Russia’s On-Again, Off-Again Arms Deals With Azerbaijan

On June 18, news emerged that Russia had recently delivered a massive shipment of weapons, totaling about $1 billion, to Azerbaijan. The weapons deals had been previously reported piecemeal, but seeing them all together – apparently first reported via an Azerbaijani web forum user who posted photos of them being unloaded from a ship – sparked controversy in neighboring Armenia. 

As the Soviet Union fell apart, Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over Nagorno Karabakh, a part of Azerbaijan that was populated mostly by Armenians. The war ended with Armenian forces controlling Karabakh, a situation that holds today. But Azerbaijan’s government has made its top priority the recapture of that territory. And it is putting its money where its mouth is: rich with oil and natural gas, Azerbaijan now (as it loves to point out) spends more on its military – now over $3 billion annually – than Armenia does on its entire state budget.

But Armenia has one big advantage: the backing of Russia. Russia has a large military base in Armenia, and gives weapons (or sells them at a discount) to Armenia. In 2010, the two countries signed an agreement extending the lease of the Russian base for another 49 years; Armenia’s foreign minister said that it would “ensure Armenia’s security.” Armenia, meanwhile, has been the most loyal member of Russia’s new political-security bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

It’s not news that Russia also sells weapons to Azerbaijan. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (log-in required), among Azerbaijan’s Russian arms purchases of the last six years are 70 BTR-80A infantry fighting vehicles, 24 Mi-24VM helicopters, surface-to-air and anti-tank missiles and – most notoriously – S-300 air defense systems.

But this week’s news nevertheless seemed to shake Armenia. To all of the previous arms sales to Azerbaijan, the most recent shipment, according to Reuters, added “nearly 100 T-90C tanks, Smerch and TOS-1A multiple rocket launchers and Msta-A and Vena artillery cannons.” As one Armenian commentator put it, “Armenia should put forth the issue of withdrawal from the CSTO. What is the meaning of being a member of this organization if it assumes the responsibility to defend Armenia’s interests in case of aggression against Karabakh but sells weapons to Armenia’s enemy?”

The recent twists and turns of Russia’s policy in the region have been many, and difficult to follow. In April, news quietly emerged that Russia had cut off a pending sale of military jets to Azerbaijan. It wasn’t clear why, but it seemed that it could be connected specifically to the breakdown in negotiations over a Soviet-era radar station that Russia had operated in Azerbaijan, or more generally to Azerbaijan’s refusal to go along with Russia’s various post-Soviet integration projects like the Customs Union. It also had seemed recently that Azerbaijan, traditionally very careful not to antagonize any power, had been somewhat more hostile to Russia and closer to Moscow’s enemy, Georgia.

And the most complete explanation we’ve gotten of the recent arms shipment clarifies little. Again, from Reuters: “A source at the Russian Defence Ministry said the order had been on hold for some time to avoid upsetting the military balance in the South Caucasus, where Russia has a military base in Armenia and an agreement to defend the country if it comes under attack. But the deal had been pushed through at the behest of Russia’s powerful arms industry, he said.”

That would seem to suggest that while political concerns may have slowed down the arms deal, commercial concerns ultimately won out. (No news, though, has emerged of the scotched aircraft deal, and whether there has been any movement on that.) Which is an important reminder that while Russia arms Armenia at a discount, it charges full price to Azerbaijan. So Armenia gets cheap weaponry, Azerbaijan (which can afford to pay) gets arms as well, and Russia’s arms industry gets its profit. It’s win-win-win – except, of course, for the people of the Caucasus who will some day likely feel the brunt of all this firepower.

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