THE PROSPECTS FOR WAR IN NAGORNO-KARABAKH
On June 4 to 6, an intensive shootout occurred on the Azerbaijani-Armenian border in the Gazakh-Tavush area that claimed the lives of five Azerbaijani and three Armenian soldiers. This could be termed just another skirmish in a series of low intensity fighting that costs hundreds of lives on both sides of the conflict. Yet the high death toll and the geographic occurrence of the recent incident far away from the Karabakh front lines evoked debates about the prospects of renewed war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Is the risk of war becoming imminent in this part of the South Caucasus?
BACKGROUND: After a Moscow-brokered ceasefire was reached between Armenia and Azerbaijan in mid-1994, both sides focused their efforts to achieve a peaceful solution to the conflict. Although extensive negotiations have been held since then, with support from Russia, France, the U.S., and a range of other countries and international organizations, no peace treaty has been reached. The reasons are manifold, yet what caused most discord was the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Whilst Baku insisted on Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, offering a high degree of autonomy to the overwhelmingly Armenian-populated province of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian side has resisted ferociously any solution that would entail bringing the separatist region back even under Baku's nominal jurisdiction.
The situation has been further complicated by external factors. The Armenians have heavily relied on Russian support as Armenia is Russia's only ally in the South Caucasus. Russia maintains a military base at Gyumri since Soviet times, which according to a recent agreement will remain at least until 2044. Along with the clear-cut military victory in the Karabakh war 1992-1994, Russian support has made Armenia’s willingness to accept any serious compromise over Nagorno-Karabakh minimal.
On the other hand, suspicious of Moscow's expansionist intentions in this strategically important area rich in oil and natural gas, Azerbaijan has been eager to reduce Moscow's military, economic, and political clout in the South Caucasus, seeking to attract as much Western (and Turkish) involvement as possible as a counterbalance to Russia's incessant efforts to dominate its “near abroad.” This has done little to reverse Moscow's generally pro-Armenian stance in the Karabakh peace talks.
Accordingly, Baku has done its best to benefit politically from the importance of its vast energy resources to Western markets to ensure a more benevolent attitude of the U.S., United Kingdom, and a number of key European countries to its cause. Coupled with increasing expenditures into its military, the “oil factor” has made the Azerbaijani position less flexible when it comes to accepting a compromise over the Karabakh issue, cementing the situation of stalemate that has established itself in the Azerbaijani-Armenian peace talks.
IMPLICATIONS: What makes observers rethink the possibility of a renewed armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia is the fact that this has been the second time over a short period when fighting recurred in the northern part of Azerbaijani-Armenian border. In late April, a similar incident claimed the lives of three Armenian soldiers whilst Azerbaijani authorities asserted they faced no losses.
Intriguingly, Armenian and Azerbaijani authorities accused their counterparts of the same thing. Whereas Baku officials claimed that the deaths were a result of a deterred Armenian commando raid seeking to penetrate the positions of the Azerbaijani army near the village of Ashagi Eskipara of Azerbaijan's Gazakh district, the Armenian Ministry of Defense made a statement claiming that they successfully fought back an incursion of an Azerbaijani commando unit in the vicinity of the villages of Chinari and Berdavan of Armenia's Tavush district. The incident coincided with the visit of U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton to both South Caucasian countries, which evoked speculations about messages being delivered by either Azerbaijanis or Armenians to the West.
In fact, an attack in the Gazakh-Tavush area seems to host a number of potential military advantages for both Armenian and Azerbaijani strategists in case of renewed fighting. For Armenians, the Azerbaijani oil and natural pipelines running through this part of Azerbaijan to Georgia and then to Turkey are of outmost importance. Revenues from export of oil and natural gas make up as much as 85 percent of Azerbaijan’s budget, and the possible destruction of these pipelines could cause serious problems for the Azerbaijani economy. Yet in military terms, using border troops to advance to this area would make little sense as Armenians possess a range of high-quality missile systems of Russian production that would relatively easily neutralize Azerbaijan’s pipelines in case of a renewed war.
For Azerbaijan, an attack in this direction would entail certain advantages as it, unlike the heavily fortified Nagorno-Karabakh frontline, is less reinforced and has a number of valleys that would allow for a deep incursion into the Armenian mainland to occupy some of the north-south highways leading to Yerevan. Hypothetically, this might enable the Azerbaijanis to divert the Karabakh frontline; however for a rather short period. Yet the prospects for such an incursion would be rather elusive as Armenia's northeast is mountainous and wooded, a factor that generally favors defense over offense. In fact, in purely rational military terms and as for now, the prospects for a renewed war based on an Azerbaijani advance in the Gazakh-Tavush direction seem questionable.
In the broader context of regional politics, launching a renewed war would hardly pay off for either Baku or Yerevan. In the case of renewed armed conflict, not only Nagorno-Karabakh but the entirety of Azerbaijani and Armenian territories including their capital cities would likely turn into a battlefield given the quality and amount of weapons, not least advanced missile systems and air force, that both Yerevan and Baku have acquired since the 1990s.
In addition, it would be very difficult for Russia to remain neutral in case of an all-out war breaking out between the two neighboring countries. Russia has a formal military alliance with Armenia and demonstrated during the August 2008 War against Georgia that it has both the capacity and intent to intervene in the near abroad, particularly when its own remaining bastions are under threat. In this case, even if Azerbaijan gets to the point of military superiority over Armenia, its prospects for victory would remain as shaky as they are at the moment.
Nonetheless, a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia would also most likely prompt some sort of Turkish – and possibly also Iranian – involvement. Given the strong pro-Azerbaijani sentiments in Turkish society, an Armenian attack on Nakhichevan, an Azerbaijani exclave sharing a tiny border with Turkey, would bring about a tangible Turkish reaction. Neither would Iran, accommodating around 15-20 million ethnic Azerbaijanis whose nationalist sentiments have been on the rise recently, stay passive in the event of war between its neighbors.
CONCLUSIONS: Apart from external factors, domestic reasons for both Baku and Yerevan to avoid a renewed war play a role. In fact, both South Caucasian countries are being run by increasingly unpopular elites. While the once-absolute grip of the Nakhichevan-Yerevan clan of Azerbaijanis has somewhat reduced in Azerbaijan in recent years, this has had little impact on the lives of ordinary Azerbaijanis among whom discontent has been on the rise with the widespread corruption and the limited political freedoms associated with the regime. Similarly, Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians who exercise de facto control over key political and economic positions in Armenia have enjoyed limited support among ordinary Armenians who are unhappy for the same reasons as their Azerbaijani counterparts.
The existence of a latent conflict in Karabakh may thus fit the interests of elites in both Azerbaijan and Armenia as it helps divert attention from compelling socio-economic and political problems in their respective republics to the phantom of a renewed war and a common enemy in and over Karabakh. In several instances, deadly skirmishes have occurred along the Karabakh frontline which coincided with moments of growing anti-regime tensions in both countries, paving the way for speculations that they were in fact sanctioned by the respective elites. Indeed, while the Armenian side seems happy with the current no war, no peace situation, the Azerbaijani leadership also prefers the present standoff to the launch of a risky war which, in case of failure, could deprive the leadership of its current power, privileges, and economic benefits whose scope of is immense even by post-Soviet standards.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Emil Souleimanov is assistant professor at the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of “Understanding Ethnopolitical Conflict: The Wars in Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia Reconsidered” (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming in 2013) and “An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective” (Peter Lang, 2007).