Transitions Online, Czech Republic
July 4 2005

An Arms Race Looms?


by Samvel Matirosyan and Alman Mir-Ismail
4 July 2005

Armenia and Azerbaijan differ over Russia's decision to pull out of
bases in Georgia. From EurasiaNet.

Armenia and Azerbaijan are reacting differently to the Russian
withdrawal from bases in Georgia. Politicians and pundits in
Azerbaijan view the move as a potential security threat due in large
part to Moscow's decision to transfer to Armenia a portion of the
military hardware now in Georgia. Armenian experts, meanwhile,
downplay the significance of the transfer, contending that it does
not alter the existing strategic balance.

After years of wrangling, Russian and Georgian officials announced on
30 May that the withdrawal of Russian troops and materiel from the
Caucasus country would be completed by 2008. Russia's pull-out from
its two remaining bases on Georgian territory - in Batumi and
Akhalkalaki - began 1 June with the dispatch of a 15-car train from
Batumi to Armenia, loaded with ammunition, various equipment and
anti-aircraft weapons. Political analysts have spent the weeks since
the announcement of the base-withdrawal deal speculating about its
geopolitical ramifications. In particular, many have wondered whether
the Russian move could influence negotiations to end the
Armenian-Azeri struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Moscow has mounted diplomatic offensive to dispel the notion that its
actions could rearrange the geopolitical order in the Caucasus. `The
withdrawal of part of Russian arms from Georgia to Armenia will not
change the balance of forces in the Transcaucasus,' Russian Foreign
Minister Sergey Lavrov told journalists on 14 June.

Russian defense officials insist that transferred arms and equipment
will be kept in storage at Russia's 102nd base in Gyumri, in northern
Armenia, stressing that the Armenian military will not have access to
the weaponry. `We are going to closely keep the limits set up by the
[amended 1999] treaty on conventional armaments in Europe,' Russian
Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said during a 6 June news conference,
Rosbalt news agency reported. According to Ivanov, most of the
military equipment and cargo now in Georgia will be shipped back to
Russia from Black Sea port city of Batumi.

News of the withdrawal from Georgia initially was applauded in
Azerbaijan, where officials at first interpreted the move as a sign
of declining Russian influence in the Caucasus. But approval quickly
turned into doubt following the announcement that a portion of the
Russian arms and equipment would be moved to Armenia. On 23 May, the
Azeri foreign ministry sent a protest note to Moscow, demanding an
explanation for the transfer. `From the point of view of the law, the
transfer of arms from one base to the other is quite normal. It
concerns Armenia and Russia. However, the South Caucasus requires
demilitarization. Therefore, there is no need to keep in the region
tanks and other heavy military equipment. We do not consider it
necessary,' Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov told journalists.

Speaking at a 25 June military academy graduation ceremony, President
Ilham Aliev indicated that the Russian move could help spur a
regional arms race. He said that Azeri defense spending would
increase to $300 million in 2005, up from last year's level of $175
million. `We had to take appropriate measures,' Aliev said, referring
to the Russian transfer of materiel to Armenia. `We did so
immediately and increased our military spending. Military spending
will continue to increase in the future.'

`Our army should be strong to solve the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict
over [the breakaway region of] Nagorno-Karabakh,' Aliev added.

Moscow's statements concerning the transfer do not appear to have
fully reassured the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Alliance members have expressed carefully worded concern about the
pull-out's impact on the regional balance. `We welcome the withdrawal
of troops. However this step should not affect regional stability in
the South Caucasus,' NATO Assistant Secretary-General for Defense and
Policy Planning John Colton said in Baku on 27 June. The defense
alliance plans to raise the issue with Moscow `in the near future,'
the Regnum news service reported Colton as saying.

Many Azeri observers now believe that, in deciding to shift weaponry
from Georgia to Armenia, Russia's primary intention was to strengthen
Moscow's own geopolitical position in the region, and not to bolster
Yerevan's strategic situation vis-a-vis Baku. A June 1 commentary
published by the independent daily Zerkalo complained that `Russia
demonstrates its unwillingness to significantly reduce its military
presence in the South Caucasus region, including [along] the borders
with Iran and Turkey.' Nasib Nasibli, a political expert at the
Foundation for Azerbaijan Studies, agreed. `This act by Russia is
aimed at preserving their influence in the Caucasus.'

According to the Russian-Georgian withdrawal agreement, at least 40
units of armored equipment, including 20 tanks, are to be removed
from Georgia by 1 September. The Azerbaijan-based Turan news agency
published a report stating that up to 40 Russian tanks could be moved
to Gyumri from Akhalkalaki. The Azeri foreign ministry announced
that, if such a report proves accurate, Baku would consider
implementing `corresponding measures.' Earlier, Azeri officials
stated that they might reconsider the country's $7 million-per-year
lease of the Gabala radar facility to Russia.

Analysts in Yerevan argue that Baku's concerns are misplaced. `[I]f
we look at the Russian military presence in the South Caucasus. .
..the bases in Armenia practically decide nothing, while the radar
station in Gabala, located on the territory of └zerbaijan, appears to
be of great strategic importance,' said Hayk Demoyan, an regional
political expert at the Caucasus Media Institute.

Rather than dwelling on the Russian equipment transfer, Armenia has
tried to concentrate international attention on its expanding ties
with NATO. On 16 June, Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanyan presented
Armenia's Individual Action Partnership Plan (IPAP) to the NATO
Council. The country has since received assurances from US Ambassador
to Armenia Robert Evans that the Russian transfer of arms and
equipment will not preclude further cooperation between Yerevan and
NATO.

The press service of the defense ministry in Yerevan has denied the
existence of any agreement that would give Armenian military forces
access to the arms and equipment at Russia's base in Gyumri. The
defense ministry also insists that no plans or intentions exist
concerning the potential transfer Russian military personnel to
Armenia from Georgia.

Despite such assurances, the debate continues in Baku over what
constitutes an appropriate response. Azeri analysts suggest the most
likely counter-move would be a strengthening of Baku's relationship
with NATO. Some point out that on 6 June, Turkey - an Atlantic
alliance member and Baku's closest ally - announced plans to allocate
$2.1 million to help the Azeri military adopt NATO military
standards.

In recent weeks, President Ilham Aliev's administration has toned
down its angry rhetoric concerning the equipment-transfer issue. Some
observers suggest that Baku has come to the realization that it
cannot stop the transfer. Others say that, with potentially pivotal
parliamentary elections scheduled for November, Aliev is reluctant to
risk a full-blown dispute with Russia. Bilateral ties have been
strengthening since 2000, and Aliev clearly wants to keep them
cordial. `We are very satisfied with the standard of our
relationship, one of strategic partnership that meets the interests
of both Russia and Azerbaijan,' Aliev said at an economic conference
in St. Petersburg on 14 June.

Samvel Martirosyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political
analyst. Alman Mir-Ismail is a freelance political analyst from Baku.
This article first appeared on EurasiaNet.