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Azerbaijan Brings in the Big Guns

Baku’s skyrocketing weapons spending and saber-rattling rhetoric raise fears of an arms race in the South Caucasus.

by Shahla Sultanova 12 July 2012

BAKU | No country in the world is increasing its military spending at a faster rate than Azerbaijan, and President Ilham Aliev is making sure people know it.


“Military expenditure is our biggest budget item. Over the past few years our military spending has increased more than 20 times,” he boasted in a 25 June address at the national Higher Military School’s graduation ceremony. The current armed forces budget of $3.6 billion, the president noted, “is 50 percent more than Armenia’s total expenditure.”


Azerbaijan's military parades its weapons through Baku on national Armed Forces Day, 26 June 2011. Photo by Gulustan/Wikimedia Commons.


An analysis of Azerbaijani military spending, based on annual presidential statements and figures reported in state media, shows Aliev is being slightly modest. The country’s military allocation is 22.5 times higher than in 2003, when it totaled $160 million.


Last year Azerbaijan boosted military expenditures by 88 percent in real terms, the biggest increase in the world, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). It now spends just over 18 percent of its overall budget on the military, compared with 13.3 percent in 2003.


The recent graduation speech was far from the first time Aliev had publicly touted the country’s military buildup, or the role its purchases of modern combat aircraft, helicopters, and artillery systems could play in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.


Azerbaijan and Armenia remain technically at war over Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory populated primarily by ethnic Armenians that broke away from Baku’s control following fighting in the early 1990s. The territory, along with seven adjacent Azerbaijani districts, has remained under Armenian control since a 1994 cease-fire.


“We want the issue to be solved through diplomacy. However, our military power is strengthening our position,” he said in 2010.


Spending on weapons and combat equipment is a major factor in the increase, according to the Doktrina Center in Baku, a military-research resource for journalists. “Each year Azerbaijan spends $600 million to $800 million from its defense budget on armaments,” said Jasur Sumerinli, the head of the center.


Arming the military “is the main objective of Azerbaijan today,” Defense Ministry spokesman Eldar Sabiroglu said. “Part of our territory has been occupied for 20 years,” he said, referring to Armenia’s control of Karabakh and surrounding regions, in place since a 1994 cease-fire agreement. “In order to [recover] those territories we have to take up arms.”


Baku has seemingly done so in contravention of international agreements. SIPRI databases on weapons transfers in 2006-2010 and 2011, and reports by the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, indicate Azerbaijan is exceeding the limits set for it by the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, which the country ratified in July 1992 and formally entered in May 1997. The treaty sets maximums for Azerbaijan of 220 armored combat vehicles and 285 artillery units; the SIPRI and UN records show it has 356 and 374, respectively. In the last 10 years the country has imported more than 20,000 missiles and missile launchers, 85 combat aircraft, 350 anti-tank missiles, and 171 battle tanks, among other military items.




The buildup, and the government’s rhetoric about it, have begun to fuel concerns in the international community about Azerbaijan’s intentions. In a recent report, the International Crisis Group worried that Aliev was preparing for military intervention in Karabakh, a move that would have much wider regional implications, given past Russian and Iranian support for Armenia and Azerbaijan’s close relationship with Turkey.


“Not only is Azerbaijan buying increasingly sophisticated weapons, it also is developing its own domestic production capacity,” said Sabine Freizer, Istanbul-based director of the International Crisis Group’s Europe program. “This buildup is dangerous because it is accompanied by clear statements by the Azerbaijani leadership that Azerbaijan can retake its occupied territories by force.”


Similar concerns were raised in a book-length analysis of the post-Soviet South Caucasus published by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a German think tank, and SIPRI has noted rising military spending in Armenia, calling it a direct reaction to the buildup in Azerbaijan.


Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center in Yerevan, said Azerbaijan’s defense spending is creating an undeclared “arms race” in the Caucasus.


“The real concern is the procurement of offensive weapons, as well as the threats of war coming from Azerbaijan,” Giragosian said. “Even more than the pace of defense spending, which [is inflated by] Azerbaijan’s entrenched system of state corruption, the delivery of weapons is a significant trigger to the broader trend of militarization.”


