern counterpart, but by the end of 2013, South Stream had enough resources to begin awarding contracts for pipe-laying, pipe fabrication and other construction-related services. However, the crisis in Ukraine halted the project before all the contracts had been awarded, and what little political support it had in Southeastern Europe evaporated under strong political pressure from the European Commission and more dominant European countries. At the same time, Russia spiraled into another major financial crisis, leaving funding for such large projects in question. 

South Stream was canceled in December 2014. Almost immediately, it was replaced with the Turkish Stream plan, which is being designed to send the same amount of natural gas to Turkey as its ill-fated predecessor, almost directly across the border with Bulgaria. For Russia, Turkish Stream achieves the same goal as South Stream, but without the political constraints of transporting gas to EU member Bulgaria. And in return for its support of the new project, Turkey is hoping to get a 10.25 percent discount on its energy supply from Russia.
Turkish Stream

Russia is now using the contractors and subcontractors it enlisted for South Stream to accelerate the development of Turkish Stream. The contracts with Europipe and Saipem are just two of many that are likely to be migrated from the canceled project to its replacement. Gazprom is also likely prioritizing work on the first of the four planned parallel pipelines, each of which would carry about one-fourth of Turkish Stream's planned capacity. Gazprom hopes to have the first pipeline finished by December 2016.

Neither the Russian government nor Gazprom have the financing in place for the entire Turkish Stream project. Instead, they have opted to take a piecemeal approach. With oil and natural gas prices low, financing the later portions of Turkish Stream could be a challenge for Gazprom until Russia's economy improves.

Even before Russia envisioned Turkish Stream, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for Gazprom to concurrently finance both South Stream and another planned energy project, the Power of Siberia pipeline to China — the combined cost of which would exceed $100 billion. This was one of the main reasons Gazprom sought international financial partners for both projects. Russia has secured significant financing from China for the Power of Siberia project, though Gazprom has complained that China has been slow in delivering the money. Russia has also swapped the order in which it initally planned to construct the two pipelines to China, choosing to prioritize the Altai pipeline, which will transport natural gas from western Siberia to the border with China between Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Choosing to construct this shorter pipeline first gives Gazprom more flexibility in financing Turkish Stream given limited Western capital.

Getting foreign participation from Europe is even more difficult for the Turkish Stream project than it was for South Stream. Even if the West relaxes sanctions on Russia, business confidence in long-term contracts with Russia will remain relatively low, meaning that Russia must offer fairly high rates of return. Politically, Turkish Stream is highly unpopular in Europe. The Europeans are making every effort possible to develop alternatives, such as the Trans-Anatolian, Trans-Adriatic and Trans-Caspian pipelines, which could transport natural gas from Turkmenistan to Europe. Companies in Europe are throwing their support and finances behind some of these other projects.

A major worry for Moscow is that Russia will build Turkish Stream but have no means of transporting Europe's natural gas beyond the Turkish border. Right now, almost all of Europe's natural gas transportation infrastructure goes either from Northwestern Europe, bringing natural gas from the North Sea into Central and Southeastern Europe, or from Ukraine westward or southward. None of the infrastructure is designed to bring natural gas from the extreme southeast to other markets. In essence, Turkey and Bulgaria are at the end of Eurasia's natural gas supply chain networks. Moving natural gas to the north and west was a problem with South Stream as well, but Russia eventually found partners to extend the pipeline all the way into Central Europe. Because of the European Union's Third Energy Package, Gazprom cannot build and operate pipelines in Europe, so it must wait for the Europeans to develop the infrastructure. The Trans-Adriatic and Trans-Anatolian pipelines are designed to solve this problem for natural gas from the Caspian region, but the initial capacity for the Trans-Adriatic is exempt from Europe's open access rules, meaning Gazprom cannot use it anytime soon.
Differences Between Nord Stream and Turkish Stream

A similar process existed for the construction of the Nord Stream pipeline. Gazprom began awarding the construction contracts and building the pipeline well before Moscow and Berlin finalized the political agreement for the project and before Gazprom had hammered out the final details concerning the onshore distribution networks. However, there are two major differences between Nord Stream and Turkish Stream.

First, Germany is Europe's wealthiest economy, and its industrial base provided the money needed to finance and build the infrastructure for Nord Stream. There is no equivalent sponsor country for Turkish Stream. The biggest consumer in the immediate region is obviously Turkey, which currently gets half of its Russian natural gas through Ukraine — notably, close to the same amount it could get through one of Turkish Stream's four planned pipelines, about 15 billion cubic meters. Turkey would not need to build a lot of infrastructure, since Turkish Stream would tap into existing pipeline networks north of Istanbul that deliver natural gas southward via the Ukrainian route. Italy could gain from the project, but it is already tied into other networks and is not heavily reliant on Russian natural gas. Economic constraints on many of the countries in Southeastern Europe, including Turkey, limit the financial backing available for projects such as Turkish Stream. Russia's best hope is that Western Europe would provide loands or other menas to incentivize the construction of networks to link to the planned Russian pipeline, but doing so would undermine the Europeans' policy of support for Ukraine and is thus politically unpopular in the European Union.

Second, Nord Stream was built in an entirely different geopolitical environment. Germany has become relatively assertive in negotiations with the Kremlin over the future of Ukraine. Nord Stream was planned and built without this tension as a backdrop. Moreover, Brussels has a greater political imperative to protect Ukraine's integrity and prominence. Its role as a transit state is key, because if Russia disrupts natural gas supplies to Ukraine, the Europeans will get involved, making the consequences more daunting for Moscow. Nord Stream was also built during a time of high energy prices, meaning high returns on investments in energy projects. Now that oil and natural gas prices are low, similarly high returns are unlikely.

Building the entire Turkish Stream pipeline project will be a complicated and protracted process, and the project may never reach its full potential. However, Russia's approach reveals a nuanced, low-risk plan for the pipeline. The capacity of the first of four planned pipelines is roughly equivalent to all of the natural gas that Russia delivers to Turkey through Ukraine. Moreover, the pipeline network that carries supplies from Ukraine to Turkey is already filled to capacity. Turkey is one of Russia's most important natural gas markets in the long term, and its natural gas demand has more than doubled over the past 10 years. By the mid 2020s, Turkey's natural gas demand could amount to the entire volume carried by the first two legs of Turkish Stream, and it will almost certainly need the amount of natural gas carried by the first leg even sooner.

