Since June, there has been a dramatic increase in media coverage on the situation around the Karabakh conflict. This has been caused primarily by information about the beginning of fulfillment of high-scale military agreements between Russia and Azerbaijan that have been under negotiation since 2011. The fact that Russia supplies modern military equipment to Azerbaijan, a military adversary of Armenia and a strategic ally of Russia, is a phenomenon that is related to political morale in a rather specific way. It is understandable that the deals have caused an angry response within Armenian society and among political elites.
However, in reality, that phenomenon is highly traditional for Russian military policy in the South Caucasus. Moscow has been acting this way in the Armenia-Azerbaijan-Russia political triangle for more than two decades. Before, Armenia had a similar though less vocal reaction when Moscow sold Baku a modern anti-aircraft missile system (S-300PMU-2 “Favorit”) and attack helicopter (Mi-35M in 2011-2012). It is hard to say why the recent developments have caused such a severe reaction in Armenia. Either Armenians imagine that the military supplies are extremely impressive or they are increasingly irritated by the frequentness of such steps from Russia. Or perhaps their pride is hurt.
Russia continues selling arms and military equipment to Azerbaijan at market prices simultaneously balancing the military status quo in the Karabakh conflict zone by supplying cheap (or free) arms to the Armenian army. There is nothing very new in this.
The arms that Russia supplies to Armenia may not be the most modern and may not match those that Azerbaijan buys on the market. However, Armenian arms can be modernized up to the same level as those that Azerbaijan buys. For example, the decent T-90S tanks that Russia sells to Azerbaijan are just modernized versions of the T-72 tank that Russia supplies to Armenia.
And then there is the matter of quantity. Let us say that Russia sells about 200 T-90 tanks to Azerbaijan – reportedly Russia and Azerbaijan have a contract for 94 T-90s tanks and another bid for the same amount. This probably means that Russia will then supply Armenia with 300 T-72 tanks. These older tanks will then be modernized and customized for the Armenian and Karabakh armies. The same applies to other military supplies. This creates a situation where Azerbaijan, in fact, finances the re-equipment of the Armenian army.
Armenian leaders have publically expressed their concern about the Russian-Azerbaijan arms deals, but they are probably privately pleased because it affords them the opportunity to re-equip and modernize tanks and artillery units.
Azerbaijan’s pricey equipment was displayed by the authorities with pleasure during a parade on June 23, 2013 (the eve of presidential elections). Part of Azerbaijan society is happy watching and hearing how their leadership has assured them it will start an operation to liberate Karabakh, as has been announced for two decades. Surely, Azerbaijan does not want to acknowledge the meaninglessness of its Sisyphean struggle in the never-ending Azerbaijan-Armenia arms race, which is initiated on Azerbaijan’s own oil revenue.
Some Russian officials have implied that their country’s corrupt military–industrial complex lobbies for contracts with Azerbaijan despite the contrary position of their own army generals. Certainly, Russia is pleased to receive billions of dollars from a neighborhood customer.
Armenia’s Western partners are happy too because the moves intensify anti-Russian sentiments among Armenian society and political powers. Even happier will be those organizations and political powers in Armenia that develop and conduct anti-Russian policies because they will gain better ground for their arguments.
It is obvious that Moscow absolutely has no wish to get involved in any military activities in or around Karabakh. However, it also clear that it has some political obligations, bilateral as well as through the CSTO, the non-fulfillment of which would have its own negative political consequences. Accordingly, Moscow will continue to do the same thing that it has been doing for two decades – try to keep a military balance between Azerbaijan and Armenia so as to prevent a resumption of military activities. In so doing, the Kremlin seeks to prevent a situation whereby Russian weapons are used against the Russia army itself, which would be the case if Russia were to engage in a war against Azerbaijan on the side of Armenia, Russia’s only military-political ally in the region with obligations in the security sphere.