Putting aside the overt support Ankara is providing Baku, it is widely believed that government connected "private" military contractors from various Western nations and Israel are also actively building-up Azerbaijan's military infrastructure as well as fine-tuning its fighting capability. There has even been talk about professionally trained foreign sharpshooters (snipers) working on the Azeri side of the demarcation line in Artsakh.
I have no doubt that international energy interests as well as Western officials fully stand behind Azerbaijan. Behind closed doors and away from television cameras and journalists' microphones, high level officials in the West strongly favor Azerbaijan over Armenia. Their primary intent is to defeat a belligerent Armenia so that it does not become a hindrance to their regional energy exploitation efforts and their efforts to drive Russians out of the south Caucasus.
Tehran, which also has a vested interest in the south Caucasus, does not want to see Armenia's defeat simply because Iranian officials have long feared the potential rise of an Azeri/Turkic insurgency inside Iran. Thus, Tehran can be expected to openly (or covertly) side with Yerevan in the event of major hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is also well known that the Russian Federation does not want to see the resumption of a new war between Armenia and Azerbaijan primarily because the status-quo prevailing in the region today is geopolitically very favorable to Moscow (and to Yerevan). Moscow has repeatedly warned Baku against attempting to retake Artsakh by force. Simply put: Moscow and Tehran desire to keep the status-quo in the region.
Therefore, if hostilities resume. If Baku is foolish enough to disregard its northern and southern neighbors' wishes by striking at Artsakh with full force, with the moral initiative and Moscow and Tehran on its side, I personally believe Yerevan should take the opportunity to strike deep into Azerbaijan's north western territory and by doing so finally establish a land connection with the Russian Federation.
I hope that the aforementioned scenario has already been thought of by military planners in Armenia and Russia. The benefits to such a historic undertaking is very clear for Armenia and its benefits to Russia, in my opinion, are as follows:
Dissecting the south Caucasus in such a manner would immediately drive the last nail in the coffin for Western interests in the region. Such a scenario would immediately bring Saakashvili's government to its knees and it would turn an already isolated Azerbaijan into a full-0fledged hostage to Moscow. Such a scenario would be a major blow to the Islamic insurgency in the north Caucasus. Such a scenario would also preempt any future inroads in the region by Turkey or by Islamists or even by Iran. By allowing Yerevan to establish a common borders with the Russian Federation, Moscow would immediately create a more effective balance of power in the volatile region where besides Russia there are four other major influences - Western, Turkish, Iranian and Islamic. Moreover, by establishing a safe trade route to Iran via Armenia, Moscow can easily and more effectively implement major regional economic projects.
If Russian officials have stood in the way of Armenia's territorial expansion, it's simply because they fear losing Armenia once Yerevan becomes less dependent on Moscow. In my opinion, Russian officials need not fear about this. Armenia will not break away from it. Although some high level Russian officials may take issue with this, I think Moscow can feel fully confidant about Armenia's friendship. Armenia will be firmly embedded in the Russian camp for a very long time. Moscow has already bought into virtually every sector of Armenia's economy and its infrastructure. There is a deep level of cooperation between the military establishments of Armenia and Russia. The largest and by-far the most prominent Armenian Diaspora is that of Russia's. Moreover, Russian intelligence assets are deeply entrenched throughout Armenia. Gains for Armenia in the south Caucasus will ultimately translate as gains for Russia. As long as Moscow continues helping Armenia's current political establishment keep its Western agents on the fringes of Armenian politics, Moscow should not be worrying about where Armenia's true allegiance lies - even when Armenian officials sometimes give lip-service to the Western world.
Moreover, as long as Azeris continue to have ethnic and cultural ties with the Turkic and Islamic worlds and as long as Baku continues to be wooed by Western energy interests - Baku will not be fully trust by the Kremlin. Armenian officials and influential Armenians residing in Russia need to exploit this situation by driving these points across with Kremlin officials. It needs to be a pan-national task to make Kremlin officials fully confident of Armenia's genuine friendship and to convince them that strengthening Armenia's geopolitical stature in the region will strengthen Moscow's regional presence as well.
If Baku wants to get adventurous. If Baku tried to upset the prevailing status-quo in the region by resorting to military means. If Baku (and Tbilisi) continues being troublesome in the region - why not allow the establishment of common borders between Armenia and Russia?