This means that moving forward with Turkish Stream serves dual purposes: If the Europeans build the necessary infrastructure for Russia to tap into, then Moscow will have no problem accelerating the rest of the project. If not, then the new pipeline will still allow Russia to expand its export potential to the rapidly growing Turkish energy market.
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Crafty_Dog
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« Reply #103 on: June 27, 2015, 06:12:03 PM »

 How Turkmenistan Can Alter the Russia-West Standoff
Geopolitical Diary
June 25, 2015 | 23:32 GMT
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On Thursday, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak expressed interest in potentially increasing Russia's natural gas imports from Turkmenistan. The same day, the Kazakh parliament ratified an agreement on the delineation of the Caspian Sea boundaries between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. While seemingly mundane and unrelated, these two events are interconnected and reflect Turkmenistan's potential to fundamentally alter an important element of the standoff between Russia and the West.

Turkmenistan's importance stems from two factors: its energy resources and its location. The country produces 77 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year and exports 44 bcm annually. Its natural gas reserves, an estimated 17.5 trillion cubic meters, are among the world's largest, making it a major global natural gas producer and exporter capable of becoming an even more important energy player down the road.

But it is Turkmenistan's location that has elevated the country in the standoff between Russia and the West. Situated astride the Caspian Sea and between major energy consumers to the east and the west, Turkmenistan has become a key component of the "Southern Corridor" energy route that the European Union has been giving increasing consideration to as a means of reducing Europe's dependence on Russian energy. This route, which would facilitate the transport of energy supplies from the Caspian region through the Caucasus and Turkey and onward to Europe, is explicitly meant to avoid Russia, both as a supplier and transit route for energy.

Until now, Azerbaijan has been the only meaningful contributor to the Southern Corridor, primarily through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and South Caucasus pipelines, which have been transporting oil and natural gas respectively for the past decade. But the volumes that Azerbaijan exports to Europe are relatively small, and even the slated expansion of production and exports from the Shah Deniz II natural gas field, which is set to come online in 2018, is expected to add only around 10 bcm of natural gas supplies to Europe. But if another legitimate natural gas producer — like Turkmenistan — were to add to the natural gas supplies from Azerbaijan, the possibility of real diversification from Russia would go up considerably.

This consideration spawned an intense European diplomatic offensive over the past few months in an effort to persuade Turkmenistan to contribute to the Southern Corridor. The European Union is particularly interested in the Trans-Caspian Pipeline, which would be a relatively short conduit connecting Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan along the Caspian Sea.

However, two major issues stand in Europe's way. One is the legal status of the Caspian Sea, with maritime boundaries in dispute among the littoral states of Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. It has been a thorny issue for decades, and numerous summits and meetings have led to little concrete movement toward a legal resolution. But recent developments, including today's bilateral ratification between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan over their border and statements by Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov that a "breakthrough" could be reached on the legal convention at the next Caspian summit in Astana in 2016, show that this issue may not be an obstacle for long.

The other, more difficult, issue is Russia itself. As it does in the rest of Central Asia, Moscow has political, social, economic and security influence over Ashgabat. Combined with Turkmenistan's self-imposed isolationism, centralized political system and wariness of Western involvement, Russia's leverage has made Ashgabat cautious when it comes to working with Europe, especially on strategic projects that threaten Russian interests and could provoke Moscow's ire.

But Turkmenistan is not willing to do Russia's bidding unconditionally. Ties between Ashgabat and Moscow have been strained since 2009, when a pipeline blast ruptured a major energy connection between the two countries. Previously, Turkmenistan had been sending more than 90 percent of its natural gas to Russia. But after that incident, Ashgabat sped up work on alternative pipeline projects, redirecting much of its exported natural gas to China. Though Turkmenistan is still reluctant to openly and officially commit to any Southern Corridor projects with Europe, Ashgabat has been more willing to discuss the matter and show that it is at least interested. Russia's pronouncement that it is open to increasing imports from Turkmenistan again is likely an acknowledgment that Ashgabat has other options — as well as that Turkmenistan's strategic importance has increased in light of Russia's weakened position and the West's more assertive actions in challenging Moscow in its near abroad.

Turkmenistan's decision to either remain aloof from Europe's attempts to diversify from Russian energy or to commit officially to participating in the Southern Corridor could have significant consequences. Ashgabat is likely to hold its cards close to its chest as long as it can, but watching for any indications of which direction Turkmenistan is leaning will be tremendously important to gauging the fate of the broader conflict between Russia and the West.
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Crafty_Dog
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« Reply #104 on: August 01, 2015, 11:15:12 AM »


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Russia Quietly Encroaches on Georgia
Analysis
July 28, 2015 | 09:00 GMT

Protesters wave Georgian flags in the village of Khurtaveli, close to the breakaway Georgian territory of South Ossetia, July 17. (VANO SHLAMOV/AFP Photo)

Summary

With Russia's help, the disputed territory of South Ossetia is encroaching more deeply into Georgia, but the expansion is unlikely to escalate into a major conflict. On July 10, Russian-backed South Ossetian forces unilaterally placed border markers close to the Georgian villages of Tsitelubani and Orchosani. The newly occupied area incorporated 1,605 meters (almost a mile) of the BP-operated Baku-Supsa pipeline. Though this symbolic show of power is important in its own right, it is part of a larger trend: The South Ossetians have slowly been pushing their boundaries southward into Georgian territory over the past several years. The drive is prompted by several factors, including Russia's insecure military position in South Ossetia, which lacks geographic depth and is threatened by the West's increased military activities in the Black Sea region. However, despite the slow advancement into Georgian territory, Russia is unlikely to stage a major military campaign any time soon.

Analysis

Since the war between Georgia and Russia-backed South Ossetia ended in 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been no clearly demarcated line between Tbilisi-controlled and separatist-controlled territory. After the war, Tbilisi governed large parts of the territories that belonged to the South Ossetian autonomous republic during Soviet times, including most of the strategically important Akhalgori region. Although skirmishes along the dividing line occasionally took place, they did not devolve into something serious until 2008, when war broke out between Georgia and Russia. In August 2008, South Ossetian and Russian forces occupied the Akhalgori region and pushed past the demarcated border to occupy land controlled by Tbilisi. Since then, the South Ossetians, with Russian help, have been actively building defensive infrastructure to fend off any possible Georgian assault.

