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Russia arms Azerbaijan: special opinion of Armenia without Karabakh

Armenian troops at the Karabakh frontline. Photo: sputnik-news.ee

Armenia shows more and more discontent, as Russia supplies weapons to Azerbaijan. Yerevan has shifted from hints to direct claims. The hints of the Armenian leadership and timid statements of “pro-governmental political analysts” gave way to sharp rebukes. Quite lately, Foreign Minister of Armenia Edward Nalbandian aired complaints in an interview with RIA Novosti.

Yerevan’s arguments are clear. Azerbaijan’s militarization by its Russian ally in such explosive region may easily spark another flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh. Before the so-called “four-day war” in the Karabakh conflict zone (April 2-5, 2016), Moscow comforted Yerevan with counterarguments assuring it that “everything is under control.” It was not so, unfortunately. Azerbaijan used the strike systems imported from Russia in Karabakh last April. It was anticipated as the offensive arms and military hardware of the Azerbaijani army consists of Soviet/Russian produce by 85%-90%.

Baku started purchasing only strike systems from Moscow yet several years ago, after importing such defensive systems as S-300 air defense systems, TOR-M2E surface-to-air missiles systems and other anti-aircraft defense arms. Approximately, since 2011 Baku has been importing exclusively strike weapons made in Russia.

Armenia had enough time to express its frustration with that fact. However, it started doing so just several months ago, after the “four-day war” in Karabakh, let alone some hints made by the Armenian leadership earlier. Thus, in March 2015, President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan voiced the “problem” in an ingenious manner saying, “the soldier on the border (line of contact of Armenian and Azerbaijan troops - EADaily) realizes that they try to destroy him with Russian weapons.”

Why did Yerevan start airing its grievances just now and in quite unusual (sharp manner) way? There are a number of reasons behind this. The first is concerns with the approaching anniversary of the April escalation. Besides, on April 2 the country will see parliamentary elections very important for the ruling party.

Almost simultaneously with the Armenian foreign minister’s messages related to the Russian arms supplies to Azerbaijan, President Sargsyan chaired an operative gathering of the Armed Forces Command. One of the key directives of the Armenian supreme commander was the need to maintain the balance of force in the Karabakh conflict zone. The president suggested the high brass to discuss plans “for the coming two-three months.”

The key message of the president, the leader of the ruling Republican Party, at an event on February 20, was not to let the enemy unleash a new large-scale offensive destabilizing the region amid domestic political fight and parliamentary campaign in Armenia. The president made a clear message to Moscow related to expediency of supplying advanced weapons to Azerbaijan now, when the peace in the region remains so fragile just because of Baku.

Actually, Azerbaijan torpedoes the arrangements made last year (in Vienna in May and at a trilateral summit in St. Petersburg on June 20) to de-escalate the situation in the Karabakh conflict zone. President Ilham Aliyev fails to observe the commitments to create mechanisms to inquire into incidents on the Line of Contact of Armenian and Azerbaijani forces and to expand the OSCE observation mission in the conflict zone. Baku sets inadmissible conditions to Yerevan in exchange for implementation of the given arrangements. Hence, another argument of the Armenian leadership is that supply of weapons and military equipment to the side that displays such negligence at the very beginning of the political settlement makes it think that its algorithm of escalation is “right.” It turns out that Russia continues supplying Azerbaijan with strike systems and makes no efforts to make Baku implement the arrangements achieved at the Moscow-brokered talks. It turns out that we arm with one hand and hold the most probable initiator of large-scale military actions with the other hand.

The “succession to the throne” in Baku is actually clear. The “formula of power” chosen by the Aliyevs family – the two highest posts are brought maximum closer together in any sense - may spark military rhetoric by Azerbaijan. Now, Aliyev will more than ever try to achieve certainty in the Karabakh issue before delegating his powers to the spouse. In Caucasus, they never lay responsibility for crucial decisions on women. Therefore, with the relatively stabilized oil price and suppression of any serious opposition inside the country, the Karabakh issue may become a priority for Aliyev. In the current conditions and in the visible future, the only way to do it is a new war. “Saudi Arabia” of the South Caucasus sees no other algorithm to “settle” the conflict but war.

