MOSCOW (RFE/RL) —Risking fresh criticism from Armenia, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu on Wednesday praised Russia’s “strategic” military ties with Azerbaijan and signaled Moscow’s readiness to sell more weapons to Baku.
“Our military cooperation has a strategic character, as do all other types of cooperation between our countries,” Shoygu told his Azerbaijani counterpart Zakir Hasanov during talks in Moscow.
“I think that there is a potential for its further growth and development. We will certainly do everything to ensure that our friendly strategic partnership and ties continue to develop,” he said in remarks cited by the Russian Defense Ministry.
According to a ministry statement, Shoygu also said he would be “happy” to see an Azerbaijani delegation at a massive arms exhibition which the Russian military will hold outside Moscow in September. Russian defense firms will demonstrate “state-of-the-art weapons and military equipment” during the weeklong expo, the statement said.
Hasanov was reported to agree that Azerbaijani-Russian relations are “strategic and friendly.” He also stressed the importance of Russian training of Azerbaijani military personnel. He expressed hope that the number of Azerbaijanis studying at Russian military academies will rise from 72 to 88 next year.
Shoygu’s offer came just two months after an Azerbaijani army offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh that triggered the most serious escalation of the Karabakh conflict since the Armenian-Azerbaijani war of 1991-1994. Armenian leaders have publicly charged that the four-day heavy fighting along the Karabakh “line of contact” was greatly facilitated by recent years’ large-sale Russian arms supplies to Azerbaijan.
The Azerbaijani army has received hundreds of tanks, artillery systems, helicopters and other weaponry worth at least $4 billion in accordance with Russian-Azerbaijani defense contracts signed in 2010-2011. Many Armenians feel that those arms deals ran counter to Russia’s military alliance with Armenia.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev rejected the Armenian criticism after visiting Yerevan in early April. He said that that Russia delivers weapons to both Armenia and Azerbaijan and thereby sustains the “military balance” in the Karabakh conflict.
Russia is the main source of weapons used by the Armenian army, having supplied most of them at discounted prices or even free of charge. Armenia will buy more such weapons soon with a $200 million loan extended by the Russian government last year. Yerevan asked Moscow to speed up the planned arms supplies following the April 2-5 fighting around Karabakh.
Armenia’s First Deputy Defense Minister Davit Tonoyan most probably discussed them with his Russian counterpart Anatoly Antonov when they met in Moscow on Tuesday. The Russian Defense Ministry said they looked into “a number of pressing issues of military and military-technical cooperation between the two countries.” It gave no details.
Despite the continuing Russian military assistance to Yerevan, Moscow’s apparent readiness to cut more arms deals with Baku may prompt fresh criticism from Armenian government officials and pro-government politicians. An Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman declined to immediately comment on Shoygu’s remarks, though.
Shoygu met with Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian immediately after the talks with Hasanov. “We would like to maintain our strategic partnership,” he told Ohanian.
The Russian minister praised defense cooperation with Armenia, singling out military training and education, rather than arms supplies. The Russian Defense Ministry quoted him as saying that Moscow is “ready” enroll more than 200 Armenian officers and cadets in Russian military academies this year.
Ohanian, for his part, said that bilateral military ties are “dynamically developing.” His press office said he also spoke with Shoygu about the “expansion of military-technical cooperation.”
Shoygu held separate talks with his Azerbaijani and Armenian counterparts ahead of a regular meeting in Moscow of the defense ministers of ex-Soviet states.
Shoygu hinted at more Russian arms sales to Armenia’s arch-foe despite problems in the implementation of the most recent Russian-Azerbaijani defense contracts. Dmitry Rogozin, a Russian deputy prime minister overseeing the domestic defense industry, twice visited Baku this spring to discuss them.
Russian newspapers reported early this year that the Azerbaijani side failed to fully pay for the Russian weapons so far because of a sharp fall in oil prices that has hit it hard. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov denied those reports, however, saying that Baku has not paid up in full because some of the Russian weapons do not “correspond to the technical parameters specified in the contracts.”