Travel-blogger Alexander Lapshin’s irreverent reviews have left him in the doghouse before, but it was an alleged trip to separatist Nagorno Karabakh that really landed him in hot water. The Israeli-Russian blogger was detained in Belarus almost a month ago, and now, reportedly, is about to get extradited to Azerbaijan for supposedly trespassing on what Baku sees as Azerbaijani territory and supporting Karabakhi independence.
The case appears to mark the first time that a foreign national has been detained outside of Azerbaijan on such grounds.
A bout of camaraderie between two mustachioed strongmen, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, appears to have entrapped the blogger. Cooperation has been tightening recently between the two, who share a propensity for never-ending presidential terms and a dislike of critical, independent media.
To be sure, Lapshin is no freedom-fighter, like many of those who have been jailed in Belarus and Azerbaijan. Catering to Russian-speaking audiences, his Livejournal blog Puerrtto details his travels to 122 countries and territories. He has been doing mostly what travel writers do: posting photographs of landmarks and dishes, complaining about bureaucracy and bad driving, but also throwing in an occasional coarse word.
One rubric, billed as the author’s quarrels and lawsuits “with just about everyone in the world,” features Lapshin’s jeremiads about impediments to international travel. There are entries that blast Uzbekistan for requiring its citizens to get exit visas to leave the country, criticize Israel for supposedly over-zealous border guards and offer tips on how to conceal visits to Israel from select Arab countries.
The Iron Dome air defense system in action in Israel. (photo: Israeli Defense Forces)
Azerbaijan has reached a deal with Israel to buy the Iron Dome air defense system, a senior Azerbaijani government official has announced. But questions remain over how useful the celebrated system really is for Azerbaijan and whether it would be worth the cost.
Over the last couple of months, there have been a number of reports that a deal like this was in the works, and last month this blog featured a post on how those reports probably weren't true. There are technical reasons that the Iron Dome won't do what Azerbaijan wants. And the state-of-the-art system would be a budget buster for Azerbaijan, which has been forced by falling oil prices to slash expenditures, not least on the military.
But on December 17, the Minister of Defense Industry Yaver Jamalov gave a press conference and announced that the deal had been made. "The Azerbaijani Defense Industry Ministry and the relevant Israeli body have reached the agreement on procurement of the Israeli Iron Dome air defense system," Jamalov said.
Azerbaijan made a double PR-play on December 14 that could have proven a winning ticket with the upcoming administration of US President-Elect Donald Trump. But, ultimately, it fumbled the ball.
In Washington, the embassy of the predominantly Shi’a Muslim country co-hosted a Hanukkah party at the Trump International Hotel with a prominent American Jewish organization. In Baku, the Azerbaijani government welcomed to town Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a declared Trump fan, and talked big and beautiful.
Everything was in place for showing the world Azerbaijan’s alleged religious tolerance and multiculturalism (two recurring official PR themes), but, then, Donald Trump had to get into the act.
Or, rather, his hotel.
Ahead of Wednesday’s party, over a hundred protesters from the Jewish American activist group If Not Now marched down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Trump International Hotel to denounce the Azerbaijani embassy and its co-host, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (COP), for celebrating Hanukkah at a venue owned by Trump.
“They are economically supporting Trump tonight and there is also a lot of symbolism around this,” one protester complained about the COP, a local ABC News affiliate reported.
The Iron Dome air defense system in action in Israel. (photo: Israeli Defense Forces)
Azerbaijani officials and several media sources have reported that Baku is working on a deal with Israel to buy the "Iron Dome" air defense system. The deal would be a blockbuster, as the legendary Iron Dome is a state-of-the-art system that has dramatically reduced the number of rocket attacks on Israel but has yet to be exported anywhere else.
In spite of the widespread reports, Azerbaijan is highly unlikely to actually purchase the Iron Dome, a very costly system that is technically incapable of meeting Azerbaijan's needs. The prevalance of the reports, however, seems to speak to a continuing concern within Azerbaijan that its foe, Armenia, may have gained a step on it in the arms race.
Last month, Azerbaijani member of parliament Yedva Abramov reported that the Iron Dome was "ready for delivery" to Azerbaijan. Abramov said that the system would render ineffective the Iskander missiles that Armenia recently acquired from Russia. "This system will not allow the Iskander rockets to hit the ground," Abramov said.
With Nagorno Karabakh's worst violence in two decades having abated, Armenia and Azerbaijan are taking stock of how loyally their allies and partners responded to the crisis. And in most cases, both sides have found the responses wanting.
The major outside player in the conflict remains Russia, but its actions and the subsequent reactions followed a well-worn path: Armenia complained that its ostensible ally was providing weapons to its enemy, Russia justified that policy in terms of a balance of power, and nothing concrete changed.
While Armenia is a treaty ally of Russia, hosts a Russian military base, and gets discounted Russian weaponry in return, oil-rich Azerbaijan has rearmed itself, with the aim of retaking its lost territory, buying most of its arms from the very same Russia.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin visited the region at the end of last week, part of a Russian diplomatic blitz that seems to have succeeded in tamping down the violence for the time being. And both officials made it clear that Russia did not intend to change its policy of supplying both sides.
