Gunboats from Azerbaijan's coast guard threatened international oil company ships working on behalf of Turkmenistan on at least two occasions in 2008, U.S. diplomatic cables from Wikileaks show. The incidents, which don't seem to have been previously reported, caused Turkmenistan's president, Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov, to accuse his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev of "personally insulting" him and "running like a little boy."
One incident was in April 2008, and involved a vessel from the Malaysian company Petronas in a part of the Caspian that both sides agree is Turkmenistan's:
[U]pon closing in on the Petronas ships/rig, the Azeri gunboats instructed the Petronas captain to move away. He reportedly refused to move, stating that he was nowhere close to Azerbaijan's claimed border. The standoff reportedly lasted for more than a day. In the end, the Petronas captain agreed to move slightly to the east (although not as far as the Azeri border guards at first had demanded), which apparently satisfied the Azeris.
The second was in May 2008 and involved a ship from Canadian company Buried Hill and was in a spot that was (and remains) in dispute between the two countries, around the Serdar/Kyapaz and Omar-Osman/Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli fields:
In the second episode, the Azeri gunboats again intercepted a vessel that Buried Hill had hired to do some research in block III related to its plans to begin drilling in the first quarter of 2009. Buried Hill told him this time calls were made from Ashgabat to Baku, and that the Azeri vessels subsequently backed off. According to
Buried Hill, there were also Iranian vessels in the area at the time of the interception.
Several days after apparent widespread skirmishes all along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border and the Nagorno-Karabakh "line of contact," there is still very little information about what actually happened. For a while, though, at least on the internet, it seemed that a serious escalation of violence was imminent.
It's a bit odd that, amid all the rumors of massive fighting, there doesn't seem to have been any casualties on either side, suggesting that the reports may have been some sort of deliberate disinformation campaign. And that's what the Armenian Defense Ministry has suggested:
The rumors spread by Azerbaijani mass media on the possible combat operations on NKR–Azerbaijan line of contact towards Aghdam and Fizulai are nothing but imagination.
In comparison to June 7-8, the ceasefire violations in different parts of the front line have become more frequent and have increased. This, however, did not affect and will not affect the general state.
All the usual suspects issued the usual statements calling on both sides to settle the conflict peacefully, etc. But one international reaction was especially notable: Russia's. A Russian military spokesman noted that airmen at the Russian military base in Armenia have been stepping up their training flights since the beginning of the year. From the New York Times:
Russian fighter jets stationed at a base in Armenia have conducted about 300 training flights since the beginning of 2012, and have increased the number of flying hours by more than 20 percent from last year...
Hillary Rodham Clinton may have gotten lots of love and wine in Georgia, but if we were to pick one man in the Caucasus truly overjoyed to see Madam Secretary, that would be the Azerbaijani youth activist Bakhtiyar Hajiyev.
Hajiyev, an organizer of an attempted rally perceived as opposing the heavy-handed Azerbaijani government, was recently freed from prison in what many believe was a PR move to please Baku's high-profile visitor. Perhaps his release gave Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov the chance to say that Azerbaijan is busy strengthening human rights. It ain’t gonna happen overnight, he added.
In Baku, Clinton sat down for a chat with Hajiyev and expressed hope that he will be allowed to do his work without interference and that, generally, Azerbaijanis will be allowed to speak their minds. She urged the Azerbaijani government to release its critics from prisons and also to keep working on providing more oil and gas to the West.
But Clinton’s Caucasus run did not ended up well for everyone in Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia. The exchange of gunfire between the two countries that marked the kickoff of the secretary of state's tour reportedly resumed on the eve of Clinton's arrival in Baku . Some commentators believe that the shooting was intended to whip up US interest in pushing more aggressively for a resolution to the two countries' decades-long conflict over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh. Both sides, as per usual, blame the other for this latest ceasefire violation.
Just as Hillary Clinton is making a trip through the Caucasus, the Azerbaijan-Armenia border is seeing some of the worst violence in years. On Monday, three Armenian soldiers were killed by Azerbaijani forces, and on Tuesday, the Armenians retaliated, killing five Azerbaijanis. Alex Jackson, in a very worthwhile post at his blog Caspian Intel, notes that the violence was not on the "Line of Contact" separating Azerbaijanis and Armenians at the de facto border of Nagorno Karabakh, but at the state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan proper. Further, the two incidents took place about 25 miles apart, "which indicates that the clashes are not linked by local geography (i.e. an Armenian incursion followed by a local Azerbaijani counterattack) but part of a broader pattern of probing attempts along the border," Jackson writes.
The implication is that, on one side or both, there was a degree of regional-level coordination by military commanders and a willingness to test the defences of the other side across a wide swathe of territory. This expansion of the battlefield marks a serious escalation.
The U.S. State Department is considering allowing a sale of surveillance equipment to Azerbaijan, which supporters say is needed to help protect against Iran. But Washington's Armenian-American lobby and its allied members of Congress are objecting, arguiing that it could be used against Armenian forces in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, as well.
