Having a Latin American friend is apparently the latest thing for the separatist territories of the Caucasus. Just after Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega was playing host to a de facto ambassador from breakaway South Ossetia, which Nicaragua thinks is a country, conflicting news reports hit that Uruguay may recognize the independence of Nagorno Karabakh, the cause of over two decades of hostility between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Granted, it may depend on whose news service you read. To hear Armenian news sites tell the tale, it almost sounds as if Uruguayan Foreign Minister Luis Almagro, who supposedly made the declaration at a September 9 seminar in Montevideo on bilateral ties with Armenia, has spent many sleepless nights tormented by questions of faraway Karabakh's status.
An angry Azerbaijan, which wants Karabakh back at any cost, isn't buying it. Baku claims that it has been assured that Montevideo respects Azerbaijan's territorial integrity. Still, Azerbaijan's Argentina embassy is checking up on the story.
The Spanish news agency EFE, meanwhile, has posted a version that suggests something less than a full assertion of Karabakh's independence, but enough to raise Azerbaijani eyebrows.
For your Tamada's part, during a recent trip to Latin America he had a hard time explaining what the conflicts in the Caucasus are all about, so was almost surprised to hear that anyone in Uruguay has heard of Nagorno Karabakh, much less feels strongly on the issue.
With Azerbaijan's confirmation of its purchase of a new air defense system from Russia, the S-300, by displaying it at its Armed Forces Day parade in Baku a few weeks ago, it "instantly becomes the most capable SAM [surface-to-air missile] system in the region," writes air defense analyst Sean O'Connor in the latest edition of the IMINT & Analysis newsletter.
The most intriguing part of the sale is that Azerbaijan's foe, Armenia, is a strong military ally of Russia; Russia stations troops at a big base in Gyumri, Armenia, and supplies heavily discounted weapons to the Armenian forces (and by extension, the Armenians who control the breakaway Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno Karabakh). All that, no doubt, was part of the reason that Russia denied that the sale had taken place, only to be proven wrong in a flashy parade in central Baku:
Regardless of Russia’s motivations for keeping the sale out of the public eye, Rosoboronexport’s public denial of the contract represents an interesting occurrence. On one hand, Rosoboronexport’s implications may have been completely accurate if a complete contract did not exist at the time of announcement. Finalization of the contract and subsequent non-announcement to temper Armenian concerns represents a logical course of action in that regard. On the other hand, however, the following statement represents a factual description of the Azeri Favorit situation: the press reported a sale, Rosoboronexport denied a sale, and Rosoboronexport then delivered Favorit components to Azerbaijan.
This incident will serve to cast doubt upon any future denials of Russian military sales to foreign states, leaving observers to ask the question: “what is really going on?”
Fed up with threats that Baku will forcibly retake her native Nagorno-Karabakh, a 13-year-old Armenian girl sat down and penned a letter to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev recently. Aliyev, perhaps moved by the curious sophistication of the child’s missive, found time to respond with both a history lesson and an invitation.
“Why do you want to grab my homeland, which does not belong to you? Your own lands are not enough for you?” writes the girl, who signs off as Adelina Avagimian, a student from Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital Stepanakert (which Azerbaijanis call Khakhendi). Little Adelina argues that Karabakh has always been Armenian. And besides, she’s never seen any Azerbaijanis around.
Aliyev begins with a lengthy history lesson on how Karabakh was actually Azerbaijani land until the Armenians drove all the Azerbaijanis out during the conflict in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“I don’t mean to give you boring lectures on the region’s history, but the Armenians started settling en masse around the South Caucasus, including Karabakh, only after these lands became part of the Russian Empire,” writes Aliyev. “I hope that on one of the starry nights that are so beautiful in Karabakh, when you look at the sky and dream of a peaceful future, you will ask your grandpa about this.”
The chief of Nagorno Karabakh's armed forces says the Armenian-controlled territory has substantially boosted its capacity over the last six months, reports RFE/RL:
Lieutenant-General Movses Hakobian estimated that the "military potential" of his troops grew by 20 percent in the first half of 2011.
"During this period, the qualitative and quantitative state of our weapons and military hardware changed quite a lot," Hakobian told a news conference in Stepanakert on August 12. "Quite serious reforms were carried out with the restructuring of two army brigades."
I'm not sure how one quantifies "military potential," but Hakobian said the military is getting new artillery, air defense and anti-tank weaponry, and this year will be getting two divisions-worth of new tanks. All of this is coming from Armenia, presumably originally from Russia, though it hasn't been declared where it should be in the UN Register.
In any case, though, this is still small potatoes compared to the Armenians' foe, Azerbaijan, which nearly doubled its defense spending this year.
Tajikistan has gone on a but of a small-arms buying spree, and Ukraine has been selling lots of weapons to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Those are some of the early returns from the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms, to which countries are supposed to report all the weapons imports and exports they have engaged in over the previous year. The 2010 register has been published. Most of the big transfers -- of aircraft or ships, for example -- tend to make the news before this comes out, but lesser deals, like small arms, don't.
Tajikistan hasn't bought much over the last decade, but in 2010 it bought a number of small arms from Serbia and Bulgaria. According to the register, Tajikistan's purchases from Bulgaria:
Recently Azerbaijan again began a serious push to get the US provide it with "defense weapons," in particular, air defense and anti-tank systems.
“Azeri lobbyists and their allies in the US capital received a new assignment from Baku – target getting American weapons for Azerbaijan”, the source said.