Following the 2008 war, the Russians began creeping into Georgian territory rather than forcefully advancing on it. In 2010, reports surfaced alleging that Russian forces had pushed the border 2 kilometers southward in the Akhalgori region. Authorities quickly denied the reports, but Tbilisi had to admit that the border had indeed advanced farther into Georgian territory since the 2008 war, particularly near the Perevi village in eastern South Ossetia. In March 2013, Russian and South Ossetian forces fenced in five villages, comprising some 100 hectares. Later, in May and September of the same year, the Russians moved farther south and occupied the mainly Georgian-populated villages of Ditsi and Dvani. In Dvani alone, the border moved by some 600 meters. But these moves were dwarfed this year by Russia's July 10 advance into the Georgian-populated villages of Tsitelubani and Orchosani.

Russia's Strategic Motivations

Moscow had military superiority over Georgia in the war of 2008. However, Russian forces faced an important strategic challenge thereafter: how to defend South Ossetia, which unlike the other breakaway territory of Abkhazia, does not share a long border with Russia. Instead, South Ossetia is almost completely surrounded by Georgian territory. And Tskhinvali — the capital of South Ossetia and a strategically important city on the route north to the major Caucasian pass Djava — is very close to the Georgian border, which inhibits the Russian forces from having geographic depth for effective defense. Furthermore, there are no major rivers or mountain ranges running along the contact line between the Georgian and separatist regions. In fact, there is no geographic barrier at all until Gori — a strategically important city at the center of the country. Moving southward provides the Russians with a necessary geographic depth, which, along with the development of defensive infrastructure, would buy them time if conflict broke out again. Nevertheless, the Russians would still find the lack of natural obstacles problematic if it came to open warfare.

The timing of the July 10 advance is also interesting because of the evolving political situation and rising Western military influence in the South Caucasus amid the broader standoff between Russia and the West. Georgia's integration efforts with the European Union present a major problem for Russia. In addition, Moscow is especially worried about the increasing military cooperation, constant defense meetings and military drills taking place between Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey — intended to protect the major infrastructure projects running through all the three countries. Russia is also likely uncomfortable with the fact that the Georgian military has been holding joint military drills with U.S. and NATO forces more and more regularly over the past several months. In fact, many previous Russian pushes southward also took place as Tbilisi made major steps toward integration with the European Union and NATO, so it is unsurprising that the most recent push would coincide with the NATO-sponsored military drills dubbed Agile Spirit that are currently taking place in Georgia.

Although tactical border movements seem like an unusual political response, they are important when it comes to ensuring Russia's defensive capabilities in South Ossetia. A NATO training center is set to open in Georgia later this year, which will enhance Tbilisi's military capabilities and boost the Western military presence on Georgian soil. It is within this context that Russia is working to also expand its capabilities in the area. And this improvement aligns with Russia's broader regional policies; at the beginning of this year, the Kremlin announced it would strengthen its bases in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Armenia. It also recently provided Armenia with a $200 million loan for military purchases.

Georgia can be divided roughly into two parts, east and west, connected only through the east-west highway. The section of the BP-operated pipeline that falls within the recently-seized territory may be important for Russia, but the highway, which serves as a major trade route for land transportation from Azerbaijan to the Black Sea ports and east Turkey, is no less important. Because two BP-operated pipelines, the Baku-Supsa and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, roughly run along this major highway, Russian posturing there sends a clear message to the West that Russia has a great deal of control over energy as well as Caspian and European trade. Though so far energy flows through the Baku-Supsa have not been hindered, and BP and Western governments alike seem relatively calm, by advancing southward Russia has acquired an additional tool for influencing regional governments and BP in the South Caucasus region.

Thus, Russia's recent moves in South Ossetia are motivated by its security and strategic concerns in the territory and are part of its overall military strategy in the South Caucasus. Though a major Russian military operation into Georgia is very unlikely at the moment, it is clear that both sides, Georgia and South Ossetia with Russian support, are trying to improve their position within the given restraints. Georgia is trying to connect to its NATO and Western allies and is trying to improve its own military capabilities. South Ossetia, on the other hand, is integrating security efforts with Russia and is trying to gradually nudge the border outward to increase the depth of its territory, enabling Tskhinvali to better defend itself.
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« Reply #105 on: October 25, 2015, 03:20:42 PM »

Summary

Heightened militancy along Afghanistan's northern border in recent months is gaining attention, both within Central Asia and outside the region. And world powers are becoming more focused on stopping it. At a recent Commonwealth of Independent States summit on Oct. 16, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the bloc's member states could create a joint task force to patrol the border. Meanwhile, Russian officials have hinted that Moscow may return its forces to the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border. Other countries, including Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, appear to be seeking their own approaches to tackling the border threat that could involve the United States. These developments indicate that the border between Afghanistan and the Central Asian states could heat up in the coming months, both militarily and politically. However, the threat of rising militancy is only one factor among many — not the least of which is the U.S.-Russia standoff — that will determine how the conflict plays out.
Analysis

The borders between Afghanistan and the Central Asian countries of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have long been important from a security standpoint for countries inside and outside the region. Historically, they did not exist as concretely as they do now; rather, constant warfare in the region meant that frontier areas frequently changed hands. However, beginning in the 19th century, the spread of the Russian Empire into Central Asia and the British Empire into what is now Afghanistan solidified the country's modern political borders. Then, in the early 20th century, the transition from the Russian Empire to the Soviet Union led to the official closure of Afghanistan's borders for the first time in history, creating significantly different political and cultural identities among the ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmens in Afghanistan and within the Soviet Union.

