Situation Of Non-Proliferation In South Caucasus Before And After Karabakh War

Orkhan Jalilov Analysis 1 February 2021
Situation Of Non-Proliferation In South Caucasus Before And After Karabakh War

The protracted conflicts in the post-Soviet space have had a clear and profound impact on the South Caucasus region’s security dynamics. First, they maintain high military activities in the region. Second, the overlapping conflict-affected areas have generated a wide zone of instability. Third, the conflicts are a significant obstacle to economic development in respective states.

The risk of nuclear weapons for terrorism poses biological or chemical threats. Extremists, separatists or trans-national criminal organizations could conceivably destroy not thousands, but millions of people if small nuclear or radiological dispersal weapons and expertise could be acquired. Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and international terrorism are some of the most serious threats of modern times.

The use of biological and chemical weapons is banned according to the Geneva Protocol of 1925 and the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) of 1972. The BWC prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, transfer and acquisition of biological weapons. However, the prospect of terrorist actions using chemical or biological weapons against civilian population or military personnel has raised anxiety and counter-terrorism concerns globally. 

Over recent years, Azerbaijan and Armenia have increased the procurement of weapons. With Russia maintaining the lion’s share of Azerbaijan’s weapons supplies, Baku has also diversified options, procuring weapons also from Israel, Belarus, Ukraine, Turkey, the Czech Republic, Pakistan, South Africa and so on.

In 2015–19 there were again armed clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Both countries are building up their military capability through imports, including missiles capable of attacking targets inside each other’s territory. Russia accounted for almost all of Armenia’s arms imports over the past five years. A total of 60 per cent of Azerbaijan’s arms imports came from Israel and 31 per cent from Russia. 

The restoration of territorial integrity and extension of the authority of central government over Nagorno-Karabakh will allow Azerbaijan to take full responsibility in the sphere of non-proliferation and prohibition of illegal transit of WMD.

The latest outbreak of war in the Karabakh region started on September 27 after the Armenian forces deployed in the region reportedly shelled military positions and civilian settlements of Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, the Armenian defence ministry accused Azerbaijan of shelling a settlement inside Armenia.

The 44-day war ended in a tripartite ceasefire statement signed by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia. By this time, Azerbaijani forces liberated more than 300 settlements, including the cities of Jabrayil, Fuzuli, Zangilan, Gubadli and Shusha. Armenia returned the occupied Aghdam, Kalbajar, and Lachin districts to Azerbaijan by December 1 as part of the obligations it took under the ceasefire deal.

Shortly after the liberation of the territories, the government of Azerbaijan pressed ahead with plans to restore and reconstruct the districts and cities in the Karabakh region.

The nuclear materials in the South Caucasus and expertise in these, pose a problem of international concern on three levels:

1. At the ground level, maintaining control over these materials and watching over scientific expertise is imperative, yet measures are lacking as in most regions of the former Soviet Union.

2. At the domestic policy level, the political and economic instability of these states in transition hampers the strengthening of key institutions for the prevention of proliferation and provides an environment conducive to black market activities.

3. At the regional level, the Caucasus represents both a geostrategically vital conduit and buffer between Russia and the Middle East and from the Caspian Sea to the West. Established smuggling routes are believed to exist. These factors combine to warrant a closer look at the approaches to non-proliferation in the Caucasus, which have the potential to deter, or foster, the leakage of nuclear materials and technology to potential proliferators.

The South Caucasus states have implemented effective export control regimes to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and associated technologies. There are not as many nuclear fuel cycle-related facilities in the South Caucasus as elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, but there are various nuclear research facilities and an operating nuclear power reactor in Armenia. 

Almost all of the facilities lacked adequate security systems such as cameras and computerized accounting to safeguard medical and industrial nuclear materials and wastes. Some radioactive materials that were inadequately documented during the Soviet era have been discovered.


Russia has been and remained the major weapons supplier of Armenia and official Yerevan attempted to diversify procurement sources though they remained unfulfilled as the country mainly buys on credit.

