The first-ever "Caspian Cup" naval skills competition has ended with Russia, unsurprisingly, the winner. But it was Azerbaijan's performance that garnered the most headlines, for all the wrong reasons.
In the final tally, Russia won with 65 points, Kazakhstan came in second with 48, and Azerbaijan brought up the rear with 33 points. The other two Caspian naval states, Iran and Turkmenistan, chose not to compete.
Reporting on the event was spotty, and it's not entirely clear what happened. But from what can be gleaned from the reporting out there, at the first stage of the contest Azerbaijan's entry, Patrol Cutter G-122, had some kind of problem. "Not everything worked out for the Azerbaijani team, their equipment and weapons let them down," said Dmitry Gorbatenko, the chief judge of the competition, on August 6. "They will change the ship and on August 7 Azerbaijan will be able to perform and show off their mastery in this contest."
The same day, though, Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry responded, saying that "Russian websites" were spreading information "that does not fully reflect the reality of the situation."
"The press service of the Ministry of Defense officially reports that minor problems were quickly solved on the scene by our sailors," the ministry said in a statement. "At the current time the warships taking part in the competition are successfully continuing to compete in the crew skills and equipment capabilities [competitions]. Contrary to the published information, our soldiers have successfully carried out all tasks which have been assigned up to now, have destroyed all sea and air targets, achieving an excellent result."
That may be debatable: on the website of Kazakhstan's ministry of defense it was reported that in one stage of the contest, Kazakhstan hit four targets, Russia three, and Azerbaijan zero. (Unfortunately that seemed to be the only stage that had complete results posted, likely because Kazakhstan won it.)
Now a former senior Azerbaijani naval official has called the result "shameful" and blamed it partly on the current leadership but partly on a former commander of the navy now facing charges for embezzlement.
"That our country's navy would participate in the Caspian Cup 2015 was known a year ago. For all that time it would have been possible to carry out enough exercises, including in test firing at air and undersea targets, so as to put our best foot forward at an international competition. Judging from everything, the current leadership of the navy displayed negligence on this issue," said Captain Second Rank Emil Azizov in an interview with the Azerbaijani website haqqin.az. "To avoid such a failure it would have been necessary to hold regular training at the naval base, on simulators and at testing grounds. Alas, it appears that nothing of the sort was done."
Azizov added the roots of the problem lay in the former leadership, under whom training was neglected and exercises were aimed at producing good video rather than actually training skills. And he noted that Azerbaijan's neighbors around the Caspian, even those that faced huge challenges in the 1990s in setting up a navy like Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, now have navies far more capable than Azerbaijan's.
Baku does, however, seem to be taking the navy more seriously in recent years, including inaugurating a brand new naval base in June that it called "the largest and most modern military object in the Caspian basin."