Russia Promotes Instability in the South Caucasus through Armenian Arms Transfers
On July 12, the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Azerbaijan reported a ceasefire violation in an area close to the Tovuz region of Azerbaijan. These attacks marked the most violent outbreak between the two countries since the “April War” – a four-day conflict in April 2016. The 2020 clashes have several implications for the region, regarding both regional and energy security. For regional security, this conflict was unique in that it was a breach of security directly on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, rather than in Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territories that Armenia occupies on the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan, where fighting traditionally takes place. Additionally, the Tovuz region is critical for Azerbaijan’s regional connectivity and Europe’s energy security. This region serves as an important corridor for the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, and the Southern Gas Corridor, all of which pass through the Ganja Gap, a 100-kilometer-wide stretch of land between the occupied territories and the Russian Federation. This region is also of crucial value for the international community – the international rail lines and road networks have enabled the existence of a valuable logistics channel for transporting U.S. equipment into Afghanistan for NATO troops.
On August 12, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev called Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the implications of the conflict, and more notably, the increase in transportation of military cargo from Russia to Armenia after this conflict. The most notable detail of the recent transfer of weapons is the timing. The seven shipments began immediately after the ceasefire was reached. Between July 17-August 4, Russia transported seven flights of weapons to Armenia, carrying 400 tons of equipment. Georgia does not allow for the transportation of weapons in its airspace, so the equipment was routed through three other countries – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran — that do not have the same type of restrictions. The flights utilized IL-76 military cargo planes, originating in Rostov-on-Don in Russia. Serbian companies also sold shipments of mortars and ammunition to Armenia during this time.
The pricing of such equipment should also be taken into consideration. Since 2011, it is estimated that Azerbaijan has purchased up to $4 billion worth of military equipment from Russia. However, because Armenia is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, Yerevan enjoys heavily discounted prices on Russian equipment, whereas Azerbaijan pays the global market rate for the same equipment. The recent purchases are reported to have included advanced devices, including air defense systems; short, medium, and long-range radars; electronic suppression systems; and the S-300 air defense system.
Russia’s ultimate goal in favoring Armenia following the July conflict remains somewhat unclear. On the one hand, its actions violate its supposed neutrality as a co-chair of the Minsk group. But on the other hand, it also did not resort to implementing Article 4 of the CSTO. And so it appears Moscow has sent a strong signal to Baku: if you upset the status quo, you risk losing your energy and transportation links to the Black Sea and onward to Europe.