The four day war in Nagorno-Karabakh which cost the Armenian side 97 people has made the Armenians more sensitive than ever to the fact Russia is Azerbaijan’s main arms supplier.
During the oil boom years of 2010-14 Azerbaijan spent some $4 billion on Russian-made weapons which represented 85% of all arms imports during that period.
Since the fighting ended Armenian president and PM have both complained about this to Moscow. Welcoming his Russian counterpart to Yerevan Armenia’s PM Hovik Abrahamyan noted:
Russia is our strategic partner, and our people take it with pain that Russia sells weapons to aggressor Azerbaijan.
In addition, a demonstration in front of Russia’s embassy in Yerevan attended by hundreds denounced the arms transfers. Footage from the event has one of the organizers casting stones at the Russian embassy building and participants marching behind a placard “Russian occupation out of Armenia”.
Russia’s PM Dmitry Medvedev and his deputy in charge of defense industry Dmitry Rogozin both defended the arms sales to Baku and said they would continue. Medvedev explained:
If we imagine for a minute that Russia has given up this role (of arms seller), we well understand that this place will not stay vacant.
They will buy weapons in other countries, and the degree of their deadliness won’t change in any way.
But at the same time, this could … destroy the existing balance of forces (in the region).
Medvedev is right. Armenian reaction is as understandable as it is misplaced.
The recent bout of fighting was ended when a Russia-mediated ceasefire was signed in Moscow. This was possible only because Moscow maintains good relations with Azerbaijan as well as Armenia.
A prompt end to the fighting benefited the Armenian side the most. In the war of 1992-94 Armenians won a devastating victory against an unstable Azerbaijan and therefore today hold the vast majority of the former autonomous Nagorno-Karabakh region, as well as wide swathes of Azerbaijan proper.
That is to say that Armenians have already attained everything they could have possibly wanted and have nothing to gain by renewed fighting, but can only lose.
Actually the the Armenian Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh holds so much ground that Azeri refugees from the territory under its control outnumber Armenians who remain there.
This means that Azerbaijan has every incentive to try to overturn the status quo. Now, its military may not be sophisticated enough to take the mountainous terrain from the entrenched Armenian forces in a swift campaign but Baku would be well positioned to win any extended war of attrition. Azerbaijan is a country of 10 million where Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh combined have a population of just over 3 million. Additionally thanks to its oil and gas Azerbaijan is wealthier and better armed.
One reason such a war has not taken place is that the father and son Aliyev understood such a war that could ruin Azerbaijan’s economy and lead to unrest. The other is the acute understanding in Baku that Russia which is the major regional power would oppose it and would seek to thwart the side it deemed responsible for it.
In summary Russia wants peace in souther Caucusus, its clout over Baku helps it guarantee that peace, and because they’re the ones holding the disputed territories this is all to the ultimate advantage of Armenians.
The reason Russia and Azerbaijan have a decent relationship is because despite pursuing ties to Turkey and the west Azerbaijan has gone out of its way to show it has no interest in being Russia’s enemy which Moscow has recognized, appreciated and reciprocated.
Moscow turning down arms sales would therefore be extemely difficult to justify.
Unlike Armenia which relies on credit from Russia Baku shops using hard cash. This means the arms transfers are primarily a commercial rather than a political transaction. For Moscow to prevent its arms manufacturers from doing business with Azerbaijan would be tantamount to imposing limited commercial sanctions.
This would obviously worsen relations and diminish Russia’s clout over Baku. Meaning the next time hostilities broke out Moscow may be powerless to promptly end them leaving Armenians to fight longer and suffer greater casualties.
Medvedev is right to point out Russia ceasing to do business with Baku would hardly mean Azerbaijan would find itself fighting with stones and sticks. Since Baku has hard cash it can shop anywhere.
Turned away by Russia, it could easily turn to US, Britain, France, Turkey, Ukraine, Israel or China instead. The difference is that these powers are nowhere near as desperate to maintain peace on Russia’s southern flank and couldn’t be counted on to use their leverage with Baku to the ultimate advantage of Armenians.
Now it is understandable that Armenians should feel hard done by the fact Russian arms factories are profiting from Armenian-Azeri tensions. However, it is not really the fault of the Russian arms factories that Armenians and Azeris have been unable so far to settle their differences.
Moreover, the cries of some of the Armenian protesters that Russia is a “fake ally” are rather silly. Firstly Russia is an ally of Armenia in the sense that the two have a mutual defense treaty. Should a neighboring state attack the Republic of Armenia Russia will come to its aid.
This in practice means that Moscow will not allow Turkey to become directly involved in an Armenian-Azeri war, which is actually a huge service on the part of Russia and one that no other power would be willing to render.
However, Russia has never obliged itself to fight the Armenians’ battles in Nagorno-Karabakh. It has no relationship to the breakaway ethnic Armenian republic whose independence even Yerevan itself has not recognized.