Those fears have been exacerbated by rising tensions along the two countries’ border, with eight soldiers – three Armenian, five Azerbaijani – killed in skirmishes last month. On 27 June the U.S. State Department backed off a plan to allow sales of surveillance and law-enforcement equipment to Azerbaijan after a member of Congress raised concerns the materiel could be used in border fighting.


Such setbacks notwithstanding, Azerbaijan is tapping a broader arms market than in the 2000s, when it relied mostly on Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus for military supplies. Since 2009 it has made deals to buy armored personnel carries from South Africa; combat and other vehicles and rocket launchers from Turkey; and aerial drones, several types of missiles, missile-defense systems, and other gear from Israel, with which Baku signed a $1.6-billion arms deal this year.


Azerbaijan is also beefing up the domestic military-industrial complex, establishing a Ministry of Defense Industry in 2006. The country now has 20 factories or industrial groups that make 665 products with military applications.


While Russia remains Azerbaijan’s chief military trading partner, Sumerinli of Doktrina said the new deals could help Baku become less dependent on Moscow and help it “build its army based on NATO standards.”


But Ruslan Aliev of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies said there are risks to shopping around. Israel in particular might be an ill-fitting partner for Baku because arms purchases from Western countries or their close allies can come with strings attached – for example, requiring that the equipment not be used against Armenia.


“The United States has a tendency to dictate terms to other countries,” Aliev said. “Russia's position regarding the supply of arms has always been that Russia puts no political pressure on its customers. It is Russia’s flexibility in arm deals and the effectiveness of its military products that make it one of the leaders in the global arms market.”


In December 2008, Azerbaijani media widely reported, and the Defense Ministry concurred, that Russia had transferred about $800 million worth of heavy arms to Armenia. Moscow and Yerevan denied the transaction.




Wherever Baku gets its weapons, Ruslan Aliev and other experts question whether the spending spree is doing much good for Azerbaijan’s actual military capabilities, or indicates a genuine intent to return to a war footing with Armenia.


Better-trained troops and effective tactical planning must come first in building a powerful army, Aliev said. “Take Saudi Arabia – a leader in procuring new systems, but the real efficiency of its army, I think, is very low. In addition, as shown by the example of Georgia, the spirit of soldiers and commanders is very important.”


Giragosian, the Armenian analyst, agreed, noting that Baku has yet to embark on any real defense reform or a serious effort to root out corruption. “This makes the spending largely ineffective, with little in return in terms of improving combat readiness or enhancing military capability. It is not the level of spending that really counts,” he said, “but how the money is used that matters most for military efficacy and readiness.”


Their view is supported by Military Balance 2012, an assessment of the military capabilities and defense economies of 171 countries produced by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.


Baku’s fast-growing outlay has “apparently not yet been felt significantly in terms of operational capability,” according to the study. Azerbaijan’s largely conscripted military varies widely from unit to unit in terms of readiness and “cannot organically support external deployment.”


Sumerinli echoed the institute’s dim view of the troops’ capabilities. And he and Uzeyir Jafarov, a Doktrina colleague and a lieutenant colonel in the Azerbaijani reserves, said they saw little indication that the government is seriously beating the drum for battle.


“Even if the president and other officials make statements about starting the war, there is no war promotion going on in society or in the media,” Jafarov said. “The spirit of liberation [of Nagorno-Karabakh] is discussed only on National Army Day [26 June] or in defense-related events. That’s all.”


“It is impossible to wage a war simply because the state has the weapons. Society must also be ready for it,” Sumerinli said. “If there were a war plan, the state would at least prepare its infrastructure according to wartime needs, but it isn’t doing that.”


Rather than external conflict, Sumerinli said, Baku’s motive for the buildup could be internal politics. Along with buying weapons, he noted, the government spends heavily to pay, house, and train some 300,000 troops, who along with their families can be counted on to support the ruling New Azerbaijan Party.


Not only is the buildup unlikely to create an effective army, Sumerinli said, but it could also be bad for the economy and democracy itself.


“The more money is allocated for defense, the stronger the armed forces of the Defense Ministry and other state agencies,” he said. “It seems like the government is establishing the armed forces to keep itself in power. In case of protests, those weapons can be used against the Azerbaijani people.”

Shahla Sultanova is a freelance journalist in Baku.

Editor's note: This version corrects an emendation to a quote by Aliev. He said Azerbaijan's military spending was 50 percent more than Armenia's total government spending, not just its military spending.

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