The military balance of Nagorno Karabakh - 2008

The military balance of Nagorno Karabakh


In early January, a number of Azerbaijani news outlets reported that Russia had, throughout 2008, transferred an estimated $800 million worth of military hardware to Azerbaijan’s rival Armenia. The story is murky, but an Azeri media organisation received a list of equipment allegedly supplied, including tanks and armoured personnel carriers, grenade launchers, ammunition, and rockets. At the time of writing, the Russian response had been mixed: some carefully worded denials from the Foreign Ministry, promises of clarification from the Russian embassy in Baku, and stonewalling from the Defence Ministry. Russia’s overall approach has been moving towards denial, but the lack of an outright, immediate statement has inevitably fanned the flames of rumour. The Azerbaijani armed forces allegedly put their forces on high alert in response. If the story is true, the implications could be significant. The peace process over Nagorno-Karabakh is in an extremely delicate phase, and Russia has recently gone to great lengths to depict itself as an impartial mediator. Any truth in the arms transfer rumours would destroy Moscow’s reputation as an honest broker and undo much of the tentative progress that has been recently achieved.

The military implications are also significant, since the size of the transfer would go some way towards redressing the huge growth in Azerbaijan’s armed forces in recent years. Precise, up-to-date figures are very difficult to come by, given the opaque nature of both countries’ defence sectors, the difficulties of gathering information on Armenian forces in Karabakh, and the rapid expansion of armed forces. But most independent estimates give Azerbaijan the quantitative edge over Armenia, particularly in terms of heavy equipment. A far more significant factor, and arguably a key reason for the lack of major combat since 1994, is the topography of the Karabakh region. The ceasefire line currently runs through rugged, mountainous terrain topped with multiple defensive lines which would favour the Armenian side in any war launched by Baku. Azerbaijan’s purchase of 25 Su-25 ground attack aircraft from Georgia and unmanned aerial vehicles from Israel should be seen in this context: as an attempt to maintain air superiority and therefore compensate for the difficulties of ground artillery in such terrain. Turkey has also offered to upgrade the Azerbaijani air force, alongside its other assistance in the fields of education and technical support.

The Russian 102nd Army base in Armenia has played a huge role in assisting and upgrading Armenia’s military so far. The base’s inventory of hardware was boosted in 2005 when Russia closed its bases in Georgia and transferred 370 pieces of equipment to the 102nd base. The forces at the base are militarily very significant: 74 tanks, 224 armoured combat vehicles, 60 towed artillery systems, 14 aircraft and the advanced S-300 missile system. Although the limited number of Russian personnel there would prohibit a large-scale deployment of this equipment, it is possible that the 102nd would, in the event of war, ‘lend’ the equipment to Armenia’s armed forces under the terms of the Russo-Armenian military alliance. There are also estimated to be huge – relative to the territory’s size – number of tanks and other pieces of hardware within Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding regions. This allows Armenia to circumvent its restrictions on such equipment under the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, although it has accused Azerbaijan of doing the same.

Georgia has a critical and often under-realised role in any potential conflict for a number of reasons. Firstly, in the aftermath of the August war it suspended most Russian flights over Georgian territory to the 102nd base, preventing the base from receiving critical military supplies: therefore the figures given for the Russian base should be taken with a pinch of salt. More broadly, as military analyst Roger McDermott notes, the transfer of any equipment from northern states such as Ukraine to Armenia could be blocked by Georgia, since they would have to be shipped through Georgian territory from a Black Sea port, although such a deal was confirmed in November.

Secondly, and related to this, Tbilisi will have to make a clear and difficult choice in any renewed war between Baku and Yerevan. Georgia has no interest in spoiling its ties with Yerevan, and has expressed interest in defence co-operation (for instance, on upgrading Armenian tanks in a Georgian plant). But these links cause friction with Azerbaijan, with whom Georgia has a close economic and political relationship. Georgia relies on Azerbaijan for its own gas supplies and for the transit of Azeri gas and oil through the BTC and BTE pipelines, which bring in vital transit fees for Georgia’s struggling economy. Supporting Armenia could lead Baku (in the name of ‘energy security’) to re-route its gas and oil flows through Russia. It therefore seems likely that Georgia would support Azerbaijan, perhaps closing its border with Armenia and leaving the country almost entirely isolated from the outside world.

