An Israel-made drone with Azerbaijan Air Force markings was downed on Sept. 12 over Nagorno Karabach by Russian anti-aircraft officers who entered the tiny Caucasian republic from neighboring Armenia. Their immediate mission was to gain access to the secret innards of the highly-advanced unmanned aerial vehicle, as revealed here for the first time by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources.
Azerbaijan and Armenia have been fighting since the early nineties for control of the Karabakh republic, a patch of land just 4,400 square kilometers in area with 200,000 inhabitants – 80 percent Armenian, 20 percent Azeri – wedged between the two southern Caucasian rivals.
Russia secretly backs the Armenian claim, mainly with intelligence and arms.
Israel has sold drones to Azerbaijan and sent technicians to service them. In March, Azerbaijan and Israel Aerospace Industries agreed to build a new plant and go into co-production of the Israeli unmanned vehicles.
The Azerbaijani drone was shot down by antiaircraft troops of the Russian Situation Corps over Nagorno Karabackh Martuni district ,where the little republic and Armenia have been concentrating forces in anticipation of a fresh round of fighting.
The Nagorno Karabakh Ministry of Defense in the capital of Stepanakert said the downing of the Azerbaijani drone was "the result of ‘special measures’ taken by its antiaircraft units.”
Russia's sign to Israel: Hands off the Caspian
Our military sources define those “special measures” as a combination of Russian antiaircraft officers and the advanced anti-drone equipment owned by Nagorno Karabakh's antiaircraft defense units.
Moscow and Yerevan decided to station Russian forces in the Karabakh zones of combat after Azerbaijani drone flights over those areas increased and the republic had no means to repel them.
Western intelligence sources monitoring the military movements warn of dangerous developments brewing in the southern Caucasus.
Drones have been introduced into battle for the first time since three years ago Israeli-made drones in the Georgian Air Force exposed the weakness of the Russian army in their 2008 war. Moscow later purchased several dozen drones from Israel but plans to establish an Israeli drone factory in Russia were stalled by US objections to making advanced drone technology accessible to Russia.
But Moscow never gave up on its quest.
Western sources believe that the downing of the Azerbaijani drone was a one-off incident and that the Russians have not established a regular presence in Nagorno Karabakh's war zones. They see Moscow as staging the incident for four objectives:
1. As a hands-off sign to Israel to stay out of the Caspian Sea region and its conflicts.
Moscow has taken note of Israel's deepening economic and military footholds in four countries: Azerbaijan, which is the largest, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Georgia, and regards its supply of arms to these countries as unwanted interference in Russia's backyard.
Moscow's implied threat to pass Israeli drone secrets to Iran
2. Revenge for Israel reneging on its 2009 commitment to build a drone factory in Russia. This was achieved by confronting Israeli drone technicians with Russian antiaircraft crews for a losing contest.
3. Moscow was also telling Tehran that it was serious about cooperating with the Islamic Republic for safeguarding its rights in the Caspian Sea and willing to use diplomatic, military and intelligence means to halt the spread of Azerbaijani and Israeli influence in the region.
Iran has an abiding interest in cutting Azerbaijan down to size because of the affection it commands from Iran's Azeri minority.
Although official statistics are lacking, Iranian Azeris are estimated to number 15-22 million, nearly one-third of Iran's s population of 75 million. They also account for some 4 million of Tehran's 11 million inhabitants and dominate the grocery and small trading sector of the capital.
The Islamic rulers' biggest problem with Azerbaijan and its influence on the Azeri minority is the character of its government. While the population is largely Shiite, the government is secular. A secular-Shiite regime is totally at odds with Iran's revolutionary Shiite doctrine whereby the government draws its legitimacy from religion. An Azeri minority this large must be discouraged from developing its affinity to Baku and its style of government as a potential threat to the Shiite revolutionaries of Iran.
4. The Defense Ministry in Stepanakert published pictures of the downed drone deliberately exposing its camera as a warning to Jerusalem and Baku that if Azerbaijani drones continue to fly, Moscow may decide to turn the secret vehicle's fragments over to Iranian intelligence experts.