The equipment in question hasn't been precisely identified, but it is some sort of surveillance equipment that would be installed in Mi-35M attack helicopters that Azerbaijan has lately been acquiring from Russia. The State Department and Azerbaijan are saying that the equipment would be used by Azerbaijan's border service, and an "action item" by the U.S. Azeris Network emphasizes that the equipment is required to police the border with Iran:
[I]t is the moral responsibility of the U.S. Congress and Government to show their support to their strategic ally in that turbulent region and stand strong with Azerbaijan. Such support should start with statements and resolutions in support of sovereign, secure and independent Azerbaijan, to supplying it with defensive systems such as Patriot air-defense systems (PAC3), border protection equipment, helicopter protection systems, simulators, Command and Control gear, and any other defensive and border-protection military hardware and software that would protect Azerbaijan’s energy infrastructure, make it less vulnerable, and send a strong message to Iran to stop bullying and threatening. We should show our allies that we value their partnership and friends, and are not ignoring the threat Iran poses.
Three Armenian soldiers were killed by gunfire from neighboring Azerbaijani just as US Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton was about to go country-hopping in the South Caucasus.
Clinton arrived in Yerevan today and, after a stop in Georgia, is due in Baku on June 6.
To hear the Azerbaijani news service APA tell it, the “preventive measures,” which wounded three Armenian soldiers as well, were directed at stopping the Armenian military from infiltrating Azerbaijan from Armenia's northern Tavush region.
But, as is the standard case in Caucasus countries hosting Clinton, you need to tune into the news on the other side of the conflict line for the second side of the story.
Armenian news reported that the Armenians died in a shootout as they tried to halt an infiltration from Azerbaijan. “Thanks to [the] courage[ous] actions of the soldiers… [the] enemy was drawn back,” ArmenPress cited Armenia’s Ministry of Defense as saying.
The not-so-frozen Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region is most definitely going to be discussed with Madam Secretary in both places.
Civil rights as well. An area where there's a lot to chat about with both sides; Georgia, too.
Iranian naval vessels have conducted maneuvers close to the border with Azerbaijan, and high-ranking Turkish officials are visiting Baku as a show of force against Iran, according to a report in Regnum.ru.
The Regnum report cited the Azerbaijan opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat, which in turn cited eyewitnesses in the region of Astara, bordering Iran, as saying "six vessels of the Iranian navy forces had come close to the Azerbaijani state border for the second day. According to their observations, the Iranian vessels are involved in a series of manoeuvres as if it demonstrates threat to Azerbaijan." The alleged incursion comes at a time of increased tension between Iran and Azerbaijan, including Tehran's recall of its ambassador to Baku last week.
And Regnum's correspondent, citing a source in Baku "close to Turkish military circles in Baku," said that four top Turkish military commanders are visiting Azerbaijan in early June, including the heads of the army, navy and air force. "By this step, Turkey wants to explain Iran that it will not leave Azerbaijan alone," the source told Regnum.
Azerbaijan's state border service, however, denied the original report in Yeni Musavat, saying reports that Iranian warships were maneuvering were "baseless and provocative."
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."
Russia is letting it be known that it's ready to walk away from the Gabala radar station it operates in Azerbaijan if the government in Baku doesn't moderate its bargaining position. That's what a source in Russia's Ministry of Defense told Russian media today:
“The Russian military is disappointed by the non-constructive approach from the Azerbaijani side concerning the talks on extending the lease of the Gabala missile radar,” the source said, adding that Moscow would likely leave Gabala if the talks did not move ahead...
The source in the Russian Defense Ministry also said that size of the price increase was unreasonable, since the radar needed a full renovation and the sum Baku was demanding for the lease was comparable to the cost of constructing a new radar.
Recall that Azerbaijan has increased its demands from the current $7 million a year, to $100 million and then $300 million. Unlike many of Russia's installations in the former USSR, like in Armenia, Tajikistan or Ukraine, this one doesn't really come with any security guarantees, so Azerbaijan's interest in it is not great. Meanwhile, Russia has a newer radar in the North Caucasus that fulfillls the same role as Gabala, so it has little interest in ponying up to Azerbaijan. So while this leak by the Russian MoD could just be a bargaining position, it looks like this deal is heading for rejection.
When news broke a couple of years ago that Russia was selling S-300 air defense systems to Azerbaijan, the immediate assumption was that this had to do with Armenia. The sale suggested a huge shift in Russia's military policy toward the south Caucasus: Russia has a big military base in Armenia and provides Yerevan with weaponry. So why would it be arming the other side? There were all sorts of theories: it was done to intimidate Armenia into signing a long extension of the base agreement with Russia, or that it was pure mercenary motives. Some noted that the range of the S-300s was enough to cover Nagorno Karabakh (over which a war will presumably be fought) but not Gyumri, Armenia, where the Russian base is.
But what if we were all looking in the wrong direction for the threat, to the west rather than to the south? That's what analyst Anar Valiyev today told The Bug Pit in Baku. He says the S-300 is in fact one of the weapons that Baku has been buying to protect against an Iranian attack. He argues that a war over Karabakh would be fought only on the territory of Karabakh, that Armenia (under pressure from Russia) would not to expand the war into Azerbaijan proper, like an attack on Baku's oil and gas installations (which the S-300s are protecting). Therefore, there's no need to protect Baku from an Armenian attack. So, by process of elimination, it's Iran.