Arms Race and Rhetoric Rage in Caucasus

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As US battleships are deployed closer to the Persian Gulf to escalate tensions with Iran, the Caucasus region has already become a powder keg because of regional rivalry as well as ancient scores yet unsettled.

The Trump administration is pursuing a dual goal in pressuring Iran, Israel’s archenemy: to offer additional favors to his friend, Benjamin Netanyahu (in addition to the gift of Golan Heights) and second to punish Iran for its strategic partnership with Russia.

Within the context of that global development, the Caucasus is dominated by unrest, political ploys and a real potential for a conflagration.

Turkey is a major player in all these developments, both in the Caucasus as well as the greater region/ It is a partner with Russia and Iran in the Syrian battlefield It is, at the same time, an antagonist of Iran when it comes to the latter’s friendship with Armenia and its tacit war with Azerbaijan.

As the noose is tightened around Russia by the US and Europe, the Kremlin has found temporary relief in its budding friendship with Turkey. Turkey, technically a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member, is undermining US plans to pressure Russia and Iran by buying arms from Russia as well as oil from Iran.

Where does Armenia stand in this ever-changing scenario? Armenia’s major problem is with Azerbaijan and Turkey, both wooed by and placated by the West and Russia, and each motivated by their own selfish interests.

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Negotiations with Azerbaijan have led nowhere, nor will they yield any tangible results in the foreseeable future.

Just as the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) countries were holding their regular meeting in Yerevan, in the presence of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Turkey and Azerbaijan planned war games on Armenia’s borders, under the code name Mustafa Kemal, to remind all the neighboring nations of Turkey’s pan-Turanian ambitions.

Political analysts believed that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev was not in the mood to participate in that provocative action but he was prodded by Ankara to change his mind.

This demonstrates that the temporary lull in the Russian-Turkish rivalry is the result of expediency, a ploy to boost Turkey’s stand against Washington for more concessions and to revive its sluggish economy rather than a result of any real philosophical change. Deep down, Turkey remains a staunch NATO ally subscribing to its philosophy, strategy and military goals.

The reasons behind Turkey’s insistence on buying Russian S-400 defense missiles remain something of a mystery, in view of the fact that the purchase may result in the cancelling of its contract with the US for F-35 war planes, which would make the Turkish air force the strongest among all the countries in the Middle East, including Israel.

With the regime change in Armenia, relations with Russia were strained originally but recent moves by both parties indicate that they at least remain on a workable level.

Moscow’s decision to replace the aging MIG fighters at the Erebuni airbase near Yerevan offered a welcome relief for military planners in Armenia. Russia will be supplying more advanced SU-30mm aircraft which will enhance Armenia’s airpower against Azerbaijan.

According to military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, Russia has been boosting Armenia’s military capability, not necessarily against Azerbaijan, but as part of its global plan of containing NATO and in this case, its vanguard member Turkey, which may switch sides any time. The military expert believes that Russia has no intention of getting into a war with Azerbaijan, where it has so many valuable assets. Moscow presented proof of this reluctance in the 2016 April War when Azerbaijan attacked Armenia without provocation. Felgenhauer added that he believes that with the addition of these new weapons, Armenia can wage a successful war against Azerbaijan, but those weapons must be used with caution, since Azerbaijan is equipped with Zenith missiles to which this model warplane is vulnerable.

Other analysts believe that the Kremlin’s decision to arm Armenia with that grade of military aircraft was not altogether altruistic; in fact, John Bolton’s offer to the latter to buy arms from the US was one of the motivations behind the upgrade.

The verbal agreement reached between Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in Dushanbe has significantly reduced the cases of ceasefire violations along the border, but it has not eliminated them completely.

“Ceasefire violations targeting the borders of Artsakh and Armenia will continue as long as there is no peace agreement to restrain Azerbaijan,” said Maj. General Astvatsatur Petrosyan, the commander of the Eagle Bombers Squad, recently, calling for an active engagement by the neighboring countries.

“Unless there is an agreement signed by five to six nations,” he added, including Turkey, Azerbaijan, Russia, Georgia and Iran, “the situation will be fraught with hazards.”

It is mostly improbable that all those countries might come together for a common cause, and not particularly for Armenia; each has its own agenda and priorities, and Armenia most certainly figures at the bottom of their lists. They have built alliances and have developed economic projects circumventing Armenia. Only a compelling political reason may gather them together.

Armenia’s major trading partner is Russia. From all indications, it is obvious that relations with Russia have been fully restored after a shaky start. Russia frowns at Armenia’s relations with NATO but tolerates them because it is clear they will lead nowhere, whereas in the case of Georgia, tensions continue. The earlier defiance of Russia by Tbilisi cost Georgia some territorial losses but the Georgians are still defiant. Just recently, the country’s new president, Salome Zurabishvili, continuing the previous regime’s foreign policy, has announced that there is no reason for NATO to refrain from building a military base in Georgia. That is exactly the policy to whip the Kremlin into a frenzy. Should there be a flare up between Russia and Georgia, Armenia will suffer a serious economic blow, since most of Armenia’s trade passes through Georgia.

Armenia itself is engaged in an economic revolution after the Velvet Revolution. The US has pledged generous assistance. It remains up to the new government to make good on its promises and benefit fully from US support and develop its own economic infrastructure.

Azerbaijan is restless because the status quo is not in its favor. Nor is the passage of time helping it.

Unless a popular revolution, like the ones that hit Armenia and Georgia, takes care of Aliyev’s authoritarian regime, Azerbaijan will continue its bellicose posture and threats.