An Azerbaijani Coast Guard ship patrols this week in Baku's harbor
As Baku got ready for the highest-profile event in its recent history, hosting the Eurovision Song Contest, there has been a conspicuous presence in the city's Caspian Sea port: two Coast Guard vessels, part of Azerbaijan's heightened security measures as Europe's pop music fans have flocked to the city.
Government officials aren't saying what threat they might be protecting against, and, as close to the water as the Eurovision venue might be, of course an attack from the sea is exceedingly unlikely. Still, Eurovision is taking place in an atmosphere of heightened tension with Iran -- which also happens to be the most significant threat that Azerbaijan's growing naval force is intended to protect against.
Azerbaijan has perhaps been the most secretive of all of the Caspian littoral states about its navy, but the recent purchase of anti-ship missiles from Israel suggests an intention to get more serious about its naval security.
The analysts I spoke to in Baku said that the wakeup call for Azerbaijan's navy was when Iran threatened a BP prospecting ship in 2001. There have been other episodes when Iranian oil rigs entered sea space that Azerbaijan claimed, and that threat is still present. "How will we react if tomorrow Iran decides to install one of their oil wells in some territory that we consider ours?" asks Taleh Ziyadov, an analyst in Baku. "Maybe some crazy guy, because he got frustrated by Azerbaijan-Israeli relations, tomorrow he will declare 'go and install that well over there.' The possibility of serious tension is there, and Azerbaijan will attempt not to allow it."
The U.S. has played a large role in building up Azerbaijan's navy, donating some patrol boats and training Azerbaijani naval special forces. As recently as 2009, the infamous Blackwater was conducting some of that training, according to Wikileaked diplomatic cables. And the cables also show the U.S. repeatedly pushing Azerbaijan to strengthen its navy, in particular its ability to conduct surveillance in their part of the Caspian. From another 2009 cable:
DoD has conducted several engagement events with Azerbaijan Navy and Coast Guard officers with the purpose of building capacity for critical energy infrastructure protection. The events have been well received by Coast Guard and Navy leadership, but have limited value in the overall maritime security posture. Only significant investment in new surveillance and response capabilities - including infrastructure, radar, intelligence, ships, and aircraft - will meet the security challenges faced here.
The U.S. role in training and equipping Azerbaijan's navy (as well as, to a lesser extent, those of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) has spooked Iran, said one naval analyst in Baku who asked to remain anonymous: “Iranians think they are a besieged fortress... The U.S. cooperation here is nothing special but they build conspiracy theories about it.”
Iran, though, is not the only threat Azerbaijan perceives on the sea: while Russia would certainly not attack while its beloved babushki were competing at Eurovision, strategic planners in Baku nevertheless see Russia as a potential source of trouble.
“Russia is the wildest card in the deck – they have so many ways to mess things up," says Reshad Karimov, an analyst at Baku's Center for Strategic Studies. "They have the resources, they have the firepower, they have established the political will to do that. Some levels of Russian society can not stand seeing that Azerbaijan is in the underbelly of Russia but still plays the big guy's game.”
In particular, Russia is opposed to Azerbaijan's discussions with Turkmenistan over a trans-Caspian pipeline to transport gas from Central Asia to Europe, bypassing Russia. Currently the European Union, with backing from the U.S., is in discussions with Turkmenistan about such a pipeline, but Azerbaijan is trying to stay out of it as much as possible so as to not antagonize Russia, analysts here say. "That's why they [the Azerbaijani government] throw the ball into the Europeans' and the U.S. court – 'it's not our problem, you sort it out...,'" Zeynalov says. Nevertheless, some figures (albeit minor ones) in Russia have threatened to use force to stop such a pipeline.
Russia also poses a complication for Azerbaijan's navy in that it controls the only waterway into the Caspian, the Volga River. Russia allowed the U.S. to ship its donated vessels through the Volga, but being dependent on the good will of Russia is not sustainable, so Azerbaijan is building its own shipyard to eventually construct its own naval ships. "We can't even have a proper navy, only Russia can. That's why we're building a shipyard, in order to have some independence in decision-making and not to depend on Russia," Karimov says.
And Azerbaijan is trying to react to moves by Iran and Russia, by far the two most significant naval powers on the sea, to build up their own fleets. “Even if we don't want to spend that much money on naval militarization, we end up spending it to keep up with all the threats," Karimov says. "If someone is too safe, no one is safe.”
This reporting was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.