Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 231

On December 14-15, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld led a Pentagon delegation to Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. As he headed for the region, Rumsfeld remarked that the post-September 11 situation offers opportunities for America to “reconnect with those countries” and “have military-to-military relations on a fresh basis soon.”

The discussions in the three capitals reviewed Azerbaijan’s and Georgia’s contributions to the antiterrorism war thus far, the prospects of enlarging those contributions, and new forms of U.S. military assistance to the region’s countries including Armenia.

In Baku, Rumsfeld informed President Haidar Aliev and Defense Minister Safar Abiev about the impending waiver of legal restrictions on U.S. government direct aid to Azerbaijan. The waiver should make possible a substantial increase in U.S. clout in the South Caucasus and the security of pro-U.S. countries there.

Contained in Section 907 of the U.S. Freedom Support Act, in force since 1992, the restrictions explicitly precluded military assistance and military-to-military relations with Azerbaijan. The Congress had enacted those sanctions to punish Azerbaijan for using force against Karabakh Armenians nine years ago; but left the sanctions on the books each year after 1993, in spite of Armenia’s and Karabakh’s occupation since that year of ethnically cleansed Azeri districts inside Azerbaijan proper. The net result was to punish a pro-American country while rewarding a Russian-enabled territorial expansion. The executive branch of the U.S. government tried each year unsuccessfully to lift the Section 907 sanctions.

After September 11, as Azerbaijan rallied from day one to the U.S. antiterrorism campaign, the Bush administration persuaded Congress to grant the executive branch the authority to waive those sanctions for one year at a time, in order to provide direct aid to the government of Azerbaijan. In order to provide military assistance, the president will have to certify to the Congress that such assistance is required in the security interests of the United States as part of antiterrorism efforts, or to enhance border security in the region. Military assistance to Azerbaijan may not be used against Armenia or “Armenian communities”–a reference to Karabakh. The revised version of the law is expected to be forwarded for President George W. Bush’s signature by Christmas.

Rumsfeld brought a set of proposals for the consideration of Azerbaijan on military and security cooperation. Azerbaijan has thus far provided overflight rights and, according to unofficial reports, also landing rights for U.S. planes en route from Europe to Central Asia and Afghanistan. The idea, aired intermittently in Baku for the last two years, to create a U.S. air base in Azerbaijan has gained fresh currency since September 11. During Rumsfeld’s visit, some Baku sources mentioned possible upgrading of Azerbaijani airfields with U.S. equipment. According to Rumsfeld, all forms of military assistance and security cooperation are to be enshrined in a special bilateral agreement shortly.

In both Baku and Tbilisi, Rumsfeld expressed gratitude on behalf of the United States and its president for those two countries’ support of the U.S. war on terrorism. In their replies, Presidents Aliev and Eduard Shevardnadze used their broadened definition of terrorism, which covers “violent chauvinism” and “armed separatism” including ethnic cleansing. With those remarks, the two presidents indicated once more that they expect political support from the West for a settlement of the Abkhazia and Karabakh conflicts consistent with internationally accepted norms.

Immediately after September 11, Shevardnadze offered overflight and landing rights for U.S. planes, and in October, Defense Minister Davit Tevzadze offered the services of a squad specialized in mountain warfare for possible deployment in Azerbaijan. Rumsfeld handed over in Tbilisi a set of proposals on military cooperation in two contexts: antiterrorism and national security. Alluding to Russia’s recent military pressures on Georgia, a senior official aboard Rumsfeld’s plane told the accompanying press that “we strongly support the territorial integrity and state sovereignty of Georgia. We feel that a closer military-to-military relationship is warranted and is helpful in the context of that problem.” Shevardnadze expressed gratitude for the assistance already provided by the United States to Georgia’s border troops and a nascent rapid-deployment brigade.

In a related context, Shevardnadze recalled that he had endorsed from its outset the Bush initiative on antimissile defense, including the abrogation of the obsolete ABM treaty. Shevardnadze’s position carries weight because of his past involvement as Soviet foreign affairs minister in strategic arms control negotiations with the U.S. “I have publicly expressed my support and positive attitude toward [Bush’s] missile defense initiative six months ago. Although President Putin expressed his dissatisfaction, he went on and later spoke about further improvement in U.S.-Russia relations.”

In Yerevan, Rumsfeld conferred with President Robert Kocharian and Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian on opportunities to initiate U.S.-Armenian military-to-military relations and military assistance programs. These have been almost nonexistent since 1991 because of Yerevan’s traditional reliance on Russia. The U.S. congressionally-mandated sanctions on Azerbaijan (see above) had the indirect effect of precluding U.S.-Armenian military cooperation. The U.S. could not have offered such cooperation to Armenia while having to deny it to Azerbaijan. In all these years, Armenia and its Washington lobby seemed content with a situation that barred U.S. aid to both Azerbaijan and Armenia, while leaving Armenia free to receive massive Russian military assistance and substantial U.S. economic assistance (see the Monitor, September 6, 19-20; Fortnight in Review, September 14).

The impending waiver of Section 907 removes not only the legal bar to aid to Azerbaijan, but also the political bar to military assistance to Armenia. Apparently with that situation in mind, the Armenian Assembly of America (AAA) this year relented on 907, while the more hard line Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) adamantly insisted on retaining 907. When Congress last month authorized an additional US$4.3 million in security assistance to Armenia as a sop for the waiver of 907, ANCA’s close ally in Armenia, the Dashnaksutiun party, recommended rejection of that sum. Kocharian and Sarkisian did not heed such advice, however.

Officials in Rumsfeld’s delegation proposed that Yerevan participate more actively than it has in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program and in the antiterrorist coalition. Armenia also has a chance to receive U.S. security assistance and enter into military-to-military relations with the United States. Prior to September 11, U.S. and NATO proposals for cooperation with the Armenian military did not bear fruit because Yerevan’s zero-sum thinking guaranteed an exclusive Russian orientation. After September 11, Armenia has another chance. (Turan, ANS, Prime-News, Tbilisi Radio, Azg, Noyan-Tapan, Western news agencies, December 14-16; see the Monitor, October 29, November 12; Fortnight in Review, October 16, November 9).