Other than freezing the provision of extortion money (IMF loans) to Armenia, the Western alliance would be powerless. With a resurgent Russia making a strong presence in Eurasia recently, with various military entanglements already diverting Washington's attention, with a global economic crisis continuing to plague the western world - the "internationally community" (a palatable term used to describe the Anglo-American-Zionist global order) would be powerless to stop Armenia from establishing common borders with the Russian Federation. By establishing common borders with the Russian Federation, Armenia would no longer need Western bribes and extortion monies to help it survive and Moscow would have direct access to the south Caucasus. The following are some relevant news reports that made the Western press recently.
Azerbaijan Preparing For War, Says Defense Minister
Armenian Military War Games (Zinuj video): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wLNFzmhRyg
Abiyev also criticized the activities of the Minsk Group and said that while diplomatic overtures of the mediators have not produced any results, Azerbaijan has not yet lost its hope in the group. Ziyafat Asgarov, the deputy speaker of the Azerbaijani parliament, told reporters in December of last year that Azerbaijan reserves the right to liberate its occupied territories. When asked whether war was on the agenda, Asgarov said, “You will see it very soon.” Novruz Mammadov, the director of the department of foreign relations in the presidential administration of Azerbaijan, told ANS TV channel on Saturday that it is natural for Azerbaijan to intensify its war rhetoric, pointing to the failure of mediators to bring about peace in the conflict.
“The only job of the international community and OSCE Minsk Group is to make Armenia accept the proposals on the table,” Mammadov said. “It is very natural that Azerbaijan increase its military calls because we have been negotiating for many years already. Because the talks have not produced the outcome we want, the Azerbaijani president [Ilham Aliyev] is highlighting the right of Azerbaijani army to liberate our territories and this is only natural,” Mammadov concluded.
Nagorno-Karabakh Republic authorities reacted to Abiyev’s comments, releasing a declaration that the Armenian troops were constantly training to repel any attempt by Azerbaijan to seize the region back, AFP quoted Interfax news agency as saying on Saturday. The statement said Karabakh forces were ready “if necessary, to ensure that any encroachment by the enemy meets with adequate retaliation.”
ICG report points out worsening of frontline situation
International experts believe the current negotiating process between Armenia and Azerbaijan around a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement is deadlocked and the world community now must prevent the resumption of hostilities in the conflict zone. This is the conclusion that can be drawn from the latest report of the International Crisis Group (ICG), the world’s leading independent NGO that provides analysis and advice on prevention and resolution of deadly conflicts. In its report “Armenia and Azerbaijan: Preventing War” published on February 8 the ICG points out a significant deterioration of the situation along the Karabakh frontline in 2010.
“Neither government [Armenia, Azerbaijan] is planning an all-out offensive in the near term, but skirmishes that already kill 30 people a year could easily spiral out of control. It is unclear if the leaders in Yerevan and Baku thoroughly calculate the potential consequences of a new round of tit-for-tat attacks. Ambiguity and lack of transparency about operations along the line of contact, arms deals and other military expenditures and even the state of the peace talks all contribute to a precarious situation,” the report says. ICG experts believe that in order to start reversing this dangerous downward trend, the opposing sides should sign a document on basic principles for resolving the conflict peacefully and undertake confidence-building steps to reduce tensions and avert a resumption of fighting.
“Russia, as an OSCE Minsk Group co-chair, but also others, should uphold the non-binding UN and OSCE arms embargoes on Armenia and Azerbaijan… The OSCE, with full support of the Minsk co-chair countries, should encourage the parties to broaden its observer mission’s mandate to authorise investigation of claimed violations and spontaneous monitoring, including with remote surveillance capabilities, and to agree to a significant increase in the number of monitors, as an interim measure until a peacekeeping force is deployed as part of the implementation of a peace agreement,” the report says.
The report was published on the eve of the start of the visit of OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmen Igor Popov (Russia), Bernard Fassier (France) and Robert Bradtke (USA) to the region. During his meeting with them in Yerevan Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan expressed his concern over the increasing incidence of ceasefire violations by Azerbaijan and, in particular, the intensification of sniper activity to neutralize which the Armenian side “is taking appropriate measures.”
“Armenia’s Defense Ministry strongly condemns the adventurism of Azerbaijan with which this country is going to exacerbate the situation along the line of contact between the troops of Karabakh and Azerbaijan with the help of snipers. The actions of Azerbaijan show that the country turns a deaf ear to the calls of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on the withdrawal of snipers from the line of contact,” the Armenian Defense Ministry said in a statement earlier. (Meanwhile, Azerbaijan accuses Armenia of instigating the violations.)
