Putin Renews Russia’s South Caucasus Offensive


2013-08-26 by Richard Weitz

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Baku is but the latest sign of Moscow’s sustained effort to secure greater influence in the vital South Caucasus region.

Putin traveled to Azerbaijan for a “working visit” on August 13 that marked his first trip the country in 2006. He and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev discussed issues of mutual interest as well as areas for further cooperation, according to the Kremlin’s website.

Following the formal discussions, the two presidents toured the Russian missile ship Dagestan in the harbor of Azerbaijan’s capital Baku. The Russian Navy Caspian Flotilla was on a friendly tour to Azerbaijan that coincided with Putin’s visit. The Azerbaijani Navy will make a reciprocal visit to the Russian city Astrakhan later this year.

Both leaders praised the meetings’ results.

Aliyev declared that “our relations are developing very dynamically, successfully and in a positive direction,” and was hopeful that “the positive dynamics that characterize our relationship will continue after your visit.”  Putin commented that future areas of cooperation between the two nations “will be wide-ranging, interesting and very useful.” Aliyev agreed, stating that “our collaboration is multi-faceted, diversified, and covers virtually all areas: the economy, culture and education, transport, and regional security issues,” and that Azerbaijan and Russia “share similar positions on all of the above.”

Russia recently confirmed a large arms deal with Azerbaijan, whose military has many Russian/Soviet weapons systems.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (right) meets with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Baku on August 13. Credit: RIA Novosti

According to the Russian media, Azerbaijan and Russia signed contracts in 2011 and 2012 that has resulted in Azerbaijan’s now receiving as much as $1 billion worth of military equipment. These systems includes 94 T-90S tanks, 18 Msta-S howitzers, 18 Smerch rocket launchers, 18 Vena floating mortars, six TOS-1A Solntsepek multiple launch rocket systems, and some 100 BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles.

After his August 13 meeting with Putin, Azerbaijani President Aliyev told reporters that his government intended to continue its extensive defense industry cooperation with Russia, whose value he estimated at $4 billion. 

The two countries’ paramilitary emergencies ministries also signed a cooperation agreement for the 2013-2015 period, with Russia’s agreeing to train Azerbaijan’s emergency personnel.

Nevertheless, the two countries recently declined to renew Russia’s lease of Azerbaijan’s early radar station at Gabala.

Meanwhile, Russian military intervention on Armenia’s behalf represents a major constraint on Azerbaijan’s potential military options regarding Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia is a member of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), whereas Azerbaijan has not joined any formal military alliance. Russia recently withdrew from Gabala, but the Russian military has reinforced its main Armenian base in Gyumri, which is under a decades-long lease, and continues to sell Armenia weapons at discounted CSTO prices.

Putin told the media that he and Aliyev spent much time discussing Azerbaijan’s dispute with Armenia over the Armenians’ occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and other Azerbaijani territories.

Putin emphasized that Russia is “actively facilitating the conflict’s accelerated settlement, which is only possible through political means.” Nagorno-Karabakh comprises a semi-autonomous region within the internationally recognized boundaries of Azerbaijan, but has attempted to secede and align with neighboring Armenia.

In his response, Aliyev insisted that any solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict should be based on “historical justice, on international law and international resolutions.” Many Azerbaijani experts believe that Moscow is manipulating the conflict to gain leverage with Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict does require a proper understanding of the applicable legal framework, specifically the most relevant principles and norms such as territorial integrity, self-determination, state sovereignty, and non-intervention and non-aggression.

Many internationally adapted documents apply to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, including the UN Charter and UN resolutions, declarations by the Council of Europe, the Helsinki Final Act, OSCE decisions, and other documents of international institutions. These texts provide a framework for developing practical measures that respect international law in their recommendations.

In terms of the pre-independence period of Nagorno-Karabakh, Soviet law excluded the possibility of secession by an autonomous region; any change in the territorial affiliation of an autonomous region belonging to a Soviet republic required the mutual agreement of all relevant entities.

The Helsinki Final Act (1975), which still serves as the foundation for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the most comprehensive security institution in Europe, emphasizes the importance for European security of the principles of territorial integrity, non-intervention, and the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

The Minsk Group has been leading the OSCE’s recent search for a political solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. 

Its permanent members include Belarus, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland and Turkey as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan and, on a rotating basis, the OSCE Troika. It is co-chaired by France, the Russian Federation and the United States. Its so-called Madrid Principles, set forth in 2007 and revised in 2010, require a phased end to the occupation:

Armenian forces withdraw from the Agdam, Fizuli, Djebrail, Zangelan, and Gubadli districts of Azerbaijan that border on Nagorno-Karabakh, and from 13 villages in the occupied Lachin district that lies between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia.

Communications are restored and a donors’ conference convened to raise funds for postconflict rehabilitation. “Peacekeeping observers” are deployed to ensure the security of Azerbaijani displaced persons returning to their abandoned homes.

The second stage entails the withdrawal of the remaining occupying Armenian forces from Lachin and Kelbajar, followed by the return to Nagorno-Karabakh of the former Azerbaijani population.

A decision is then taken on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh within the Azerbaijan Republic, respecting Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.

UN Security Council Resolutions 822 (1993), 853 (1993), 874 (1993), 884 (1993) declared that the continuation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict endangers peace and security; indicated alarm at the invasions of the Kelbadjar (Res. 822), Agdam (Res. 853), Zengelan (Res. 884) districts the city of Goradiz (Res. 884) in Azerbaijan; expressed grave concern at the displacement of a large number of Azerbaijani civilians; and requested that international actors help the refugees and displaced persons “return to their homes in security and dignity.”

Other resolutions by the UN General Assembly (such as A/RES/48/114 (1993) and A/RES/62/243 (2008) ) also underline the right of displaced people to return to their homes, call for immediate ending of the occupation of Azerbaijan’s territory, and stress the importance of restoring Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.

A/RES/62/243 (2008) “reaffirms that no State shall recognize as lawful the situation resulting from the occupation of the territories of the Republic of Azerbaijan, nor render aid or assistance in maintaining this situation.” The key Parliamentary Assembly Resolution 1416 (2005) of the Council of Europe recognizes the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, calls for withdrawal of Azerbaijan’s occupied territories, and urges all states to refrain from assisting the occupation forces, including the irregular forces of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Many national governments, including that of the United States, have called for a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute in accordance with these declarations. They also reject claims that the unilateral and forced separations of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Kosovo create a universal legal precedent applicable to Nagorno-Karabakh or other separatist regions.

Europe and the United States need a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement as a means to prevent any collateral damage to Western energy and security interests in Eurasia that would ensue from another war in the South Caucasus.

Their decades-long failure to end the conflict has embarrassed their prestige and placed at risk important regional interests. Not only does Azerbaijan export oil and natural gas from its own production, but also it serves as a vital land corridor for Caspian and Central Asian energy deliveries to Europeans. These deliveries reduce Europeans dependence on Russian and Iranian energy sources and helps negate Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz.

Western energy firms have a major presence in Azerbaijan’s energy sector thanks to the government’s preferential treatment policy.

Besides threats to these energy assets, a renewed war in Nagorno-Karabakh would divert Azerbaijan from offering support to Western security interests.

During the past decade, Azerbaijan offered Western countries unconditional support in Afghanistan, Iraq, and against international terrorism and extremism. The country’s moderate ethnic and religious policies serve as a model for Muslims everywhere.