But though the border was officially closed, ties were far from severed between the ethnic groups. Because of the geography of the area, interaction and movement between the peoples of Central Asia and Afghanistan were difficult to stop. This was exemplified by the large movement of people from Tajikistan to Afghanistan and back during the Tajik Civil War of 1992-1997 and once again with the rise of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), whose members frequently traveled in and out of Afghanistan during the militant group's rise in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

But the militancy problem was soon resolved, at least temporarily, with the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. The intervention effectively destroyed much of the IMU and sent the rest of its members into the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, at which point the militant group ceased to pose an existential threat to regimes in Central Asia. In the ensuing decade, there were only a few sporadic attacks attributed to the IMU (and even those reports were questionable) within Central Asia. However, with the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and with the subsequent rise of the Islamic State throughout the Middle East and South Asia, the border between Central Asia and Afghanistan is once again a hot spot and a source of significant preoccupation for external powers.

The increased presence and activity of militant groups, especially the Taliban and the Islamic State, are of particular concern. In late September, Taliban forces took the strategic northern Afghan city of Kunduz, and there have been several shootouts and attacks on or near Afghanistan's border posts with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Security officials from Central Asia have claimed that as many as tens of thousands of Islamic State- or Taliban-affiliated militants are operating in northern Afghanistan and that their numbers and materiel are only growing.
Russia's Stake

This is especially worrisome for Russia, which is the dominant external power in Central Asia and the leader of the Commonwealth of Independent States political grouping, which counts several Central Asian states as members. At the bloc's Oct. 16 summit in Astana, Putin announced that the group's leaders had agreed to create a joint task force to defend the bloc's borders in case of crisis. While the specifics of the task force, including how it would be composed or where it would be deployed, were not given, the announcement was clearly made with Afghanistan in mind. Discussion on the country dominated the summit. Putin's announcement also came after several Russian security officials hinted that Russia could redeploy troops to Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan, where Russian troops served as border guards until 2005.

While this talk indicates the serious possibility that Russia's security presence in Central Asia will grow, not all countries in the region would be supportive of such an increase. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are members of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) military bloc, and the latter two countries host Russian military bases. But Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan traditionally have been much more resistant to joining Russia-led alliances or integration projects. Indeed, Stratfor has received reports that the two countries have decided to shun Russia's border task force initiative and may instead pursue a bilateral agreement on joint border security related to Afghanistan.

There are several recent developments that would seem to corroborate these reports of a bilateral agreement between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. One is the meeting between the two countries' presidents in Tashkent on Oct. 8, during which they discussed security cooperation and the countering of international terrorism. Another is Turkmenistan's public rebuttal of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev's statement, which he made alongside Putin prior to the Commonwealth of Independent States summit, that there had been a growing number of security incidents along the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan border. This comment was accompanied by statements by the Russian and Kazakh leaders that Central Asian countries and Russia need to work together to jointly counter the threat of Islamist extremism coming out of Afghanistan, something Turkmenistan implicitly suggested it does not agree with.
Turning to the United States

As it turns away from Russia, Turkmenistan appears to be turning toward another foreign power, the United States, to counter the threat from Afghanistan. On Oct. 15, a delegation led by Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov traveled to Washington to discuss economic and security issues. The visit followed reports that Turkmenistan had requested increased U.S. military aid, which was acknowledged by U.S. Central Command Gen. Lloyd Austin but has not been confirmed by Ashgabat. Uzbekistan also received military assistance from the United States earlier this year in the form of more than 300 mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, in what was the largest transfer of U.S. military equipment to a Central Asian country ever seen; however, Uzbekistan also recently held security consultations with Russia.

Therefore, concerns about a spillover of militant activity from Afghanistan into Central Asia appear to be becoming more politicized as larger opposing powers are drawn into the mix. In fact, concrete evidence has yet to emerge of a true rise in Islamist militant activity within Central Asia itself. And both Russia and the United States have interests in the region that go beyond the immediate security situation, though stemming the spread of militancy from Afghanistan is certainly a legitimate concern for both. Russia, for its part, is interested in remaining the dominant military and political power in Central Asia and in keeping other external players out. The United States is interested in challenging Russian primacy and influence throughout the former Soviet periphery. The Central Asian states, too, may have ulterior motives for playing up security threats, since it could give them pretense to crack down on opposition elements at home.

This is not to say that the threat of militancy spilling over from Afghanistan into Central Asia is not a real one: Militancy and instability in northern Afghanistan are certainly on the rise, and Turkmenistan allegedly deployed as much as 70 percent of its military along the Afghan border. But the fact remains that the numerous other complex and opaque strategic considerations in play will likely make the Afghan border an important locale for wider struggles in the coming months and years.
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« Reply #106 on: November 16, 2015, 08:01:19 AM »

Summary

After a decades-long standoff, Armenia and Azerbaijan may be making diplomatic progress toward resolving their bitter dispute over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Both countries claim the semi-autonomous region, which lies along the southern half of their shared border, but since the end of a six-year war over the territory in 1994, Armenia has exercised control there and in seven adjacent regions also wrested from Azerbaijani rule. For 15 years, Russian support for Armenia has kept Azerbaijan from mounting another viable challenge to retake Nagorno-Karabakh. However, Russia's increasingly fragile position amid its standoff with the West and Azerbaijan's ability to leverage this change may soon prompt deals on several of the regions adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Analysis

The dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan is one of several frozen conflicts in the former Soviet space that have persisted since the collapse of the Soviet Union. After the end of the war in the early 1990s, there was a period of relative calm. But over the past year, military clashes along the border have intensified as Azerbaijan has increased cross-border raids and shootouts.

In what may be a harbinger of changes to come, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made an unannounced visit to Armenia on Nov. 9 in what some local media have billed as a "secret" trip to discuss Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia has played a significant role in the dispute, both as the main mediator in political negotiations between the two countries and as Armenia's de facto security guarantor. (Russia has 5,000 troops in Armenia.) But after years of defending Armenia's claims, Russia may be more open to negotiating with Azerbaijan now that Moscow is under increased pressure from the West.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan is being seen as a potential alternative energy supplier to the Europeans, and Baku is using its newfound political clout to lobby Moscow to change its position on Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan has expanded economic and security cooperation and has cultivated a more active diplomatic relationship with Russia. At the same time, it is becoming more aggressive toward Armenia, conducting cross-border raids and initiating shootouts along the line of conflict more frequently.
A Diplomatic Resolution

Stratfor has previously laid out several potential directions the Nagorno-Karabakh standoff could go. As Azerbaijan grows bolder, it may reach an agreement with Armenia that gives it control of the regions surrounding the breakaway territory. If the diplomatic route fails, Azerbaijan may increase the scale of its military activities. And of course, there is always the possibility that the tense standoff will drag on, tensions unabated.