Even if the rumours of the $800 million arms transfers are false, the Karabakh conflict is incredibly volatile. The military balance between the two sides remains difficult to assess, but its uncertain nature, along with the peace process, has managed to prevent either side from reigniting a major conflict. If Russia really has shipped such a quantity of equipment to Armenia, the prospects for peace are grim. This would raise tensions on the ground and give further weight to hawks in the Azeri defence forces who argue that Azerbaijan’s military is sufficient, and that Baku should strike now to liberate the occupied territories before Armenia can reinforce itself any further. Perhaps even more disastrously, the transfer would fatally damage Moscow’s reputation as an honest broker and would remove the constraining brake of the peace process from a highly dangerous arms race. Nobody – Azerbaijan, Russia, or Armenia - would benefit.


In late 2008 Russia delivered to Armenia arms in the amount of $800 mln.

Day.Az has asked some questions on this topic among some deputies of Milli Medjlis of Azerbaijan:

Deputy chairman of the parliamentary commission on issues of defense and security Aydin Mirzazade:

"It can be featured only as international scandal. One of the conflict parties is supplied with different weapons in the amount of about $800,000,000. Considering the fact that currently the annual military budget of Armenia makes $400,000,000 is turning into a large military storehouse. At the same time considering the fact that Russia is one of the co-chairs of the OSCR Minsk Group, which is bound to mediate in the peaceful resolution of the Karabakh conflict, the position of our northern neighbor is surprising. It is unclear to the Azerbaijani community, why it is done so and what international law is takaen as a basis. Russia must mediate and adhere to a just position, which implies the return of 20% of Armenian occupied lands to Azerbaijan. Russia must be interested in the demilitarization of this region. But instead of it we see that our strategic ally supplies the occupant with weapons in the large amount. The aim of this armament is clear - it is Azerbaijan, occupation of new lands, destabilization of the situation in the region. We would like to get a clear response from Russia. It is clear that Armenia purchases weapons from Russia. But its supply with such a great volume of arms can affect the situation in the region. We demand the return of these arms and Armenia's demilitarization. This contradicts to the Moscow declaration, undersigned by the President of Russia. What is that? The protest against the Moscow declaration by some circles of Russia or provocation against the Russian President? Anyway, those responsible for these provocation must be found, their names made public and they must be punished".

Deputy Zahid Oruc:

"I think Russia's actions contradict to international documents it joins it. Though they try to explain their actions as being legal in the framework of the CSTO with Armenia, anyway, this is a violation of international norms. Russia's policy on Armenia's militarization can be qualified the lack of Russia's interest in the peaceful resolution of the conflicts in the South Caucasus. This allows other geopolitical plays to undertake adequate steps. Russia's such actions make possible the access of military circles from other countries to our region, as any country will try to restore the violated military balance by other alternative ways. Therefore, Azerbaijan and Georgia can search other variants of their security and try to distance from Georgia. This is not the first time when Georgia supplies Armenia with arms in a significant amount free of charge. In the 1990s late general Lev Rokhlin revealed the free supply of arms in the amount of $ 1 bln to Armenia. I think Ryussia must respond about its actions as they damage their mediation activity on the peaceful resolution of the Karabakh conflict".

Deputy Asim Mollazade:

"It should be reminded that the issue of supply of arms in a greater amount of money from Russia to Armenia was discussed in the 1990s. Now they have transferred arms in the amount of $800,000,000, which proves that the aggressor is armed and therefore, less arms is supplied. I think that Azerbaijan must draw attention of the world community and international organizations so that to make it clear who is an aggressor and who is behind it all".

Deputy Jamil Hasanly:

"This fact can not be a surprize for us. I think that the country, which supplies Armenia with arms in the amount of $800 mln to Armenia, has no moral right to be one of the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group".

