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Azerbaijan And Its Road To Perpetual War

April 29, 2016

Azerbaijan postal stamp 2013

Strongmen are endemic among the countries that used to form the US’ greatest rival. Azerbaijan, a Turkic-speaking secular Muslim republic wedged beside the Caspian Sea, is no exception. Its head of state President Ilham Aliyev took over in 2003 when his father passed away. Three sham elections later and he faces no domestic opposition and appears determined to remain the boss for the foreseeable future, which isn’t surprising.

Earlier this month, however, a fresh round of battles erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, that left hundreds dead on both sides. The fighting was on a conventional scale and resulted in the loss of an Mi-24 gunship.

Nagorno-Karabakh is the perpetual thorn on Aliyev’s side and an existential threat to Azerbaijan. The contested region is a mountainous enclave populated by ethnic Armenians who tried to secede in 1992, triggering a long war frozen in tense stalemate for 22 years.

The resulting status quo left Armenia, led today by President Serzh Sargsyan, cut off from its belligerent neighbor and dependent on economic support from Russia. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, retained its own Azeri enclave close to the Turkish border and thrived because of its oil and natural gas reserves exported with help from Western energy firms.

A lot of the resulting wealth cultivated by former President Haydar Aliyev went to his personality cult and transforming the capital Baku into an architectural wonder. But when his son assumed office Azerbaijan began to arms race in earnest and build what’s arguably the best equipped ground force among the post-Soviet states.

Azerbaijan President Aliyev

This is President Ilham Aliyev, absolute ruler of Azerbaijan. He can be reached here.

This is reflected in Azerbaijan’s defense budget tabulated by SIPRI. Beginning in 2006 the percentage of GDP it consumed rose above 3%. That same year Azerbaijan’s domestic arms industry started manufacturing various guns and ammunition. Judging by open source photos and video clips these include the AK-74M, the MP5 submachine gun, the PKM machine gun, the Milkor grenade launcher, the RPG-7, and large caliber sniper rifles.

Within five years its government hailed its weapons production volume growing by 260% from 2006 to 2010.

When it comes to armies the numbers suggest Armenia and Azerbaijan appear evenly matched. It’s just Azerbaijan is in a better position to afford modernizing its arsenal. Aside from a small dip in 2009-2010 due to the global financial crisis Azerbaijan’s defense budget topped $3 billion and neared a staggering 5% of GDP by 2011. This meant Baku maintains its war readiness for the sake of Nagorno-Karabakh and its annual spending has now risen to $4.5 billion. Definitely much higher than Armenia’s own budget.

It’s no surprise Baku went for the best money could buy. In 2010, for example, it launched joint ventures with Turkey for the production of small arms and armored cars like the Otokar Cobra while Israel’s  Elbit Systems was contracted to modernize the army’s T-72’s. The following year additional billions were spent on 100 T-90S’ and BMP-3’s from Russia–a transaction that irked Yerevan. Two dozen Mi-35M gunships were acquired too.

Two batteries of the S-300 air defense complex were also bought at an unspecified date along with surplus tanks, artillery, multi-rocket launchers, and SS-21 Scarab ballistic missiles from Belarus and Ukraine.

Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense Industry (MDI) appears to be the single institution overseeing the national war machine and the scope of its ventures is growing by leaps and bounds. This includes establishing small factories for arms production. Part of the MDI’s mission is organizing a massive arms show held in Baku every two years to lure global defense contractors and prepare for exporting “Made in Azerbaijan” soon.

What receives less scrutiny is Azerbaijan’s growing preference for alternative suppliers to boost its military. The elder Aliyev cultivated ties with the US and his regime benefited from token aid, foreign investment, and sponsoring American intelligence operations aimed at Iran.

But an offshoot of this illicit alliance–one that appears to have soured–is a longstanding flirtation with NATO and Israel’s eventual entry into Azerbaijan. In 2012 the value of this relationship was put at $1.7 billion for artillery and munitions. It’s not known how far back arms sales from Tel Aviv to Baku go but familiar Israeli weapons like the Tavor bullpup rifle, the deadly Spike top attack ATGM, hundreds of mortars and different types of UAVs have reached the Azeri military. When it comes to drones in particular Israeli media revealed the collaboration dates to the 2010-2012 period, the same time frame for Azerbaijan’s great buying spree.

With Israel filling its capability gaps Baku’s money has gone as far as South Africa to improve its motor pool with mine-resistant armored cars from the Paramount Group whose Azeri portfolio dates to 2009. It’s the same truck maker opening for business in Kazakhstan.

Yet Baku’s most dependable ally is Turkey with whom it shares historical and linguistic ties. President Aliyev spent the early 1990s running businesses there and his government are loyal customers for guns, vehicles, and artillery. In 2013, for example, deliveries for three dozen brand new Firtina self-propelled howitzers commenced. It was in 2015, however, when the Turkish-Azeri alliance entered a new phase with joint military exercises.

The enthusiasm for Turkish arms extends to potential orders for the Altay MBT and the T129 attack helicopter. Azerbaijan’s unwavering commitment to beating Armenia was cumulatively intense enough to rank it Europe’s second largest importer of conventional weapons for three years running. The only gap in Baku’s spree is planes; the biggest purchase were a dozen second hand Su-25 ground attack aircraft from Georgia in 2003. It’s an understandable oversight since Armenia doesn’t have a credible air force either.

Today Azerbaijan finds itself inconvenienced by low oil prices depriving the government’s coffers and the prospect of another dispute. The Caspian Sea’s porous boundaries have compelled fresh investments in the fledgling navy to assert claims over gas-rich waters contested by Iran and Turkmenistan.

The Aliyev regime’s obsession with hard power shouldn’t go unnoticed. It keeps a disenchanted citizenry fixated on an external threat and justifies exorbitant spending on weapons. The predictable result is the inevitability of continuous bloodletting.