The risk of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is increasing and international meditors need to step up efforts to make sure that conflict doesn't arise in the "coming weeks and months," says the International Crisis Group in a new report.
The report (pdf), Armenia and Azerbaijan: A Season of Risks, argues that internal tension in both Baku and Yerevan could cause a small conflict on the border -- which occur nearly constantly -- to spiral into a full-fledged war. In Azerbaijan, presidential elections will be held next month, and Armenia's recent abrupt announcement that it is joining Russia's Customs Union has thrown that country's political scene into turmoil, the report argues. This, combined with the arms both sides (but especially Azerbaijan) have been acquiring, could be a deadly mixture, the ICG argues: "Confrontation, low-intensity but volatile, between Azerbaijan and Armenia has entered a period of heightened sensitivity. The ICG "does not predict a second war is either imminent or more likely than not. It does suggest the near-term threats to stability are becoming more acute... Vigorous international engagement is needed to lessen chances of violent escalation during coming weeks and months."
Presidents of CSTO member states (except Kazakhstan, which sent its prime minister) at the CSTO summit in Sochi. (photo: CSTO)
The Collective Security Treaty Organization held its annual summit in Sochi, Russia, on Monday and the hottest topic (other than Syria) was how to strengthen the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border. The group, in the words of Russian President Vladimir Putin, resolved to "provide additional collective assistance to Tajikistan to reinforce its national border with Afghanistan." The aid will include "constructing new buildings of frontier posts, restoring warning and signaling systems and providing border troops with means of air patrol and surveillance as well as radar," said Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon, speaking at the event.
According to the official CSTO statement, "On the basis of a request from Tajikistan the member states of the CSTO will, according to their abilities, within three months render military-technical assistance to the border forces of the State Committee for National Security of the Republic of Tajikistan." Interestingly, the aid package appears not to include Russian troops, which no doubt the Russian side was pushing for. Russia has been pushing the CSTO as its primary tool for preventing the spread of instability from Afghanistan after U.S. and NATO forces leave the country starting next year. Said Putin:
We discussed the situation in Afghanistan in light of the international coalition’s troop withdrawal planned for 2014. Unfortunately, there is reason to expect a considerable rise in Afghan drug trafficking activity and in terrorist groups’ activeness.
Extremists are already attempting to spread their activity into neighbouring countries, including the Central Asian countries that are CSTO members.
Armenia is seeking to become an observer in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, as Yerevan seems to be establishing its own unique brand of multivector diplomacy.
Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan made the announcement on a visit to China, and Chinese PM Li Keqiang said he would bring the issue up with other SCO members.
The SCO is a China-dominated political-military bloc that also includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The SCO has been expanding west, though, recently: Turkey became a "dialogue partner" earlier this year, a status Belarus also holds.
Sargsyan offered no explanation of what Armenia might be looking for with the SCO, so it's up to us to speculate. Armenia, of course, raised eyebrows when it came out that it had gotten multiple-launch rocket systems from China, and Armenia could be casting around for new partners, Emil Sanamyan, editor of the newspaper Armenian Reporter, told The Bug Pit. "My sense of this is an extension of the outreach to China that is made relevant by the recent diplomatic setbacks with both Europe and Russia. The recent leak re fresh weapons purchase from China seems to also be part of that," Sanamyan said. "With the EU association document killed by Russian pressure, there will be some new entity to fill the airwaves with." (Sanamyan also noted that Armenia is an observer in the Arab League, another organization whose connection to Armenia looks somewhat tenuous.)
The many benefits of being a high-profile public official or his scion in Armenia apparently include getting away with violence and murder. At least that is how human rights defenders have reacted to the September 8 decision to drop all murder charges against the son of former strongman governor, Suren Khachatrian.
In a Quentin-Tarantino-esque shootout near the ex-governor’s mansion in the southeastern town of Goris, Khachatrian fils this June shot dead local businessman Avetik Budaghian. Budaghian’s brother Artak, a military officer, was wounded in the clash with Kachatrian’s son, Tigran, and his bodyguards.