Armenian armed forces are preparing large-scale actions against snipers. According to tert.am, the Defense Ministry has information that Azerbaijan has acquired a large quantity of sniper riffles and is training snipers with the help of foreign mercenaries. Defense Ministry spokesman David Karapetyan did not reject the information. Unresolved conflicts in the South Caucasus continue to pose a major threat to regional stability said EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus Peter Semneby to the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna on February 10. Semneby called for strengthening the arrangements for the maintenance of the ceasefire and urged the EU and other international organizations to boost their interaction in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The Current Status of the Conflict
Since the death of Heydar Aliev in 2003, tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan have taken a turn for the worse. His son, the new Azeri President Ilham Aliev, has threatened to resort to force to retake Nagorno-Karabakh and exchanges of fire along the frontline have increased. One explanation for this escalation is the rapid growth of Azeri defense expenditures, driven by the influx of petrodollars, which shifted the military balance in Azerbaijan's favor. Azerbaijan's defense budget alone, at US$3 billion, exceeds the whole state budget of cash-strapped Armenia.
On the other hand, Aliev’s threat of military buildup comes in the wake of Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008, which he fears could set a dangerous precedent for mutinous secession. This fear was reinforced by Russia’s subsequent recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states after the war with Georgia in August 2008.
Armenian President Sarkisian responded to Aliev's warnings on December 2, 2010 during the OSCE summit held in Astana. Sarkisian threatened to formally recognize the NKR as an independent state if Aliev tries to use force to win back the enclave and other Armenian-controlled territories around it, saying, "If Azerbaijan resorts to military aggression, Armenia would not have any other choice but to recognize the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic de jure and to invest all its capabilities into ensuring the security of the people living there... Nagorno-Karabakh has no future within Azerbaijan."
How real is the danger of resuming this war in Transcaucasia? The victorious Armenian side is quite content with the status quo in Karabakh where it had achieved all strategic goals prior to the 1994 armistice. (Armenian ideologues have lately started to talk about the return of Nakhichevan, the Azeri exclave within Armenia, but the Azeri status of this territory is protected by Turkey under the 1921 Treaty of Kars). The potential of the losing Nagorno-Karabakh Azeri side depends not only on its military buildup and patriotic bluster, but more on the civic morale and social welfare of its population, which is profoundly unwilling to wage a re-conquest of Nagorno-Karabakh given the present political situation and social injustice in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan’s Petrodollar Dependency
Modern Azerbaijan is a typical Middle-Eastern petrostate ruled by a classical Middle-Eastern despotia, where political (and economic) power is concentrated and inherited within the ruling family. The extended family includes, along with the kinsmen of Azeri president and his wife, the top bureaucrats who, apart from their government duties, run vast business empires in every industry and trade, and enjoy a virtual monopoly in their respective fields and import operations. The petroleum export operation belongs to the ruling family – a fact that has been clearly revealed in the series of Wikileaks of American embassy dispatches from Baku.
In 1994, Heydar Aliev gave the largest oil concession in the Azeri sector of Caspian Sea for 30 years to a Western consortium led by British Petroleum, which has persuaded Western governments to overlook the glaring violation of human rights, the poor imitation of democracy, and the egregious conflating of business and political interests in this petrostate for the sake of unhampered pumping of one million barrels of Caspian oil daily through a pipeline built in 2005. The family receives in return 15 billion to 20 billion petrodollars annually, which it mostly spends on prestigious construction projects and other grandiose displays of independence, such as the recently erected tallest flagstaff in the world, turning the city of Baku into a Dubai-style amassment of futuristic skyscrapers by demolishing European quarters built during the first Baku oil boom of 1907-1915 and brutally evicting its citizens from their privatized homes.
However, this second Baku oil boom of 2005-2013 is doomed to end in a few years without any significant economic achievement as all the petrodollar revenue is being spent in a construction frenzy on ostentatious "white elephants" without modernizing even the city's basic infrastructure, such as the water and sewage systems, let alone creating non-petroleum industries that might become useful in the future with the end of big oil. Almost all the factories and manufacturing plants, left over from the Soviet industrial past, have been grazed down to clear the ground for economically useless hotels and convention centers, magnificent mosques and shopping malls, and opulent office and residential buildings for Azerbaijan's new petrodollar elite. This leaves little room to live or work for the rest of population, which is emigrating in large numbers: presently 3 million of Azerbaijan's 9 million citizens live and work abroad.