Deputy Gudrat Hasaquliyev:

"This fact proves once again that Russia continue to supply arms to the CIS state, which has been occupying a part of another CID country. This is another fact proving that earlier Russia acted the same way. This proves that Russia does not support friendly relations with Azerbaijan, as it says, unilaterally supports Armenia and is not interested in the fair resolution of the Karabakh conflict. I think the Azerbaijani government must raise this issue in UN, OSCE, in particular in the OSCE Minsk Group". It should be noted that due to the New Year vacations in the Russian embassy to Azerbaijan, Day.Az did not manage to learn comments of the Russian side about this issue.


Armenian Defense Reforms ‘Nearly Complete’

President Serzh Sarkisian announced on Thursday the impending completion of defense reforms that are meant to bring the Armenian military into greater conformity with Western standards and practices. The reforms were launched in 2005 as Armenia stepped up its cooperation with NATO under an “individual partnership action plan,” or IPAP. They envisaged, among other things, greater civilian control over the military and a so-called “civilianization” of the Armenian Defense Ministry. The ministry’s organizational structure has until now mirrored that of the formerly Soviet and now Russian armed forces, with army officers holding just about every ministerial position and facing little civilian oversight. The Armenian government pushed through parliament recently a law that allows the Defense Ministry to hire civilian personnel. In what appears to be a follow-up measure, the government approved on Thursday the new statutes and structures of the ministry and the Armenian army’s General Staff. Sarkisian personally chaired the cabinet session to underline the significance of the changes. He said Armenia is “nearing the completion of the reforms in the defense sphere” which will “further reinforce the defense capability of our state.” “A few more days, and we will finally have the [new] structures of the Defense Ministry and the General Staff,” Sarkisian told ministers. “Their functions will be completely delineated, and our Defense Ministry will operate in new conditions.” As part of the reforms, the government adopted last year Armenia’s national security strategy and military doctrine. Both documents state that Armenia will increasingly cooperate with the armed forces of the United States and other NATO member states in reforming its military and contributing to international security. More specifically, they commit Yerevan to expanding its involvement in Western-led peace-keeping operations abroad. The Armenian military has already deployed troops in Kosovo and Iraq and is considering joining the NATO-led multinational force in Afghanistan. The doctrine at the same time makes clear that “strategic partnership” with Russia will remain the bedrock of Armenia’s defense policy. It says the two countries will continue to maintain close military ties both on a bilateral basis and within the framework of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization.


In Post-Soviet States, Finally a Time for Sergeants

Vienna, January 31 – Russia and Armenia announced this week that they will build their armed services in the future around professional non-commissioned officers, a change that will bring them in line with Western militaries, fundamentally change the duties of junior officers, and possibly reduce the number of violations of military law in the ranks. During the Cold War, one of the most striking differences between NATO forces and the armies of the Warsaw Pact countries was that the former had professional sergeants and other non-commissioned officers and the latter did not. And that difference, many analysts insisted at the time, had a major impact on the very different nature of the two forces.

The existence of professional non-commissioned officers in NATO armies meant that officers could be officers and that long-serving sergeants could play a major role in running their units and preventing the outbreak of the kind of tensions that existed between officers and men in Warsaw Pact armies where there were no such professionals. With the demise of the Warsaw Pact and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, many East European countries, including the three Baltic States, who aspired to NATO membership and now in many cases have achieved it, began the process by moving to create the corps of professional sergeants typical of the militaries of the Western alliance.

But the 12 countries that emerged following the disintegration of the USSR have generally retained the older Soviet system of relying on senior draftees to serve as sergeants, an arrangement that increases the burdens on junior officers and frequently leads to outbreaks of "dedovshchina," the Russian term for mistreatment of junior draftees by more senior ones. Now, this week, two more of these countries – the Russian Federation and Armenia -- have broken ranks and are beginning to create a professional NCO system, not because either of them aspires to NATO membership but rather because they have become convinced that having professional sergeants will make their forces more militarily capable.

