By Harry Tamrazian in Prague and Artur Terian in Moscow
Russia has reportedly promised to help Azerbaijan bolster its air and anti-aircraft forces, signalling a possible shift in the Kremlin’s regional strategy until now based on a close alliance with Armenia.
The resolution of a long-running dispute between Moscow and Baku over a major Soviet-built radar station in Azerbaijan may have important ramifications for the geopolitics of the South Caucasus, analysts told RFE/RL on Thursday. But they differed about how far the two countries are ready to go in establishing military cooperation
A newspaper controlled by the Russian defense ministry reported Tuesday that Moscow will “rearm and modernize” Azerbaijan’s air defense facilities after clinching a 10-year extension for the use of the Gabala radar station. An agreement on its continued lease was signed during the recent Russian-Azerbaijani summit.
The newspaper “Krasnaya Zvezda” said the Russian military will also boost the Azerbaijani air force. It said Presidents Vladimir Putin and Heydar Aliev laid the groundwork for a “strategic partnership” between their nations during their talks in Moscow on January 25.
“It seems to me that Azerbaijan has scored a brilliant diplomatic victory,” said Andranik Migranian, a prominent Armenian-born political scientist based in Moscow. “Russia undertook to modernize Azerbaijan’s air and anti-aircraft forces on the grounds of protecting the Gabala station.”
“This step is potentially directed against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh,” Migranian added, arguing that Baku could use the new defense capacities in the event of renewed fighting around the disputed region.
However, a Russian military analyst, Aleksandr Golts, called into question the credibility of the “Krasnaya Zvezda” report. “I think there was some misunderstanding either on the part of the reporter or those who informed him about the results of the [Aliev-Putin] negotiations,” he said.
According to Golts, Russia may be seeking military cooperation with Azerbaijan but it will never try to undermine the existing balance of forces in the Karabakh conflict.
Leila Butt of the Economist Intelligence Unit agreed, saying: “Armenia is one of the Russia's greatest allies in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and Russia is not going to abandon it.” The military alliance with Yerevan will continue to be the bedrock of Russian policy on the region, Butt added.
Aliev’s visit is thought to have deepened a rapprochement between Azerbaijan and Russia that began one year ago. “It is...the first time in many years that we have been cooperating in the military sphere, and this is a very positive development,” Putin declared as he received the 78-year-old former member of the Soviet Politburo in the Kremlin.
“The Turkish Daily News” reported on Monday that the ongoing thaw in the previously tense Russian-Azerbaijani relations is spreading jitters in Turkish diplomatic circles. The paper said they are worried that the process could diminish Turkey’s geopolitical importance for Azerbaijan.
But one Istanbul-based expert who advises Turkey’s powerful military countered that Ankara has no cause for alarm. “Aliev is a very experienced politician,” Nadir Devlet of Yeaditepe University told RFE/RL. “Sometimes he plays the Russian card, sometimes the Turkish card. But I don’t think he is going to change his strategies towards Turkey and Russia.”
“Relations between Turkey and Russia in the military field are also getting much closer, so in that respect Turkey will not get too annoyed by Aliev's attitude towards Moscow,” he said.