Tigran Khachatrian and one of the bodyguards were arrested on murder and illegal weapons possession charges, but were released after the military police, which are handling the case, decided that all the shots fired by Khachatrian were made in self-defense. Human rights activists, the victims' family and the family's lawyer all have condemned the ruling. A local representative of Human Rights Watch alleged in a conversation with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, a former defense minister, may personally have pushed for the ex-gubernatorial son.
Suren Khachatrian, who used to run the province as his personal fiefdom, is believed to have been a vote hoarder for President Sargsyan and the ruling Republican Party of Armenia.Voter support for the duo reportedly ran stronger in Syunik than anywhere else in Armenia.
The impending attack by the U.S. on Syria has dominated the world's attention for the last week or so. And the powers surrounding the Caucasus and Central Asia -- notably Russia, Turkey, and Iran -- have been among the most active in discussing Syria, with Russia and Iran backing the government of Bashar al-Assad and Turkey one of the strongest supporters of the rebels. In spite of, or perhaps as a result, of that, the countries in between have taken a cautious approach to the possibility of U.S. military involvement in Syria.
Befitting its strong attachment to the U.S., Georgia's foreign ministry made a statement that appeared to endorse the American position that Assad's government should be punished for the use of chemical weapons:
“Georgia welcomes and supports readiness of the international community to play more active role in resolving humanitarian crisis in Syria and to hold the regime that committed this crime accountable for violating the fundamental international humanitarian norm."
Georgia's position is largely a factor of its ties to Turkey and the U.S., Michael Cecire, a Washington-based analyst of Georgia and the Caucasus, told The Bug Pit:
The Georgian government is happy to defer to their partners in the West and in nearby Turkey to take the lead on the issue. When it comes to Syria, Tbilisi's primary geopolitical concerns would be to ensure that the consequences from an intervention did not lead to destabilization in the South Caucasus. The Assad regime's closeness to Hezbollah and Iran, which both operate in the Caucasus to varying extents, makes this at least a possibility -- particularly in light of Hezbollah's alleged role in an early 2012 disarmed bombing attempt in Tbilisi.
Armenia has reportedly bought long-range rockets from China, in what would be both an escalation of the rocket race between Armenia and Azerbaijan and a dramatic entry of China into the regional conflicts of the South Caucasus. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported:
Armenia has acquired Chinese multiple-launch rocket systems with a firing range of up to 130 kilometers, a military source in Yerevan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) on Monday.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the source declined to specify the quantity of the AR1A systems obtained the Armenian military and the dates of their delivery or give other details of the alleged acquisition.
The Ministry of Defense declined to confirm or deny the report, but that's not unusual for Armenia's secretive MoD So assuming the report is true, how should we interpret it?
In an analysis for Regnum.ru, David Arutyunov puts it in the context of Azerbaijan's recent purchase of Russian Smerch multiple-rocket launch systems, of which the Chinese AR1A are an upgraded version (for example, the Chinese rockets have a range of 130 kilometers, versus 90 kilometers for the Smerch). "A tendency is noticeable over the last decade in which Azerbaijan and Armenia are giving priority in their strategy of arms development to MRLS of great distance and caliber," he writes. And those systems, he notes, would be useful for attacking not just military formations but also strategic economic sites.
Azerbaijan's press seems to have largely ignored the news, but one military expert quoted by Day.az didn't try to hide his contempt:
"They bought MRLSs from China? For God's sake. Let them buy as many as they want." Thus responded Azerbaijani military expert Uzeir Djafarov to this news...
Tanks of the four competitors in the biathlon show their colors. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
In a uniquely Russian bid to boost post-Soviet solidarity, the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization has held a "tank biathlon" competition. The competition is more or less what it sounds like: as in the better-known skiing version, crews compete to race their tanks around a course while shooting at targets. Russia came in first, with Kazakhstan second, Belarus third and Armenia a distant fourth.
