Author: Ilgar VELIZADE
An unprecedented military-political activity around the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict since 2016 has been observed in the last two months. The most recent events following the July confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan were the visits of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to Baku and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov to Moscow at the end of August. Mr. Bayramov’s visit was not directly related to the July events and was in fact his first business trip to Moscow in the rank of a foreign minister. Mr. Shoigu's visit to Baku coincided with the Sea Cup military contest held in the Caspian Sea as part of the International Army Games 2020.
The agenda of Shoigu's talks in Baku and Bayramov's in Moscow covered a wide range of issues. But the central topic, as expected, was the situation around the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, including the deliveries of Russian weapons to Armenia in the midst of the confrontation in Tovuz near the Azerbaijani-Armenian border.
In early August, media outlets stated that Russia supplied 510 tons of military cargo to Armenia making nine flights in total. Two of these flights took place on July 17 (!) – in the height of fight along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border near Tovuz. Russian military transport aircraft flew not along a direct path, but through the air spaces of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran - more than 2,000 km in 3.5 hours. Why not through the territory of Georgia, which is a shorter and more convenient route? It would take the pilots only an hour to cover a distance of 500 km. The answer came from Georgia, which did not allow the passage of a Russian aircraft.
According to Moscow, this military cargo from the Russian Federation was originally dispatched to the 102nd Russian military base. Perhaps this is the reason of Tbilisi’s refusal to authorize a dispatch of Russian military cargo through its airspace.
In fact, after the August 2008 war, Georgia banned, including air transit, any shipment from Russia of military cargo for the Russian military base in Armenia. The transit of military cargo from Russia for the Armenian armed forces is allowed, provided that the cargo is checked on the spot by the military attaché of Georgia to Armenia for compliance with international conventions, availability of a certificates, etc.
Indeed, at the end of October 2019, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that the combat potential of the 102nd Russian military base in Armenia would almost double after the transition to new and upgraded models of weapons and military equipment. The commander of the base, Colonel Nikolay Martynyuk, reported this to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who visited the Russian military base in Gyumri in October 2019.
But were these weapons part of the July deliveries, and why were they dispatched in the height of confrontation along the Azerbaijani-Armenian border? It is unlikely that the Russian side did not know that any military supplies sent to Yerevan in the midst of the fighting, which was yet another product of Armenian provocation, could cause concerns in Baku. Moreover, it is rather difficult to hide not only the route, but also the contents of aircraft in modern realities.
Considering that Russia is the co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group and is trying to stay equally distant from the parties to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, it could, using its open trustful relations with Baku, warn the Azerbaijani leadership about the plan.
It was the existing high level of mutual understanding that made the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev call his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to clarify the situation and bring to his attention the “concerns and serious questions” of the Azerbaijani public.
Answers to questions
The events and statements that followed the incident confirmed that Russia does not intend to sacrifice its relations with Azerbaijan, especially for the sake of the undesired Nikol Pashinyan. Moscow makes it clear that even if it has supplied Yerevan with radio-electronic warfare, they are not strong enough to interfere with the intensive communication between Azerbaijan and Russia.
During the talks with his Azerbaijani counterpart Zakir Hasanov in Baku, Sergei Shoigu again tried to clarify the issue of the July supplies to Armenia. “These military deliveries are not intended for the supply of weapons and military equipment, including military property to Armenia. They included construction materials used in large-scale construction works carried out at the 102nd Russian military base in Armenia, as well as for the rotation of military personnel serving in the base,” Mr. Shoigu explained.
He added that Moscow is not interested in escalating tensions in the South Caucasus, and its actions are not against third countries in this region. "All our actions have never been and are not against Azerbaijan, our neighbour and partner," Mr. Shoigu said.
In his response, Mr. Zakir Hasanov told his Russian colleague that the aggressive policy of Armenia is a serious threat to peace, stability and security both in Azerbaijan and in the region. Referring to the recent provocation committed by Armenians in Tovuz, the Colonel General noted that they were aimed at undermining relations between Azerbaijan and the CIS countries. Underlining the role of Moscow in the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Mr. Hasanov noted with satisfaction that Russia, like all international organisations, recognises the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and respects the independence and sovereignty of the country.
