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Iran has a bigger problem than the West: Its Sunni neighbors

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The 10 most important things you need to know on Caspian Sea Region for Tuesday, June 9:

1Iran has a bigger problem than the West: Its Sunni neighbors. “There are obvious limits to what Iran is willing to do and can do beyond its borders, but there is no evidence that Iran will slow down its foreign activities after a deal. The Islamic State and other Sunni extremist groups will remain a threat to Iran and there is no third party with the wherewithal to prevent Iran from supporting its allies militarily or financially”, writes Afshon Ostovar for the Lawfare.

2The IMF has improved the economic growth outlook in Azerbaijan for 2015, the head of IMF mission on Azerbaijan Raja Almarzoqi said at the press conference June 8. Thus, the IMF expects a 1.8 percent GDP growth in Azerbaijan. In its April forecast, the IMF expected a 0.6 percent economic growth in the country for 2015. Almarzoqi said that the change of the forecast is due to the economic growth achieved by Azerbaijan in January-April 2015. The growth of non-oil sector in Azerbaijan is forecasted at 3.5 percent.

3Moscow believes unilateral actions in the construction of the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline could lead to mistrust between countries in the region.“It’s not excluded that this is what lobbyists from outside the region are trying to do by offering themselves to be ‘strategic partners’ and promising all kinds of political dividends to the parties of the pipeline,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said on the Foreign Ministry’s website. The Trans-Caspian pipeline, which connects Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, is needed so as to connect up with the Southern Gas Corridor, along which gas from the Caspian Sea region would be delivered to Europe bypassing Russia.

4Turkmenistan’s Slide Back into Fantasyland. “Turkmenistan could indeed be a UAE for Central Asia, Ashgabat its Dubai. But it is not. Not today. Such is the constant and continuous burden for a Turkmen: you keep getting a Papa and a Patron, with a Rukhnama and an Adamnama, when all you really want and need is a President with a Constitution that truly measures up to the global standards and stops worrying about the cult of personality creep” writes Matthew Crosston for the Modern Diplomacy.

5Russian President Vladimir Putin has awarded Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev a state honor for his contribution “in bilateral efforts to advance Eurasian integration processes.”An order announcing the granting of the Order of Aleksandr Nevsky to Nazarbaev was posted on the Kremlin website on June 8. Earlier, Putin bestowed the same honor on Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan were the founding members of the Eurasian Economic Union. Armenia joined in January, and Kyrgyzstan joined in May.

6Al Hilal Bank has announced that it was named ‘Best Islamic Financial Institution’ in the UAE and in Kazakhstan at Global Finance magazine’s 8th Annual Awards for the World’s Best Islamic Financial Institutions. The recognition affirms Al Hilal’s exceptional ability to ensure safety and security for its customers while developing new and innovative structures in line with Shariah financial principles. This marks the first time that the bank has won under the Awards’ Country category. Al Hilal Bank was honored for its major contributions towards the growth of Islamic banking in its respective markets. The award signifies the bank’s exceptional ability to provide new directions, new technologies and special services and to re-engineer and enhance generic Islamic structures to accommodate customer needs for Shariah-compliant products. Moreover, Al Hilal Bank was recognized for laying the foundation for continued growth and safety in the future backed by modern and efficient delivery channels.

7TANAP project has no alternatives.The major energy projects jointly realized today by Azerbaijan and Turkey will play a great role in ensuring Europe’s energy security. The Trans Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP), which is meant to deliver Azerbaijani Shah Deniz field’s gas from the Georgian-Turkish border to the western borders of Turkey, is one of those remarkable steps taken by Azerbaijan and Turkey. The TANAP project is needed by not only Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan, but also by the entire Eurasia, said Turkey’s Energy and Natural Resources Minister Taner Yildiz. He added that along with its energy potential, TANAP will serve for stability. “I can say that the TANAP project is a good example of brotherly relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey,” said the minister. “With the construction of TANAP, which is the main part of the Southern Gas Corridor, an important step is taken to deliver gas from the Caspian basin to Europe.” Interview to Trend Agency.

8Turkmenistan- a brand in the making?”Turkmenistan has various other means to help boost the soft power country has in international community, which is for now still to a large extent power in the making. One of them is certainly expanding and enlarging the prospects for (still very careful and monitored) cooperation with international scientific community on various topics, but most prolifically on the cultural identity of peoples, dialogue of civilizations and preserving the national heritage” writes Petra Posega for the Modern Diplomacy.

