<nettime> Caspian Shitstorm

Janos Sugar sj at c3.hu
Sat Sep 8 09:50:21 PDT 2012



Caspian Shitstorm

Wars never happen, when forces, alliances and intentions are known
in advance. In those cases, the weaker party simply yields to the
demands of the stronger. Every war is preceded by misunderstanding.
That is, the different sides live in different perceived realities.
The expectations on both sides are typically completely out of whack.
I will going to try to shed some light on these expectations and if
you think that they are ridiculous, that's precisely what makes them
dangerous. Also, I should state up front that because of that, these
events are quite unlikely and the probability of a large-scale war is
fairly low in normal terms, but uncomfortably high in terms of the
potential damage it can cause.

First statement that you can verify by talking to any Armenian you can
find: the overwhelming majority of Armenians is crazy. Not just the
government, not just the political class, not just the intelligentsia,
not just the population of the country, but near-everybody for whom
their Armenian heritage is part of identity, both inside and outside
of Armenia, including the entire vast Armenian diaspora around the
world. Of course, there is a large absolute number of perfectly sane
Armenians, but they are a tiny minority with zero political clout. The
rest is perfectly capable of enormous sacrifices for their nation,
which they perceive to be existentially threatened. They are, on
average, much crazier than Israelis even.

Azerbaijanis are only slightly less crazy. While they do not feel
existentially threatened, the refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh and
Agdam county as well as the humiliated military establishment thirsts
revenge. Politicians of all stripes have vowed to retake Karabakh in
the very near future.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan spent around 3%-4% of GDP on Military,
with a steep hike in the past two years in both countries.
Azerbaijan's GDP is approx. 6 times that of Armenia, meaning that
their military budget is bigger than the entire government budget of

So, on paper, Azerbaijan would be ready to launch a military offensive
in Nagorno-Karabakh any day, if Armenian armed forces were the only
obstacle to overcome. However, there is potentially a bigger obstacle:
Russia. Obviously, Armenia's government want to secure Russian
protecion, while Azerbaijan's government wants the Russian military to
stay out of the conflict. So far, both have tried to curry favors with
the Kremlin, but things are changing.

Why would Russia intervene on the side of Armenia? Because they want
to keep Nagorno-Karabakh Armenian-occupied, for the same reasons
why Transdnistria, Crimean naval bases, South Ossetia and Abkhazia
exist: to keep these countries (Azerbaijan, Moldova, the Ukraine and
Georgia, respectively) out of NATO. Here's how it works: because of
Article 5, NATO never grants membership to countries with territorial
disputes and non-NATO foreign armed forces on their soil; Russian
military thinking measures Russia's security by the distance potential
adversaries need to cover on their way to Moscow, as exchanging
territory for time has been a time-honored (and mostly successful)
strategy for beating back invaders. For numerous reasons (in which
both parties share the blame) Russian military establishment considers
NATO potential adversaries. Since the eastward expansion of NATO
first into former Warsaw-pact countries and then into former Soviet
republics, only very hard guarantees (preferably: Russian military
bases) are considered reliable (and acceptable). These disputed
territories and military bases are Russia's effective veto on the
respective states' NATO membership. In case of Azerbaijan, Armenian
forces substitute for Russians.

In case of Azerbaijan, keeping it out of NATO is especially important
for the Russian government, as its NATO membership could very
realistically (in their nightmare scenarios) change the strategic
balance around the Caspian Sea and even threaten Russia with
disintegration. Here's why. Right now, the Caspian Sea is the only
sea with no U. S. naval presence. By contrast, Russia maintains by
far the strongest naval force on that lake (and it is legally a lake,
more on this later) and is essentially the arbiter of all disputes
regarding seabed (oil & gas) and surface (fisheries, caviar) among
littoral states. When separatists in Russia (in Chechnia or Dagestan)
used the territory of neighboring countries (Georgia and Azerbaijan)
for logistics and training, Russia's government did not hesitate
to apply pressure with the threat of military force and in case of
Georgia (in 2003) even acted on it carrying out a number of bombing
raids in Pankisi Gorge against Chechen separatists, violating Georgian
airspace and bombing undisputed Georgian territory, after deeming the
efforts of Georgia's government (still headed by Eduard Shevarnadze
at that time) insufficient. Azerbaijan has so far usually ??omplied
with Russian demands. When Georgia's new government (headed by Mikheil
Saakashvili) declared its intention to join NATO and then moved to
reconquer South Ossetia and Abkhazia (in 2008), the Kremlin responded
with a full-scale invasion, the near-total destruction of Georgia's
military infrastructure and the recognition of the two separatist
states, maintaining a powerful military presence in both. Now, such
measures won't work against NATO members. All parties know that.

