The reported route of Russian military flights to Syria. (photo: twitter, @cencio4)
New flight-tracking data suggests that Russia is sending military equipment to Syria over the Caspian Sea, taking a lengthy detour to bypass the entire Caucasus isthmus. The circuitous route suggests that Moscow has failed to gain overflight permission from either Georgia or Azerbaijan in its new top foreign policy priority, the intervention in Syria.
The new data was reported by the blog The Aviationist citing the open-source flight-tracking website FlightRadar24. It suggests that Russia sent six Su-34 bomber aircraft to Syria via a route southward to the North Caucasus, veering to the east just north of Grozny and crossing into the airspace over the Caspian Sea north of Makhachkala. It then crosses the Caspian taking a route roughly parallel to the coastline of Azerbaijan, about 50 miles away. It then enters Iranian airspace roughly 50 miles south of the Azerbaijani border, the continues through Iraq before reaching Syria.
The United States had been trying to get countries in between Russia and Syria to block their airspace to Russian military flights, and succeeded in the case of Bulgaria, while Greece confirmed that they had gotten a similar request. If the U.S. has made any such requests to the Caucasus countries it hasn't been announced. Turkey, a firm opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- whom the Russian intervention seeks to prop up -- doesn't allow the flights of its own accord.
After Azerbaijani artillery fire killed three Armenian civilians last week, Armenia's defense ministry has threatened to escalate the conflict.
In a statement issued September 26, Yerevan said that "n order to quiet and deter the adversary, and thereby support the negotiation process, the Armed Forces of the Republic of Armenia will hereafter apply adequate artillery and rocket striking means, continuously targeting permanent deployment areas, military movements, military equipment and manpower."
The statement was prompted by the deaths of three Armenian women, and then the deaths of four Armenian soldiers, after artillery fire from the Azerbaijani side of the border. The shelling of civilian villages has been a relatively new development in the conflict.
Armenia's first statement after the civilian deaths criticized Azerbaijan for trying to scuttle potential upcoming talks between officials of the two countries in New York at this week's United Nations General Assembly: "The Azerbaijani side always resorts to provocative actions ahead of negotiations and meetings on resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and intentionally create tension."
That episode, however, was followed the next day by the deaths of four Armenian soldiers in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh. (The territory, de jure part of Azerbaijan, has de facto been controlled by Armenian forces since a war between the two countries in the early 1990s.)
Azerbaijani shelling killed three Armenian civilian women living near the border between the two countries, the highest one-day death toll of civilians in recent memory.
The victims, in the Tavush region in northeastern Armenia, were killed by mortar and gunfire the evening of September 24, the Armenian Defense Ministry said in a statement. Two of the women were elderly; one was 94 and another 83.
That death toll "is the most civilians killed in one day that I can recall since the cease-fire," said Emil Sanamyan, an Armenian journalist who keeps data on casualties in the conflict, in an interview with The Bug Pit. Civilian deaths in the conflict have been steadily increasing: according to Sanamyan's records, five Armenian civilians have been killed this year, while no Azerbaijani civilians have been killed. In 2014, those figures were six Armenians and two Azerbaijanis; in 2013 one Armenian and one Azerbaijani; and in 2012 no Armenians and one Azerbaijani.
In previous years, most of the civilian deaths have been the result of stepping on land mines; this mortar fire at villages is "something that's been rarely seen since 1994," Sanamyan said.
The presidents of both countries are scheduled to be in New York next week for the meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations, and there have been some reports that the two were planning to meet.
Google, Bing, Yahoo, all move aside. In a first for the South Caucasus, Azerbaijan is working on its own web-search service. Officials in the tightly controlled energy-exporter say that both national security and commercial considerations prompted the idea.
Under the guidance of the Ministry of Communications, the government body that oversaw the launch of the world’s first Azerbaijani satellite, Azerbaijani coders have already developed a web crawler and are now working on a software application, Trend news agency reported on September 23.
