In a move sure to increase the already-smoldering tensions within Ukraine, two airports in Crimea, a staunchly pro-Russian zone, have been occupied by Russian troops. The troops, who were not wearing insignias, secured the civilian airport in Crimea’s regional capital of Simferopol early this morning. The Russian navy also secured the Belbek military airport near Sevastapol. The new interior minister of Ukraine’ interim government, Arsen Avakov, said the troops were Russian. The Black Sea Fleet of Russia is berthed primarily at the Crimean port of Sevastapol, an important strategic location for operations on the Black Sea and access to the South.
In his first address on Ukraine in over a week, Vladimir Putin focused on providing financial assistance to Ukraine with cooperation from the IMF. He added, cryptically, that “Russia cannot be indifferent… Russia must use all means at its disposal to end the chaos and terror gripping Ukraine.” Crimean legislators, longtime Russian loyalists and supporters of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, confirmed that they were not trying to secede from Ukraine. Yanukovych made his own address from Rostov-on-Don in Russian territory near the Ukrainian border, saying that he is “eager and ready to fight for the future of Ukraine..” and that he is “not going to ask for military support.”
Russia had recently announced war games near the Ukrainian border on Wednesday, placing 150,000 troops on high alert and despite assurances from US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the exercises were pre-planned, the new Ukrainian Parliament appealed to the UN Security Council for support. Reuters and NPR report that access to both airports seized by Russian forces have been blocked by trucks with no license plates.
Whether Russia will intervene in Ukraine using force remains to be seen, stay tuned.
- The planned railway from Turkmenistan to Iran was discussed in a meeting between the Iranian Minister of Industries, Mines, and Trade and senior Turkmen officials last Wednesday in Ashgabat. As reported in our previous post, the agreement between the two countries aims to increase transit to 3.5 million tons. The good trade relationship between the two countries may not be indicative of Iran’s growing economic power, as relations between the two countries have always been close. Iran was the first country to recognize Turkmenistan as an independent nation in 1991.
- Iran has issued Pakistan an ultimatum on its stalled joint natural gas pipeline project, the IP pipeline. Iranian Deputy Oil Minister for International Trade said that “Pakistan… has not taken any serious measures to deliver its commitments under the contract between Tehran and Islamabad.” The Pakistani side of the pipeline has yet to begin construction in earnest, while the Iranian side is more than 75% complete. Pakistan suffers from serious energy shortages, but is hesitant to complete the pipeline due to objections from Western powers such as the United States and more discrete objections from energy partners like Saudi Arabia.
- An Uzbekistani court sentenced two men to life in prison for the rape and murder of 11 women. The crimes took place between 2011 and 2012 in both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The gruesome case, where the men used a fake “taxi service” to lure the women out of populated areas, shocked Tashkent when they were revealed almost two years ago.
- A new popular resistance group to the ongoing debate in Kyrgyzstan over whether to join Russia’s Customs Union has been formed in Bishkek. The United National Opposition Movement had its inaugural meeting on Wednesday (2/26), and they demanded a national referendum on Kyrgyzstan’s bid to join the Customs Union, which is a contentious point between elites and opposition groups. Kyrgyz Economic Minister Temir Sariev told lawmakers that it is not entirely clear if Kyrgyzstan will join the Union or not.
- Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey visited Afghanistan today to follow up on a meeting between Hamid Karzai and Obama over the Bilateral Security Agreement, which would extend the stay of US forces in Afghanistan. His purpose was to begin plans to coordinate an orderly withdrawal from the country, and to pitch a more supportive mission to Afghan officials, which would focus on “training, advising, and assisting” Afghan National Army troops. The planned retreat from Afghanistan will ironically coincide with the 25th anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the country in 1989. Both India and Russia have voiced their concerns over the withdrawal of American forces, with India concerned over the continued viability of its TAPI pipeline project (as well as the CASA-1000) and Russia concerned about the flow of opium up to its borders. Karzai remains adamant that his successor, once elected, will choose whether or not to sign the BSA.