Russia’s reported plans to sell two of its S-300 Favorit air-defense systems to Azerbaijan are seen as a done deal in Baku, where analysts argue that the systems could be put to good use protecting the country’s extensive energy extraction projects and pipeline networks.
News of the alleged sale by Rosobornexport, which handles Russian armament exports, first appeared in the Russian daily Vedomosti in late July. An unnamed Russian Defense Ministry source later told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that the deal remains “at the negotiation stage, but the [Russian] government has already approved it in principle.” Vedomosti estimated the alleged $300 million sale as the most expensive one-time armament purchase by a former Soviet republic other than Russia.
Few doubts exist that energy-rich Baku has the cash to spend on such equipment. Azerbaijan’s military spending has increased more than 13 times over the past seven years to stand at $2.15 billion, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev asserted on June 24, news agencies reported.
Officials in Baku have not denied that the two S-300 Favorit systems could be among the budgeted purchases.
“Azerbaijan is strengthening its military forces and, therefore, purchases various types of new armament. And this process will continue,” Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense Deputy Spokesperson Teymur Abdullayev told EurasiaNet.org. Abdullayev declined to comment further.
Military analyst Jasur Sumarinly, founder and editor of MilAz, an online military news service, believes that such comments indicate that Baku “is indeed willing to buy S-300 systems.” Ninety percent of Azerbaijan’s armed forces contain arms made mostly in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, added Sumarinly.
Moscow may have an interest in emphasizing that interest to Azerbaijan’s long-time foe, Armenia, one political analyst believes. The timing of the July 29 Vedomosti article about the alleged S-300 sale roughly coincided with news about an expected August 19 deal with Armenia for a 49-year lease on Russia’s Gyumri base there.
“Both issues appeared simultaneously and I do not have any doubts that they are linked,” commented Ilgar Mammadov, a co-founder of the pro-opposition Respublikaci Alternative movement.
“[T]here are forces in Armenia which criticize and object to these plans. Thus, to make the Armenian public agree to this agreement, the Kremlin leaked information concerning plans to sell the air-defense systems to Azerbaijan, and, generally, about the strengthening of its military cooperation with Baku,” Mammadov argued.
Information varies about what other countries also possess the S-300 system. One 2005 report in the Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kur’ier (Military Industrial Courrier) indicated that Armenia possessed the S-300 PS, an earlier missile defense system from the same S-300 group. The Russian military recently affirmed that it has also installed an S-300 system in the breakaway territory of Abkhazia, which Moscow recognizes as an independent country from Georgia.
The S-300 Favorit system could prove a welcome upgrade to Azerbaijan’s military capabilities, military analysts noted.
“Despite a serious modernization of the armed forces in recent years, the Azerbaijani army still lacks modern air-defense systems. Almost everything we currently have was made during Soviet times,” said Retired Army Colonel Haji Asadov.
The S-300, designed to intercept intensive aircraft, ballistic and cruise missile attacks, ranks as a “modern, sophisticated and relatively cheap system compared with its Western analogues,” Asadov added. The US Patriot missile defense system ranks as a rough analogue.
Local military experts believe that the S-300 air-defense system will allow Azerbaijan to secure its strategic assets, including oil rigs, terminals and pipelines, from possible missile attacks – a scenario usually envisaged with Armenia in mind.
“It would not play an important role in case of a local war in the Nagorno-Karabakh territory and around it,” commented Sumarinly. “However, it is important if there would be a risk of missile attacks on strategic assets in the country.”
An unnamed source in Russia’s Defense Ministry told Nezavisimaya Gazeta on August 2 that the course of instruction for several Azerbaijani commissioned officers at Tver’s Air-Space Defense Academy includes training in the use of S-300 systems.
Russia’s ambassador to Baku, Vladimir Dorokhin, told Turan news agency, though, that Moscow “informs the United Nations and other organizations about its armament exports” and “if such an event [the S-300 sale] happened, we would inform them.”
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Institute-Azerbaijan.