Armenia possesses a wide variety of older Soviet military equipment with recent procurement from Russia. In 2015, a US$200m loan was ratified by Russia for the purchase of modern weapons between 2015-17. 

After Nikol Pashinyan came to power in 2018, the new Armenian government concluded a new loan agreement with Russia to purchase modern weapons and Defence Minister David Tonoyan said that official Yerevan will only procure modern weapons and this will continue in 2020.

Armenia signed a contract with Russia, its main arms supplier, to acquire four SU-30SM fighter jets within the framework of Russia’s US$100 million credit, and AK-12 automatic rifles. Russia is expected to extend its credit to Armenia, in addition to previous credits utilized for purchasing Smerch MLRS, TOS-1A flame-thrower systems, Igla-S air-defense and Cornet-E anti-tank missile systems, the Avtobaza-M EW complex, small arms, grenade launchers, and engineering equipment. In parallel with Azerbaijan, Armenia seeks to cultivate defense cooperation with China, notably with the Norinko and Poly Group companies.  

Russia sells aircraft to Armenia at domestic rather than export prices. The minister confirmed that the supply of new weapons on a loan from Russia will continue according to plan. Armenia also procures weapons from China.

Since Armenia currently lacks the financial means to purchase western weapons, Russia will retain its dominant role as the country’s main arms supplier, regarding its existing arsenal as well as new arms acquired with the latest military credits. Yerevan, however, has also sought to diversify its military procurement. Armenia is also keen on purchasing India’s Pinaka rocket system and Sweden said to offer sale of JAS-39 Gripen fighter jets. 

In addition, two nuclear research facilities exist in Armenia: the Yerevan Institute of Physics and the Analitsark Research Facility in Gyumri. The Yerevan Institute of Physics holds a giga-electron volt (GeV) ring accelerator and participates in research on accelerator physics. The Analitsark Plant produces analytical and testing devices for nuclear power plants.

The country has one nuclear power station at Metsamor, located approximately 28 kilometers outside of Yerevan, which houses two VVER-440 reactors. Metsamor closed after the Spitak earthquake on December 7, 1988, until 1993. 

Azerbaijani officials have repeatedly expressed concern that a weak border control in the breakaway region of Karabakh, may lead to illegal imports of radioactive waste from abroad, specifically from the restarted Metsamor nuclear power plant in Armenia.

In 1997, Azerbaijan also accused Armenia of obtaining nuclear warheads from Russia, while the Armenian Defense Ministry and the Russian Foreign Ministry rejected the allegations.


The situation at the Vekua Physics and Technology Institute in Sukhumi, in the breakaway region of Abkhazia presents a more ominous threat. Nuclear research in the Sukhumi area included uranium enrichment through diffusion technologies and centrifuge research.

Yet access to the Vekua Institute is still problematic, as Abkhazia under the occupation of the Russian troops. While Georgia demands that any visit to the facility must recognize Georgia’s sovereignty, the Abkhaz government does not concede to Georgia’s right to allow inspection of a facility located in Abkhazia. 

For the moment being, the Russian military presence includes 3 military bases, located in Gudauta, Batumi and Akhalkalaki and as well as a Russian military airport in Gudauta.

Several Georgian sources blame Russian militaries for illicit trafficking of different equipment, materials and technologies from the North to South and on the contrary through the territory of Georgia.

The legacy of the Soviet period also causes various accidents connected with radioactive (non-weapons usable nuclear) materials unaccounted for and left by Soviet and later Russian troops during their withdrawal without informing local authorities. In October 1997, Georgia informed International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and World Health Organization about a serious radiation accident involving at least ten border guard soldiers being exposed to Cesium-137 sources over several months. In June 2001, strong sources of radiation had been discovered at the dismissed Russian military base in Vaziani. 