9“Our production which is now about one and a half percent. I would say that we have to increase our production in order to provide alternative, neutral oil and gas to the world markets,” he said. What does neutral mean? Nassirov says the company must continue to be a reliable energy partner for Europe. A crucial alternative to Russian oil and gas. Azerbaijan’s dilemma: How to do that, find and fund new oil and gas projects in the coming decades? It means investing in oil and natural gas and crucially trying to reshape Europe’s entire energy strategy with new pipelines. Azerbaijan is banking on the southern corridor project, delivering Caspian gas straight to Europe by 2020. The deal is done but the pipeline must be built. Not an easy ask with energy prices still low and volatile. To get it done, Azerbaijan will likely have to shoulder more of the cost on its own. The payoff could be huge for Azerbaijan financially and politically” [CNN].

10From space-travelling babushkas to grainy electronic music, the Russian capital has come a long way since the legendary 1991 rock concert that drew an audience 13 times bigger than Glastonbury’s. Crisscrossed by 10-lane avenues, Moscow is awash in fumes and traffic. Sirens, roadworks and engines blend into a 24-hour urban symphony. The noise penetrates even the most soundproof buildings. In truth, though, most Muscovites secretly enjoy being immersed in this non-stop street drama and would be terrified at the thought of moving to a noise-free countryside. [the guardian]

Journalist, specialized in Middle East, Russia & FSU, Terrorism and Security issues. Founder and Editor-in-chief of the Modern Diplomacy magazine.

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Israel gives Ukraine intelligence. “The best thing” that could have happened to Israel-NATO relations?

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NATO sources tell ‘Haaretz’ some of the intel is on the Iranian drones in Ukraine, writes Yossi Melman at Israeli newspaper.

Israel has stepped up its intelligence assistance to Ukraine in recent weeks via NATO, sources in Brussels told ‘Haaretz’, with Jerusalem remaining keen to keep its aid to the embattled country indirect.

“Iran’s decision to supply drones and increase its military cooperation with Russia is a strategic mistake by Tehran and the best thing that could have happened to Israel-NATO relations,” an Israeli defense source told ‘Haaretz’.

Only a month and a half ago, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Aviv Kochavi, turned down a proposal by Ukraine’s defense minister to share information on the Iranian drones being shot down over his country. These details would have come in return for the passing on of Israeli intelligence. Israel feared that Russia might respond by hampering the Israel Air Force’s freedom in Syria’s skies, as Iran tries to deepen its presence against Israel to the north.

But American pressure and the stepped-up Iranian aid to Russia have convinced Israel to abandon its policy of apathy.

Last month, senior European officials told ‘Haaretz’ that under American pressure, Israel agreed to underwrite the purchase of millions of dollars of “strategic materials” for Ukraine. The materials were transferred via a NATO country, and Israel agreed to let NATO countries transfer to Ukraine weapons including electro-optical and fire-control systems made by Israeli firms.

Over several years, the Mossad, Military Intelligence, the IAF and the navy have built up a database on Iran’s drones. If Brussels gains access to this data, Ukraine and NATO countries will benefit, as will other states such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia.

In 1994, Israel signed an agreement granting it status as a NATO “partner.” This lets it appoint an ambassador and a military attaché, and take part in the alliance’s air and sea exercises in the Baltic states, Montenegro and the Indian Ocean.

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Berlin doesn’t trust Washington. Scholz doesn’t trust the U.S.

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Image source: twitter @Bundeskanzler

“If the U.S. is involved directly it’s more likely to use military force to defend its allies in Europe,” Carlo Masala, a German military expert with strong ties to the country’s political establishment, said on German public television. “That’s a very strong rationale for Scholz and why he insists that the U.S. is involved,” quotes POLITICO.

The breakthrough on sending Western-made battle tanks to Ukraine sparked hopes in both Washington and Europe that the tortured transatlantic debate over arming the country had been resolved once and for all. But… Just hours after German Chancellor Olaf Scholz cleared the way for the export of German-made tanks to the country, the focus shifted to the who, what, where and when of supplying fighter jets to Ukraine.

Once again, Scholz was the first to slam on the brakes, repeatedly warning in recent days of the dangers of “escalation,” while insisting that NATO would not become directly involved in the conflict. If you feel like you’ve seen this movie before, join the club.

It turns out that an even bigger fear for Scholz than escalation is that NATO, and in particular the U.S., wouldn’t get involved if Russia were to retaliate against, say Germany. That worry — according to an adviser to the German government — is the reason that Scholz insisted that Washington agree to supply Ukraine with M1 Abrams tanks before the chancellor would lift his veto on delivering German-made Leopard 2 tanks.

While the NATO treaty’s Article 5 calls on alliance members to support one another in the event of an attack, it doesn’t require allies to respond with military force. In other words, Scholz doesn’t trust the U.S.

Given that Washington has about 40,000 troops in Germany and has already committed roughly $30 billion in military aid to Ukraine (more than 10 times the German total), one might reasonably question the logic underlying Scholz’s argument.

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How an American ‘Mozart Group’ imploded in Ukraine

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The Mozart Group, one of the most prominent, private American military organizations in Ukraine, has collapsed under a cloud of accusations ranging from financial improprieties to alcohol-addled misjudgments, writes Jeffrey Gettleman at ‘The New York Times’.

