Though military ties between Washington and Baku began in 1997, Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act stopped the implementation of closer ties. Its waiver earlier this year enabled a significant intensification of military relations, and a first consultation between the U.S. Department of Defense and the Azerbaijani military took place in Baku in late March.
The changes in the political situation in the world after September 11 have also touched the countries of the South Caucasus. The “cautious” policy Washington used to follow toward Azerbaijan and Georgia has now assumed a more active nature, and has led to the strengthening of American military cooperation with Tbilisi and Baku.
Military cooperation between the U.S. and Azerbaijan dates back to July 1997, Azerbaijani president Heydar Aliyev’s visit to Washington. A joint statement “On cooperation in military and defense spheres between Azerbaijan and the United States” was signed then. But section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, adopted in 1992 by the U.S. Congress, prevented the full implementation of this document. Even after its adoption, Azerbaijan was denied US aid until 2002.
A new impetus to military-to-military cooperation between Washington and Baku came with the waiver of section 907 in the beginning of 2002, and the Pentagon delegation’s visit to Baku. On March 27-28, first round of Azerbaijan-American consultations on issues of bilateral military cooperation took place. The head of the U.S. delegation, Mira Rickardel, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Eurasia, and Eyvaz Jafarov, deputy chief of the general headquarters of the military forces of Azerbaijan, signed a joint statement. The document reads that the two sides reached an understanding to continue to develop contacts in three spheres:
- Strengthening relations between the military units of the two countries to improve alertness; - Developing the capacities of Azerbaijan's Naval Forces to guarantee the security of sea borders; - Standardization of control systems at airports and in the air space of Azerbaijan.
The sides also reached an agreement on the establishment of a joint committee of representatives of the Defense ministry of Azerbaijan and the US military attaché. The committee will deal with outlining priorities in the sphere of financing international military education and training programs. A regular session of the U.S.-Azerbaijan consultations in the military sphere will take place in Washington in Spring 2003, according to the statement.
“The U.S. is grateful to Azerbaijan for its support in the struggle with international terrorism. We support the national security, territorial integrity and sovereignty of Azerbaijan. The cooperation between military forces of the two countries is aimed to prevent and struggle against terrorism, ensuring peace and stability in the Caucasus, and development of transportation routes for long-term economic cooperation”- declared Mrs. Rickardel at a press-conference after signing the joint statement.
Representatives of the Pentagon declared that it will render assistance to the Azerbaijani military in the amount of $4.4 million. In the press-conference, it was emphasized several times that the United States and Azerbaijan are just beginning military cooperation, and its concrete spheres will be discussed during forthcoming visits of a delegation of the U.S. European headquarters military forces to Azerbaijan.
On March 30, representative of the State Department Philip Reeker announced the repeal of the ban to supply arms to Azerbaijan and Armenia. The ban was removed due to a ‘positive trend in the relations between the two countries’ according to Reeker. The embargo on arms supply to these countries entered into force in 1993, at the peak of the Karabakh conflict.
In his interview to the local Space TV, political expert Rasim Musabekov noted that the U.S. made this decision proceeding from its own interests and needs. “Their main aim is to secure the capital they have invested in Azerbaijan and its energy projects in the Caspian Sea. The U.S. has the intention to create an “Azerbaijan barrier” against Iran’s encroachments in the Caspian Sea. Washington considers Azerbaijan as a communication corridor and additional artery if the situation escalated in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia”.
Azerbaijan’s minister for foreign affairs Vilayat Guliyev, noted that the repeal of the arms sales ban to Azerbaijan and Armenia does not mean that these countries will start to arm themselves. ”It does not mean selling arms to the countries in unlimited amount. Most likely, there will be certain quotas”, he noted.
Vafa Guluzade, former State advisor on foreign policy, commented that he “welcomes” this step. In his opinion, the U.S. will increase its presence in the South Caucasus countries “quickly”, and the repeal of the ban is one of the links in this chain. “Probably, the U.S. will not be engaged directly. The main role is destined for Turkey, an old and reliable strategic ally of Baku. Ankara should become a kind of conductor and mediator between Azerbaijan and the U.S.” Guluzade emphasized.
It is unlikely Russia is happy with the intensification of U.S.-Azerbaijan military cooperation. It is not a secret that Moscow counts on Yerevan as its strategic partner in the region. The presence of a Russian military base in Armenia and of joint military units speaks for itself. But taking into account the existing situation, the Russian authorities are likely to choose rather flexible tactics regarding this issue, and political demarches are unlikely.
In an interview to the TURAN news agency, Russian ambassador to Baku Nikolay Ryabov stated that Russia does not worry about Azerbaijan-American cooperation in the military sphere. “I am not inclined to consider the character of these agreements as an intensification of cooperation. Russia respects the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Azerbaijan and its right to conduct an independent foreign policy. One of the directions of this policy is identifying partners in building its own military forces”, according to Ryabov.Gulnara Ismailova, a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.