NATO has announced that a significant portion of Russian troops operating inside of Ukraine have been withdrawn by Moscow, though some troops have remained behind. The withdrawal has struck many as curious given the fact that EU negotiators have not made headway with their Russian counterparts in cease fire negotiations, and Ukrainian and Russian forces continue to exchange fire throughout eastern Ukraine. The cease fire, which officially came into effect more than two weeks ago, has been largely ineffective in stopping the fighting, and with both sides trading barbs over who is to blame for the fighting’s continuance.
Negotiations between the EU and Russia have reached a low point after Russian Economy Minister Alexei Ulyuykaev threatened to take economic retaliation against Ukraine for ratifying a free trade pact with the EU. The EU and Ukraine had already agreed to delay the pact taking effect until 2015 in exchange for Russia agreeing to maintain Ukraine’s status as a preferential trade partner, though the new threat seems to go back on this promise, and floats the possibility of Moscow revoking the status in either case. The European Union has shot back at the threat with its own declaration that Russia must abide by the original agreement, and that modifications thereof will not be made. A Russian withdrawal from Ukraine would allow the EU to roll back sanctions to the Russian economy, though with some troops still inside of Ukraine, the possibility remains unlikely.
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- Russia has declared itself opposed to the division of the Caspian Sea into five nation-specific sections. The Russian Ambassador-at-Large Igor Bratchikov stated that Moscow will adhere to the 1921 Soviet-Iranian pact that designated the Caspian as a lake and divided the body in two parts. What the ambassador failed to mention is that at the time of that designation the countries of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan were not independent nations as they currently are.
- Given the state of the Russian economy, regional experts are pointing to China as the country that will play the most important role in shaping Central Asian energy relations. The Asian giant has already begun to reach out to and build strong relations with energy-rich Turkmenistan and has similarly developed ties with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, both of which are home to natural gas reserves. China has been lauded as much more flexible than Russia, and is predicted to continue to allow for nations to which it has loaned funds to modify payments in exchange for greater involvement in energy infrastructure development throughout the region.
- Azerbaijan detained 26 individuals on charges of involvement in “armed groups,” officials in Baku reported. The charges brought against all 26 individuals include possession of firearms, involvement or “formation in groups not provided by the law,” and possession of military equipment. The ambiguous charges will likely draw attention from human rights activists if they are not substantiated in the near future.
- The much-discussed Uyghur scholar and economist Ilham Tohti has been handed a life sentence for “separatism,” a court in Urumqi, the capital of China’s restive Xinjiang province, declared on Tuesday. The charges against Tohti are linked primarily to statements the former professor made about alleged Chinese oppression of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang that were decried by officials “dividing the nation.” The same ruling that sentenced Tohti to life also ordered the confiscation of all of his assets. The ruling has already been criticized by Amnesty International as an “affront to justice.” Tohti is poised to appeal, though hopes for a reversal in Xinjiang, where convictions stand at 99%, are bleak.
- US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrisov on Monday in Washington, DC. Despite the overhanging issue of Russia, the main issue discussed was the threat of global terrorism and the Islamic State. Kerry thanked Idrisov for longstanding security, political, and economic support in Afghanistan as well, and discussed the New Silk Road vision, citing that the region could become land linked.
- President-elect Ashraf Ghani, is expected to come into his office by next week and within 24 hours of taking office will agree to allow foreign troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014, referring to the long-debated Bilateral Security Agreement with the US and the Status of Force agreement with NATO. NATO announced it plans to end official combat operations at the end of the year and leave a smaller training and advisory force in the country to assist the Afghan National Army. Next year, 12,000 foreign troops will stay as part of the advisory mission, including some 8,000 American troops.
- Uzbek prosecuting attorneys confirmed that Gulnara Karimova (eldest daughter), is currently under house arrest on orders from her father, the leader of the Uzbekistan – Islam Karimov. Gulnara is being held in “isolation” in her home with her 16-year-old daughter, Iman. Karimova’s entourage were all accused of financial crimes and imprisoned last year in a move designed to keep her group from gaining power.
- The US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, in an address to the Asia Society in New York City, endorsed greater economic connectivity in Central Asia, citing a broader commitment to the region beyond operations in Afghanistan. He additionally named the CASA-1000 and the TAPI pipeline project as a major initiative of the State Department in Central Asia, and that building a regional energy market will assist in development, and pushed for the ratification of the Cross-Border Transport Agreement between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan.
- Both Chevron and ExxonMobil have dropped out of the race to become consortium leader for the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) Pipeline project following a refusal by the Afghan government to provide an equity stake in the project. This puts France’s Total and Malaysia’s Petronas in the lead to manage the contract. The key issue was with the government of Tajikistan, which desired to award offshore gas contracts to Chevron and Exxon, which would interfere with the current written language of the TAPI contract.