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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Reasserts Empire

The politics of Azerbaijan are fast becoming a headache not just for the Russian oil industrialists, concerned with possible transport routes of Caspian oil to world markets, but also for Russian generals, as they struggle to counter NATO expansion.

This former Soviet republic has every chance of becoming the first where a NATO base may be situated in the near future. Azerbaijan's state counsel for foreign affairs, Vafa Gulizade, said the easiest way to do this would be to relocate the NATO air base at Inzhirlik in Turkey to Azerbaijan's Apsheronsky peninsula. And his government would be just as receptive to a U.S. or Turkish base, Gulizade told journalists last month, indicating that much of Azeri President Heidar Aliyev's January hospital sojourn in Ankara was spent discussing this question with Turkish President Suleiman Demirel.

Azeri diplomats are eager for Baku and Ankara to reach a swift agreement on Azerbaijan's inclusion into Turkey's defense system, stressing that the transit of Caspian energy resources through Turkish territory is now threatened by Russia's military and political interests in the Transcaucasus.

"The Russian elite is trying to restore the former empire and is using the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan as a means of attaining this goal," maintained Gulizade, citing Russia's recent transfer of modern weaponry to Armenia as proof that "Russia is preparing to strike against Azerbaijan using Armenia's hands."

On Jan. 29, these comments were supported in a blunt official statement by the Foreign Ministry of Azerbaijan that stated: "Military cooperation between Russia and Armenia poses a direct threat to Azerbaijan." On the same day, activists from Aliyev's party, New Azerbaijan, picketed the Russian Embassy in Baku demanding an end to Russian military cooperation with Armenia and a halt to deliveries of military supplies to Yerevan.

To back up their claims, members of Aliyev's entourage cite the arrival in December of five Russian MiG-29 fighter planes at the 102nd Russian military base in the Armenian town of Gryumy, and say that during a visit to Armenia in January the commander in chief of the Russian air force, Anatoly Kornukov, made clear Russia's intention to strengthen its contingent in Armenia with a further 10 jet fighters, S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems and radar stations. Consequently Armenia, which had previously had no real modern air power or anti-aircraft capabilities, would now appear to be sheltered by a mighty Russian umbrella, while Azerbaijan has lost its former air supremacy. Even Turkey, with its powerful modern air force, can no longer count on aerial dominance in the region, argues Baku.

Azerbaijan's fears are also compounded by recent statements issued by Yerevan. Summing up Armenia's foreign policy in 1998, Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanyan said that Yerevan's greatest accomplishment had been to raise the level of its relations with Moscow.

Although the visit of Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev to Yerevan last spring opened the way for a strengthening of Russia's military presence in Armenia, the wheels only really started turning this year, suggesting that Russia's "missile fist" is now being purposefully clenched in the direction of the Transcaucasus in order to remind NATO and the United States of its might.

Russia's activation of power in the region comes across as an attempt to compensate for the recent failure of its "missile diplomacy" in the Mediterranean, calculated to "soften NATO's southern border" with the help of Greece and Cyprus. In both the tender of ground-to-air missile systems (in which the Russian S-300 system lost out to the U.S. Patriot systems) and the deployment of S-300 systems on Cyprus, the Greeks finally chose North Atlantic solidarity rather than extensive military-technical cooperation with Russia.

Other factors stimulating Russian activity in the Transcaucasus are the reinforcement by the United States of the Inzhirlik air base with Patriot systems, and the planned formal invitation of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to join NATO during the alliance's 50th anniversary celebrations in Washington this April.

Unable to find understanding of their anti-NATO stance in Eastern Europe, Russian generals and politicians were evidently unable to resist the temptation to restore face at the expense of NATO member Turkey. However, even this variant has its risks. By stepping up military and political-cooperative relations with Yerevan, Moscow prods Baku in the same direction with its relations with Turkey, the United States and NATO.

Furthermore, by accenting relations with Orthodox Christian countries in the Caspian and the West, Moscow also lays itself open to accusations that its policy is taking on a perceptibly anti-Moslem bent, whether intentional or not. In the former Yugoslavia, Moscow proved itself to be a staunch ally of the Serbs in their war against Moslems in Bosnia and Kosovo; then Russia effectively aligned itself with Greece and Cyprus against Turkey, and now strategic cooperation with Armenia is antagonizing Azerbaijan. This line can be largely attributed to a desire to obstruct NATO enlargement, but an inevitable side effect is the potential erosion of Russia's image in Islamic countries, a traditional sphere of Soviet-Russian influence that Russia can ill afford to jeopardize.

Alexander Shumilin is the foreign editor of Expert magazine. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.