Starting tomorrow, the first of what are slated by 2016 to be 250,000 professional sergeants (a number which by the way is planned to exceed the number of officers at that time by 100,000) will begin training in six higher military schools. Most will pursue a 34 month course, focusing not only on technical subjects but on teaching and psychology. That program, Nikita Petrov says in a commentary prepared for the Novosti news agency, is designed to teach the future sergeants how to conduct "individual work with soldiers. To be for them not only bosses but also senior comrades, something that unfortunately not all officers today are able of doing. As of September, professional sergeants will be studying at a total of 68 Russian military schools, and this system is intended to produce some 15,000 NCOs every year. A smaller number of NCOs will be given a shorter course of instruction, at least initially, although it is unclear how long that alternative program will continue.

Meanwhile, Armenia has announced that it is well on the way to creating a professional army with professional NCOs as well, a step that in addition to Russia, four other former Soviet republics -- Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine -- are now taking and one that will likely prompt others, in the first instance their neighbors, to do the same. A commentary in the Baku newspaper "Zerkalo" today argues that Azerbaijan should take that step both to boost military efficiency and improve conditions for draftees both legally and practically, although it notes that Azerbaijan so far has not adopted the necessary legislation to take this step.

As has been the case elsewhere, the paper notes, there is certain to be resistance to this step from the officer corps who see the rise of professional sergeants, many of the most senior of whom are likely to be paid far more than junior officers as a threat to their status and perquisites. But now that Armenia and Georgia have taken that step, Azerbaijan may follow suit. And that trend could have an outcome that will strike many as paradoxical: Even those countries which do not aspire to NATO membership or actively oppose that idea are now copying "a NATO standard" in organizing their militaries, something that will almost certainly benefit the soldiers in these forces and hence ultimately the countries they serve.


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Arevordi will be taking a sabbatical to tend to personal matters. New blog commentaries will henceforth be posted on an irregular basis. The comments board however will continue to be moderated on a regular basis.

The last 20 years or so has also helped me see Russia as the last front against scourges of Westernization, Globalism, American expansionism, Zionism, Islamic extremism and pan-Turkism. I have also come to see Russia as the last hope humanity has for the preservation of classical western civilization, Apostolic Christianity and the traditional nation-state. This realization compelled me to create this blog in 2010. Immediately, this blog became one of the very few voices in the vastness of cyberia that dared to preach about the dangers of Globalism and the Anglo-American-Jewish alliance, and the only voice preaching the strategic importance of Armenia remaining within Russia's orbit. From about 2010 to 2015 I did monthly, at times weekly, commentaries about Russian-Armenian relations and Eurasian geopolitics in general. It was very difficult as I had no assistance in this endeavor. The time I put into this blog therefore came at the expense of work and family. But a powerful feeling inside me urged me to keep going; and I did.

When Armenia finally joined the EEU and integrated its armed forces into Russia's military structures a couple of years ago, I finally felt a deep sense of satisfaction and relaxation, as if a very heavy burden was lifted off my shoulders. I finally felt that my personal mission was accomplished. I therefore felt I could take a step back, as I really needed the rest. Simply put: I have lived to see the institutionalization of Russian-Armenian alliance. Also, I feel more confident now that Armenians are collectively recognizing the strategic importance of Armenia's ties with Russia. Moreover, I feel satisfied knowing that, at least on a subatomic level, I had a hand in the outcome. As a result, I feel a strong sense of mission accomplished. I therefore no longer have the urge to continue as in the past. In other words, the motivational force that had propelled me in previous years has been gradually dissipating because I feel that this blog has lived to see the realization of its stated goal. Going forward, I do not want to write merely for the sake of writing. Also, I do not want to say something if I have nothing important to say. I feel like I have said everything I needed to say. Henceforth, I will post seasonal commentaries about topics I find important. I will however continue moderating the blog's comments section on a regular basis; ultimately because I'm interested in what my readers have to say and also because it's through readers here that I am at times made aware of interesting developments.

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