A government-run technology developer, Dilmanc, said that the national search engine will bring more information security to Azerbaijan. The ministry has not elaborated about perceived threats, but some rights activists likely would surmise that government critics are among the ministry’s main concerns.
The government, however, already has a reputation for pressing for netizen loyalty. Democracy-watchdog Freedom House reports that online activists and bloggers have faced growing harassment over the past few years.
On the other hand, Dilmanc’s director, Abulfat Fatulayev, claims the national search engine offers attractive money-making opportunities -- always a consideration amidst low oil prices and an economy heavily dependent on hydrocarbons.
There is something about Steven Seagal that really appeals to authoritarian leaders across the former Soviet Union. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev now has become the latest regional strongman to host the Hollywood b-list action hero and BFF of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Stevan Seagal noted that he was pleased to visit Azerbaijan, saying that he was deeply impressed by what he saw in the county,” announced the presenter of an English-language, government video that showed Seagal chatting away with Aliyev on September 21. The actor, the announcer assured viewers, was impressed by the high-level conduct of the European Games, a continental sports contest hosted by Azerbaijan in June. Aliyev thanked his aikido black-belt master visitor for the kind words and could not help but agree that the Games were, indeed, fabulous.
On a mission to bring the world together through aikido, the actor then took the opportunity to share some tricks with Azerbaijan’s aspiring young fighters. Taking off his shoes and getting on the mat with an aikido class in Baku, he told them that “I was lucky enough to meet with your president… and look forward to working with you as my family.” And then sent one of his new pupils flying with a single move.
Seagal, who said he will be coming back to Azerbaijan to teach his trade, has been giving martial arts workshops in many a post-Soviet place, from Kazakhstan to Russia, and cavorting with local leaders like Chechnya’s redoubtable Ramzan Kadyrov. In 2013 in the Chechen capital, Grozny, he even broke into a frantic dance, with arms wind-milling wildly as a traditional female dancer gracefully glided around him.
Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are conducting large-scale military exercises as tension along the border between the two nemeses has spiked in recent days.
Azerbaijan's defense ministry announced on September 6 that they were mobilizing 65,000 troops -- which would represent nearly the entire armed forces -- to test their readiness. The exercises also included 700 armored vehicles, 500 rockets and artillery units, 40 airplanes and 50 helicopters, and 20 naval ships, the MoD said. The exercises had not been previously announced and the MoD did not give further explanation of why they were being held.
That drill starts as Armenia is holding unprecedented exercises of its own. That exercise, called Shant 2015, is less military and more political, simulating how various branches of the government would respond in case of war.
Participants included a working group from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led political-military bloc. One of the tasks before the Armenian foreign ministry in the drill, Armenian media reported, was "what to do if one of the CSTO partners (but not Russia) does not fulfill its commitments?” Armenia's leadership has criticized its Turkic nominal allies in the CSTO, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, for supporting Azerbaijan's side in the dispute over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
Looks like someone needs to tell Azerbaijan that The Washington Post is not Pravda. Getting the concept of free media straight might, if nothing else, spare the Azerbaijani government lots of hard feelings about American foreign policy.
No such formal “ceasefire” exists, of course. The issue is that Baku believes recent meetings with US officials — in particular, visits by Special Energy Envoy Amos Hochstein — signal that Washington is willing to drop the criticism of Azerbaijan’s civil right record and focus on the hydrocarbons that bind the two countries together.
But then the Post, apparently seen in Baku as one of the US government’s “main mouthpieces,” comes along and slams the trial of prominent Azerbaijani human rights defender Leyla Yunus and her husband, conflict analyst Arif Yunus, as a “travesty of justice.” And the newspaper Azerbaijan, which is, indeed, an official mouthpiece, claims it can't make head or tail of the criticism.
