As Azerbaijan claims final victory in Nagorno-Karabakh, arms trade with Israel comes under scrutiny

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On September 19, the day Azerbaijan began its offensive in the majority-Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Marut Vanyan heard an ominous noise in the sky above his hometown.

“I am not a military expert,” recalled journalist Vanyan. “But I heard very, very clearly… him roar above me. “I’m sure it was a drone.”

Vanyan, a lifelong resident of Stepanakert, once the largest city in Nagorno-Karabakh, recognized the sound of 2020, when Azerbaijan fought a 44-day war over the territory and surrounding regions with the help of Turkish weapons and Israelis.

Vanyan took a video of the sky over Stepanakert, gray and cloudy, with the grinding of a propeller clearly visible in the background, and I published it on X.

According to Leonid Nersisyan, a defense analyst and researcher at Armenia’s Applied Policy Research Institute (APRI), an independent think tank, it was the sound of Israel Aerospace Industries’ Harop, a loitering munition known for the piercing noise it makes when descending. . on a target.

Azerbaijani forces used the Harop, often called a “suicide drone,” and other Israeli drones during the 2020 war. CNN has contacted the IAI for comment.

Although their relationship is relatively low-key, Israeli equipment makes up the bulk of Azerbaijan’s weapons imports, according to arms researchers. Azerbaijani officials touted Israel’s weapons as integral to their country’s success in Nagorno-Karabakh during the 2020 war.

Now, as more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians have fled Nagorno-Karabakh in the latest conflict there, ties between Israel and Azerbaijan have come under scrutiny, with an editorial in Israel’s most prominent leftist newspaper, Haaretz, that proclaims that the country’s “fingerprints are on all ethnic borders.” cleanliness” in Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Drones were used constantly” in the 2020 war, as well as in this latest conflict, a former lieutenant colonel in the Artsakh Defense Army, the military force of the breakaway Armenian republic in Karabakh, told CNN on condition of anonymity. (Artsakh is the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh and the self-proclaimed republic that existed there.)

Azerbaijan “used Harop… Hermes-450 kamikaze attack drones and Orbiter-1K, Orbiter-2, Orbiter-3 reconnaissance drones,” the former officer said. All were produced by Israeli arms companies.

Azerbaijan won the 2020 war in just over a month, regaining much of territory internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but populated and governed, until now, almost exclusively by ethnic Armenians, following the expulsion of ethnic Azeris in late the 80s and early 90s. .

The September battle barely lasted 24 hours, leaving all of Karabakh under the control of Azerbaijan after months of blockade. The roughly 120,000 ethnic Armenians in the territory have fled to Armenia or are expected to, fearing full-blown ethnic cleansing or mass atrocities, although Azerbaijan has insisted it would respect their rights there.

Azerbaijan and Israel are close military partners. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), more than 60% of Azerbaijani arms imports came from Israel between 2017 and 2020, accounting for 13% of Israeli exports during the same period. SIPRI’s investigation reveals that Azerbaijan purchased a wide variety of drones, missiles and mortars from Israel between 2010 and 2020.

However, according to SIPRI senior researcher Pieter Wezeman, certain details about the extent of the current arms trade between Azerbaijan and Israel are unknown.

“We had quite a bit of information before 2020 and then it stops,” Wezeman said. “And that doesn’t really make sense because in 2020 Azerbaijan used a significant amount of their equipment… They most likely continued their relationship with Israel, but that’s all we know.”

Trade is believed to be particularly active in the periods immediately before Azerbaijan entered the war. A Haaretz investigative report from March 2023 found that flights by an Azerbaijani airline between Baku and Ovda air base, Israel’s only airport through which explosives can be transported, increased in the months before Azerbaijan attacked separatist positions in Karabakh in September 2020.

Likewise, Haaretz reported in mid-September that the same company flew between Baku and Ovda less than a week before Azerbaijan began its latest assault on Nagorno-Karabakh. CNN contacted Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry and the airline in question but did not receive a response. The Israeli Defense Ministry, which oversees Ovda airport, had no comment.

“We don’t know what was on board, but most likely it was something related to military equipment that Israel has already supplied to Azerbaijan before,” Wezeman said.

