Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan have gone on a weapons spending spree over the past decade, collectively increasing their defense spending five-fold, according to a report recently released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Armenia increased its annual defense spending from $93 million in 1999 to $217 million in 2008, using constant 2005 dollars, SIPRI reported. Azerbaijan's military budget rose from $133 million in 1999 to $697 million in 2008, and Georgia's went from $39.8 million to $651 million over the same period.
Regional tensions were the primary cause of the buildup, said the report's author, Paul Holtom, director of the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme.
"In the decade preceding the August 2008 Georgia-Russia conflict in South Ossetia, military expenditure in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia increased by more than 500 percent in real terms," Holtom wrote.
"Military reform and modernization have been offered as justifications for increased military spending and arms procurement in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia, but unresolved border disputes, territorial claims and separatism remain among the main national security threats facing these countries," the report continued.
While SIPRI tried to collect similar data on the countries of Central Asia, only Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan offered enough information to do so. Kazakhstan's defense spending increased from $206 million in 1999 to $855 million in 2008, and Kyrgyzstan's went from $44.8 million to $79.3 million over the same period (again using constant 2005 dollars).
Over the last two years, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have all made significant defense procurements from foreign suppliers, according to SIPRI data, while Armenia and the rest of the post-Soviet Central Asian states did not.
Azerbaijan got 70 armored personnel carriers (of the BTR-80A variety) from Russia in 2009, and arranged with South Africa's Paramount Groups to start producing Matador and Marauder mine-protected vehicles in Azerbaijan. Those vehicles will likely be assembled in Azerbaijan, and could mark the first movement toward Baku's stated goal of creating a domestic defense industry that can produce export-worthy military hardware, Holtom said in an interview with EurasiaNet.
Azerbaijan's focus on new ground vehicles and recent purchases of unmanned drone aircraft from Israel, combined with Baku's increasingly bellicose rhetoric towards Armenia leaves little doubt that Azerbaijan is preparing for the possibility of a renewed conflict over its lost territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, Holtom said.
"With the rhetoric that's been coming out in recent months, it's clear to what end this buildup is for, it's Nagorno-Karabakh," Holtom said. While Azerbaijan may have a decisive material advantage now, the key factor in any potential conflict with Armenia would be the posture of the Russian forces in Armenia, he added. "The Russian reaction is going to be the key thing, with the security pact that Russia and Armenia have, whether Azerbaijan feels if it can go for it," he said.
Georgia has made similar purchases to Azerbaijan, including several land-vehicle buys in 2009, including 70 Ejder armored personnel carriers from Turkey and 32 tanks from Ukraine, 20 T-72s and 12 T-84s. Russia's arms purchases suggest that it was not happy with the way the war with Georgia turned out, Holtom said, including looking to buy drones from Israel and Mistral amphibious attack ships from France. "It was perhaps a tougher fight than they expected," Holtom said.
Kazakhstan obtained 79 armored personnel carriers (BTR-80As) from Russia in 2009, as well as three ANSAT light utility helicopters and 12 Mi-8 and Mi-17 attack helicopters, all of which were bought in 2007. In addition, Kazakhstan last year signed agreements with Russia for 10 S-330 surface-to-air missile air defense systems and Su-27, MiG-27 and MiG-23UB combat planes. From Israel, Kazakhstan completed its acquisitions of weapons from Israel bought in 2006 and 2007, including 18 Lynx rocket systems, six Semser 122mm self-propelled guns, and 18 CARDOM 120mm mortars for use on armored personnel carriers.
Last year, Turkmenistan bought six Smerch multiple rocket launch systems, 10 T-90 tanks and two Tarantul fast-attack boats for its nascent navy. The Caspian military buildup will likely continue, with Kazakhstan considering naval purchases as well, though Astana appears to be looking to non-Russian sources, Holtom said.
"With Turkmenistan it looks like they're turning to Russia for the naval dimension, but Kazakhstan could go to South Korea, the United Kingdom, Spain and the United States," he said.
Kazakhstan is unique among the Central Asian states for having implemented sound reforms of the military it inherited from the Soviet Union, said Erica Marat, author of a recent book on Central Asian militaries, The Military and the State in Central Asia. Still, Kazakhstan is likely to continue to heavily favor Russian military equipment since, as a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, it gets discount rates, Marat added.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.