All the crews competed in new T-72B tanks, and RIA Novosti described the event as "part sales pitch, part post-Soviet bonding exercise."
Russia remains the world’s biggest exporter of battle tanks, the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Global Arms Trade says. So this tank biathlon appeared to be an entertaining if unconventional sales pitch, Pukhov said.
“We’ll do our best to ensure that foreign armies buy our tanks in the future,” [Defense Minister] Shoigu said, announcing the event last week.
While Kazakhstan finished second, its media played up the result as a victory. The presidential communications service headlined its story "Kazakhstani tankers showed remarkable results" and Kazinform raved "Kazakhstan stuns at Tank Biathlon contest in Russia... Kazakhstani tankers did astoundingly good at the Tank Biathlon International Competition." Armenia's press, not surprisingly given their country's poor results, downplayed the results and relegated the stories to the sports section.
Russia seemed to take it less seriously; the event inspired the usually staid state news agency into an uncharacteristic display of snark:
The shooting of a Turkish shepherd on the Armenia-Turkey border has sparked international tensions, though there appears to be some confusion in Turkey as to precisely with whom they should be angry.
The episode began July 31, when a 35-year-old shepherd in Turkey's Kars province accidentally wandered over the border with Armenia to retrieve one of his sheep that had strayed. (Though some reports say the wayward animal was a cow.) Kars Governor Eyüp Tepe blamed Armenian soldiers for the incident, and Turkey's Foreign Ministry issued a strong statement blaming Armenia:
We strongly condemn the shooting and killing of an innocent Turkish citizen for a simple border violation which we understand to have had an innocent purpose. There is no explanation for the Armenian party’s use of disproportionate force in such an incident which may typically occur at the border.
But it's no secret that Armenia doesn't actually control that border -- Armenia's borders with Turkey and Iran are in fact patrolled by Russian soldiers (though there are some Armenian guards under Russian command). It soon became clear that it was a Russian unit responsible for the shooting. From Hurriyet Daily News:
Nagorno Karabakh's armed forces have been substantially strengthened by large deliveries of weaponry over the past two years, said the head of the armed forces of the breakaway territory, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:
"We have never had a situation which we have now in terms of obtaining concrete weapons and military hardware,” their top commander, General Movses Hakobian, told a news conference in Stepanakert.
Hakobian said the arms acquisitions have been so extensive that the Karabakh Armenian military has difficulty storing them and plans to build a new arms depot for that purpose. He declined to specify the types of new weaponry delivered to it.
Providing no details is standard practice. Armenians, both in Yerevan and in Karabakh (which broke away from Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union), tend to talk big about their military might but provide few details. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, loves to tout its weapons purchases, probably to the point of exaggeration.
(Incidentally, the most authoritative source of real data on arms sales and transfers is the database of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which does a pretty complete (or, as complete as you can get) accounting of arms deals around the world. But remarkably, the database has absolutely no information on Karabakh, or the other ex-Soviet breakaway republics of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transniester, underscoring again what a black hole this part of the world is for verifiable information.)
Azerbaijan has investigated reports of sales of French/German anti-tank missiles to Armenia, and has concluded that they were provided by Greece and Cyprus. Azerbaijan news agency APA reports, citing unnamed military officials:
The investigations carried out by Azerbaijan have revealed that Armenia has purchased anti-tank missiles and a lot of machine-guns and grenade throwers from Greece and Cyprus in the past two years. According to the obtained reports, Armenia has purchased more than 20 MILAN missiles from Greece. The missiles have been reportedly sold from the arsenal of Greek armed forces.
For its part, the Greek embassy in Baku has denied the claim.
Shortly thereafter, APA reported that Azerbaijan itself had bought anti-tank missiles from Ukraine last year. Ukraine, in theory, is subject to the same sanctions as France and Germany are: the sanctions are imposed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which Ukraine is a member, too. But the sanctions obviously are enforced only by certain OSCE members.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Armenia has yet to comment on the issue.