Before the recent war, Azerbaijan has modernized weapons to bring about the de-occupation and preserve territorial integrity intact. Azerbaijan spent billions of dollars on armaments. The main countries where Azerbaijan buys weapons are Russia, Israel, Turkey, Ukraine and Belarus.

Turkey is a strategic ally of Azerbaijan. In recent years, Turkey has produced all types of weapons, military equipment, including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), and Azerbaijan has gradually increased the amount of military equipment.

Russia considers both Azerbaijan and Armenia as its partners and sells weapons to both countries. Israel also tops the list for the sale of state-of-the-state weapons to Azerbaijan.

Russia does not want Azerbaijan to buy weapons from countries such as Ukraine, Turkey and Belarus and tries to prevent this by various means. However, Azerbaijan's complete dependence on Russia does not meet its security interests.

The procurement of weapons and military equipment is being diversified and it gives preference to the highest quality weapons and military equipment. The latest 2018 military parade in Baku displayed some of Azerbaijan’s upgraded military arsenal. Russia, Israel, Turkey, Pakistan, Belarus, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, South Africa and others, make the most of the weapons displayed at the parade.

Azerbaijan added to its arsenal self-propelled systems MSTA, Pion, TOS-1A, Angara, Khrizantema, Vena, Dana and different types of cannons as well as Grad, Smerch, Sakarya, and Uragan air defence systems. BMP-2 and BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles, the T-72 and T-90 tanks, the air defence missile systems Buk M-1, S-300, and Barak-8, the missile systems Ekstra, Polonez, LORA, and the helicopters Bell 412, Mi-24, Mi-35, KA-17, and Mi-8, and the Su-25 and MIG-25 aircraft are comparably new acquisitions. 

Israeli-made LORA missile systems, Spike anti-tank guided missiles, Heron and Orbiter UAVs and Dana system made by the Czech Republic are now in the arsenal of the Azerbaijani armed forces.

Azerbaijan has also procured the Polonez tactical missile complex, 2A36-Giatsint-B howitzers, and the Groza-S electronic-warfare (EW) system from Belarus; İHTAR anti-drone system and SOM-B1 cruise missiles from Turkey; NTW-20 anti-materiel sniper rifles from South Africa; and BTR-82A modernized combat vehicles from Russia. 


Russian peacekeepers had deployed, as planned, to the part of Nagorno-Karabakh that Armenian forces held when the fighting stopped under the November 10 cease-fire declaration. As of late November, they were setting up 23 observation posts in this territory, most along roads near Azerbaijani-held land. In addition to Nagorno-Karabakh, Russian forces patrolled the road corridor through Lachin, one of the adjacent territories returned to Baku, which connects Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. 

Russia’s peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh is limited to 1,960 motor-rifle troops with light weapons and armored personnel carriers. The Russian mission received eight helicopters (four transport and four strike helicopters), Orlan-10 reconnaissance drones.

Apart from the designated peacekeepers and beyond their number, Russian defense ministry personnel are engaged in de-mining and unexploded ordnance disposal. Russian military police personnel and representatives of Russia’s Prosecutor General’s office are also deployed.

Russian peacekeepers are not the only armed personnel in Nagorno-Karabakh. The ceasefire statement called on Armenian forces to leave the territories adjoining Nagorno-Karabakh, which are now under Azerbaijani control. In mid-December 2020, Azerbaijani sources said the Russian troops had “evacuated” Armenian personnel in the region.

Turkish military personnel joined Russian counterparts at the ceasefire’s monitoring centre, located in Agdam, one of the adjacent territories Azerbaijan regained as a result of the 9 November ceasefire deal. Reportedly, the centre staff relies on surveillance drones as well as other sources of information to evaluate reports of ceasefire violations or related problems. 

The Security Council or Secretary-General of United Nations might also consider appointing an envoy or even a formal mission tasked to report on developments on a regular basis, and to offer UN good offices, that is to say diplomatic support, to facilitate negotiations. This step could help legitimate Russia’s mission.