Petroleum production provides 85 percent of Azerbaijan's state budget revenues, accounts for 78 percent of the country's GDP and 92 percent of Azerbaijan's export. In other words, Azerbaijan completely depends on oil revenue in its standoff against Armenia, in military expenditures, in the food import-based welfare of its populace, and in ensuing political stability. The lion's share of oil revenue is provided by one single cluster of three offshore oil fields, Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli, discovered before Azerbaijan’s independence by Soviet geologists in the Caspian Sea. These three platforms presently supply 42 million of Azerbaijan's 50 million tons of annual oil production. Since then, 23 exploration contracts signed with foreign oil companies have failed to find any new oil deposit in Azerbaijan and its sector of the Caspian Sea.
Therefore, any speculation about Azerbaijan's prospects, both domestically and in Karabakh, is made simple by the country's complete dependence on these three oil fields: with their inevitable depletion Azerbaijan's economic strength will attenuate, which will in turn diminish its chances of resolving the Karabakh issue by force. The reserves of these fields are a state secret in Azerbaijan, but numerous foreign oil industry sources give evidence that, at the current rate of extraction, the three main fields will be depleted by 2019.
The End of Oil Boom
In 1992 the oil deposits of Azerbaijan were estimated at 7 billion barrels, 5 billion of which were under the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli cluster. The total Caspian Sea reserves, including Kazakhstan, which possesses 80 percent of Caspian oil, were around 25 billion barrels. Since then, nothing new has been found in the Azeri sector of the sea, while the giant Kashagan oil field was discovered in the Kazakh sector. Suppose that during the 16 years since the signing of concession, the Consortium has been pumping half a million barrels of oil per day on average, i.e. 182 million barrels per year. (In fact, since 2005 the daily output has been 1 million barrels). Multiply that number by 16 years and it is evident that from its total stock of 7 billion barrels Azerbaijan has already pumped out about 3 billion, leaving only 4 billion barrels of oil.
Now generously presume the remains of Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli to be 3 billion barrels (of the initial 5 billion) and divide that by 365 million barrels a year: the resulting estimate gives only nine more years of production at one million barrels per day (which the Consortium plans to increase up to 1.2 million per day). Thus, it is easy to calculate the end of Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli in the year 2019. Given that 2010 was the peak year of Azeri oil production, the descent begins as of 2011. (The IMF predicts the beginning of descent in 2012). Of course, the output will not stop immediately, but its reduction by 10 percent a year will be a severe blow to this petrostate.
This is only my generous calculation; the real decline may be even steeper because Azeri officials routinely inflate their oil assets, which are mysteriously increasing instead of decreasing, in spite of the one million barrels pumped out daily. According to them, Azerbaijan's oil reserves rose last year to 923 million tons, an equivalent of 6.7 billion barrels. In other words, the stock of oil in Azerbaijan, after 18 years of extraction and no new discovery made, has declined by only 300 million barrels, which is Azerbaijan's production in one year. Where the output in the remaining 17 years has vanished to is unknown.
This same kind of overstatement pertains to Azerbaijan's natural gas resources, which the officials hope will replace the dwindling oil revenues. Gas reserves, however, are insignificant: Azerbaijan currently exports only 5 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas to Turkey, hoping that the annual production from its Shahdenis gas field will double in the future, compared to the annual export of 70 bcm of Turkmen gas, 46 bcm from Iran and 350 bcm from Russia. Even gas-thirsty Ukraine, which is entangled in a gas-import dispute with Russia, produces 20 bcm of its own gas, compared to the 15 bcm produced in Azerbaijan, of which 10 bcm is consumed domestically.
Given this negligible volume of natural gas export and the certain end of big oil, the absence of real industrial production and manufacturing base in the post-petroleum era could lead to economic plight and public frustration. Azerbaijan has not developed any alternative source of economic income comparable to the current oil-export revenue. Moreover, instead of modernizing the Soviet-era industries, it has torn down the old factories and plants to clear the ground for office buildings and shopping malls, where the petrostate citizens were supposed to spend their petrodollars. However, Baku is neither a new Kuwait nor a new Dubai: its oil boom is to end within a few years. Yet the closed political system prevents a meaningful debate on post-boom challenges and breeds a sense of apathy and complacency.