Its struggles provide a revealing window into the world of foreign volunteer groups that have flocked to Ukraine with noble intentions only to be tripped up by the stresses of managing a complicated enterprise in a war zone. The Mozart Group was training Ukrainian soldiers and evacuating frontline residents until the money ran out. Its collapse sheds light on the stresses faced by such groups.

Jeffrey Gettleman writes: “Andrew Milburn, a former American Marine colonel and leader of the Mozart Group, stood in a chilly meeting room on the second floor of an apartment building in Kyiv about to deliver some bad news. In front of him sat half a dozen men who had traveled to Ukraine on their own dime to work for him.

“Guys, I’m gutted,” he said. “The Mozart Group is dead.”

The men stared back at him with blank faces.

One asked as he walked toward the door, “What should I do with my helmet?”

“I’ve seen this happen many times,” said one of Mozart’s veteran trainers, who, like many others, spoke only anonymously out of concerns that the Russians might target him. “You got to run these groups like a business. We didn’t do that.”

Hundreds if not thousands of foreign veterans and volunteers have passed through Ukraine. Many of them, like Mr. Milburn and his group, are hard-living men who have spent their adult lives steeped in violence, solo fliers trying to work together in a very dangerous environment without a lot of structure or rules.”

“After months struggling to hold itself together, Mozart was plagued by defections, infighting, a break-in at its office headquarters and a lawsuit filed by the company’s chief financial officer, Andrew Bain, seeking the ouster of Mr. Milburn.

The lawsuit, filed in Wyoming, where Mozart is registered as a limited liability company, is a litany of petty and serious allegations, accusing Mr. Milburn among other things of making derogatory comments about Ukraine’s leadership while “significantly intoxicated,” letting his dog urinate in a borrowed apartment and “diverting company funds” and other financial malfeasance.

When Mr. Milburn showed up in Ukraine in early March last year, the capital, Kyiv, was seemingly on the precipice. Russian forces were blasting their way in from the suburbs and Ukraine was rushing thousands of inexperienced soldiers to the front.

That’s when, through a mutual friend, Mr. Milburn, 59, met Mr. Bain, 58. Also a former Marine colonel, Mr. Bain had been working in media and marketing in Ukraine for more than 30 years. Mr. Milburn, whose career has tracked America’s wars of the past three decades, from Somalia to Iraq, had both the combat experience and the contacts. He counts Marine heavyweights like the author Bing West and a former defense secretary, Gen. James Mattis, as friends.

Mr. Bain had the organization. For eight years, since Russia invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014, he had been running the Ukrainian Freedom Fund, a charity he set up that turned donations into desperately needed gear for the Ukrainian military.

The two founded Mozart, the name a saucy response to the Russian mercenary force that uses the name of another famous composer, the Wagner Group. They also ran a short-lived podcast called “Two Marines in Kyiv.”

With the Ukrainian military desperate for all the Western support it could get, Mozart quickly expanded from a handful of combat vets to more than 50 employees from a dozen countries. The group’s two specialties became last-chance extractions of civilians trapped on the front lines, which was extremely dangerous work, and condensed military training.

As spring passed to summer, more Ukrainian military units asked Mozart for training. But the Ukrainians could not pay for it, leaving Mozart reliant on a small pool of steady donors, including a group of East Coast financiers with Jewish-Ukrainian roots and a Texas tycoon.

Everyone involved said it became stressful just making payroll. And several employees said that the way the money flowed into the organization, which was overseen by Mr. Bain, was opaque.

On top of that, the people Mozart hired were not the easiest to manage. Many were grizzled combat vets who admitted to struggling with PTSD and heavy drinking. When they weren’t working, they gravitated to Kyiv’s strip clubs, bars and online dating. “There was a lot of cursing, a lot of womanizing, a lot of things you wouldn’t want to take to mass,” said another trainer, Rob.

In September, they lost an important funding stream when a charity called Allied Extract decided to use less expensive Ukrainian teams to rescue civilians.  

Not long after that, a clip of Mr. Milburn disparaging Ukraine’s leadership circulated widely on social media. “I happen to have a Ukraine flag tied to my bag, but I’m not, ‘Oh my God, Ukraine is so awesome,’” he said. “I understand that there are plenty of screwed-up people running Ukraine.” The clip was taken from The Team House podcast, in which guests are invited into a living room setting to drink hard liquor with the hosts.

Mr. Milburn has rented a new office in Kyiv and says he is determined to resurrect the operation. But he’s not going back to the front anytime soon.

Wearing a gray sweatshirt, black sweatpants and running shoes, he spent hours this week in front of his laptop. He’s scouting out new business, such as training courses for hostile environments. He’s writing emails to donors.”

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