Whether in the form of threats or blandishments, military power constitutes Russia’s primary instrument for bringing the South Caucasus-Caspian region under control. As Georgia and Azerbaijan have understood, while Armenia has not, the very logic of Russian military and political dominance would preclude Western-led economic modernization and block the region’s path to prosperity. With Georgia under threat and Armenia in tow, Moscow is now actively courting Azerbaijan.
Next week President Vladimir Putin is due to pay an official visit to Azerbaijan–the first to that country by a Russian president. Russia’s defense minister, Marshal Igor Sergeev, was dispatched on December 26 to Baku to prepare Putin’s visit. The choice of Sergeev for such an assignment suggests that Moscow intends to place military and regional security issues at the top of the agenda of the upcoming meeting with Azerbaijani leaders. Strikingly, Sergeev held individual meetings with Azerbaijan’s civilian leaders: President Haidar Aliev, Prime Minister Artur Rasizade, First Deputy Prime Minister Abbas Abbasov and Milli Majlis Chairman Murtuz Aleskerov. This schedule for a Russian defense minister reflects the growing militarization of Moscow’s external policy under Putin.
Sergeev extended a panoply of military assistance offers, including Russian repair and maintenance of Azerbaijan’s combat hardware, modernization of military installations in Azerbaijan by Russian personnel, training of Azerbaijani officers in Russian military schools, and “cooperation” between Russia’s and Azerbaijan’s air defense systems–an offer reflecting Moscow’s known goal to bring Azerbaijan into the joint CIS air defense system. Underlying those offers is Moscow’s expectation that Baku would rise to the bait in order to begin redressing the imbalance of forces between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
In the event, Azerbaijan’s defense minister, Colonel-General Safar Abiev, signed with Sergeev an agreement on cooperation among the two Defense Ministries in 2001 and a document on admission of Azerbaijani officers to Russian military academies. Experience with numerous agreements of both those types among post-Soviet militaries suggests that interministerial cooperation documents are usually no more than symbolic, and that agreements on officer training often remain confined to paper, unless both signatories are seriously interested in implementation, one rare case of such interest being the Russian-Armenian agreement.
The Azeris did not take up Sergeev’s more substantive proposals regarding military hardware, installations and air defense. Accepting such offers could well open Azerbaijan’s door to Russian military personnel. The proposals are almost certain to be reiterated during Putin’s upcoming visit.
The Azerbaijani officials raised with Sergeev the perennial issue of both clandestine and open deliveries of Russian arms to Armenia. The clandestine deliveries to Armenia’s own armed forces are valued at more than US$1 billion from 1994 to 1997, according to Russian investigative reports. Russia’s General Lev Rokhlin headed the main investigation and issued those reports in his capacity as chairman of the Duma’s Defense Affairs Committee, only to be assassinated shortly afterward. In response to Aliev’s and Abiev’s recriminations, Sergeev publicly offered several mutually contradictory stories within the 24 hours of his stay in Baku. According to his various versions, (1) no deliveries were made at all in 1994-97, (2) no “unlawful” deliveries were made, and (3) it is up to the Russian Military Prosecutor’s Office to continue Rokhlin’s investigation, with which the Defense Ministry has “no right to interfere.”
On top of the 1994-97 arming of Armenia’s military, Russia substantially increased her own forward-based arsenals in Armenia in 1999 and 2000–most recently by moving armor forces there last November from Georgia. Although Moscow insists that Armenian forces have no access to those arsenals, there is evidence that some of the weaponry is stationed with Armenian forces in areas seized from Azerbaijan. Karabakh is, in any case, out of bounds to international verification of Russian and Armenian compliance with the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe. Irrespective of formal Armenian or Russian ownership of those arsenals, their forward placement potentially threatens Azerbaijan while complicating any solution to the conflict over Karabakh and the additional six districts in Azerbaijan proper, seized by Armenian forces.
Those forward deployments form part of Moscow’s policy to intimidate Azerbaijan into seeking Russian assurances for its security at the cost of changing its Western orientation. Azerbaijan’s continued public criticism of those Russian deployments serves as an indication that Baku is not succumbing to the intimidation. By the same token, any tacit acceptance of those deployments would signal that Baku is moving under duress toward accommodation on Moscow’s terms.
Moscow is currently redoubling efforts to legalize the status of the Gabala radar station–the last remaining Russian military installation on Azerbaijan’s territory. Sergeev failed to obtain agreement on a long-term lease partly modeled of that governing the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan. A joint Russian-Azerbaijani commission is supposed to draft an agreement for signing on the occasion of Putin’s visit.
In the wake of Sergeev’s visit, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Affairs Minister Vilayet Guliev reaffirmed Baku’s Western political and economic orientation in unambiguous terms and expressed hope that the incoming U.S. administration would “uphold America’s long-term interests in the South Caucasus-Caspian region.” That factor can largely predetermine the success or failure of Moscow’s mix of military intimidation and blandishments in the region (Turan, ANS, Zerkalo (Baku), RIA, Itar-Tass, December 26-30, 2000, January 2-3; Krasnaya Zvezda, January 4; see the Monitor, May 1, September 2, October 2, 24, 2000).
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