MOSCOW - Russia has begun delivering tanks, artillery cannons and rocket launchers worth $1 billion to Azerbaijan, a Moscow-based defense group said on Tuesday, as the former Soviet republic strengthens its military readiness in the volatile South Caucasus.
Oil- and gas-producing Azerbaijan, where President Ilham Aliyev faces re-election in October, has boosted arms spending and threatened to take back the disputed territory of Nagorno- Karabakh by force from neighboring Armenia.
Nestled between Iran, arch-rival Armenia and its former Soviet master Russia, Azerbaijan sits on a web of oil and gas pipelines that carry its offshore energy reserves to Europe via Turkey, its ally.
The arms package, signed in a series of contracts between 2011 and 2012, includes nearly 100 T-90C tanks, Smerch and TOS-1A multiple rocket launchers and Msta-A and Vena artillery cannons, said Ruslan Pukhov, director of defence think tank CAST.
A source at the Russian Defense Ministry said the order had been on hold for some time to avoid upsetting the military balance in the South Caucasus, where Russia has a military base in Armenia and an agreement to defend the country if it comes under attack. But the deal had been pushed through at the behest of Russia's powerful arms industry, he said.