Why are Russia's rulers so nervous about foreign support of separatism
in the Northern Caucassus? Losing access to large parts of the mineral
and caviar wealth of the Caspian Sea is just one reason. If Dagestan
(which already has a simmering separatist civil war going on) and
Kalmykia (a national republic with a 3/4 ethnic Kalmyk population)
secede, it would become entirely feasible to close the small gap over
the Volga delta between Kalmykia and Kazakhstan called Astrakhan
county which right now on paper has a 2/3 Russian majority, but which
may change very quickly. If Russia ceases to be a littoral state to
the Caspian Sea, it loses its veto in re-classifying it from a lake
to a sea. Once it is a sea, maritime law requires that access to
international waters is granted to all without interference. This
is why Turkey cannot stop any ships, including military ones, to
travel between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. In practice that
would mean that American naval vessels could sail up and down the
Volga waterway (which thus becomes an international one much like
the Bosphorus) between St. Petersburg and Astrakhan and Russia's
government cannot legally do anything about it. In Yaroslavl, they
would be a mere 230km from Moscow and they are allowed to carry cruise
missiles with nuclear warheads. As you can now understand, Russia's
rulers would go to pretty extreme lengths to resist every single step
down that road. Sounds crazy? See the first paragraph.

So how could Azerbaijan's rulers realistically hope to keep Russia
neutral in an armed conflict with Armenia? For instance, by giving
them a military base in Azerbaijan's territory. Namely, they rent them
the Gabala Radar Station (a Soviet-era advanced beyond-horizon early
warning station controlling the airspace over the entire Middle East).
So, they could convincingly claim that they have a proper Russian
military base and there's no need to keep those Armenian occupiers.
The lease runs out on December 24, 2012. A few years ago, it was
considered a given that it will be prologued after a little bit of
haggling over the price and other minor horse-trading.

But things have suddenly changed last year. The rulers of Israel and
the U. S. started preparations for an attack on Iran. For a number
of reasons (more on this later), the Kremlin is against it and thus
wants to make an attack on Iran as costly as possible. Ways to do
that without getting involved in the conflict include providing Iran
with effective air defense weapons and early warning in case of an
attack. The latter even has the benefit of plausible deniability.
The radar station in Gabala is perfectly suited for the purpose. In
a surprise move, Azerbaijan's government raised the annual rent from
$7.5M USD to $300M USD and offered to lease it for only seven years.
This position has not changed for months and is still the official
position of the government of Azerbaijan in the ongoing negotiations.
Time is running out and Russia's military seems to be resigned to the
fact that they will have to vacate Gabala before the end of the year;
already half of the personnel has been removed, families have been
resettled to Russia, etc. Whether or not the new radar station in
Armavir is a suitable replacement is anybody's guess. This development
points to the possibility that Azerbaijan got very strong security
guarantees from the United States government, because it pushes the
Kremlin unambiguously to the Armenian side in the Nagorno-Karabakh
conflict. Given the value of Azerbaijan's support in the event of an
attack on Iran, this does not strike me as entirely impossible. It is
also worth noting that verbal guarantees and even strong military ties
are obviously insufficient: the U. S. military stood idle as Russia's
military invaded Georgia, even though they had direct access through
the Black Sea; ferrying back Georgian troops from Iraq to Tbilisi was
all the help Georgia got from Uncle Sam. Azerbaijan is not accessible
by U. S. Navy, all material aid must arrive through Turkey or Georgia.

Armenia does not share a border with Russia and has no seaports
either. Supplies from Russia (both for Russian troops stationed
in Gyumri, Armenia and for Armenian recipients) must pass through
third countries. Initially, it was done through Georgia, but since
2003 it has become increasingly difficult and by now effectively
impossible. Azerbaijan and Turkey are out of question, which leaves
the only possibility: Iran. Stuff gets shipped from Russian ports on
the Caspian to Iranian ports; from there it is forwarded by land to
Armenia. Thus, Armenia critically depends on Iran and its government
is pretty desperate in keeping that relationship warm, even if it
means breaching the embargo on pretty much anything and fouling up
relationships with the U. S. and their allies. Here's the latest

Fars News Agency :: Iranian, Armenian FMs Discuss Bilateral Ties in Tehran 


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