The Futility of International Pressure
The international pressure which the Azeri government is trying to exert on great powers in resolving the Karabakh conflict by using its oil production as a foreign policy leverage is more important than the arms race. In 1994, Heydar Aliev hoped that the Western interest in energy resources would play in his favor on this issue. Composition of the Consortium, which included the European, American and even Russian companies, perfectly fitted into this strategy. However, Aliev's hope to relate oil development to the resolution of Karabakh conflict produced little effect. The only gain on this path was the softening in 2001 of Section 907 of the 1992 Freedom Support Act, which barred Azerbaijan from receiving American humanitarian aid until it lifts the economic blockade of Armenia.
Roughly speaking, the political clout of the one-million-strong Armenian community in the United States countervails the powerful big-oil lobby in Washington that promotes Azeri interests. Thus, the strategy of defeating Armenia diplomatically at the hands of oil-thirsty great powers has failed. Neither the European Union nor the United States have increased their support for Baku in the so-called Minsk process for settling the Karabakh conflict sponsored by OSCE. This strategic failure caused a reconsideration in Baku of the diplomatic impact of Azeri oil on the West, and both Alievs turned then to Moscow, trying to manipulate the United States and NATO by the Russian card.
Russia is still the strongest military power in the region, but its capacity to control events there is far weaker than most observers assume. Both the physical barrier of the Greater Caucasus range and the insurgency in its own turbulent North Caucasus reduce Moscow's ability to operate in the South Caucasus. To confront the growing political and economic influence of Turkey and Iran there, Russia if anything calls for the help of local Armenians, Abkhaz, Ossetians and others nations capable to maintain the Russian interests. The 2008 Georgian war and the renewal of Russia's military alliance with Armenia in August 2010 were both evidence of this. The calm reaction in the West to both events suggests that a dose of insignificance for Western strategic interests would be very healthy for Caucasian nations since it would allow the local governments to concentrate on solving their essential problems on their own.
Transcaucasia is indeed an important transport corridor for Caspian energy exports independent of Russia and Iran. But the romantic project of a new Silk Road stretching from Central Asia to Constantinople after the collapse of the USSR was unrealistic, unduly raising the hopes of small nations along the Road of becoming essential to the West, while antagonizing Russia and Iran. Also in the 1990s, Caspian enthusiasts in the West extravagantly believed that the oil reserves of Caspian Basin (allegedly 200 billion barrels) were equal to those of Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf. Their claims later turned out to be exaggerated almost 10 times. Due to its impending economic and strategic insignificance to the West, Azerbaijan needs to become more realistic in its claim to Nagorno-Karabakh as its ability to persuade the great powers is set to wane synchronously with the depletion of oil reserves in 2011-2019.
Armenia officially confirmed in late December that it possesses Russian-made surface-to-air missiles widely regarded as one of the world’s most potent anti-aircraft weapons. The Armenian military displayed the S-300 air-defense systems in a report broadcast by state television. Earlier in December, President Serzh Sarkisian and his National Security Council approved a five-year plan to modernize Armenia’s armed forces. It envisages, among other things, the acquisition of long-range precision-guided weapons.
Armenian officials do not deny that the plan is connected with the ongoing military build-up in Azerbaijan and Baku’s threats to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by force. Ohanian reiterated Tuesday that the Armenian side is seeking to not only stay in the arms race but also improve the combat-readiness of its troops. “We are trying to concentrate on raising qualitative standards and combat spirits,” he said. The ongoing “serious defense reforms” will also strengthen the army, the minister said. The Azerbaijani government has said that it will sharply increase military spending to over $3 billion this year. By comparison, Armenia’s defense budget for 2011 is projected to reach only $405 million.
Armenia has sought to maintain the balance of forces in the Karabakh conflict zone with close military ties with Russia that entitle it to receiving Russian weapons at cut-down prices or even free of charge. Analysts believe that it will continue doing so in the years to come. A new Russian-Armenian defense agreement signed last August, commits Moscow to helping Yerevan obtain “modern and compatible weaponry and (special) military hardware.” The Armenian government’s stated efforts to strengthen and reform the military are called into question by continuing non-combat deaths and other violent incidents in the army ranks, which have come under greater public scrutiny in recent months. The problem was discussed in Yerevan on Tuesday at a seminar attended by Defense Ministry officials, human rights activists and lawyers.
