Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 10

President Vladimir Putin’s January 9-10 visit to Azerbaijan–the first by a Russian president since Azerbaijan gained its independence–showed him to be not only an empty-handed suitor (see the Monitor, January 11), but also one who combines wooing with threats. During the visit’s final moments and in its wake, the Kremlin challenged Azerbaijan’s core interests on several fronts, as if to remind Baku that Moscow has enough residual strength to impose penalties on a weak Azerbaijan for noncooperation on Moscow’s terms.

–Gunboat Diplomacy. For the first time in post-Soviet history, and most unusually in a closed sea like the Caspian, the Russian Caspian Flotilla staged a show of gunboat diplomacy in front of Baku. That flotilla is Russia’s sole naval force with recent net growth. It has been reinforced with surface combat units transferred from Russia’s Baltic fleet, received additional marine infantry (marines) and is slated to acquire high-speed boats armed with the modernized Mosquito missile.

The flotilla was put on alert on January 8 and sailed out of its main base, Makhachkala (Dagestan) on January 9 under the flag of Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, commander in chief of Russia’s naval forces. The officially announced mission was an exercise in the “northern and central parts of the Caspian Sea,” featuring the use of live ammunition. Kuroyedov pointedly stated that the exercise had “not been planned in advance”–a remark which departed from the usual assurances about the routine nature of military exercises. The date coincided precisely with Putin’s visit in Baku, and the announcement itself implied a demonstration of force in the context of Russia’s opposition to sectoral division of Caspian waters. The formula “central parts” suggested that Russia could at any time send its fleet into waters which other Caspian littoral countries may regard as theirs. Azerbaijan for one has offshore oilfields located in central parts of the sea near the median line.

On January 10, five of the Russian warships made what the Russian communique termed “an unassisted entry” in the port of Baku for a “business visit” until January 11. Kuroyedov went ashore for a courtesy visit with the commander of Azerbaijan’s coastal guard, Said Sultanov. Sultanov asked Kuroyedov to end the potentially risky practice whereby ships of Russia’s Caspian Fleet often sail without a national flag to identify them. But the Azerbaijani side failed to remonstrate about the show of force or, more broadly, about Russia’s abandonment of the earlier stated goal of demilitarization the Caspian Sea. It was to Iran’s Foreign Affairs Ministry to issue a protest against the unnecessary naval exercise “in a sea in which no military threats exist. Such exercises harm mutual confidence among the littoral countries.”

–Trial Balloons on Air Defense. General Anatoly Kornukov, commander in chief of Russia’s air force and air defense, declared in the wake of Putin’s visit that Azerbaijan had agreed to join the CIS joint air defense system. The Defense Ministry in Baku immediately denied any such intention on Azerbaijan’s part, adding that it had declined even to discuss the subject with Moscow.

This exchange closely resembled that occasioned by last year’s CIS joint air defense exercises in Ashuluk, Russia, which were watched by Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister Safar Abiev and representatives of other countries not party to the system. Russian Defense Minister Marshal Igor Sergeev declared shortly afterward that Azerbaijan had agreed to join the CIS air defense system, but was promptly contradicted by Abiev in Baku.

Whether statements like Sergeev’s and, now, Kornukov’s reflect genuine misunderstanding, wishful thinking or deliberate deception is difficult to determine with any certainty More likely, they attempt to test the reaction of the target country and its Western partners. Civilian officials are also using such trial balloons. Last October and November, for example, Moscow repeatedly and misleadingly suggested that Azerbaijan was abandoning its known position on the legal status of the Caspian Sea.

–Baku-Ceyhan. No sooner had Putin left Baku than his plenipotentiary envoy for Caspian issues, Viktor Kalyuzhny, restated the Kremlin’s opposition to the Baku-Ceyhan main oil export pipeline project. Much of Azerbaijan’s hope for economic development and political independence rests on that project. But in a January 15 statement, Kalyuzhny openly urged Kazakhstan and the Russian company Lukoil to withhold their oil from the Baku-Ceyhan project in order–as he put it–to render the project “unrealistic.” Kalyuzhny urged in his statement that all available Kazakh and Azerbaijani oil be routed through Russia in order to fully use the spare capacity of Russia’s pipeline system.

Kalyuzhny was speaking the day after Western companies in Kazakhstan had submitted a feasibility study on routing some volumes of Kazakh oil through the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. Kazakh oil is considered crucial to Baku-Ceyhan’s commercial profitability and investor appeal. Kalyuzhny’s statement appeared designed to pressure not only Baku but Kazakhstan as well into accepting a Russian transit monopoly for their oil (Turan, ANS, January 11-15; IRNA, January 12; Itar-Tass, RIA, January 8-14).