It wasn't exactly a surprise last week when Russia and Azerbaijan announced they had failed to agree on terms to extend the lease of the Gabala radar station which the Russian military operates in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan had little incentive to let Russia keep using the radar, and so demanded a huge increase in the rent from $7 million a year to a reported $300 million. Russia, meanwhile, doesn't have much leverage over Azerbaijan, and anyway is in the process of setting up a next-generation radar system on its own territory, in Armavir in the North Caucasus. That system is apparently set to become operational in the first quarter of 2013.
Still, Russia clearly wanted the station to remain, though it's not clear on what terms. The post-mortems of the failure of negotiations, interestingly, differ markedly depending on which country they come from. In Azerbaijan, the public consensus seems to be that there will be no serious ramifications. From APA:
“Russia's refusal to use Gabala radar station will not negatively affect relations between the two countries, said Deputy Chairman and Executive Secretary of the ruling New Azerbaijani Party (YAP) Ali Ahmadov....
“The decision on refusing exploitation of Gabala radar station has been passed at the negotiations between the states. If this decision was made on the basis of mutual agreement, it can not cause the tension in the relations between the two countries.”
Member of Parliament Rusam Musabayov echoed that sentiment. And Vestnik Kavkaza quotes an Azerbaijan analyst:
Azerbaijan is really moving up the European map. This year, Baku became the song capital of Europe, and, soon, it is going to be the continent’s sports capital, too.
With a vote of 38 to eight (Armenia among the three countries abstaining), the European Olympics Committees last weekend chose the oil-and-gas boomtown to host the debut of the 2015 European Olympic Games, a continental version of the Olympics.
Strangely, Baku was also the only venue-candidate for the Games, but Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, head of the country's Olympics committee, didn't let that dint his joy at the decision.
Terming the Games "truly a historic event," Aliyev underlined to citizens that Azerbaijan's "international authority" had played the largest role in securing the event for Baku.
Perhaps mindful of Azerbaijan's Eurovision experience, event organizers also want to put on a dazzling show for the opening of the games, but don’t all come at once. Azerbaijan hopes to limit the number of participating athletes to a maximum of 4,200 and, also, perhaps with an eye to freeloaders, wants to cap the number of official guests.
Presidents Ilham Aliyev and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meet in October.
It's been sporadically reported/speculated over the past few months that Azerbaijan would play some kind of role in an Israeli attack on Iran. Those reports have usually been vociferously denied by officials in Baku, and indeed Azerbaijan would seem to have little to gain by such an adventure. But Iran's leadership may believe otherwise, reports Michael Moran at Global Post:
According to intelligence officials, Iran’s security services have concluded that Azerbaijan, its Muslim neighbor to the north, has been enlisted by Israel in a campaign of cyber attacks, assassinations and detailed military planning aimed at destabilizing and ultimately destroying Tehran’s nuclear research program.
That Iranian perspective, described by a range of current and former US intelligence officials who asked that their names remain confidential, has led to a crackdown on Iran’s sizeable ethnic Azeri minority and the launch of an Iranian counter espionage offensive to destabilize the government of President Ilham Aliev...
“What I can say is that Iran believes the link is much more substantial — to the point where they fear Israeli aircraft or special ops guys could be based on Azeri territory,” the official said. “In many ways, what Iran perceives is as important as anything else.”
Armenian Scud-B missiles, on display at a 2011 military parade in Yerevan.
Armenia is capable of attacking Azerbaijan's oil facilities in case of a war, and that it just finished military exercises practicing that scenario. a top Armenian general has said, speaking to a press conference at the conclusion of the exercises:
“We simulated strikes against both army units and military facilities of the probable enemy and … economic facilities that influence, in one way or another, the military capacity of its armed forces,” said Major-General Artak Davtian, head of the operational department at the Armenian army’s General Staff.
“There would be no strikes on the civilian population, we are not planning or playing out such a war scenario,” he told journalists. “We do not plan any strikes on cities. Our targets are military and economic facilities that are essential to a particular state.”
