Russia Vague on Missile Sale to Azerbaijan


MOSCOW (RFE/RL) — Russian defense officials made on Monday conflicting statements about reports that Moscow plans to sell sophisticated air-defense systems to Azerbaijan that could affect the balance of forces in the Nagorno Karabagh conflict.

Citing Russian arms industry sources, Russia’s Vedomosti business daily reported last week that Azerbaijan last year signed a deal with the Rosoboronexport arms exporter to purchase two batteries of S-300 anti-aircraft systems worth $300 million. A Rosoboronexport spokesman denied the report, saying that the state-run company “has no contractual obligations whatsoever on this matter.”

The Interfax news agency quoted on Monday an unnamed “high-ranking source” from the Russian Defense Ministry as calling the report “nonsense.” “Today, the supply of Russian S-300s to Azerbaijan is impossible for primarily political reasons,” he said, pointing to the unresolved Karabagh dispute.

“Given the complicated relations between Yerevan and Baku, the export of S- 300s to Azerbaijan would no doubt destroy the balance of forces in the region. Besides, Armenia is Russia’s ally within the CSTO [Collective Security Treaty Organization] and Yerevan could see such arms contracts between Moscow and Baku as a betrayal,” the official added, according to Interfax.

However, another unnamed ministry source quoted by the Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta claimed the opposite, downplaying the Rosoboronexport denial.

“This deal is only being planned and negotiated, but a decision to that effect has already been made, in principle, by the [Russian] government,” he said.

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A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman commented ambiguously on this claim. “We are not confirming that information for the moment,” he said in an interview. “We know nothing about it. That’s why we don’t refute or confirm it.”

The Azerbaijani government, for its part, has pointedly declined to deny the reported missile deal. “Azerbaijan has been steadily strengthening its armed forces and will continue doing so,” a spokesman for the Defense Ministry in Baku, Teymur Abdullayev, told Interfax on Sunday.

S-300s would put Baku in a better position to protect not only its military but also oil and gas infrastructure, a likely target of Armenian military strikes in the event of another war for Karabagh. Some Armenian analysts say their acquisition could therefore stoke Azerbaijani leaders’ bellicose rhetoric and increase the war’s likelihood.

“This is sending the wrong message to Baku,” Richard Giragosian, director of the Armenian Center for National and International Studies think-tank, said. “It won’t change the military balance of power but it may make Azerbaijan dangerously overconfident and bolster its appetite for war.”

Official Yerevan has so far been silent over the possible S-300 sale. The Armenian Foreign Ministry declined a comment on Monday.

Originally designed in the late 1970s and repeatedly upgraded since then, the S-300 system is widely regarded as one of the world’s most potent anti-aircraft weapons. Its surface-to air missiles have a firing range of up to 200 kilometers, and its radars can simultaneously track up to 100 targets, including both aircraft and cruise missiles.

Russia deployed at least one battery of S- 300s in Armenia in the late 1990s, significantly reinforcing main regional ally’s air defenses. The two countries have since been jointly protecting Armenia’s airspace. Their joint air-defense system was given a “regional” status by the CSTO, the Russian-led military alliance of seven ex-Soviet states, in early 2007. Top Russian military officials said at the time that Moscow has further upgraded Armenia’s anti-aircraft capacity and trained Armenian specialists to operate S-300s. The Armenian military confirmed that, saying the training process began in 2005.

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