Azerbaijan Pressing U.S. on Military Aid
Azerbaijan has been trying assiduously to get additional U.S. military aid, and U.S. diplomats have considered the idea of providing weapons in exchange for cooperation on the Turkey-Armenia peace process, according to some recently released U.S. diplomatic cables.
The Russian magazine Russian Reporter has published three cables dealing with Azerbaijan, all from 2009, in an article they call "The Azerbaijanian Machiavelli." (To see the cables in English, scroll down to the bottom.)
In one cable, the U.S.'s then-ambassador to Baku Anne Derse describes how Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev asked for various concessions, including weapons sales, that would assuage Baku's concerns over the Ankara-Yerevan talks:
Aliyev asked Ambassador Derse to explore whether any of the following are possible (reftel a): -- Progress on walking back Section 907, -- Defensive military sales, particularly air defense, and -- High-level actions to show commitment to solving NK. Either delivering on one of these items or showing a willingness to have serious dialogue on these requests could be enough to "buy" Azerbaijani silence on Turkey-Armenia.
Some relatively simple possibilities for rejuvenating our bilateral ties in the near term include:
-- A statement from the Administration that supports previous Administrations' positions that 907 unsuitably restricts the President's authority to carry out the foreign relations of the United States, and that the Administration opposes any new conditionality on the President's waiver authority.
-- The appointment of a new U.S. Minsk Group negotiator who is of a more senior rank or who already has the confidence of the government in Baku. Baku might also view positively the assignment of a Minsk Group envoy who had this responsibility as a full-time vocation, as was the case prior to the Bush Administration.
-- A senior-level dialogue about the sale of defensive radar equipment or a similar clearly defensive air defense system. The DoD Defense Threat Reduction Agency has already provided Azerbaijan a coastal radar system to detect WMD proliferation across the Caspian. Azerbaijan is looking for systems that could provide early warning of attack from its neighbors.
-- A robust training and equipment program for Azerbaijani troops headed to Afghanistan. The government is seriously considering a battalion-sized contribution to Operation Enduring Freedom, but are hoping for a serious, sustained commitment to train the units that are being deployed with American forces in Afghanistan.
A subsequent cable showed that Aliyev was not interested merely in training the troops going to Afghanistan, but wanted some of them to remain in Azerbaijan, which was slowing down the negotiations. And so far, as far as I know, there is no such training program. Similarly, I don't think there has been any radar sales, or movement on Section 907 (a law that attempts to restrict U.S. aid to Azerbaijan), or a dedicated Minsk Group envoy, for that matter.
In another cable, Derse speculates on the brouhaha over a reported arms transfer from Russia to Armenia. She wondered what was behind all of the publicity the news was getting, and thought it could be to get more U.S. military aid, or to clear the way for weapons buys that would violate the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe.
The reason the GOAJ is aggressively pushing this story in the media is unclear. While over time it may be used as a pretext for a CFE-busting arms purchase, to justify a hardening of its position in N-K negotiations, or shown to be for domestic political purposes as the referendum on eliminating presidential term limits on March 18 approaches, none of these reasons are particularly compelling. Azerbaijan is already pursuing across-the-board upgrades in its military capability (although the President,s rhetoric has vastly outpaced the results), its position on N-K is already basically absolute and the government is handily suppressing opposition to the referendum. 10. (S) It is likely that the GOAJ will later use this story as a lever on the United States to argue for increased military support and to accuse the West of ignoring Azerbaijan's legitimate security problems. However, it would be strange if that were the only reason for a fairly elaborate disinformation ploy.
One more interesting tidbit: Derse believes, along with the International Crisis Group, that Azerbaijan's huge military spending has still not translated into an advantage on the ground:
Furthermore, Azerbaijan, even with its focus on improving its military capability, is unlikely anytime soon to structure a force large or well-equipped enough to overcome the terrain advantages enjoyed by the NK Self-Defense Force and the Armenian army.
But perhaps some American weapons would help...
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.