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."
Could Azerbaijan be facing encroachments on its territorial integrity by Italian fashion brands? Armenian and Karabakhi media have it that Versace, Armani, Prada and Moschino are considering setting up production lines in breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, a patch of territory that Azerbaijan claims as its own design.
According to the reports, a coterie of Italian businesspeople are visiting Karabakh this week to check out the potential for producing clothes in a decrepit, former textile factory, Gharmetakskombinat. The separatist authorities hope that the abandoned factory could soon start producing Versace outfits, among others, and have joked that perhaps Baku would care to set up a special black list for "prominent international brands and companies."
While this story may sound like something out of The Onion, officials in Baku took it seriously. Azerbaijan, which is trying to isolate Karabakh as part of its policy to regain control of the predominantly ethnic Armenian territory, tasked its embassy in Italy to look into the reports. One nationalist NGO called for a boycott of Versace clothes -- an action that, conceivably, might have put Azerbaijan's reigning fashionista, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, in a potentially delicate situation.
Soon enough, though, Azerbaijani media distributed alleged comments from Versace that the company has no plans to extend production to the disputed region.
A defector from Azerbaijan's security services says that his government has secretly been funneling arms and ammunition to Kurdish rebels in Turkey, renewing attention to long-rumored ties between Azerbaijan and the biggest enemy of its closest friend.
The allegations were made by Ibragim Musayev, a former National Security Ministry official now living in Russia, in an interview with the website Caucasian Knot -- which, with a bit of hyperbole, calls Musayev "the Azerbaijani Snowden," referring to the American security official who has also taken up residence in Russia. (Unlike the American Snowden, however, Russia appears to be getting ready to extradite Musayev back to his home country.)
In the interview, Musayev claims that a colleague discovered evidence that the Azerbaijani armed force were shipping arms to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) -- a group that Azerbaijan officially recognizes as a terrorist organization. Shortly thereafter, the colleague was arrested and then died under mysterious circumstances while in jail; Musayev says he was killed. Musayev also describes seducing Zeynalov's wife -- on orders from his superiors -- so that it could be filmed to shame her into silence.
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.
An Israeli Gabriel anti-ship missile, of the type recently bought by Azerbaijan, being fired. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The commander of Iran's navy has warned neighboring Azerbaijan about its purchases of Israeli missiles, and said that Tehran "is monitoring the situation." From a report from the Fars News Agency:
Iranian Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari called the Caspian Sea as the Sea of peace and friendship, and said the recent Azeri missile procurements from Israel have harmful impacts on regional peace and stability.
"We have announced many times that the Caspian Sea is the Sea of peace and friendship and the littoral states should provide its security through cooperation with each other but certain sides adopt such measures (purchasing Israeli missiles) through coordination with others," Sayyari said in a press conference in Tehran on Sunday, commenting on Azerbaijan's recent purchase of Israeli Gabriel-5 missiles.
"Anyhow, Iran is not heedless of the issue and is monitoring the situation," he added.
Recall that the Gabriel-5 missiles were part of a $1.6 billion weapons purchase that Azerbaijan made from Israel last year. That news raised a splash back then because of the talk of a looming U.S. and/or Israeli attack on Iran (remember those days?). Azerbaijan was likely never going to get involved in that conflict, but it has its own security issues with Iran, especially on the Caspian.
DLA employees in Germany load cargo destined for Afghanistan. (photo: DLA Distribution Europe)
The U.S. military has abandoned plans to set up facilities in Almaty, Baku and/or Bishkek to help get rid of excess equipment from its operations in Afghanistan, saying they were unfeasible. The Defense Logistics Agency, the military organization that handles shipments of cargo to and from Afghanistan, announced a series of tenders (for Almaty, Baku, and Bishkek in March 2013 and then cancelled them in April.