Recent developments suggest the three major parties involved are seriously considering the first scenario: a diplomatically brokered resolution to the conflict. On Nov. 11, several Armenian newspapers, referring to their own sources as well as to media reports from Russia, ran articles and commentaries framing Lavrov's recent visit to Yerevan as an appeal for Armenia to return five out of seven territories adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. In exchange, Russia would place its own troops in these territories to guarantee that war would not resume and also to convince Azerbaijan to end its economic blockade of Armenia. Citing sources involved in the negotiation process, the Russian daily Kommersant added that the Lachin corridor — a key supply route into Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia proper — would remain in Armenia's control, as would the region of Kalbajar. Azerbaijan, for its part, would end military hostilities and commit itself to peace talks.

Though neither country has confirmed these reports, there are several reasons to take them seriously. Of particular note is the specificity about the terms of the rumored negotiations. There have been alleged leaks pertaining to talks over Nagorno-Karabakh before, but none of them included this level of concrete detail. Moreover, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan has on multiple occasions said that Armenia could accept relinquishing control of Nagorno-Karabakh's adjacent regions as long as a secure land link were maintained and international security guarantees were implemented — which would be the case according to the purported current deal. Russia has also recently been signaling its intention to deepen security ties with Armenia through the transfer of military helicopters and the establishment of a joint air defense system, which is an important prerequisite for Yerevan to even consider giving territorial concessions in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. The leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh have also hinted to local media that the Russian military may use the airport in the breakaway territory's capital for counter-terrorism exercises.
Armenia's Reservations

Of course, the reports emerging in local media — no matter how credible the source may be — do not guarantee that Armenia will indeed relinquish control of the regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. The dispute is still an extremely sensitive political issue in Armenia, where the public feels a strong sense of national ownership over the territory. The last Armenian president to seriously negotiate a change to the status quo, Levon Ter-Patrosyan, was even forced to resign by popular demand. To make any concession, Armenia's current government would need guarantees it could survive a negotiated settlement. But given Armenia's weak economy and increasing social unrest, making concessions to Azerbaijan could be particularly inflammatory at the moment. Even if the government could make a negotiated settlement over Nagorno-Karabakh politically feasible, there would be extremely challenging logistical issues, including the status of the roughly 500,000 mostly Armenian residents residing in the surrounding regions (the exact number of which is disputed).

If negotiations do proceed, other external powers, notably Turkey and the United States, will likely try to shape any diplomatic resolution to align with their own strategic interests. Both Ankara and Washington are increasingly focused on the Caucasus region, as demonstrated by the U.S. naval chief's recent visit to Azerbaijan and by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's plan to visit Baku in his first foreign trip since the formation of a new government in Turkey.

That being said, it cannot be ignored that the diplomatic activity related to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has seen a marked uptick in recent months, and there are increasingly detailed elements of the negotiations that are being leaked to the local and Russian media. The constraints on both Russia and Armenia also suggest that these countries cannot maintain their position on preserving the status quo on the conflict indefinitely. Therefore, the likelihood that control of the regions adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh will change hands is increasing, and the parameters of a potential deal — if one is able to be made — are becoming slowly but increasingly clear. 
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« Reply #107 on: November 20, 2015, 12:45:54 PM »

Summary

The standoff between Russia and the West is once again heating up, but this time tensions are centered on the Caucasus. On Nov. 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed his government to sign an agreement with Armenia to create a joint missile air defense system in the region. Not long after, the Armenian government confirmed that Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev is expected to visit Armenia in late November to officially sign the air defense system deal.

The move, though reminiscent of Moscow's actions in Central Asia and Belarus in previous years, comes at a time when Russia is being forced to respond to a wider array of challenges than ever before. Threats are rising from the Near East, while the West is ramping up its military activities in Georgia and Nagorno-Karabakh moves closer to changing its political status. And as Russia increases its military presence in Armenia, its competition with major regional powers for influence in the South Caucasus will intensify, adding to the growing list of issues Russia must contend with outside its borders.

Analysis

Russia has been pursuing the creation of a joint air defense system with Belarus and several Central Asian countries for some time. If constructed, the system would help Moscow better prepare for a range of threats growing beyond Russia's borders, including NATO's military buildup in Eastern Europe and rising terrorism in Afghanistan.

Putin's Nov. 11 order would create another similar system in Armenia that would protect the airspace far south of the Russian border. It would most likely involve air defenses and Russian combat jets deployed in Russia's Southern Military District. But it would also be located in a geopolitically complex region where many other regional players have significant strategic interests. An expanding military presence will put Russia in direct competition with Turkey's ambitions in the South Caucasus and Georgia's cooperation with NATO and U.S. forces. It will also put the brakes on Azerbaijan's goal of retaking its separatist Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven adjacent territories.

For Armenia's part, the joint air defense deal comes at an opportune time. Its government has received mounting criticism from Armenian politicians and media amid a growing belief that the country's membership in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization and its reliance on Russia as a security guarantor have yielded few results, particularly as Azerbaijan pursues a more assertive military posture around Nagorno-Karabakh. Under the new agreement, Armenian air defenses will be strengthened, and the country will likely see new air defense equipment, radios, radar systems and combat helicopters deployed to its territory. Armenian Minister of Territorial Administration and Emergency Situations Armen Yeritsyan also recently announced that the Stepanavan Airport, located a mere 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) from the Armenia-Georgia border, will host Russian Mi-24 and KA-32 heavy helicopters starting in 2016. While these aircraft do not amount to a projection of Russian force because of their limited range, they do reflect the Kremlin's broader policy of boosting its air capabilities in Armenia — a process that dates back to January 2014, when Russia announced that it would strengthen Armenia's Erebuni Airport with Mi-24P, Mi-8MT and Mi-8SMV helicopters. Along a similar vein, Nagorno-Karabakh's president has said Russian forces may use his region's Stepanakert Airport for air operations, an offer that may be in response to the recent uptick in air cooperation between Armenia and Russia.