Another reason why Armenia highlights the arms supply problem is the ongoing intensive talks of Russia and Azerbaijan for new military deals that will relieve Baku’s concerns after delivery of Iskander-E missile systems to Armenia earlier last year. These talks are far from being completed yet, but the fact of the Russian-Azerbaijani intergovernmental talks on a new arms deal cannot but frustrate Armenia. Furthermore, Armenia is not optimistic about the visit of Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin to Baku at the end of 2016.

Symmetric supply of Iskander systems to Azerbaijan seems absolutely unreal now, but “compensation” to Azerbaijani partners through improvement of their fire power by Russia is quite possible. Although the solvent Caucasian customer seeks strike systems having longer range than 300km, the sale of such systems to it would be critical for the explosive situation in the region. Azerbaijan seeks a symmetric response to Armenian “Iskanders” also beyond its military-technical cooperation with Russia, for instance in Pakistan. However, an increase of Azerbaijan’s fire power when 80% of its combat units are concentrated on the Line of Contact with Karabakh and on the border with Armenia will put Yerevan in an unfavorable state again. It will have to react somehow. However, it is not clear how Yerevan will do it after receiving Iskander systems and given the chronic shortage of money in the state budget (even despite the fact that Yerevan pays its ally for the supplied weapons on internal prices).

To be frank, it is hard to deny Armenia’s arguments that Russian arms supplies to Azerbaijan are counterproductive to peace and stability in the South Caucasus. In fact, it is possible to maintain the balance of force in the region packed with weapons just theoretically. In practice, it is impossible, especially in such a protracted military and political confrontation as the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is.

Along with this, Yerevan should not expect Moscow “to be more Catholic than the Pope.” That is, at certain stages, Russia cares for its military industry more than the balance of powers in the Karabakh conflict region. Of course, we do not offer Armenia to put up with such state of affairs, but air grievances and appealing to the ethnical side of the issue “on air” will bring nothing good to Yerevan. It is at least strange that Armenia expects a full solidarity from Moscow in such delicate arms issue, at the same time taking no decisive steps except aspiration to maintain the status-quo.

Armenia does not recognize independence of Nagorno-Karabakh officially, does not express any intention to unite the two Armenian republics into one state, and agrees that determination of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status is a subject of talks with Azerbaijan. Nothing is done except empty declarations to bring the Republic of Artsakh (the current name of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic under the new Constitution that has been adopted at a referendum lately) out of the state of a “province” having no voice in the talks.

So why should Moscow care for the interests of the “Karabakh province” of Armenia more than its military industry? Blaming the Kremlin for regular commercialization of the relations with Azerbaijan in prejudice of the military and political alliance with Armenia is not prohibited, indeed. It is even necessary, since only a sincere talk helps understand each other’s expectations. At the same time, Yerevan must not wait for anyone else to do the hard and necessary steps instead of it. Otherwise, it is fraught with new losses and missed chances. It is not clear why Yerevan’s leadership avoids voicing the painful issues at high-level political meetings and prefers to do it through media platforms.

Russia makes an ultimate contribution to maintaining security of Armenia along the entire perimeter of its external borders. Russia is the guarantor of the inviolability of the territory of its Transcaucasian ally against any external threat. Karabakh is not within the Armenian-Russian military and political borders. The principle “guarantor of my guarantor is my ally” does not work. Moscow has no commitments to Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. Such commitments may emerge only if Artsakh unites (or reunites, if you want) with Armenia. As long as Yerevan fails to launch the scenario that is deemed to be the only way to ensure a fair solution to the conflict and long-term peace in the region, rebukes against Moscow will not work. Karabakh is a valuable resource for Russia, for instance, to “bind” Azerbaijan to it. Meantime, whether it is good or bad, ethical or not, but for Russia Karabakh will remain an unclear “Armenian province” claimed by Azerbaijan unless it is recognized by or united with Armenia.

Vyacheslav Mikhaylov for EADaily

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