Foreign Minister J. Bayramov also emphasized the role of Russia in the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. “Russia is the co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the largest regional power with long-standing ties with the South Caucasus region. Unfortunately, there is no progress in the settlement of the conflict. Armenia continues to occupy 20% of Azerbaijan's internationally recognised territory. Azerbaijani population was expelled from these territories; their houses are occupied by ethnic Armenians from abroad, including the countries of the Middle East, which in turn is a gross violation of international humanitarian law, primarily the Geneva Conventions.
Moscow, like Baku, hopes that there will be no more aggravation of the situation on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. “We hope that what happened in July will not happen again, and we will, together with other interested parties, with the friends of Azerbaijan and Armenia, contribute to this,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said and added that currently, within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group a "sufficiently serious" negotiating base has been developed. According to Mr. Lavrov, after the recent incident "more intensive negotiations, of course, would be necessary." "To ensure the implementation of all these plans, it is necessary to normalize the situation, including no incidents both in Karabakh and adjacent regions, as well as the immediate proximity of the Azerbaijani-Armenian border," Mr. Lavrov said.
The July skirmish and the events that followed the incident clearly showed that Yerevan is trying to involve the Russian side in provocations. By the way, Minister Lavrov confirmed this in his interview with newspaper Trud, where he spoke about the aggravation on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. “There were a number of factors that contributed to the conflict. The main reason, of course, is the unresolved Karabakh problem. Plus the overheated public space in both countries,” Lavrov said. Another trigger was a geographical factor – an attempt of Armenians to restore the old border checkpoint located 15 kilometers from the Azerbaijani export pipelines. This "caused anxiety and ungrounded response, and eventually initiated the confrontation with the most unpredictable consequences."
The above statement of the Russian official means a recognition of Armenia as a culprit of the incident. By the way, there has never been a checkpoint on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. There were temporary checkpoints that operated during the active phase of the war in Karabakh. They were set arbitrarily. Armenia's desire to regain the spot of an old temporary checkpoint is simply absurd!
Anyway, it is hardly worth looking for common sense in the actions of Armenians. It is clear that Yerevan was trying to create tension in the region not only between Azerbaijan and Russia, but also between Russia and Turkey. They had a convenient opportunity to do this.
Union between Azerbaijan and Turkey: Responding to Regional Challenges
In late July - early August, large-scale Azerbaijani-Turkish tactical and flight exercises TurAz Qartalı 2020 were held in Nakhchivan, as well as in a number of other regions of Azerbaijan. The military exercises involved armoured vehicles, artillery installations and mortars, combat and transport helicopters, air defense units and anti-aircraft missile units of the armies of Turkey and Azerbaijan.
By the way, this time the Armenian side did everything possible to present the situation in an anti-Russian spirit. Although Yerevan is well aware that the Azerbaijani-Turkish alliance is directed only against the aggressive policy of Armenia.
“These exercises are important for our military cooperation. They also help a lot strengthen ties between our peoples. This is a tradition. As you know, more than ten joint exercises are held annually in both Azerbaijan and Turkey. This is a common practice. There is no need to look for any extraordinary circumstances. We too see that these exercises raise concerns in some countries. But there are no grounds for this,” President Ilham Aliyev said during his meeting with the Turkish Minister of National Defense, Hulusi Akar, in Baku.
The same mood was present during the visit of Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov and Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov to Turkey a few days earlier.
“On July 12, 2020, Armenia attacked the Tovuz region of Azerbaijan. We repeat what we said that day as the Republic of Turkey today as well. Azerbaijan is not alone, we are with Azerbaijan," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said during his meeting with his Azerbaijani counterpart in Ankara.
Both Ankara and Moscow are well aware that in order to liberate the occupied territories, Baku does not need external support. Azerbaijan has a strong army, which can fulfil its main mission independently. Armenia, however, cannot compete with Azerbaijan alone. Therefore, it is in constant search of situational partners to fight her eternal, as it claims, opponents. The situation is quite dangerous for the region and intensifies permanent tension, threatening to clash the interests of non-regional players as well.