“In particular, I can stress that we modeled several strikes on oil and gas infrastructures, energy carriers that would affect the economy,” Davtian added in a clear reference to oil-rich Azerbaijan.
The exercises took place from October 1-13. According to Radio Azatutyun:
The two-week “strategic” exercises, which drew to a close at the weekend, took place in undisclosed locations in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh in a mostly “command-and-staff” format. According to the Armenian military, they involved over 40,000 troops and thousands of pieces of military hardware. The participating personnel included a record-high number of army reservists.
Azerbaijan, naturally, responded quickly. Spokesman for Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry, Colonel Eldar Sabiroglu:
When Foreign Policy magazine reported this spring that Israel was in talks with Azerbaijan over the use of the latter's airfields in order to carry out an attack on Iran, the bombshell report was vociferously denied by officials in Baku and derided by regional analysts. Azerbaijan would seem to not have any interest in such cooperation, and the Foreign Policy report was correctly described as "Washington-centric."
But now Reuters has come out with the same story, but their sources are Azerbaijani and Russian:
[T]wo Azeri former military officers with links to serving personnel and two Russian intelligence sources all told Reuters that Azerbaijan and Israel have been looking at how Azeri bases and intelligence could serve in a possible strike on Iran.
"Where planes would fly from - from here, from there, to where? - that's what's being planned now," a security consultant with contacts at Azeri defense headquarters in Baku said. "The Israelis ... would like to gain access to bases in Azerbaijan."
Rasim Musabayov, an independent Azeri lawmaker and a member of parliament's foreign affairs committee, said that, while he had no definitive information, he understood that Azerbaijan would probably feature in any Israeli plans against Iran, at least as a contingency for refueling its attack force:
"Israel has a problem in that if it is going to bomb Iran, its nuclear sites, it lacks refueling," Musabayov told Reuters.
"I think their plan includes some use of Azerbaijan access.
Russia and Azerbaijan have come to a short-term agreement on the Gabala radar station that Russia operates in Azerbaijan, a "source close to the negotiations" told RIA Novosti.
The new agreement will extend the current lease, currently scheduled to run out in December, for another two to three years under the current terms. Azerbaijan has been playing hardball with Russia, reportedly asking for the rent to be raised from the current $7 million a year to $300 million. Russia, meanwhile, wanted to extend the lease to 2025.
Azerbaijan really holds all the cards in this scenario: it has no use for the radar and mistrusts Russia, which backs Armenia in the conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh. But Russia, of course, is the more powerful country and still has various means of throwing its weight around in Baku should it want to. This new arrangement seems to suggest that Russia is planning to leave Gabala after this brief extension expires. But Russia needs the Gabala radar a bit longer, while tension around Iran is high (Gabala covers the airspace over Iran) and newer radars are still under construction. Russian analyst Alexander Karavaev tells RIA Novosti:
"Judging from this announcement, Russia can still refuse to prolong the rent after this period, in two-three years. Most likely, [the radar] will remain while there is a high degree of tension around Iran, and while a new generation of radar stations are being deployed to the south," said Karavaev, referring to new, more capable radars that Russia is in the process of setting up in the North Caucasus.
The world’s top chess-playing country, Armenia, faces a tough gambit. Two upcoming big games will be held right next door in, arguably, the world's most anti-Armenian country, Azerbaijan. Armenian sports officials have threatened to boycott the tournaments.
Azerbaijan’s glittery capital, Baku, was chosen as the venue for the 2015 World Cup and 2016 World Olympiad by the World Chess Federation (FIDE). Armenia, dubbed "the cleverest nation" in the world by the BBC after winning two chess Olympiads in a row (it won this year as well), is not ready to move its players to the enemy’s board.
The animosity has grown stronger still since Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev last month pardoned and honored an army officer convicted of decapitating an Armenian man in Budapest.
It may indeed be a little hard for the Armenian grandmasters to travel to Baku and fix their eyes on the chessboard when there is a convicted axe-murderer walking the streets freely.
