Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin informed President Vladimir Putin, on April 24, that the country’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) is finally able to finance itself without state support. Rogozin called this “a huge achievement that opens up the prospect for commercialization of other domestically elaborated space programs” (News.mail.ru, April 24).
First development work on GLONASS—Moscow’s answer to the United States’ satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS)—began in 1976. The Russian military began utilizing GLONASS for its navigational needs in 1993, but numerous technical deficiencies and chronic underfinancing derailed the project toward the end of the 1990s. Starting in 2001, Moscow took solid steps aimed at revitalizing the system, with a key role played by the Russian Ministry of Defense. By 2015, the Russian authorities announced that “all work on GLONASS has been successfully finalized” (Lenta.ru, December 7, 2015).
Russia employs its homegrown navigation system for both civilian and military purposes. On March 27, it was announced that GLONASS would soon be allocated the function of a federal operator (federlniy operator). The main aim is the unification of the ERA-GLONASS accident emergency response system with the 112 emergency call centers and the “Safe City” system, all under the umbrella of the so-called “Smart City” (Kommersant, March 27, 2018). If achieved, the Russian state would attain full control of the information security domain in every Russian city. Moreover, this could become the first step toward an intensification of the Kremlin’s import-substitution strategy in microelectronics—one of the key objectives outlined in the latest Doctrine of Information Security of the Russian Federation (see EDM, December 16, 2016).
Meanwhile, Russian official sources have already ascribed much of Russian military successes in Syria to the effectiveness of the GLONASS system. Numerous analyses have praised the exceptionally high level of precision demonstrated by the system. Specifically, the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) has argued that GLONASS allowed the Russian military to form a special “ecosystem” (reflected in the ability to coordinate various types of weaponry), which in many respects minimized Russian combat casualties and enabled “the delivery of high-precision strikes against terrorists” (Vedomosti, March 1, 2017). According to the CAST study, the ability to deliver strikes with the Kalibr-NK cruise missile (such as in October 2015—see EDM, October 26, 2015) and other types of weaponry in Syria was secured by the accuracy and precision of GLONASS.
Referencing the Syrian campaign, Russian military experts have identified a number of newly acquired capabilities that apparently became feasible for Russia’s Armed Forces thanks to GLONASS (Rusnext.ru, March 1, 2017):
- The planning of air strikes and navigation under new/challenging geographic conditions (such as the desert) has been upgraded to a qualitatively new level;
- Recognition and analysis of unfamiliar terrain has become possible;
- The large-scale employment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) has been tested for the first time in Russian military practice;
- Numerous deficiencies faced by the Russian military during the August 2008 war with Georgia (“blind kitten syndrome,” as one Russian military specialist colorfully put it) have been overcome.
In a comment to Vedemosti last year, the editor of the Moscow Defense Brief, Mikhail Barabanov, also noted the low number of casualties and rather modest number of Russian military personnel involved in military operations in Syria—according to the expert, around 5,000 servicemen. Both of these, Barabanov argued, were enabled by the use of GLONASS to effectively coordinate military actions and navigation. The Moscow Defense Brief editor also claimed that “current Russian military capabilities have now reached those of the US in the 1990s” (Vedomosti, March 1, 2017). The head of the Russian aerospace firm Information Satellite Systems (ISS), Nikolai Testoyedov, presented a rather similar assessment in 2016. He then argued that, “out of all [space-based] systems, the most important for us is GLONASS. It is not just a system, it is a matter of state security.” Referring to GLONASS’s purported advertised accuracy, he continued, “This is those 5–6 meters in Syria, without which high-precision strikes become impossible to deliver” (Vz.ru, May 13, 2016).
In spite of such cheerful rhetoric, existing uncertainties cast a shadow of doubt over the widely declared impeccability of Russia’s satellite navigation system.
On April 16, 2018, it was reported that GLONASS had temporarily ceased to provide its users with high-precision positioning information, a fact corroborated by Russian official sources. As eventually revealed, the issue was related to some unidentified problems with the satellites’ power supply system (Vz.ru, April 16, 2018).
Subsequently, on April 24, the media stated that “a second satellite [a part of the GLONASS-M system] stopped transmitting information within the past two weeks.” The authorities rushed to explain that the remaining 22 satellites remain perfectly capable of performing their functions without any threat to users (News2mail.ru, April 24). But later, Russian officials denied the aforementioned problems (RIA Novosti, April 28).
It is worth pointing out that repeat problems with the GLONASS satellite constellation are not a new phenomenon. For example, in 2016 (and on several occasions before that), the system reportedly experienced a temporary service collapse caused by the same type of failure (Fair.ru, April 16), meaning that the deficiencies of Russian global positioning satellites have still not been fully overcome. The Russian government habitually opts not to disclose information about this matter until the story again becomes impossible to keep bottled up.
Finally, in rushing to fulfill the key provisions of the state’s import-substitution strategy, but unable to find affordable domestic alternatives, Russian aerospace-sector manufacturers are reportedly increasingly relying on technologically flawed components. According to Ivan Kosenkov, of the high-tech management firm Skolkovo Foundation, domestically produced components “are much more expensive in comparison with Western analogues” (News.rambler.ru, April 24), which has compelled Russian firms to partly rely on technologically inferior Chinese products.
