In the last week of March, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Eurasia Policy Mira Ricardel led a delegation to Baku on an unprecedented mission. For the first time since Azerbaijan became independent, and after eight years of pro-Western foreign policy, the country was able to sign a major security assistance agreement with a major Western power–in this case the United States.
Under documents signed by Ricardel with Defense Minister Safar Abiev and First Deputy Chief of the General Staff Eivaz Jafarov, the United States will assist Azerbaijan in: (1) upgrading air space control and air traffic safety at civilian and military airports, in accordance with NATO standards; (2) training officers in the United States; (3) training an Azerbaijani peacekeeping unit; improving the protection of its land borders; and (4) enhancing its naval capabilities, so as to secure its maritime borders and protect its economic zone and territorial waters. Technical details of these programs are to be worked out in the course of this month by the U.S. European Command and Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry.
Ricardel indicated that the maritime security program aims mainly to enable Azerbaijan to protect itself against Iranian intrusions. Last July and August, Iran’s naval fleet and air force staged repeated raids deep inside Azerbaijan’s sector of the Caspian Sea and air space. One consequence was to force British Petroleum to abandon three highly promising Azerbaijani offshore oilfields, which the company was exploring in partnership with Azerbaijan’s State Oil Company. Ricardel was quoted as stating that the United States would help Azerbaijan prevent such Iranian raids in the future.
In her press conference in Baku, Ricardel hinted that she had told President Haidar Aliev that the United States expects him to continue upholding the ceasefire with Armenia, and to consider making trade routes and transport corridors available to Armenia as well. This is a long-standing Armenian desideratum, which the United States supports. For their part, Azerbaijan and Turkey take the position that any opening of overland trade routes or corridors for Armenia must await the return of “occupied territories” to Azerbaijan. The term “occupied territories” is not clearly defined in this context, but it would appear that it covers the six occupied districts in Azerbaijan, rather than Karabakh.
Russian military commentators speculate that parts of the U.S. security assistance program to Azerbaijan may relate to a contingency plan for operations against Iran. Washington is said to consider the possible upgrading and use of Azerbaijan’s Kurdemir and Nasosnaya military airports, which are former Soviet bases now fallen into disrepair. The same commentators speculate further that the U.S. seeks to secure the Caspian Sea’s waters and air space for possible search-and-rescue missions, in the event of air operations against Iran. It has in any case been reported that the United States has used at least one Azerbaijani airfield for refueling stops by U.S. aviation en route from Germany to Central Asia and Afghanistan since October 2001 (Turan, 525 Gazette, Azerbaijani TV, AFP, March 27-29, April 2; Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, Interfax, March 29).
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