Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 19

Several high-level foreign military dignitaries visited Baku in late January, indicating the start of a new global struggle over Azerbaijan. First came Charles Wald, deputy head of U.S. military forces in Europe, and then Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov followed him to Baku on January 24. Ivanov met with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and Defense Minister Safar Abiyev to discuss a range of military issues (Azertaj News Agency, January 24).

While both President Aliyev and Ivanov noted the current warm relations between the two countries in the political, economic, social, and military fields, it was clear that Ivanov had come to Baku with new goals in mind. The independent daily Gun (January 25) speculated that Ivanov brought a package of proposals with him, including Russian military hardware sales to Azerbaijan, possibly stationing Russian peacekeeping troops in the Karabakh conflict zone, continuing to lease the Gabala radar station, establishing a Caspian Sea rapid-deployment force, and training Azeri military officers in Russia.

Azerbaijan and Russia signed a 10-year agreement on leasing the Gabala radar station to Moscow in 2000. When the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom recently doubled the price of gas exports to Azerbaijan, some politicians in Baku called for a similar jump in rent on the Gabala facility. Ivanov visited the Gabala radar station on January 26, stated that Russia would continue to use this critical military facility, and declared, “One cannot talk about changing the rent price for the Gabala radar station. It should operate continuously” (525-ci Qazet, January 25). While Ivanov was in Baku, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology took the opportunity to repeat previous assessments suggesting that the Gabala facility endangers the environment and the population.

However, the Azerbaijani authorities were most interested in Ivanov’s other topics. Foremost, the recent optimism over a possible peaceful agreement on the Karabakh conflict would require the deployment of multinational peacekeeping forces along the cease-fire line to ensure the safety and security of the local population. “The conflict should be resolved by diplomatic means,” Ivanov told journalists. “After that, the stationing of peacekeeping forces is a possibility” (525-ci Qazet, January 25). Azerbaijani analysts believe that Russia’s active mediation in the last several months is motivated by the Kremlin’s long-standing desire to station some military troops on the territory of Azerbaijan.

At the same time, Azerbaijan’s growing oil revenues make it a lucrative market for Russian weapons manufacturers. Lately Azerbaijani Defense Ministry officials have been attending military exhibitions in Arab countries, suggesting some interest in purchasing foreign military hardware. Until now, Azerbaijan has primarily bought military hardware from Ukraine on a barter basis. Azerbaijan might consider purchasing military equipment from Russia, but not at full market price. Similarly, although Baku and Moscow signed an agreement on training Azeri military personnel in Russia several years ago, official Baku prefers to use NATO and Turkey for these purposes.

Agil Abbas, a member of the parliamentary committee on defense and security, and retired Colonel Ilham Ismail believe that Azerbaijan should indeed purchase weapons from Russia, as “Russian technology is more advanced than Ukrainian,” Ismail noted.

Yet, the most interesting and geopolitically important of Ivanov’s proposals is the Caspian rapid-deployment force: Casfor. Seeing the growing U.S. role in the Caspian basin and the Pentagon’s recent allocation of more than $200 million for Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan within the Caspian Guard program prompted Russia to seek alternative measures to maintain military dominance on the Caspian Sea. The creation of a Russian-led Casfor, although officially aimed at combating terrorism, drug trafficking, and weapons smuggling, would in reality increase the Russian navy’s control over the navies of the other littoral states. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are said to oppose this idea, yet Ivanov’s lobbying might change the situation. Besides, Russian President Vladimir Putin is also expected to pay a visit to Baku in early February to launch the “Year of Russia in Azerbaijan,” and there is no doubt that intensive lobbying of these issues would be continued at the presidential level.

Meanwhile, increasing world attention to the situation in Iran, Azerbaijan’s neighbor, and the growing EU and U.S. pressure on Tehran raise the issue of a possible military intervention against Iran, be it a full-scale attack or other forms of military operation. Local analysts believe that Wald’s visit to Baku specifically related to these issues, as well as the ongoing construction of two U.S. radar stations in Azerbaijan, the possible future stationing of air base in Azerbaijani territory, a NATO-Azerbaijani partnership, and other matters.

Until now, Baku has done a good job at balancing the interests of world powers in the region and cooperating with all sides equally. Yet, the growing stakes in the region push Azerbaijan into a corner and would require some tough decisions to make in the near future to satisfy the increasing hunger of the Russian and American military machines.