Some seminar participants accused the military of failing to properly investigate many army crimes and punishing their perpetrators. Defense Ministry representatives denied that. Ohanian similarly insisted that the military authorities have stepped up the prosecution of delinquent servicemen. “All those criminal cases are under control,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “We will continue to keep things under control and there will no cases of criminals not getting punishment deserved by them.”
Let's say, President of the International Republican Institute (IRI), Lorne Craner ranked Azerbaijan among the countries that will be influenced by the events in the Middle East. Craner said all the countries should draw conclusions from events in the Middle East. “What happened in Tunisia – where economic modernization that mainly benefited metropolitan areas was accompanied by political repression and worsening corruption – may hold clues to the future of nations with similar situations in other regions, such as Kazakhstan or China, and less well run autocracies, such as Azerbaijan and Venezuela”.
President of IRI hinted that Washington is working with “alternatives”, recalling that in due time in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, for example, the Bush Administration assiduously cultivated and aided the next generation of leaders, resulting in democratic figures replacing authoritarians. “Therefore, it is important, when we necessarily have relations with authoritarian governments, to plan for the day when they may no longer be in power, and to cultivate and assist those who may replace them,” Craner said.
So, Ilham Aliyev had better care about his future, rather than lay down ephemeral conditions on Karabakh or offer the Azerbaijani oil instead of Libyan. Baku fails to understand that if the Azeri oil were actually of interest to Europe, the latter would not shut her eyes to the excesses of Gaddafi. Most likely, on March 5 the parties in Sochi “will record a desire for dialogue and for resolution on peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict”, which, in fact, means nothing. Of course, the presidents will agree on something there, but nobody knows what it’ll be. And guesswork, in this case, is a vain effort.
As for well-wishers from European structures, they once again began to speak of “new opportunities”. Thus, Peter Semneby, former Special Representative of EU for the South Caucasus, said the EU expects progress from the Presidents’ meeting on March 5. Probably, the only thing to expect is for Ilham Aliyev to finally listen to reason and stop talking about war. Hardly are there any hopes for it, but who knows? There is one more nuance. All non-regional players almost agree that only Russia will be able to solve this conflict. They may be right. This is what Semneby said, and probably this is what the State Department and the Foreign Ministry of France think. But the question is whether Russia wants the conflict resolved and, if yes, on what terms.Source: http://www.panarmenian.net/eng/world/details/62627/Does_Russia_want_Karabakh_conflict_resolved_and_on_what_terms
There also could be domestic political considerations to this escalation. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan — but especially Armenia — are facing pressure, with rising public discontent and protests. These factors are not regime-threatening, as they have been in the Middle East and North Africa, but certainly still irritate Yerevan and Baku. One tried and true tactic for dealing with such issues is to deflect public attention toward external forces. This has played out in increasing incidents and shootings on the Line of Contact between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The May flight to Nagorno-Karabakh is another — and potentially more effective — way to distract the public from internal issues.
President Serzh Sarkisian dismissed on Thursday Azerbaijan’s threats to shoot down civil aircraft over Nagorno-Karabakh, saying that he himself will fly to the disputed region to inaugurate its newly rebuilt airport. Sarkisian branded Azerbaijani officials who recently voiced those threats as “sick people” and compared them with international terrorists. “There is no need to comment on these statements,” he told reporters. “But I will make my statement. I, the president of Armenia, am going to be the first passenger on those flights.”
The ethnic Armenian leadership of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) condemned the threat and warned that any attempt to thwart the planned flights would meet with an “adequate response” from the Karabakh Armenian military. It said the reopening of the airport will go ahead as planned.
The Azerbaijani threats also prompted serious concern from the U.S., Russian and French mediators trying to broker a peaceful solution to the Karabakh dispute. In a joint statement last week, they said they “consider unacceptable any use or threat of force, including against civil aircraft.” U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Matthew Bryza reportedly suggested this week that the two sides “come together and discuss these issues” before the airport’s inauguration.
