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?”
A top Iranian military official has taken aim at neighboring Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, saying the government in Baku may become a victim of a "people's awakening." That has prompted angry replies from Baku and a disavowal from Iran's foreign ministry. The controversy began with remarks made by Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, chief of staff of Iran's armed forces, quoted by the Fars News Agency:
"I hope Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev would pay heed to the issues which strengthen pillars of his government, otherwise he will face a dark future since people's awakening cannot be suppressed," Firouzabadi said.
"People's awakening cannot be suppressed. Some neighboring and Muslim states with which we enjoy friendly relations continue to ignore friendship criteria and give freedom to Zionist regime (of Israel) to meddle in their country's affairs. They also give command to bar Islamic rules," Firouzabadi added.
Relations between Iran and Azerbaijan have always been wary, as Iran mistrusts Baku's secular leadership and suspects them of having claims over the roughly 25 percent of Iranians who are ethnically Azeri. Tensions have increased recently with the shooting death of an Azerbaijani border guard, apparently by an Iranian counterpart. And, as the Fars piece reported:
Azerbaijani officials have been preventing Muslim schoolgirls wearing headscarves from attending schools.
Hundreds of people staged demonstrations in Azerbaijan and called on the government to overturn the decree. They also chanted slogans against the anti-Islamic law.
The peaceful demonstrations were stopped by police and security forces that resorted to force and detained a number of people.
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.
Azerbaijan this week had a visitor from the past. Enter Ayaz Mütalibov, who ran Azerbaijan when the country violently tore away from the Soviet Union, and during the early years of its confrontation with Armenia over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh.
Although facing criminal charges in Azerbaijan, Mütalibov, the country's first post-Soviet president and last Soviet boss, was allowed home to Baku from his low-profile 19-year exile in Moscow to attend the funeral of his elder son. Mütalibov is accused of facilitating the brutal 1990 crackdown on a pro-independence rally in Baku, failing to prevent the 1992 massacre of Azerbaijanis by ethnic Armenians in the town of Khojaly and plotting to overthrow the late President Heydar Aliyev.
In a fresh illustration of how a family matter can take precedence over laws or old feuds in the Caucasus, Heydar Aliyev's son, the current President Ilham Aliyev, suspended the prosecution of 73-year-old Mütalibov for the occasion.
“Mister President, following the principles of statesmanship and also [the] national traditions of our people, gave his consent to [the] return of Mütalibov because of the severe illness of his son,” a presidential administration representative was quoted as saying by Kavkazsky Uzel news service. The charges against Mütalibov will remain in force, however.
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:
Russia's defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, is visiting Baku today and met with his Azerbaijani counterpart, as well as Azerbaijan's president Ilham Aliyev, to discuss the future of the Gabala radar station in the country. Russia has operated the station, part of its missile attack warning system, since 1985. The current lease expires at the end of 2012, and Azerbaijan has indicated it wants a certain number of conditions from Russia, including a raise in the rent Moscow pays, plus more mitigation of environmental damage caused by the station and more employment for Azerbaijanis at the station.
Serdyukov arrived in Baku promising unspecified "modernization" of the station:
"We have developed our proposals on the Gabala RS," Serdyukov said. Moreover, we have expanded them and offered to upgrade the Gabala RS. We have certain plans to modernize it."
A working group will be soon established and dispatched to Baku for a two-week visit to consider all technical issues, he added.
After those two weeks, starting August 15, Serdyukov said minister-level negotiations over the new lease can start. If nothing else, this suggests that the idea -- discussed just a few months ago -- that the U.S. and Russia might jointly use the station is pretty much dead.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Turkey on Friday, and some reports suggest that the Turkish government is prepared to agree to host a NATO missile defense system there. Turkey, you'll recall, wanted to impose several conditions on the system's deployment in Turkey, mainly that it not explicitly target Iran and that information from the system not be shared with Israel.
It's not clear that any of those issues have been resolved, but a couple of U.S. senators have called on the administration to consider using the South Caucasus, instead. Senior U.S. missile defense officials, the senator wrote, have said that "a forward-deployed X-Band radar in either Georgia or Armenia would have significant advantages for the missile defense of the United States," according to a letter (pdf) obtained by ForeignPolicy.com blogger Josh Rogin. (Presumably the reference to Armenia is a mistake and they mean Azerbaijan, which gives a sense of how attuned to the regional dynamics the senators are.)
If this sounds familiar, it's because the same senators said the same thing in February -- though then they were accompanied by two additional senators. It's not clear why those senators dropped out of this campaign, but it could be because the whole idea makes little sense. As Daniel Larison writes: