Will Russian arms sales survive the Azeri-Armenian conflict?

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to implement a cease-fire in the heavily armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, south of Russia. But even if he’s successful, Russian arms trade with the two countries will drastically change, analysts say.

Nagorno-Karabakh was once controlled by the Soviet Union and given over to Azeri jurisdiction. But in 1988, ethnic Armenians in the region called for the transfer of the territory to Armenian jurisdiction. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over the area.

Despite a delicate cease-fire agreement, mid-2020 saw a breakdown of diplomatic efforts, leading to more clashes. And on Oct. 15, officials in Nagorno-Karabakh accused Azerbaijan of expanding hostilities beyond the enclave.

The breakaway Karabakh Foreign Affairs Ministry said Azeri forces had hit Armenian territory. The Azeri Defence Ministry confirmed that its military hit Armenian territory close to the border with the intent of deterring an Armenian ballistic missile attack.

Each side has blamed the other for the escalation, which has killed hundreds of people. Dozens of tanks, armored vehicles and artillery systems — mostly made in Russia — have been destroyed during the current fighting, according to media reports citing Azeri and Armenian defense officials. But exact figures are hard to verify due to the “huge amount of outright fakes, inaccurate and distorted information,” defense journalist Pavel Ivanov wrote in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily.

Independent military analyst Alexander Golts told Defense News that if reported figures are accurate, then both sides must be nearly out of operational tanks.

Deadly fighting between Azeri and Armenian forces in a contested border region was seen in footage released by the two sides. New video shows tanks, troops and artillery hit with lethal force as the conflict over the independence of the region rolled on this week.

The conflict has tested the Kremlin’s position in the region. So far, its negotiations efforts, mediated by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, have failed.

“Moscow’s position in the region is under threat since, even after the meeting between [Azeri and Armenian] foreign ministers, the fighting is still ongoing,” Mikhail Khodaryonok, a senior military analyst for Gazeta.ru and a retired colonel, told Defense News.

The meeting between Azeri Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov and his Armenian counterpart, Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, in Moscow Oct. 10 led to cease-fire agreement, but that quickly collapsed. Each side accused the other of breaking the deal.

Now, Moscow might up the pressure on both sides to end the conflict, Khodaryonok said. “Since they are not listening, Moscow will try to make efforts — if not to coerce to peace, then force to truce.”

The figure of speech “coerce to peace” was used in August 2008 by then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to push Georgian forces out of Southern Ossetia. The situation led to a small-scale war between the two nations, which ended with a cease-fire agreement negotiated by French President Nikola Sarkozy that same month.

“We don’t know what kind of measures are to be taken, but the question here is to gain trust for the Kremlin as the top regional player. I think Moscow will not abstain from applying hard measures to put pressure on both sides to stop fire,” Khodaryonok said.

He didn’t provide concrete examples of possible Russian action, but some pro-Kremlin hardliners have said the government should put more pressure on Azerbaijan.

Tanks are shown in the town of Beylagan on Oct. 5, 2020. Azeri military officials claim they were seized during the ongoing fighting with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. (Tofik Babayev/AFP via Getty Images)
Tanks are shown in the town of Beylagan on Oct. 5, 2020. Azeri military officials claim they were seized during the ongoing fighting with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. (Tofik Babayev/AFP via Getty Images)

“Americans have entered Syria under the pretext to fight international terrorists. We are ready to help friendly Azeri people to fight international terrorists,” influential pro-Kremlin television pundit Vladimir Solovyov said on his prime-time show on Russian television Oct. 13.

The Wall Street Journal reported the next day that “hundreds of Syrian mercenaries allied with Turkey” arrived in Nagorno-Karabakh to fight on the Azeri side. But Azeri President Ilham Aliyev has denied that was the case.

Does Turkey hold the key to peace?

Independent military analyst Alexander Golts said Russia could theoretically strike rebels beyond its border, citing a recent article in the state-run news agency Krasnaya Zvezda penned by Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu in which he references Putin’s December 2015 call to action in Syria to defend Russia from terrorist threats at “distant frontiers.”

But according to Golts, such an operation could cause conflict between Russia and Turkey, which is allied with Azerbaijan. Putin expressed his concern to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Oct. 14 about the possible presence of “militants” from the Middle East in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, according to Russian media report citing the government.

Ruslan Pukhov, the director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a think tank in Russia, told Defense News that Turkey’s “active position” in the conflict has been a gamechanger.

“Before, Russia had a leading voice in the question of war and peace in the southern Caucasus [region]. The country didn’t hesitate to use its military force, like in the case with Georgia. But today we don’t have the decisive vote. Turkey’s influence over Aliyev is stronger than Moscow’s influence over him. It’s clear that a key to peace is in Ankara, not in Moscow.”

The situation is difficult for Moscow because it has a relationship with both Azeri President Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. While Armenia and Russia are military allies, with the former hosting a Russian military base, Pashinyan has adopted a multi-vector policy, which allows his country to associate with a variety of nations — even if those nations are not geopolitically aligned.

Aliyev, on the other hand, attended the MGIMO educational institution in Moscow, and he is also the son of the late Soviet-era Azeri leader Heydar Aliyev, who served in the former Russian secret police and intelligence agency KGB.

To maintain peaceful relations with Azerbaijan and Armenia, Russia has sold weapons to both countries, providing a military balance, albeit fragile, between the two.

Cash-strapped Armenia has mostly relied on Russian credit for its military spending. Under Pashinyan’s tenure, the country has purchased four Su-30 fighter jets and a number of modern Tor-M2KM short-range air defense systems.

Despite the difference in their military might, Azerbaijan and Armenia have many of the weapons, including the Russian-made S-300 air defense system.

But the purchasing power of oil-rich Azerbaijan has allowed it to buy more modern weapons from Russia. Aliyev said in 2018 that his country purchased $5 billion worth of Russian arms.

But unlike Azerbaijan, Armenia has the 9K720 Iskander, a mobile short-range ballistic missile system it has threatened to use against F-16 fighter jets operated by Azeri forces. Azerbaijan does not officially own F-16s, but its ally Turkey does.

An S-300 anti-aircraft missile launches during a Greek military exercise. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia own the Russian-made air defense system. (Costas Metaxakis/AFP via Getty Images)
An S-300 anti-aircraft missile launches during a Greek military exercise. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia own the Russian-made air defense system. (Costas Metaxakis/AFP via Getty Images)

Regardless of how much longer the conflict goes on, some analysts agree that Russian arms trade in the region won’t be business as usual. Some estimate that if peace between the two waring countries lasts for two years, Russia could see renewed and consistent business there.

“I don’t think that weaponry suppliers will be again resumed to both countries in the near future,” military analyst Khodaryonok said.

When asked if Armenia could turn to Belarus for weapons systems, Khodaryonok said that country — another Russian ally — doesn’t have much to offer.

For its part, Azerbaijan has other options, as Russia accounts for only 22 percent of its military purchases, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Azerbaijan also buys weapons from Israel and Turkey, for example.

According to Aliyev, his military destroyed $1 billion worth of Armenian weapon systems using Turkish-made drones.

Pukhov, of the CAST think tank, said Azerbaijan will likely buy more Turkish than Russian arms after the conflict ends.

Golts said if the conflict lasts for a long time, both sides will need to acquire parts and ammunition for their mostly Russian-made systems. This wouldn’t allow Moscow to maintain the balance of power like in the past, he added.

“Russia will have choose between sides in this case, and that can lead to a conflict. While its attempts to be a mediator are not successful, the delivery of weapons to one of the sides will cross out any attempts to mediate.”

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