The so-called "retrograde" from Afghanistan is big business, estimated to cost the U.S. up to $6 billion. And along the way, the U.S. will be giving away a lot of the equipment it has, both military hardware and all of the other civilian equipment (e.g. office furniture, air conditioners) that the U.S. has brought to Afghanistan. So far the U.S., however, has not given too many details about how all this will work, what goods are on offer and who will get them. And DLA officials who have spoken to The Bug Pit have said that they are only in the early stages of working this all out, although the pullout is scheduled to start next year.
The DLA solicitations all contained similar descriptions of the work to be done, essentially to set up warehouses/logistics hubs for getting rid of equipment from Afghanistan:
A South Korean Chang Bogo class submarine, soon to be in Azerbaijan's arsenal? (photo: US Navy)
Azerbaijan has reportedly expressed an interest in buying $3 billion worth of weaponry from South Korea, including several items for its nascent navy. That's according to a Korean newspaper report citing South Korean lawmakers and passed on by Azerbaijan news agency APA. Azerbaijan's shopping list reportedly includes two submarine boats, naval destroyers, transport ships, T-50 training planes, attack helicopters, K-9 self-propelled artillery vehicle, drones, and fire control systems. The Azerbaijanis reportedly made clear their intentions during a visit of South Korean parliamentarians to Baku in May.
But the Korean story points out two reservations that Seoul has about such a sale: the danger of angering Russia and the fear of destabilizing the South Caucasus. One of the lawmakers, Kim Kwan-Jin, said "We still have to decide for ourselves, is it worth it to deliver arms to a country which has a territorial dispute with another government," he said, referring to the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh. But he added: "Azerbaijan expressed a very strong interest and desire to buy our weapons." (Note: though the news stories out there identify Kim as a member of parliament, South Korea's defense minister has the same name and it's not clear if it's the same person.) And the South Korean ministry of foreign affairs is reportedly "generally against" the sale, recommending that the defense ministry "show special caution and restraint."
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...
Images broadcast worldwide of Turkish protesters fleeing the vehicles since demonstrations swept the country in June may help generate business for the Izmir-based company in nations from Brazil to Libya that face social unrest, Chief Executive Officer Mehmet Katmerci said. Sales of dispersion vehicles will rise six-fold this year, he said....
“There’s huge interest in our TOMAs,” Katmerci, 40, said in an interview in Izmir on Aug. 13. “People saw through the world media that Turkey is able to produce such vehicles.”
TOMA, incidentally, is the Turkish acronym for "vehicles to intervene in social incidents," which sounds a lot cleaner than "water cannon." In addition to Brazil and Libya, the company reportedly sees Azerbaijan as a growth market. Not surprisingly, since Baku has already bought a number of TOMAs and gets frequent use out of them, including in protests just this weekend (though it's not clear if those water cannons were TOMAs or another model).
Russian President Vladimir Putin led a high-powered delegation to Baku this week, and security issues seemed to be high on the agenda, leading to renewed speculation about whether the traditional geopolitical allegiances in the South Caucasus may or may not be shifting.
The fact that the delegation included such a large number of heavyweights spoke to the significance of the visit. In addition to Putin, it included Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, Energy Minister Alexander Novak and the heads of Russia’s biggest oil companies, Rosneft and Lukoil. Also along for the visit were some ships from Russia's Caspian Flotilla and the fleet's commander, Vice Admiral Sergey Alekminsky. Putin's remarks after his meeting with Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev focused mainly on economics and business ties, but also touched on security:
During our talks we paid a great deal of attention to resolving problems in the Caspian region. We are interested in seeing this region become one in which peace and cooperation reign. There are still many unresolved issues here, relating to security, border delimitation, conserving biological diversity in the Caspian Sea and so on. We have a vested interest in resolving all these problems, naturally taking into account the interests of all littoral states.
It is symbolic that our talks coincide with a friendly visit of a detachment of the Russian Caspian Flotilla to Baku. The Dagestan missile ship and the Volgodonsk small artillery ship are among the vessels. At the end of 2013 Azerbaijani sailors plan to make a return visit to Astrakhan.