“If we consider for a moment that Russia gave up that role, we all will see clearly that such place won’t remain vacant. Weapons will be bought from other countries, and that won’t make weapons less deadly. However, it could ruin the current balance to some extent,” Medvedev said. "Everything is done in compliance with the contracts. Both these countries are our strategic partners," Rogozin said.
A photo released by the de facto Nagorno Karabakh armed forces, which they said is an Azerbaijani ThunderB drone that they shot down.
The recent surge of violence in Nagorno Karabakh has brought attention to Azerbaijan's increased reliance on arms from Israel, including two types of drones not previously known to be in Baku's arsenal.
In one case, Azerbaijan was reported to have used a "Harop" loitering munition, known somewhat fancifully as a "kamikaze drone" because it is itself the bomb. According to Armenian media, on April 4 the Harop hit a bus carrying soldiers to the front and killed five or six of them. It was believed to be the first ever combat use of the system anywhere, reported Jane's Defence Weekly. Azerbaijan sources claim to have used the Harop in other attacks, as well.
In another episode, the armed forces of Nagorno Karabakh released photos of a ThunderB surveillance drone that they claimed to have shot down on April 2.
And in a third episode, Azerbaijani sources claim that their side destroyed "six enemy tanks" using an Israeli-made Spike missiles.
None of these weapons were previously reported to be operated by Azerbaijan. (While it was known that Azerbaijan bought the marine version of the Spike missiles, it's not clear whether it somehow used those for this attack or had secretly also purchased the land forces version, as well.)
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev inspects an Israeli-built coast guard vessel built in Baku. (photo: president.az)
Azerbaijan is acquiring 12 new coast guard vessels from Israel and is discussing the possibility of buying naval corvettes, as well.
The news emerged after Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev formally opened a new shipyard for the coast guard. No mention was made publicly of the Israeli provenance of the ships, but online weapons enthusiasts and the experts at Jane's examined the photos that were released on the president's official site and came to the conclusion that these were warships -- six Shaldag Mk V patrol boats and six Saar 62 offshore patrol vessels -- that Israel had announced it was building for an anonymous customer.
In addition, posters exhibited at the event suggested that Azerbaijan was looking at a more heavily armed Israeli ship, the Saar 72 corvette.
Azerbaijan has already made other naval purchases from Israel, notably some Gabriel-5 anti-ship missiles, which became a source of tension between Azerbaijan and Iran: Tehran, fixated on Israel, mistrusts Baku's close military ties with its enemy.
A photo, released by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, showing what it says is an Israeli drone launched from Azerbaijan and shot down by Iran.
Iran has blamed a "former Soviet republic to the north" for being the base of an Israeli drone that Tehran claims to have shot down earlier this week. Although the Iranian officials didn't specify Azerbaijan, that is the only country they could mean, and Azerbaijan's government has denied the claim, calling it a "provocation."
Two senior Iranian military officials have said that the Israeli Hermes drone that they shot down did not come from Israel, but from "the north." Via Fars News Agency:
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Turkish President Abdullah Gul inspect an Israeli UAV during the KADEX defense exposition in Astana in 2010. (photo: The Bug Pit)
Kazakhstan's defense minister has visited Israel, where he met with officials including President Shimon Peres and discussed what seemed to be an ambitious expansion of military cooperation between the two countries. The focus of the cooperation would be training -- including Israeli soldiers conducting drills in Kazakhstan -- and Israeli technical expertise for Kazakhstan's nascent defense industry. From a Kazakhstan Ministry of Defense press release:
In the sphere of military interaction the President of Israel offered to conduct joint exercises of the Armed Forces of two countries on Kazakhstan firing fields.
In turn, [Kazakhstan Defense Minister] Adilbek Dzhaksybekov noted that Kazakhstan gives special importance to the expansion of investment and technical cooperation with Israel in military industry....
“Today the defining tendency of development of the Armed Forces of Kazakhstan is its professionalization. At the present stage changed forms and methods of warfare and applied them in armaments and military equipment require highly skilled experts - military professionals. In this context, we attach particular importance to the possibility of studying the experience of combat training of the Armed Forces of Israel,” the Minister of Defence of Kazakhstan noted.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov in New York on September 29, the Times of Israel reported, in an apparent bid to strengthen relations with arch-foe Iran's northeastern neighbor.
The Jerusalem Post said the meeting comes just three months after Ashgabat finally accredited a new Israeli ambassador. Ashgabat had rejected two candidates for "allegedly being spies interested not in furthering bilateral relations, but in collecting intelligence information on Iran." The ambassador saga dragged on for years.
Turkmenistan is strategically important to Israel because "[f]rom a hotel in Turkmenistan’s capital of Ashgabat, according to a saying in Jerusalem, one can see into Iran," the Jerusalem Post asserted. "This explains the geostrategic importance of these ties for Israel. Other reasons are that Turkmenistan is a predominantly Muslim country and it is extremely rich in gas and natural resources."
Fearing Israel's influence on its neighbors, “Iran has been determined to limit Israeli involvement in the Caspian region," according to a report by the London-based Caspian Research Institute, which is cited by the Jerusalem Post. Israel also buys oil and sells weapons to another of Iran's post-Soviet neighbors, Azerbaijan.