Created in July 1992 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Azerbaijan Navy (Azərbaycan Hərbi Dəniz Qüvvələri) is considered the second strongest in the Caspian Sea after the Russian fleet. Nevertheless, the geopolitical situation in the Caucasus and the arms race that is taking place in the lake, once peacefully divided between Moscow and Tehran, forces Azerbaijan to further improve its naval capabilities in an attempt to defend Baku’s position in one of the most geo-strategically important regions of the planet.
Last month, Azerbaijan’s State Border Service (SBS) reported on the successful completion of week-long tactical exercises in the Azerbaijani sector of the Caspian Sea. The exercises, called “Protection of Oil and Gas Fields, Platforms, and Export Pipelines,” involved around 1,200 servicemen, 21 ships, 20 speedboats, as well as 8 helicopters. High-ranking military officials, including SBS head, General-Lieutenant Elchin Gulyev, and Minister of Defence Safar Abiyev, launched and attended the events.
The exercises were conducted in three stages and nine tactical tasks were implemented. The first stage involved neutralizing a conventional terrorist group, which was eliminated with the help of the Igla anti-aircraft missile system. This suggests that the terrorists were using a helicopter or other aircraft. The second stage involved helicopters and ships which monitored the designated area, eventually locating and destroying an enemy submarine. The last stage envisioned stopping ships that did not respond to inquiries, sending marines aboard the ships, and then searching for and locating explosives, drugs and components of weapons of mass destruction.
Besides the above-mentioned arms and equipment, the exercise used anti-aircraft rocket launchers, heavy machine guns and various missile systems, suggesting that Baku is actually worried about possible threats posed by conventional actors, rather than terrorists. Recently, Russia built a new stealth equipped artillery ship, the Makhachkala, while Kazakhstan successfully launched its first domestically built warship, the “Kazakhstan” missile boat. Nevertheless, the main potential threat to Azerbaijan’s comes from the South, being constituted by Iran.
Privileged partner of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan through its observer status at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Islamic Republic is also a close ally of Armenia, with whom Azerbaijan faces a long-standing conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. In 2000, an Iranian naval ship refused to allow an Azerbaijani exploration vessel to begin working on oil fields in the southern Caspian, claiming that Baku was violating Iranian territorial waters. A lack of serious arms and equipment, and an unwillingness to escalate the conflict, did not allow Azerbaijan to continue exploration of the “disputed” oilfield.
Today, things look different, and Azerbaijan has become more assertive in defending its regional interests thanks to military assistance coming from Turkey, the US and Israel. Founded from the remains of the Soviet Union’s Red Banner Caspian Flotilla elements based in Baku, the Azerbaijan Navy currently numbers roughly 2,500 personnel and 39 warships, including 1 Petya class frigate, 7 patrol boats consisting out of 2 OSA-II-Class and 5 Stenka Class patrol boats, 7 minesweepers consisting out of 2 Sonya Class and 5 Yevgenya Class minesweepers, 6 landing craft, 2 landing cutters, 1 special purposes warship, 1 special purposes cutter, and other patrol boats and cutters acquired from Turkey and the US.
Washington has played a large role in building up Azerbaijan’s navy, donating some patrol boats and training Azerbaijani naval special forces with the aim of increasing the country’s ability to conduct surveillance in its part of the Caspian. For its side, Jerusalem recently provided Baku with Gabriel-5 anti-ship missiles as a part of an Azerbaijani-Israeli arms deal worth $1.5 billion. As a result, the Azerbaijan Navy is today a formidable force that can not and should not be ignored by the other Caspian states, notably Iran.
In case of war between the West and Tehran, Azerbaijan may in fact be a thorn in Iran’s northern flank, providing coalition forces with military and logistic support. Nevertheless, the geopolitical ties between Russia, Iran and Armenia would likely be enough to deter Baku from getting involved in the conflict. Otherwise, not even the powerful Azerbaijan Navy may be enough to avoid Baku the same fate of Saakashvili’s Georgia in what, ultimately, is still a Russian lake.