“Several years ago, this issue almost defined the US-Azeri relationship, but back then, Baku stepped down after understanding that they couldn’t afford American weaponry on their own”, one of Azerbaijan’s former lobbyists told TURAN’s correspondent, adding, now, Azeri supporters in Washington are arguing that the oil-reach country doesn’t need the US to give them the weapons as aid, they can buy the weaponry.
The article goes on to point out that there is little reason to believe the U.S. would accede to this. Perhaps most of all, it would be against the law, in particular the "Section 907" rules that forbid Azerbaijan from buying weapons from the U.S. And there are several powerful pro-Armenian members of Congress who would make it very difficult to get around that.
Some Wikileaked cables from 2009 reported that Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, personally brought up the idea of getting the U.S. to allow weapons sales. But if the lobbyists in the U.S. are now working on this, that would suggest that this is serious.
I asked Adil Baigurov of the U.S. Azeris Network, an Azeri-American advocacy group, what he thought of the report. He said he didn't know if Azerbaijan really was pushing to get U.S. weapons, but that if it were, that would be a good idea:
Satellite photos of air defense systems in Nagorno Karabakh.
Militaries in the former USSR are among the most secretive in the world, but our new information age is creating some opportunities to peek behind the curtain a bit. One of my favorite examples is the open-source military analysis by the folks at IMINT & Analysis, who pore over Google Earth satellite imagery of air defense systems and try to come to some conclusions. In the most recent issue of their newsletter (subscription only, but free, viewable as a Google Doc here) they look at Azerbaijan's systems, and the news isn't good for Armenia. After looking at the various systems Azerbaijan has, they conclude:
This well organised overlapping [air defense] system will deny Armenia any chance of sorties within Azerbaijan’s territory along the Nagorno Karabagh border. Its air force will cover the gaps for the protection for the rest of the nation if Armenia takes desperate measures to inflict extra losses. For the time being Armenia’s limited air arm provides no real threat for any strikes within Azeri territory, the only threat being the R-17 [Scud missiles].
The Scud missiles could be used in an attack on Baku's oil infrastructure, the analysis continues:
This post was amended on 6/30/11; the report does not cover the May 26, 2011 clash between police and protesters in Tbilisi.
In keeping with a persistent trend, the state of democracy in the South Caucasus ranges from so-so (Georgia) to bad (Armenia) to really bad (Azerbaijan), according to the recently released "Nations in Transit," an annual democracy health test for the former Soviet Union, Central and Eastern Europe, prepared by the Washington, DC-based Freedom House.
First case: Azerbaijan. The country was diagnosed with a “Consolidated Authoritarian Regime,” a chronic and “severe disregard of basic freedoms” and of “due democratic process.” The richest in resources and the poorest in democracy of the three South Caucasus countries, energy-rich Azerbaijan saw its 2011 score slip by a seventh of a point to 6.46, a notch above the absolute-failure score of 7.
Last year’s parliamentary vote, widely seen as a state-managed show to lend a whiff of legitimacy to Azerbaijan's ruling Aliyev dynasty, contributed to the decline. The report holds that the ruling elite continues to bathe in the country’s natural resources -- oil and gas -- and allows no leeway for opposition, media or civil oversight; in effect, leaving Azerbaijan vulnerable to the same pressures that led to the Arab uprisings.
Armenia is producing unmanned drones for military use, the country's deputy air force commander has said, according to RFERL:
“We have quite serious unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), even those capable of carrying out objectives deep inside enemy territory,” Colonel Armen Mkrtchian told journalists. “They are made in Armenia.”
Mkrtchian refused to give any details of domestic drone manufacturing, which exists only in a limited number of countries. He would not say if Armenian-made UAVs are designed only for surveillance missions or air strikes as well.
This is the first time Armenia has publicly said it has drones, which this report calls "official confirmation" of what had been rumors for a long time. But rival Azerbaijan -- which already uses drones close to the line of contact over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh -- and Armenia seem to take opposite tacks when it comes to discussing their military buildups. Azerbaijan brags about how much it is spending on new defense systems, while Armenia slyly drops rumors that it, too, is keeping up. But both approaches lend themselves to exaggeration -- and the little amount of information that Armenia has "confirmed" here seems like it might be part of a disinformation campaign.
But it could just as likely be true. Armenia would be joining a rapidly growing list of drone manufacturers -- and doing its best to keep up with Azerbaijan.
A few weeks ago there was some back and forth between Armenians and Azerbaijanis about whether Russia would come to Armenia's defense in the case of a war over Nagorno Karabakh. Well, now a top Russian general has weighed in, and he sounds pretty certain that Russia would get involved. General Andrei Tretyak, the Chief of the Main Operations Directorate of the Defense Ministry, discussed the Russian military's future plans with some analysts, and this is from Dmitry Gorenburg's account:
In a discussion on the situation in Karabakh, General Tretyak agreed with a participant’s assessment that the possibility of conflict in that region is high, but argued that it is gradually decreasing as a result of Russian efforts to reduce tension in the region. He disagreed with the suggestion that Russia’s relationship with Armenia is eroding and made clear that Russia will carry out its promises to that country. No one should see Russia’s refusal to intervene in Kyrgyzstan last summer as a precedent for Karabakh, as that was a very different situation.
Hmm, that can't make too many folks in Baku feel too confident. Tretyak also weighed in on Central Asia, and suggested that the Collective Security Treaty Organization could help fill the security vacuum that will be created by the U.S. leaving Afghanistan. And he seems to acknowledge that the CSTO kind of dropped the ball on Kyrgyzstan last year, when it did nothing to stop the pogroms that took place there in what many saw as the first big test of the collective security group:
He also felt that what he saw as the inevitable US withdrawal from the region will have a negative effect on stability.