A Russian Voronezh-DM early-warning radar station in Kaliningrad; Russian military media is reporting that a similar radar could be in the works for Azerbaijan. (photo: MoD Russia)
Russia is planning to set up a radar installation in Azerbaijan in 2017, a television station operated by the Russian Ministry of Defense has reported. It would be Russia's first military installation in Azerbaijan after Baku refused to renew the lease for a previous radar system, at Gabala, in 2012.
The report, on TV Zvezda, details Russia's air defense posture and future plans. Among the future plans are to deploy a Voronezh-DM early-warning radar in Azerbaijan: "Erection of Voronezh stations is continuing, and not only in Russia. There are plans to start construction in Azerbaijan in 2017, in place of the out-of-service "Daryal" radar in Gabala. The new station will be under exclusively Russian control," the report says.
The planned system in Azerbaijan would supplement the existing Voronezh system in Armavir, in Russia's North Caucasus. That radar covers Russia's air borders from "southern Europe to Northern Africa," and the Azerbaijani radar would "cover those regions which the Armavir station can't reach," Zvezda reports.
Azerbaijani government officials have not yet commented on the report. The one Azerbaijani media outlet to have picked it up, haqqin.az, headlined it "Russia is Going to Build a New Military Base in Azerbaijan," somewhat of an exaggeration but one that's suggestive of the political impact this could have.
Azerbaijan's ships compete in the inaugural Caspian Cup naval skills competition. (photo: MoD Russia)
The first-ever "Caspian Cup" naval skills competition has ended with Russia, unsurprisingly, the winner. But it was Azerbaijan's performance that garnered the most headlines, for all the wrong reasons.
In the final tally, Russia won with 65 points, Kazakhstan came in second with 48, and Azerbaijan brought up the rear with 33 points. The other two Caspian naval states, Iran and Turkmenistan, chose not to compete.
Reporting on the event was spotty, and it's not entirely clear what happened. But from what can be gleaned from the reporting out there, at the first stage of the contest Azerbaijan's entry, Patrol Cutter G-122, had some kind of problem. "Not everything worked out for the Azerbaijani team, their equipment and weapons let them down," said Dmitry Gorbatenko, the chief judge of the competition, on August 6. "They will change the ship and on August 7 Azerbaijan will be able to perform and show off their mastery in this contest."
The same day, though, Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry responded, saying that "Russian websites" were spreading information "that does not fully reflect the reality of the situation."
"The press service of the Ministry of Defense officially reports that minor problems were quickly solved on the scene by our sailors," the ministry said in a statement. "At the current time the warships taking part in the competition are successfully continuing to compete in the crew skills and equipment capabilities [competitions]. Contrary to the published information, our soldiers have successfully carried out all tasks which have been assigned up to now, have destroyed all sea and air targets, achieving an excellent result."
NATO could get involved in protecting a potential trans-Caspian gas pipeline, which Russia strongly opposes, an alliance official has said.
The idea of building a pipeline across the Caspian Sea to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan's massive reserves to Azerbaijan and then further on to Europe has been on the drawing board for a long time, but has been held back for a number of reasons, not least Russia's strong opposition.
In May, a senior EU official said on a visit to Ashgabat that a "political decision" had been made to build the pipeline and that the EU expects to start receiving gas from it by 2019. It's still not clear who would build the pipeline, however.
But now a NATO official has said that the alliance would play a part in protecting it. In an interview with Azerbaijani news website AzVision, NATO's South Caucasus Liaison Officer William Lahue weighed in on the pipeline and made some surprisingly bold endorsements of it:
“It is important that countries have multiple sources of supply in order to protect themselves from fluctuations in available sources of supply,” he said. “In this process Azerbaijan is going to be important, and its importance is growing.”
“Technically, it is possible to build Trans-Caspian Pipeline as I was told by businessmen from different countries,” said Lahue, adding that the politics is lining up the way that it is eventually going to happen....
“What NATO will be able to do is to pull partners looking for protection of critical energy infrastructure and in that way, we can help facilitate trainings, education for the national organizations working in this sphere for protection of infrastructure,” said Lahue.