Azerbaijani sports officials, for their part, have vowed to ensure the safety of the Armenian players. Sports Minister Azad Ragimov noted that Armenia has participated in boxing competitions in Baku before, with no untoward incidents.
A Kazakhstan soldier takes part in the CSTO exercises in Armenia
The Collective Security Treaty Organization has wrapped up its annual military exercises, held this year in Armenia, with the group's general secretary saying the group needs to create its own military forces, including air forces, in Central Asia. But at a time of heightened tensions in the Caucasus, the drills took a relatively low profile.
Not much has been said about the scenario of the exercises, called "Interaction-2012," the first of the CSTO to be held in the Caucasus. The scale of these exercises was much smaller than last year's -- about 2,000 troops, compared to 24,000 last year spread out over several countries, half in Central Asia and the other half in Belarus. (The CSTO is led by Russia and also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.)
It was an interesting time for the exercises to be held in Armenia, just after tensions spiked as a result of the extradition and pardon of Ramil Safarov, the Azerbaijani soldier who killed an Armenian colleague at a NATO event in Hungary. There has been a lot of speculation about whether the CSTO would come to the aid of Armenia in the event of a war over Nagorno Karabakh. Armenia actually postponed the start of the exercises a week, from September 8 to September 15. No explanation for the delay was given, other than that it was due to "technical reasons," but it's no small matter to reschedule, at the last minute, a multi-country military exercise. The announcement of the delay was August 30 -- and the next day, Safarov was released. Was there a connection?
Turkmenistan held its first ever naval exercise on Wednesday, and it was a rare attempt for the foreign press to get a glimpse of what's going on there. All the big wire services carried reports on the exercise, and AFP's was the most detailed:
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov observed the exercises through binoculars from atop a two-story structure built on the deserted Caspian Sea coast about 60 kilometres (40 miles) from the nearest city of Turkmenbashi.
In the war games, the aggressor was given the name of the “blue” state while Turkmenistan was the “green” nation.
“A ship from the ‘blue’ country penetrated Turkmenistan waters to seize a Turkmen tanker...and the coastal city with its oil refinery,” a pamphlet with the exercise scenario said.
Observers — who included various diplomats from Western states — witnessed a staged hijacking, the burning of a refinery and moves by Turkmen airforce and navy on a screen.
By pushing back the enemy, “the ‘green’ state (Turkmenistan) made the ‘blue’ state abandon their aggressive intentions, reinstalling control of the state border,” the military commentator declaimed to the audience.
Berdymukhamedov, who arrived at the exercises in a helicopter and was welcomed with a chorus and orchestra, told diplomats that “Turkmenistan’s military doctrine is defensive but we must protect our border as we are a maritime state.”
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev on their way to the joint press conference
NATO's Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen took a quick trip through all three south Caucasus countries this week, where he criticized Azerbaijan's pardon of a soldier who killed an Armenian while on a joint NATO exercise in Hungary. Rasmussen also voiced strong support for Georgia's (eventual) alliance membership.
Rasmussen's trip took place at a time of heightened tensions in the Caucasus, especially between Armenia and Azerbaijan, over the pardon of Lieutenant -- now Major -- Ramil Safarov. At a speech in Baku, he pretty strongly condemned the move:
I am deeply concerned by the Azerbaijani decision to pardon Ramil Safarov. The act he committed in 2004 was a crime which should not be glorified, as this damages trust and does not contribute to the peace process.
At a joint press conference with President Ilham Aliyev, Rasmussen was asked about the issue, and Aliyev answered too, defending the pardon as in line with the Constitution, which must have been a bit of an awkward moment.
Rasmussen used identical words at a speech in Yerevan, and they apparently weren't strong enough for a number of protesters at his speech.
The reception was warmer in Tbilisi, of course, where President Mikheil Saakashvili said that Rasmussen deserved to be named an "honorary Georgian." Rasmussen gave a fairly strong endorsement of the concept, at least, of Georgian membership in NATO: