Nu­clear trou­ble in Azer­bai­jan

Rus­sian mis­siles in Ar­me­nia threaten western en­ergy in­ter­ests

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By Lloyd Green

The Cau­ca­sus Moun­tains that run be­tween the Black and Caspian Seas could soon turn into a nu­clear flash­point be­cause of dan­ger­ous saber-rat­tling by Ar­me­nian Pres­i­dent Serzh Sargsyan.

Ar­me­nia has il­le­gally claimed ter­ri­tory in western Azer­bai­jan, an as­ser­tion backed by mil­i­tary of­fen­sives against Azer­bai­jan, in­clud­ing a mas­sacre of 600 cit­i­zens in 1992. Sadly now, Ar­me­nia may be tak­ing the re­gion to the brink of nu­clear war.

Ar­me­nia re­ceived the Iskan­der mis­sile sys­tem from Rus­sia last au­tumn, a ma­jor provo­ca­tion meant to send a mes­sage to Azer­bai­jan and NATO ally Turkey. This is con­sis­tent with Moscow’s pol­icy of us­ing mis­sile de­ploy­ments in Eura­sia and the Mid­dle East to threaten western in­ter­ests.

The Iskan­der short-range bal­lis­tic mis­sile sys­tem is de­signed to de­stroy small tar­gets at up to 300 miles. This means that Iskan­der mis­siles de­ployed in east­ern

Ar­me­nia could reach tar­gets all over Azer­bai­jan, in­clud­ing the cap­i­tal of Baku.

Alarm­ingly, Iskan­der mis­siles are ca­pa­ble of be­ing fit­ted with nu­clear war­heads.

As if the pres­ence of the mis­siles were not a clear enough men­ace, Mr. Sargsyan vis­ited the im­prop­erly held ter­ri­to­ries and bragged that his gov­ern­ment pos­sessed a “state-of-the-art, pow­er­ful strik­ing force.” He went on to iden­tify po­ten­tial tar­gets in Azer­bai­jan — “the most im­por­tant in­fra­struc­ture” — and fol­lowed up with a chill­ing pro­nounce­ment about his in­ten­tions as head of the Ar­me­nian mil­i­tary. “If needed, the com­man­der in chief of the Ar­me­nian forces will with­out bat­ting an eye­lid or­der vol­ley fire by Iskan­der,” he said.

This new round of war­mon­ger­ing is trou­bling in sev­eral re­spects and raises ten­sions in Baku and through­out the re­gion. In ad­di­tion to un­nerv­ing Ar­me­nia’s neigh­bors, Mr. Sargsyan’s state­ments raised con­cerns in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. The Jamestown Foun­da­tion re­cently held a panel dis­cus­sion on Capi­tol Hill to ad­dress the dan­ger posed by Ar­me­nia’s de­ploy­ment of the Iskan­der mis­siles, writ­ing that the new weapons “threaten Euro­pean sta­bil­ity, put U.S. al­lies at risk and po­ten­tially vi­o­late the 1988 [In­ter­me­di­ate-Range Nu­clear Forces] Treaty.”

Mr. Sargsyan’s in­flam­ma­tory rhetoric de­stroys the myth prop­a­gated by sep­a­ratists that the Ar­me­nian-seized Azer­bai­jani ter­ri­tory is an in­de­pen­dent repub­lic. Rather, the re­gion oc­cu­pied Azer­bai­jan and is now a stag­ing area for mis­siles pointed at the rest of Azer­bai­jan.

It is also clear that Mr. Sargsyan is us­ing the mis­siles as a po­lit­i­cal weapon. Ar­me­nia’s pres­i­dent is seek­ing to stir his na­tion­al­is­tic sup­port­ers against Azer­bai­jan to in­crease voter turnout in elec­tions. He is re­ject­ing bids from more sober lead­ers in Ar­me­nia, in­clud­ing for­mer Pres­i­dent Levon Ter-Pet­rossian, for a plan that would re­duce ten­sions be­tween the two na­tions.

And then there’s the Rus­sia ques­tion. Ar­me­nia is the only na­tion that has re­ceived the Iskan­der sys­tem from Rus­sia. Why Ar­me­nia? Pos­si­bly be­cause “the most im­por­tant in­fra­struc­ture” in Azer­bai­jan that could be tar­geted by the mis­siles in­cludes com­pa­nies owned and op­er­ated by Western en­ti­ties, in­clud­ing Amer­i­can ones, that en­sure Europe’s en­ergy se­cu­rity.

Nat­u­ral gas from Azer­bai­jan flows by pipe­line from the Caspian Sea west through Ge­or­gia and into Turkey and Europe. Should that flow be dis­rupted by mil­i­tary con­flict, Europe would be at the mercy of Rus­sia for its en­ergy needs.

Another pos­si­bil­ity: Rus­sia might be at­tempt­ing to re­build its Soviet-era foot­print in the Lesser Cau­cuses as it has done in Crimea and is at­tempt­ing in East­ern Ukraine. It’s no se­cret that Rus­sia and Ar­me­nia re­cently es­tab­lished a joint air de­fense pact.

If Mr. Sargsyan’s trou­bling boasts about his will­ing­ness to de­ploy his new Iskan­der mis­sile sys­tem were the only such noise com­ing from Ar­me­nia, it would be wor­ri­some enough. But in the past six months, top mem­bers of his ad­min­is­tra­tion have made more than a dozen sim­i­lar state­ments.

Azer­bai­jan has more than twice as many peo­ple as Ar­me­nia yet its Gross Do­mes­tic Prod­uct is nearly seven times greater. While Ar­me­ni­ans have watched their lead­ers di­min­ish their econ­omy, Azer­bai­jan has pros­pered. Much like North Korea, mil­i­tary pos­tur­ing is all Ar­me­nia has left.

This is a dan­ger­ous time for Azer­bai­jan and the en­tire re­gion be­cause of Ar­me­nia’s reck­less pur­suit of of­fen­sive weapons and in­cen­di­ary rhetoric. Azer­bai­ja­nis at home and in the United States have de­pended on Amer­ica as a good friend and strong ally. The world can only hope that that will con­tinue un­der the new Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

ILLUSTRATION BY GREG GROESCH

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