Russia's growing military presence in the South Caucasus will be especially worrisome to Turkey and Azerbaijan, Armenia's longtime rivals in the region. The two countries have ramped up their joint military exercises with Georgia over the past year, posing a heightened threat to Armenia, whose strategic position is already weak. Since Turkey already had less ability than Russia to project power into the South Caucasus, the Kremlin's recent moves will only increase the gap between Russian and Turkish influence there, thus intensifying their competition for sway in the wider region. Meanwhile, Russia's stronger aerial presence in Armenia could alter the military balance of power between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani politicians have already voiced concerns about the air defense agreement, and on Nov. 11 — the same day Putin gave his orders to sign the deal — Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev visited his country's S-300 anti-aircraft missile brigade, the unit responsible for Azerbaijan's aerial defenses.

The timing of the deal is significant for a number of reasons. First, it signals Russia's response to recent developments in the ongoing standoff between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. As talks progress on Armenia handing over to Azerbaijan several regions adjacent to the breakaway territory, Russia will boost its military presence in the South Caucasus to ensure the security of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh and to make any further territorial concessions more politically palatable to Yerevan. Second, as Russia becomes more involved in the Syrian conflict, Moscow is keen to increase its ability to monitor its southern borders — a goal that a military presence in Armenia, with its proximity to the Middle East, is ideally suited to achieve.

Beneath these more immediate motives, the Kremlin also has several deeper, long-term strategic interests in mind. From Moscow's perspective, Georgia is moving closer — perhaps dangerously so — to the West. The country recently opened a NATO training center, and it continues to hold regular exercises with U.S. forces. In June and July, Georgia signed deals with France to procure an advanced system that would guarantee its air defense. Given the fact that Georgia was placed under a Western military embargo after the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, these events indicate an important turnaround taking place in relations between Georgia and the West. They also show that the air superiority Moscow heavily relied on to win its last conflict with Georgia may no longer be so assured.

Maintaining an advantage in air capabilities will remain a high priority for Moscow and will continue to drive Russia's military buildup in the South Caucasus. The Kremlin's latest air defense deal with Armenia is just another part of that effort as Moscow looks to counter rising threats from the Near East and Western encroachment upon the Russian periphery.
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« Reply #108 on: November 24, 2015, 07:59:28 AM »

Becomes today's headlines....

http://news.sky.com/story/1593241/putin-downing-of-jet-a-stab-in-the-back

I'm sure Putin will be fine with this.
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« Reply #109 on: November 24, 2015, 09:06:24 AM »

Nothing to see here.  It was only Russia.

I wonder if we will ever get the real story on this. I would trust the Turkey version as much as I would trust either the Russian or US version.
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« Reply #110 on: November 24, 2015, 01:58:59 PM »

My initial read is that whereas the Russians felt free to march into our HQ in Baghdad and give us one hour to get the fk out of their way, they now know better with the Turks.  This ain't the first time they fuct with Turkish airspace and they were warned plenty this time.
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« Reply #111 on: December 04, 2015, 08:51:16 AM »

I have underlined on this forum this matter of gas pipelines in this region for many years now.
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Forecast

    Turkish demand for energy will keep rising as the country industrializes, leaving Turkey reliant on energy imports for the foreseeable future.
    Turkey will leverage its substantial negotiating power in TurkStream talks with Gazprom to secure significant discounts on Russian natural gas.
    Turkey will continue to pursue other pipeline projects as part of its longer-term strategy to position itself as a regional energy transit hub to gain influence with its neighbors.

Analysis

Editor's Note: Stratfor closely monitors the ebbs and flows of world energy. Aside from production, the transportation of crude oil, natural gas and petroleum products is of paramount concern for oil-producing nations. For energy consumers, transit routes are indispensible lifelines. A huge amount of the world's energy is transited through pipelines, across the Eurasian landmass in particular. In this periodic series we will examine some of the most geopolitically significant pipelines running through Europe and Asia. In this installment, Stratfor examines TurkStream, the successor to South Stream, from the Turkish perspective.

Europe and Russia continue to spar for political influence in Eurasia in the latest battle over Russia's TurkStream pipeline project, formerly known as Turkish Stream. But as the two major powers pursue loftier goals of power and containment, Turkey — a country with regional aspirations of its own — is quietly maneuvering to secure its position as a crucial energy transit hub at the crossroads of the Middle East, Europe and Asia.
A Growing Need for Energy

Turkey's position on Russia's TurkStream pipeline is far more straightforward than that of Europe or Russia. In short, Turkey lacks energy resources and has always relied on significant imports to meet the demands of its economy. As Turkey continues to industrialize and take its place as a regional power, its energy needs will only grow, and perhaps quite rapidly.

Russia maintains a comfortable hold on its position as Turkey's largest supplier of natural gas. In 2014, Russian natural gas accounted for 55 percent of Turkish natural gas consumption. Ankara is uneasy about Turkey's heavy reliance on Russian natural gas, particularly in light of the two countries' greater competition for influence in the Black Sea and the Caucasus. These concerns are only deepened by the fact that Turkey lies at the end of the supply chain routing Russian natural gas through Ukraine, putting it at risk of supply shortages in the event that Russia cuts off flows to Ukraine. But no alternative supplier currently exists to satisfy Turkey's domestic consumption.

Given its lack of options, Turkey will most likely choose to support the TurkStream project in the end. Still, it will probably hold out on finalizing any deal until it can pressure Gazprom, Russia's state-owned natural gas company, into granting Turkey heavy discounts on Russian natural gas in exchange for its backing.
Larger Goals Drive Ankara's Strategy

Beyond the immediate benefit of guaranteeing cheaper natural gas for Turkish consumers, the TurkStream pipeline will play into Turkey's longer-term aspirations of establishing itself as a key energy transit hub at the intersection of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Turkey hopes to then use its newfound role to reshape its partnerships and reassert its influence in the wider region.

With this objective in mind, Ankara has long promoted the majority of energy transit projects that would pass through Turkey. Some of these projects include the Blue Stream II, which would have transported Russian natural gas to the Levant; the ill-fated Nabucco pipeline, which would have sent Azerbaijani natural gas to Central Europe; and most recently, the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) and Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, which will send Azeri natural gas to Europe. In each case, Turkey stood to benefit by collecting both transit fees and natural gas supplies from the pipelines running across its territory.