Plagued by corruption-related scandals (Vz.ru, July 30, 2012) but buoyed by the Kremlin’s strong motivation to prove Russia is able to compete technologically with the West despite sanctions, GLONASS’s much-hailed “achievements” thus may be consistently exaggerated by Russian officials.
Azerbaijani Diplomacy and the Bridging of Security Alliances
Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, and Curtis Scaparrotti, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), met in Baku on April 19 to discuss several issues related to military posture and exercises. The two pointedly agreed to keep their communication channels open following these talks (Nato.int, April 19). Taking place less than a week after the United States, the United Kingdom and France carried out coordinated missile strikes against targets linked to the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons program, this was the second such meeting between Russian and NATO generals. The first encounter—between Russia’s General Gerasimov and General Petr Pavel, the chairman of the NATO Military Committee—was also held in Baku, on September 7, 2017 (Nato.it, September 7, 2017).
It is no secret that such face-to-face meetings between NATO and Russian top brass have been rare since 2014. Relations remain fraught as a result of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Moscow’s military involvement in the Middle East and particularly in Syria, among other issues, including the recent Sergei Skripal poisoning case (see EDM, March 12, 15).
In this context, the international significance of Azerbaijan, a small South Caucasus state that regained its independence in 1991, has drastically increased of late. Despite its location in a turbulent region and ongoing embroilment in an armed conflict with neighboring Armenia (which occupies one fifth of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory), Azerbaijan has maintained a neutral stance vis-à-vis all major global powers.
Such neutrality was made possible by Baku’s conscious decision to, for years, pursue an independent, balanced and proactive foreign policy to safeguard the country’s national interest. Using a predictable, reliable, and pragmatic approach in its bilateral and multilateral relations, along with skillful energy diplomacy, Azerbaijan was able to gradually transform from an economically and militarily weak country in the early 1990s into a dynamically developing state. As President Ilham Aliyev recently boasted, Azerbaijan’s economy has grown 3.2 times over the last 15 years and, he argued, the country has achieved economic independence (Trend, April 18). At the same time, the 2018 Global Firepower military strength ranking lists Azerbaijan 53rd out of 136 countries analyzed (Trend, April 18)—up from 58th last year (Azernews.az, August 31, 2017). On the other hand, Azerbaijan is not a member of any military-political bloc and is not involved in any regional political-economic integration projects, either with the European Union or the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union. In 2011, Azerbaijan became a full member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and will host the 18th summit and chair this organization during 2019–2022 (Azernews.az, March 30).
Also in 2011, Azerbaijan was elected a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) from the Eastern Europe group (Aztv.az, October 28, 2011). This was a turning point in this country’s modern history, boosting Baku’s ability to contribute to global affairs and, undoubtedly, increasing its international significance. During its term on the UNSC (2012–2013), Baku supported programs dealing with international peace and security, cross-cultural dialogue, humanitarian assistance as well as foreign aid. Azerbaijan also coordinated a high-level meeting, chaired by President Aliyev, on strengthening international cooperation against terrorism in May 2012, as well as the first ever meeting between the UNSC and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in October 2013 (Eureporter.co, January 9, 2014).
The promotion of international peace and security remains an important dimension of Baku’s foreign policy, and Azerbaijan has actively offered to host meetings between high-ranking military officials from the United States/NATO and Russia amidst current tensions in their relationship. Incidentally, the first meeting between Russian General Gerasimov and the US’s highest ranking military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, was also held in Baku, on February 16, 2017. There, according to the Russian defense ministry, the two military leaders exchanged views on the state of the bilateral relationship and shared their assessments of the international security situations in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and other key regions of the world (Mil.ru, February 16, 2017).
At least three factors explain why Azerbaijan was chosen as a venue for such high-level meetings between East and West.
First of all, as argued by Aleksey Sinitsin, of the American-Azerbaijani Progress Promotion Fund, Azerbaijan is a member of the NAM, but it maintains respectful and tangible relations with both Moscow and Western capitals. In addition, he asserted, “The situation in Baku is always stable, benevolent, and any unexpected political excesses [sic] are practically excluded” (Trend, April 21).
Second, Azerbaijan is also interested in holding these meetings because they contribute to the growth of its overall image in the international arena as a neutral and safe place, where counterparts can meet and discuss issues of global significance.
Third, the organization of such meetings can also create excellent opportunities for the Azerbaijani leadership to meet in parallel with the representatives of both delegations and exchange views on bilateral, regional, and international issues. Illustratively, Aliyev received both delegations—that led by Scaparrotti and the one headed by Gerasimov—in Baku on April 19, 2018. During his meeting with General Scaparrotti, the two sides discussed the successful development of NATO-Azerbaijan cooperation. Scaparrotti expressed particular satisfaction with the Alliance’s relationship with Baku, underscoring the strategically important transit role Azerbaijan plays in NATO’s peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan (Trend, April 19). Whereas, during President Aliyev’s talks with General Gerasimov, the two discussed bilateral cooperation in the military and military-technical spheres (Trend, April 19).
Both generals publicly thanked Aliyev for hosting the April 19 meeting. In turn, the Azerbaijani president assessed Baku’s role as a sign of international confidence in his country. Aliyev also voiced the hope that the Scaparrotti-Gerasimov meeting would contribute to the strengthening of international security. Further such high-level meetings in Baku between rival powers are thus likely, as Azerbaijan continues to test its growing diplomatic muscles.