The Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization’s (CSTO) political-executive body, the Collective Security Council, held a session on November 27–28, in Bishkek, at which Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan declared that member states “must leave orders of [the] Azerbaijani side to acquire new weapons unanswered” (Aysor.am, November 28). This was not the first time Pashinyan had called on his country’s CSTO allies to refrain from selling arms to Azerbaijan. At another recent CSTO event, at the alliance’s Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Yerevan, on November 5, he asked fellow member states to “consider the interests of all participating nations” when it comes to issues such as “military-technical cooperation” (Azatutyun.am, November 5).
The Azerbaijani foreign ministry’s response to the Armenian prime minister’s words in Bishkek was prompt. It highlighted that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev had recently received Russia’s defense minister and chief of the General Staff, and that issues of bilateral military cooperation for 2020 were discussed at both meetings. “If necessary, Azerbaijan can purchase new weapons from Russia. We would like to emphasize that this issue has nothing to do with the competence of the Armenian prime minister,” the foreign ministry’s spokesperson stated (Trend.az, November 29). Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, at a news briefing in Baku, in early December (see EDM, December 11), also voiced his country’s approach to the issue, saying that military-technical cooperation is one of the most important aspects of Russia’s strategic partnership with Azerbaijan. “We promote this with absolute transparency, in full conformity with international law,” Lavrov noted (Mid.ru, December 3).
In general, Armenia considers its membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the attendant alliance with Russia to be a cornerstone of its security strategy. Yerevan has long attempted to utilize the CSTO against Azerbaijan, both to deter Baku from attempting a military resolution of the Karabakh conflict as well as to discourage other member states from selling arms to its regional rival. However, both lines of effort have so far ostensibly failed. While the CSTO on many occasions expressed its commitment to collectively protect Armenia’s security, it also notably declared the Karabakh conflict to be outside of the organization’s jurisdiction. Particularly after the “Four Day War” in April 2016—when Armenian public opinion was furious about the lack of support the country received from Russia and other CSTO allies (see EDM, April 12, 2016, May 18, 2016)—then–CSTO secretary general Nikolai Bordyuzha (Russia) reiterated that the organization could provide assistance to Armenia only in case of an attack against its internationally recognized territory. He noted that Karabakh, therefore, was not included in the CSTO’s collective defense obligations (Panorama.am, April 26, 2016; see EDM, October 1, 2018).
Surely, when Armenia calls on its treaty allies to withhold weapons sales to Azerbaijan, it is first and foremost also addressing Russia, a leading CSTO power and Armenia’s closest military-security ally, which, nonetheless, remains Azerbaijan’s most important arms supplier. In a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in September 2018, President Aliyev noted that Baku had concluded arms purchase deals with Moscow worth over $5 billion, and this number will possibly grow in the future (Sputnik.az, September 1, 2018). Though Azerbaijan has been actively working to diversify its supply sources in recent years, during 2014–2018 Russia still accounted for 51 percent of all of its arms imports (SIRPI, March, 2019). For comparison, in 2010–2014, Russia had overwhelmingly dominated Azerbaijani arms imports, supplying 85 percent of all of the latter country’s foreign-purchased weapons (SIRPI, March, 2015).
The other major arms supplier to Azerbaijan within the CSTO is Belarus. Last year, it sold Baku such powerful weapons as Polonez multiple rocket launchers, T-72M1 battle tanks, BTR-70 armored personal carriers and Su-25 fighter aircraft (see EDM, December 6, 2018).
In response to Armenia’s repeated calls to withhold arms sales to Azerbaijan, Russia has argued that 1) it provides the same weapons not only to Azerbaijan but also to Armenia, and 2) if Moscow does not sell arms to Baku, somebody else will. For example, when Pashinyan brought up the weapons sales issue at the CSTO Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Yerevan last month, Leonid Kalashnikov, the chair of the Russian State Duma (lower chamber of parliament) committee for Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) affairs, replied that Russia sells to Armenia the same weapons, too, and even “the kind of weapons which it [does not] ever sell to other countries,” most likely a veiled reference to the Iskander-M ballistic missiles it delivered to Yerevan in 2016 (Armenpress.com, November 5). His deputy added that while Russia sells weapons to Azerbaijan at market prices, Armenia, as a CSTO member, receives them from Moscow at steep discounts (RFE/RL, November 5). Russia also provides long-term, low-interest credit to Armenia to buy those weapons: Yerevan obtained a $200 million loan from Moscow in 2015 and another, for $100 million, in 2017 (Azatutyun.am, February, 2018)
Russia’s second argument is actually more interesting and complex. Back in 2016, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stated that if Russia gives up selling weapons to Azerbaijan, “they will buy weapons in other countries, and the degree of their deadliness won’t change in any way.” He added, “But at the same time, this could […] destroy the existing balance of forces (in the region)” (Reuters, April 9, 2016). So according to Moscow, Russia is in fact benefiting Armenia by preserving the regional balance of power by selling the same weapons (and in deliberate quantities) to both countries.
Despite such justification, the common belief is that Russia—particularly its powerful military-industrial complex (part of the elites’ siloviki, or security forces, faction), which has a strong say in Russian politics—does not want to give up profits from the lucrative arms deals with Azerbaijan. However, the Kremlin is surely also concerned about possible longer-term implications of halting arms sales to Baku—implications that extend beyond simply economic losses. Namely, any other arms supplier that replaces Moscow would mean not just non-Russian weapons deliveries but also potentially the arrival of military instructors and advisors to train the Azerbaijani military on how best to utilize those weapons. Such military-technical cooperation would, by its intrinsic nature, represent a longer-term bilateral relationship, as new weapons systems require continuous supplies of spare parts and fresh ammunition. Thus, Azerbaijan developing stronger relations with new arms suppliers could increasingly weaken Russia’s military-security influence over its so-called “near-abroad”—an outcome that would surely not be welcomed in Moscow.