Of strategic missiles and easy money: Russia’s positioning in the South Caucasus
By Vilen Khlgatyan
In recent weeks, important information regarding the military balance of power in the South Caucasus has come to light. On June 3rd it was revealed that Russia has stationed an undisclosed number of Iskander-M ballistic missiles in Armenia. While on June 18th media outlets reported that Russia has begun the delivery of nearly $1 billion worth of weaponry, which include tanks, multiple rocket launchers and artillery cannons, to Azerbaijan.
Although each development was a result of differing political and military considerations, only one of the arms deals is of a strategic nature, and that is the placement of Iskander-M systems in Armenia. Moscow is showing that it is increasing the utilization of its military presence in Armenia for greater strategic purpose and depth, while at the same time further consolidating its overarching sway over the Caucasus region. This is part of Moscow’s geostrategic plan to increase its influence in the Middle East, a region bordering the Caucasus and one that has in recent years become more important to Russia’s global geopolitical calculations. It should be noted that the Iskander ballistic missile system in Armenia is the domestic version produced for the Russian military and not the export version which has a lower payload capacity as well as shorter range. Furthermore, the stationing of the nuclear warhead capable Iskander systems in Armenian territory is another tacit nod to Armenia’s placement under the Russian nuclear umbrella, which was first declared in 1993 when Turkey was reported to have been seriously considering invading Armenia until a Russian threat of intervention on the side of Armenia kept Ankara at bay.
While Russia’s delivery of military hardware to Azerbaijan is unfortunate and should be closely monitored by Armenian national security and military officials, it is not a military game-changer as far as Armenia is concerned. The weapons systems that Azerbaijan has purchased from Russia can all be neutralized by Armenia’s own arsenal of anti-tank, surface to air and precision guided missiles. And unlike Baku, Yerevan does not and will not be asked to pay the full retail price for the arms it purchases from Russia. As a CSTO member, Armenia is also often provided with free weapons and training. As one of Moscow’s top strategic partners, Armenia is not likely to be put in a position where the military balance would be titled toward Azerbaijan. Russian officials realize that the loss of Armenia as an ally would quickly lead to Russia’s loss of influence in the rest of the strategic Caucasus and in a worst case scenario the loss of territory in the North Caucasus. Historically, Russia has controlled the South Caucasus in order to ensure control and stability in the North Caucasus. The Kremlin can not afford to lose the Caucasus, and, geopolitically speaking, Armenia is the focal point of the region. It is noteworthy that a source in the Russian Ministry of Defense said Baku’s military purchases had been ‘on hold for some time to avoid upsetting the military balance in the South Caucasus.’ This statement implies that official Moscow decided to go through with the transaction only after it was assured that the balance of military power would not shift in favor of Baku. This statement is corroborated by Armenian defense ministry spokesman, Artstrun Hovhanisyan, who said that Azerbaijan’s acquisition of arms is not seen as being precarious, because Armenian authorities have known about it since the moment the deals were signed.
Looked at from a level headed position, if Russia had not sold these weapons to Azerbaijan, the latter would have turned to Israel or Western states to meet its purported needs. Moreover, Azerbaijani officials see Russians as pro-Armenian. Therefore, Moscow wants to keep some semblance of normalcy and leverage in its relations with Baku. Seen in this light, it is irrational and counter-productive to engage in Russophobic statements, particularly when there are foreign and domestic forces operating in Armenia which would like to see a rift between Moscow and Yerevan. Furthermore, the arms transfer comes only a few months after Russia vacated the Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan following tense negotiations that did not produce a mutually beneficial result. And only one month after Russia unilaterally terminated oil shipments from Azerbaijan via the Baku-Novorossiysk pipeline. Therefore, the weapons sales to Azerbaijan should be viewed as being purely a commercial deal with no strategic overtones. In other words, it is a business deal first, and a small token to keep Russo-Azerbaijani relations mostly cordial second. One should also keep in mind that in case of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Russian made arms that Azerbaijan will use are going to be easier to counteract than similar armaments produced in the West for example. Given that the Armenian military is well acquainted with Russian and Soviet military arms, whereas the same can not be said of Western made armaments.
Neverthless, one key lesson to be taken away for Armenian officials from the Russia-Azerbaijan arms transfer is to step up lobbying efforts in the Kremlin. While Russian officials have their own incentives for supporting Armenia, the Armenian government can not rely on this fact alone. Official Yerevan, as well as the Armenian diaspora in Russia must be more proactive in communicating its needs, desires, and expectations. The large and affluent Armenian diaspora in Russia can and must play a crucial role in ensuring that Armenia’s well being is at the top of the agenda for Russian policymakers for years to come.
Vilen Khlgatyan is the Vice-Chairman of the Political Developments Research Center (PDRC).