Population of Nagorno-Karabakh has a right to use air transport, it is beyond doubt, said Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan. At a joint press conference following the meeting with President of Swiss Confederation Micheline Calmy-Rey, President Sargsyan noted Armenia and NKR should spare no effort to reach accord on the issue with international agencies. The Armenian leader expressed confidence the initiative would be successful. Commenting on Baku’s threat to shoot down aircrafts heading to Karabakh, Sargsyan said such threats had been voiced by terrorist groups, not states. He considers such threats ridiculous, adding Baku’s statements do not require comments.
“But I do declare I will be the first passenger of the first flight,” Sargsyan emphasized.
Stepanakert’s airport will start its operation from May 9, 2011. Recently Azerbaijan has threatened to shoot aircrafts flying to Nagorno-Karabakh. On March 21, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) handed Armenian General Department of Civil Aviation a letter from head of the Azerbaijani aviation department which says Baku is ready to crash planes flying to Karabakh if authorities open Stepanakert airport. Earlier chief of NKR civil aviation department Dmitry Adbashyan responded to Azerbaijani statement, noting “if Azerbaijan considers itself a civilized country, it must not make such statements”. Many world states and members of the International Civil Aviation Organization, including Armenia and Azerbaijan, took on commitment never shoot down civilian aircrafts.
The base is subordinate to the Russian Federation’s North Caucasian district troops in the Trans-Caucasus and is equipped with C-300 anti-aircraft missiles and MiG-29 jet fighters. The military base has some 5,000 servicemen in its personnel. The deployment of the base on the territory of Armenia was in Moscow’s and Yerevan’s interest. With the collapse of the USSR Russia aimed at maintaining its military-political presence in the Caucasus. The new Armenian statehood, in its turn, was in a state of war with Azerbaijan and was under Turkey’s constant pressure.
Yet in January of 1990 Turkey supported Azerbaijan’s advance against Yerevan through Nakhijevani sector of the current Armenian-Azeri border. Active hostilities unfolded back then some 60 km to the south of Yerevan. This was the main circumstance why in August of 1992 Moscow and Yerevan, without any prior arrangement, signed an agreement on the status of Russian troops in Armenia, however did not announce it a military base. Many of the legal issues were not completely clarified.
It was obvious, however, that the presence of the Russian military base played a highly important restraining role. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov put it “the issues Russian militaries will be responsible for are connected to the territory of Armenia, hence any external threat would be viewed as an external threat to Russia”. In August of 2010, during the Russian president’s visit to Armenia, Yerevan and Moscow signed a protocol on the extension of the deployment term of the Russian military base in Gyumri up to 49 years (till 2046).
That protocol, also providing for the expansion of the military base’s geographic and strategic sphere of responsibility, is now awaiting the Russian president’s ratification. Besides the 102nd military base, there are, at the moment, four more detachments of Russian frontier troops with a total of 4,700 servicemen, on the defense of Armenian borders – three of them patrol the Turkish border, and one – the Iranian.
Armenian Military Steps Up Reserve Drills
In a weekend statement, the Armenian Defense Ministry described the drills as a “planned event” stemming from Armenia’s law on military service. It said they are meant to “upgrade the combat skills of reserve personnel” and raise “the level of mobilization readiness in the Republic of Armenia.” The ministry spokesman, Davit Karapetian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service that the Armenian army command has decided to hold reserve drills on a more “regular” basis. He said they will also be more intensive than in the past.
Karapetian denied any “direct connection” between the exercises and what some Western officials and regional analysts see as an increased risk of another Armenian-Azerbaijani war for Nagorno-Karabakh. But he said Armenia’s Armed Forces must be prepared to give an “adequate response” to possible “changes in the security environment.” Talk of renewed fighting in the conflict zone has intensified over the past year amid more frequent deadly skirmishes reported from the main Armenian-Azerbaijani “line of contact” around Karabakh. Azerbaijan’s leaders have also continued to threaten to win back the disputed territory and surrounding areas by force.
An Azerbaijani state-controlled organization highlighted those threats on Tuesday when it launched sniper courses for young people, including girls. The AFP news agency reported that civilian participants will also learn about fighting techniques, weaponry, map-reading skills and legal issues. The previous Armenian reserve mobilization was announced in March last year. The Defense Ministry said at the time that it wants to make sure that “every duty-bound Armenian man knows his place and function in the military” in case of a large-scale armed conflict.
In a separate development, Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian marked on Tuesday International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action with a visit to a demining center near Yerevan that was set up in 2002 with U.S. financial and technical assistance. According to the Defense Ministry, the center has since demined more than 200 hectares of land in Armenian border regions and trained about 140 Armenian military personnel.
