In the shadow of the great powers' struggle for influence in the Caucasus, Israel's relationship with Azerbaijan has grown stronger. Every year, arms exports to Azerbaijan increase, and so does the oil import to Israel. Now, critical voices are rising against Israel's ambitions in the region.
Av Rasmus Canbäck 24 augusti, 2023
During Azerbaijani military parades, it’s not surprising to see Azerbaijani and Turkish flags. However, the presence of the Israeli flag is more noteworthy. Israel’s role in the Caucasus often goes unnoticed as world powers vie for influence in this geopolitically significant region.
For Russia, the routes through the Caucasus, Iran, and the Middle East are important for trade and influence. Turkey considers the border with Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan and Central Asia as part of its great power ambitions. For the EU, the Caucasus is important for trade, stability, and countering Russian interests.
Iran, like Russia, values this region as a crucial northern trade route. In recent years, China has also invested heavily in significant infrastructure as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. This coincides with the United States aiming to strengthen its role to contain Russia and Turkey.
Among these major powers, Israel stands out due to its trade with Azerbaijan. 65% of Israel’s oil imports come from Azerbaijan, transported through pipelines from Baku to Georgia and southern Turkey.
Between 2016 and 2020, leading up to the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, Azerbaijan purchased 69% of its weapons from Israel, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). For Israel, this export accounted for 17% of its total arms exports in 2021.
In September 2020, after 25 years of UN-backed peace negotiations, Azerbaijan terminated them and attacked Nagorno-Karabakh. After six weeks, Armenians lost the war, yielding control over two-thirds of the territories they had held since the 1990s. Since then, 2,000 Russian peacekeeping troops are stationed to monitor the ceasefire.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev called the 2020 war a “lifelong goal to win”.
Since December 2022, Azerbaijan has blocked the humanitarian corridor established between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia after the 2020 war. Today, up to 120,000 Armenians remain there without gas, medicines, water, and food. The international community, including the International Court of Justice in The Hague, has unilaterally condemned Azerbaijan for the blockade, which continues nonetheless.
During the 2020 war, the Armenian government recalled its ambassador from Israel in protest against arms sales to Azerbaijan. This is despite the strong cultural presence of the Armenian minority in Israel and the historically clear relations, especially in the Armenian quarters of Jerusalem’s Old City.
While Israel has maintained an embassy in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, it wasn’t until 2023 that Azerbaijan opened one in Israel. This move comes despite protests from many Muslim countries against Azerbaijan’s actions.
After the 2020 war, weapons exports to Azerbaijan have continued. Estimates indicate that around 70% of the country’s weapons come from Israel in 2023. Many of these weapons are highly advanced, and Israeli analysts point out that Israeli weapons played a significant role in giving Azerbaijan a military advantage.
Israeli cluster munitions were used in civilian areas in Nagorno-Karabakh during the war, and the utilization of Israeli drones is considered to have been a substantial factor in the war victory.
The Canadian-Israeli activist and Orthodox rabbi Avidan Freedman, who leads the advocacy organization Yanshoof (translated as “Owl”), which works against arms exports to dictatorships, argues that Israel’s relationship with Azerbaijan is based on realpolitik, rather than morality.
“The case with Azerbaijan is complicated. Israel has a vested interest in maintaining good relations with Azerbaijan. It shares a border with Iran and has economic incentives in the form of oil imports. In other words, these interests in Azerbaijan are weightier and include security concerns”, says Avidan Freedman.
He continues to reason that the relationship is particularly intriguing due to Israel’s direct contribution to the ethnic cleansing carried out by Azerbaijan against Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
“The fact that we haven’t recognized the Armenian genocide, and even collaborate with Azerbaijan, which actively denies it and is accused of ethnically cleansing Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh in Armenian), demonstrates hypocrisy. It is widely known that the Nazis observed the world’s lack of interest in the Armenian genocide of 1915 when they planned the Holocaust against Jews. It should be Israel’s duty to lead in recognising genocide, otherwise how can we say, ‘never again’?”
Since 2006, there has been a special committee (DECA) in the Israeli government overseeing arms exports to other countries. According to Avidan Freedman, however, there is a lack of legislation regulating democratic requirements for the countries they sell weapons to.
“Western democracies have legislation preventing arms manufacturers from selling weapons to military dictatorships. Such legislation is largely absent in Israel. The government’s oversight function DECA is effective, but it only concerns itself with ensuring that Israeli weapons do not end up in the wrong hands based on Israeli interests”, argues Avidan Freedman.
After the 2020 war, the use of the Israeli company NSO Group’s spyware program Pegasus has also been significant in Azerbaijan. A report from several civil society organizations in May indicates that Azerbaijan is the first country in the world to use the software in warfare against another state (Armenia).
The report shows that Azerbaijan used the software from the 2020 war until December 2022, even though it states there is reason to believe it continues. Armenian politicians, their families, journalists, and individuals within the Armenian government are said to have been targeted. This includes two journalists from the Armenian section of Radio Free Europe.
In addition to its use in warfare, up to 1,000 phones belonging to journalists and opposition figures in Azerbaijan are reported to have been surveilled using Pegasus. According to leaked sources, each Pegasus installation costs up to 65 000 $.
Samvel Martirosyan, co-founder of the Armenian cyber defense organization CyberHub, is one of those behind the revelations of Azerbaijan’s use of the spyware program during the war. He tells Blankspot that they are constantly discovering new cases.
“We continuously update the numbers and find new infected phones all the time. Normally, we can even identify how many times a person has been targeted and when it happened,” says Samvel Martirosyan.
The most serious case is against Anna Naghadalyan, who was the spokesperson for the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the 2020 war and was involved in negotiations with Azerbaijan.
“For example, Anna Naghadalyan was targeted no less than 27 times. That’s almost every day during the 44-day-long war. Almost all Armenian key figures received alerts from Apple during this period, including the Prime Minister,” Samvel Martisoryan explains.
According to Samvel Martirosyan, Israel could have stopped the use of the software during the war and up until now, but it has not.
“NSO Group denies that Pegasus is used across state borders. But I also want to add that the Israeli state approves the sale of the software to respective countries. So, one can argue that the Israeli state is responsible for the use of Pegasus against Armenia during the war.”
Top image: Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands. Photo by president.az.