Interactive
Interactive: Veins of Influence

The TurkStream pipeline would offer a similar opportunity at a time when Turkey is gaining a greater ability to take advantage of its strategic location. In previous years, a number of geopolitical constraints have undermined Turkey's value as a potential energy transit state. Western sanctions against Iran, for example, have tabled the option of sending Iranian natural gas to Europe, while the state of relations between Moscow and Brussels has largely determined the success or failure of several proposed routes. But the recent agreement between Iran and the West could pave the way for exporting Iranian natural gas to Europe by the mid-to-late 2020s, while Moscow and Brussels have begun to put their full political thrust behind the TurkStream and TANAP projects, respectively. With these developments, Turkey may now be in a better position to leverage its location to push for pipelines that traverse its borders.

With several alternative pipeline routes to Europe in play, Russia is seeing its own options narrow. The European Union is continuing to push forward with all of its Southern Gas Corridor projects, for which Turkmenistan has long been viewed as a potential source of natural gas. Although the controversial issue of piping natural gas across the Caspian Sea historically has been a deal-breaker for any Trans-Caspian route, Moscow has signaled that the Caspian countries may well sign a deal establishing maritime rights during the upcoming 2016 Caspian Summit. Meanwhile, the possibility of Iran emerging as a new European supplier in the wake of Russia's South Stream failure has left the Kremlin scrambling to find a viable transit alternative to Ukraine, and quickly. Turkey may be the only logical partner Russia has left.

None of this is to say Turkey will not be taking a risk by backing the TurkStream project. Turkey remains heavily dependent on Russian natural gas, although it has asserted that TurkStream will not increase its reliance on Russian supplies. Ankara has argued that it will merely be swapping Russian natural gas imported via Ukraine with imports sourced from TurkStream and that Russia's increased dependence on Turkey as a transit state will balance their energy relationship somewhat.

But the TurkStream project also will not prevent Turkey from seeking other alternatives, and it has not affected the construction of the TANAP project. Ultimately, the power in the TurkStream negotiations lies with Ankara, which will use its advantage to pursue its own regional ambitions. Meanwhile, Russia, lacking any other southern corridor options, will have little choice but to meet Turkey's demands.
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« Reply #112 on: July 18, 2016, 09:24:19 AM »

Forecast

    As Russia's financial circumstances worsen, many of the country's Muslim republics will try to attract outside investment by implementing Islamic finance tools and establishing joint banks with Muslim countries, despite federal regulations.
    Fearing the potential political and social consequences, the Kremlin will try to keep the regions' Islamic financing and Persian Gulf ties to a minimum unless they funnel through Moscow.
    The prospect of the Muslim republics growing distant from the Russian government or being influenced by foreign states will continue to trouble Moscow, particularly since many of those regions pose the greatest internal threats to Russian security.

Analysis

As Russia's economy continues to stagnate, the country's 83 regions are being forced to compete with one another for outside investment to stay afloat. The quest for funding was a popular theme at the recent St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, where regional governments and corporations tried to woo foreign partners and financiers. Some regions have focused their campaigns on Asia and Europe: The Kaluga and Kaliningrad provinces, for example, have signed investment deals with Bavaria, and Kaluga's governor visited Vietnam earlier in the year seeking funding. But four of Russia's Muslim republics — Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chechnya and Dagestan — have set their sights on Muslim states in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, a strategy that has put Moscow on edge.

Making Ends Meet

Russia's Muslim population is growing rapidly, thanks to high fertility rates and an influx of immigrants from predominantly Muslim Central Asia. Now nearly 13 percent of Russians are Muslim, and most live in the country's eight autonomous Muslim republics: Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chechnya, Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, Dagestan and Adygea. Under Russian law, these regions — autonomous republics because of their non-Russian majorities — can choose their own languages, constitutions, presidents and security structures. Moscow granted the regions these freedoms, albeit begrudgingly, in the wake of the North Caucasus wars in an effort to quell secessionist sentiment and instability.

The Muslim republics' economies vastly differ from one another. Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, for instance, are two of the most developed regions in Russia because of their oil and agricultural wealth. Both regional governments control their own energy firms, which provide the bulk of the regions' budgets, as well as their own banking systems. In fact, according to Forbes, Tatarstan's two largest banks rank among Russia's most reliable banking institutions. Chechnya and Dagestan, meanwhile, are still struggling to overcome the damage caused by nearly two decades of war with Russia, as are their neighbors in the North Caucasus. Economic growth in these republics relies on federal subsidies, which have been substantial in recent years. Over the past decade, Kremlin funds have made up 80 to 90 percent of the Chechen and Dagestani budgets and more than half of the other North Caucasus regions' budgets. Similarly, the banking systems of Chechnya and Dagestan are dependent on Russia's federal banking system, a stark contrast to the independent banks of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan.

Despite their economic differences, Russia's Muslim republics have been uniformly hurt by the collapse in global oil prices. Growth has slowed in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, while the North Caucasus regions have seen their subsidies halved amid the Russian recession. For the past two years, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov has even had to dip into his administration's private reserves to make up for his region's budgetary shortfalls (though, admittedly, the reserves were built with funds gained by docking civil servants' salaries). Moscow has not stepped in to address the issue, leaving Russia's regions to look for external investment and financial support on their own.

Finding Financiers in the Muslim World

Some of Russia's Muslim republics have more experience in finding outside backers than others. Tatarstan and Bashkortostan have been fairly successful in maintaining the interest of foreign investors for the past 10 years; Tatarstan is considered Russia's best region for investment, while Bashkortostan is among the top 10. Each has industrial and high-tech economic zones and enough independence from Moscow to strike deals with foreign partners. By contrast, the republics of the North Caucasus have attracted very little foreign investment over the years.

Across the board, though, Russia's Muslim republics are weighing the merits of adopting Islamic lending laws to solve their financial predicament. Unlike conventional finance rules, these laws prohibit lenders from charging interest. Instead, loans more closely resemble investments in specific projects, deriving profit from those projects' success. Islamic financing mechanisms are also often backed by physical assets, making them less risky than their conventional counterparts. From the republics' perspective, the use of Islamic financing would draw the interest not only of Muslim consumers at home but also of other Muslim states.