Beyond weapons and ammunition

The arms trade between Israel and Azerbaijan reflects their diplomatic relationship, once described in a leaked US diplomatic cable as “like an iceberg, nine-tenths of it… below the surface.” Despite decades of bilateral cooperation, Azerbaijan only opened an embassy in Israel this year.

Azerbaijani soldiers stand guard as they stand guard at the Lachin border station, as cars leave Karabakh towards Armenia, on September 26.

But their ties go beyond weapons and ammunition: OCE figures show Israel bought 65% of its crude oil from Azerbaijan in 2021. The countries are also believed to share intelligence on Iran, Israel’s archenemy, with which Azerbaijan shares a border and has a significant ethnic Azeri population that constitutes the largest minority in the country. Azerbaijan has also reportedly allowed the Israeli spy agency Mossad to use it as a hub to spy on Iran. (The Israeli Defense Ministry declined to comment on the matter.)

According to Efraim Inbar, an expert on relations between Israel and Azerbaijan and president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, ties between the two have strengthened since 2020.

“Oil and weapons sales continue. “Azerbaijan feels increased pressure from Iran, whose international position is improving,” Inbar told CNN in an email. “There is no great sympathy (in Israel) for Armenia, which is seen as an Iranian ally.”

In a recent interview with the Jerusalem Post, Armenia’s ambassador to Israel said that Israeli weapons are being fired at “peaceful civilians” even though Israeli civil society is “very pro-Armenia in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh and the recognition.” of the Armenian genocide. (Israel’s government does not recognize the mass murder of Armenians by Ottoman forces during World War I as genocide, for fear of damaging its relationship with Turkey, the successor state to the Ottoman Empire.)

But there is little political opposition in the country to arms sales to Azerbaijan, Inbar said.

“Arms sales don’t get much publicity,” he added. “However, the contribution of Israeli drones to the Azerbaijani war is well known. Israelis are proud of their weapons. “Arms sales are considered good for Israel.”

However, despite their high visibility in Karabakh, the role of drones should not overshadow that of other Israeli weapons, according to Nersisyan, a defense analyst at APRI Armenia.

“People consider them some kind of super weapon,” he said. “Of course, they are very important, but other types of weapons also have functions.”

These include Israel’s LORA missiles, which Azerbaijan first purchased from Israel in 2017, according to SIPRI.

In October 2020, Azerbaijan repeatedly attacked the area near an electrical substation in Stepanakert using Israeli-made weapons. The former lieutenant colonel of the Artsakh Defense Army told CNN that he personally witnessed one of these attacks. The diameter and depth of the crater show that the Azerbaijani military had used a LORA missile, he said, adding that it hit a residential building.

The question remains how far Israel is willing to go to support Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia. An ongoing border crisis between the two countries has resulted in Azerbaijani incursions into Armenian territory, and Azerbaijani troops currently occupy lands within Armenia’s borders in its southern province of Syunik. Many in Armenia are concerned that an emboldened Azerbaijan will try to invade their country, which Azerbaijan denies. Some fears center on Nakhchivan, a landlocked enclave of Azerbaijan that borders Turkey and Armenia, and Baku’s desire for a transportation corridor linking it to the rest of the country.

“Azerbaijan does not have any military goals or objectives in the sovereign territory of the Republic of Armenia,” Hikmet Ajiyev, Ilham Aliyev’s foreign policy adviser, told Reuters on October 1.

Some members of the international community are calling for action against Azerbaijan following the Armenian exodus from Karabakh. In the United States, where there is a large Armenian diaspora, almost 100 members of Congress has called to impose sanctions on Baku, and European Union lawmakers have also called on the bloc to consider punitive measures.

Wezeman, the SIPRI researcher, said Israel could come under pressure from its Western allies to reconsider arms sales to Azerbaijan.

“It will damage its relations with Azerbaijan, but at the same time, Israel will have to think about its relations with European states, which are more important partners.”

An Israeli Defense Ministry spokesperson said they had no comment when contacted by CNN.

Efraim Inbar said Israel wants to maintain its reputation as a reliable supplier to Azerbaijan.

“In any case,” he added, “Azerbaijan is much more important to Israel than Armenia. “It is realpolitik that drives Israeli foreign policy.”

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