The recent thaw in Russian-Azerbaijani relations seems to be coming to a sudden end, as Azerbaijani media outlets circulate news of Russian arms deliveries to Armenia in the amount of US$800 million. The news sparked huge protests both among the Azerbaijani general public and politicians. More importantly, it created a sense of treason among the political leadership of Azerbaijan, which had been promised support from Russia in the aftermath of the Georgian-Russian war. Such disappointment could result in grave geopolitical shifts in the region and changes in Azerbaijan’s foreign policy course towards NATO.
BACKGROUND: On January 6, Azerbaijani media outlets reported that Russian defense officials transferred weapons and other military hardware worth US$ 800 million to Armenia in 2008. The evidence consisted of a document containing the signature of a Russian defense official and a detailed list of the transferred weapons. As becomes clear from the document, the weapons used to belong to a Russian military bases in Georgia, which was later withdrawn in accordance with OSCE requirements and relocated to Armenia. At that time, Russian political and military officials responded to Azerbaijani concerns about the relocation by stating that the weapons and other military equipment in the military base would remain the property of the Russian Federation, and would not be transferred to Armenia. “Russia promised Azerbaijan that the weapons would not be given to Armenia,” says political analyst Rasim Musabekov.
The current news had the effect of a thunderstorm from a blue sky. Azerbaijani officials immediately reacted to the news by harshly condemning the Russian actions and citing its negative consequences for peace and stability in the region. Various members of Parliament, along with renowned public figures and policy analysts, have written op-eds and spoken on TV about this incident. For instance, Anar Mammadkhanov, a Member of Parliament and close loyalist of President Ilham Aliyev, referred to the sale as “unexplainable Kremlin boorishness.”
The Azerbaijani Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense have launched an investigation of the issue, which concluded that an illegal transfer of weapons from Russia to Armenia has indeed taken place. The reaction was very harsh. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Russian ambassador to Azerbaijan and expressed deep frustration with the incident. The press release of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “The transferred weapons strengthen the military capacity of Armenia, which occupies 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory. By doing this, Russia violated its own promises and the UN General Assembly resolutions.”
It should be noted that it is not the first instance of Russian “donations” of weapons and military equipment to Armenia, its strategic ally and military outpost in the South Caucasus, which is a the only member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in the South Caucasus. Back in 1997, a scandal erupted when the head of the Defense Committee of the Russian Duma, Lev Rokhlin, discovered and announced that Russia had illegally transferred weapons to Armenia in the amount of US$1 billion. After Azerbaijan’s fierce protests, the Russian Defense Ministry launched an investigation, but has to date failed to punish the officers responsible. Rokhlin himself was subsequently killed in a mysterious accident and the issue was largely forgotten.
After the recent incident, Azerbaijanis again recalled the incident of the late 1990s. “Only God knows how many other transfers Russia has made to Armenia, both legally and illegally,” says Ilgar Mammadov, a Baku-based political analyst, in his blog. It is not clear where all these weapons are stored. If they are stored in Armenia, it is questionable how this corresponds to the limitations imposed by the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. It seems that Armenia has previously been exceeding the quotas of this treaty. One way to circumvent this problem could be to transfer the weapons to Nagorno-Karabakh, which continues to remain an soon after unmonitored zone by international organizations. If this would be the case, the conflict zone becomes even more militarized, significantly reducing chances for a peaceful resolution.
Most government officials are convinced that despite all the peace rhetoric, Russia continues to arm Armenia and remain interested in maintaining the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict unresolved. The incident is especially damaging since it was reported only one month after President Aliyev signed the Moscow Declaration on Nagorno-Karabakh together with Russian President Medvedev and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan. Although Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov phoned his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov to convince him that no such transfer has taken place, the Azerbaijan side is convinced otherwise.
IMPLICATIONS: It is clear that the weapons transfer incident will play an extremely damaging role in Russia-Azerbaijan relations. These relations have been improving in the past several years, with President Ilham Aliyev reaching out to Moscow and downplaying his NATO aspirations in favor of accommodating Russian interests and building pragmatic relations with the Kremlin. Economic cooperation and trade between Russia and Azerbaijan reached its highest levels in 2008. President Medvedev visited Baku and expressed an interest in buying all Azerbaijan’s gas. President Aliyev visited Moscow on a number of occasions and expressed an interest in building deeper and more constructive relations with Moscow.
On the one hand, this was done to improve the chances for a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (Moscow is one of the co-chairs of the Minsk group and an influential partner of Armenia). On the other hand, Aliyev sincerely wanted to help Russia improve its image on the international arena. For instance, during the Georgian-Russian conflict, Aliyev refrained from accusing Russia of aggression. He subsequently signed the Moscow Declaration – not a breakthrough in the peace negotiations as sometimes suggested, but nevertheless a boost for the Kremlin’s image as a peace broker in the South Caucasus following its invasion of Georgia. All of these gestures were aimed at winning Moscow’s favor.
After this incident, frustration among the political leadership in Baku is obvious. It is perhaps a wake-up call for the Azerbaijani public and officials, who increasingly believe that Moscow will always be guided by zero-sum games and interested in maintaining the conflicts in the former Soviet space unresolved, and that Moscow will continue to support Armenia despite the fact that it stands to gain much more by acting as a neutral player in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
After the Russian-Georgian war last August, there had been some hope in Baku that Moscow might alter its blatant support for Armenia and become more cooperative in seeking to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In return, Azerbaijan would desist from following Georgia’s path to NATO membership, and Azerbaijan would deliver its gas to Russia rather than to the Nabucco pipeline project. Importantly, voices calling for that have now vanished. Indeed, the voices in Baku promoting broader security arrangements with NATO and the EU, and viewing Euro-Atlantic integration as the only way to ensure stability in the South Caucasus are gaining ground. That in turn takes place just as the U.S. has signed documents on strategic partnership with both Georgia and Ukraine.
CONCLUSIONS: In the aftermath of the war in Georgia, Azerbaijani officials were evidently greatly frustrated with the weak reaction of the West and Turkey’s submissive attitude to Moscow. (See 3 September CACI Analyst) Briefly, Baku flirted with the idea of making a deal with Russia on both gas supplies and the Karabakh conflict. Yet the discovery of huge Russian arms deliveries to Armenia not only force Azerbaijan to purchase more weapons and thus further militarize the region – it deals serious damage to Russian-Azerbaijani relations at a personal level. Russia’s actions are now interpreted as irrational, emotional and unpredictable behavior. Baku’s flirt with Moscow seems resolutely over, which could rejuvenate its ties with the West – if the West is interested in investing in ties to Baku.
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