But their plan has hit a snag: Islamic financing has been legally banned in Russia because it does not require interest payments as traditional financial instruments do. Some Islamic finance tools that resemble profit-sharing agreements between lender and borrower have also been prohibited because they are technically classified as "commercial activities," which Russian banks cannot participate in. Some banks, including federal ones, have found loopholes to skirt the law. Others, such as those in the Muslim republics, have simply ignored it outright, issuing transactions under Islamic banking guidelines or negotiating with foreign financial groups to start implementing them.

The Kremlin, meanwhile, has neither fully supported nor blocked the regions' use of Islamic financing. In March, the Central Bank of Russia approved a roadmap for Tatarstan to begin exploring Islamic banking mechanisms as a test case. The government has yet to change Russian laws on the matter, however, and according to Tatar banks, Russian banks have stalled talks on joint projects with Tatar banks and foreign lenders over the past year. So Tatarstan has struck out on its own. Last year, the region's largest bank, AK Bark, began to issue Islamic bonds that come with far lower rates and fees than its eurobonds do. At the same time, Tatar insurance operator Alliance began to sell an Islamic financial product called Halal Invest.

Tatarstan is hoping that its use of Islamic finance will pull in investment from members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), with which the region has had close ties for some time. In the past few years, funding from the Gulf states has indeed risen dramatically, jumping from $60 million in 2011 to $760 million in 2015. Most of the new money has been funneled toward the Smart City being built in Tatarstan's capital, Kazan. The special economic zone will host biomedical, hospital and academic research centers, along with information technology development labs, employing some 50,000 people in total. By venturing into Islamic financing, Tatarstan is attempting to secure even more resources for its cornerstone project. To that end, it has entered into talks with Saudi Arabia's Islamic Development Bank, which has promised to make Tatarstan the Islamic finance hub of Russia within the next few years.

Chechnya has not been far behind. Like Tatarstan, Chechnya has sought partnerships with the Gulf states — including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — over the past few years. Kadyrov has discussed several construction projects in Grozny with Saudi and Emirati officials, though both delegations expressed concern over the region's lack of Islamic money-transfer systems. In response, the Chechen president announced early in 2016 that his region would open an Islamic bank and consult with an Emirati investment firm to establish a joint venture with a GCC partner. A high-ranking Saudi delegation is scheduled to visit Chechnya in the coming months to revisit investment talks.

Bashkortostan and Dagestan have been slower to follow in Tatarstan and Chechnya's footsteps. Bashkortostan has close ties to Tatarstan and has opted to wait and see whether its efforts to create a viable Islamic financing system pan out. Similarly, Dagestan has put off creating its own system until it sees how nearby Chechnya's fares.

Russia Moves to Minimize the Gulf's Clout

The question now is whether Russia will allow Gulf state financing to continue. For years, Moscow avoided making deals with the Gulf states because of its complicated relationships in the region. But when its ties to the West began deteriorating in 2014, Russia began to look for other partners. After sapping up its major investment avenues in China, the Kremlin finally began to reach out to the GCC. Between 2014 and 2015, the Gulf states pledged some $25 billion in funding for Russia — but Moscow kept those funds tightly controlled through the Russian Direct Investment Fund.

Now that the Gulf states are reaching deeper into Russia by bypassing Moscow and negotiating directly with the regions, the Kremlin is faced with a dilemma. On one hand, it cannot afford to prop up the Muslim republics on its own. On the other, it also cannot allow the regions to fall into disrepair for fear of the instability it may cause, and it is unwilling to alienate its rapidly expanding Muslim population. But from Moscow's perspective, the rise of Islamic financing is worrisome for a couple of reasons. For one, the Sharia principles inherent in Islamic financing do not mesh with those of Russia's banking system. Moreover, the GCC is interested in promoting Sharia principles more broadly within the republics' communities — something that runs counter to Russia's history of clamping down on strong, independent Islamic ideologies among its people. The Kremlin will accept the Gulf states' money — if it chooses to do so — only as long as it can ensure that the funds go to projects that will not undermine its hold on the Muslim republics.

In addition, Moscow is concerned that the diversification of the republics' investment and business options could further distance them from the federal banking system, or by the same token, grant them greater independence. Nearly all of Russia's Muslim republics have experienced bouts of secessionism, though some have been stronger than others. The Kremlin, therefore, will be careful not to give the regions too much room to establish robust and independent financial systems. Indeed, Tatarstan's two biggest banks have already complained that Russia's federal banks, VTB and Sberbank, are aggressively trying to expand in the region, pressuring Tatar banks to give up some of their business in the process.

The Kremlin is also wary of GCC states gaining direct avenues of influence in Russia's Muslim republics. Concerns about color revolutions and infiltration by other states have led the Kremlin to enact a series of draconian laws that label any foreign money entering Russia a "foreign agent." Moscow has also begun monitoring all Russian entities that do business with foreign corporations. Because the Kremlin does not consider the Gulf states allies, it will likely scrutinize partnerships involving their firms even more closely. That said, not all GCC companies have political agendas. Though Mazcorp, for example, maintains deep ties with Abu Dhabi's royal family, the Saudi-based Islamic Development Bank comprises 56 member states and cannot easily be used by Riyadh to advance its goals abroad.

Russia is especially distrustful of ties forged between the GCC and certain Muslim republics, such as Chechnya. For more than two decades, Moscow has firmly maintained that the GCC states (alongside the United States) instigated the First and Second Chechen Wars. The Kremlin claims that Saudi Arabia, in particular, implanted its Wahhabist doctrine in the region and provided arms, supplies, training and support — largely through various charities and humanitarian organizations — to Chechen militants. June negotiations between Kadyrov and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's aide have undoubtedly rekindled Moscow's fears. During the talks, the two discussed Saudi Arabia and other Arab states participating in joint training at Chechnya's International Special Forces Training Center.

Moscow will likely continue to put national security and Russian unity ahead of the needs of its growing Muslim population, no matter how dire the regions' financial situations become. Though the Kremlin cannot force its Muslim republics to ignore the opportunities presented by Islamic financing and investment, it will do what it can to insert itself in the process to rein in their budding relationships with the rest of the Muslim world.
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