Azerbaijan is hoping to finalize a deal with the U.S. Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank, a U.S. government agency, to finance a multi-million dollar satellite financing project. The loan will afford Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Communication and Information Technologies the needed funds to purchase an advanced satellite, ground control equipment, and secure the necessary training. A U.S. supplier, Orbital Sciences Corporation (Orbital) of Dulles, Va., has been contracted for the project. Armenian entities fear the new satellite’s use will extend to military applications, threatening neighboring Armenia and the Nagorno Karabagh Republic.
Azerbaijan’s Communication Ministry claims the satellite, dubbed Azerspace, will be used for the purpose of commercial telecommunications by one of its agencies, the International Relations and Accounting Center (IRAC). It says the satellite will provide telecommunications and broadcasting services for the Republic of Azerbaijan, with its leftover capacities servicing customers in Africa and Central Asia. However, Armenian entities have expressed concern over its possible military use. Azerbaijan’s government has not shied away from aggressive language and outright threats of war while discussing Karabagh, going as far as calling Armenia’s capital Yerevan an ancient Azeri city.
Because the loan amount will exceed $100 million, Ex-Im Bank needs approval from Congress. In January, the bank’s president, Fred Hochberg, addressed a letter to Senate President Joseph Biden summing up the transaction description and explanation of the bank’s financing plan. According to reports, Azerbaijan has already apportioned about $25 million to the satellite; the bank will cover the remaining $96 million for manufacturing expenses, in addition to funds for related costs.
Recent threats by Azerbaijan against Armenia reached a new high when Baku announced it would shoot down civilian aircrafts flying from Armenia to the newly renovated airport of Stepanakert in Karabagh. The airport is due to reopen on May 9. The director of Azerbaijan’s Civil Aviation Administration, Arif Mammadov, said the Azerbaijani government had not authorized such flights to Karabagh. “We notified that the airspace over Karabagh is closed. The law on aviation envisages the physical destruction of airplanes landing in that territory,” he reportedly told APA news agency.
U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Matthew Bryza called this threat “unacceptable,” but fell short of calling on Baku to withdraw its warning. Meanwhile, Armenia’s President Serge Sarkisian said he would be on the first civilian flight to Karabagh. Two weeks later, on April 1, the spokesman for the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry, Elkhan Polukhov, reportedly said, “Azerbaijan did not and will not use force against civil facilities, unlike Armenia, which has earned notoriety for terror and war against the civilian population.” Nonetheless, it is hard to dismiss a threat of that magnitude, hurled along with other threats of a resumption of war.
Azerbaijan’s attempts at intimidation certainly substantiate concerns from Armenian entities that the Azerspace satellite will have military applications if Azeri aggression escalates. Border incidents have not subsided, with Azeri snipers targeting Armenian soldiers. Most recently, Azerbaijan claimed that Armenian snipers killed an infant child. On March 9, Armenia’s Defense Ministry issued a press release denying the news, adding that the “the scribblers of the Azerbaijani disinformation” were merely attempting to “save the image of the country” and diverting attention from the March 5 killing of an Armenian soldier by an Azeri sniper. It further noted that “Armenia and Karabagh have repeatedly expressed their positive attitude to the appeals of the international community to terminate the actions of the snipers on the Armenian-Azerbaijani contact line, while Azerbaijan continues to carry out its provocative actions by the means of its snipers.”
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, speaking on the occasion of Novruz, said he had no doubt Azerbaijan would “restore its territorial integrity.” He did not rule out the use of force, noting the country “is paying serious attention to army building.” “The ever-strengthening Azerbaijan is absolutely confident that this issue can be resolved in any manner… There isn’t and can’t be any other option. The Azerbaijani people and state will never tolerate a second Armenian state on their historical lands. Nagorno-Karabagh will never be granted independence,” said Aliyev.
The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) has sent a letter to the president of Ex-Im Bank and consulted with U.S. legislators regarding the Armenian American community’s concerns and objections regarding the Azerspace Satellite Project and its potential military use. Sources close to Armenian authorities report that officials in Yerevan have also raised concerns on this matter with the U.S. government. Azerbaijan has said that it plans to launch the satellite between July and Aug. 2012.
The Armenian Weekly has contacted both Ex-Im Bank and Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Communication and IT for comments. Neither has responded.