Monday, August 29, 2016

Caucasus Report

Fighting In Nagorno-Karabakh: War Or War Dance?

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (center) visits a military unit in Agdam, on the front line of the battle over Armenian-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh, on August 6.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (center) visits a military unit in Agdam, on the front line of the battle over Armenian-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh, on August 6.

On August 9, Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to meet separately in Sochi with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan to discuss the recent upsurge in hostilities in the vicinity of the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh that has reportedly left at least 20 dead.

That fighting, according to Armenian military spokesmen, has taken the form of repeated small-scale Azerbaijani attacks interspersed with occasional retaliatory operations by the Armenians. Baku for its part says the Armenian side has consistently been the aggressor, which seems implausible insofar as Armenia, in contrast to Azerbaijan, has nothing to gain and a great deal to lose from unleashing, or even taking steps that could trigger, a new full-scale war.

Even though the recent clashes are the most serious since the signing of a cease-fire 20 years ago, however, most Armenian observers doubt that they presage all-out war.

The May 1994 cease-fire agreement left the Defense Army of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in control of seven neighboring districts of Azerbaijan it had wrested control of from a shambolic and poorly-trained Azerbaijani Army over the previous two years. All efforts by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group, created in 1992 to mediate a peaceful diplomatic solution to the conflict, have foundered over the time frame for and logistics of the return of those districts to the control of the Azerbaijani government, and what the government and people of Nagorno-Karabakh would receive in return for relinquishing its only bargaining chip.

The most recent blueprint for conflict resolution, the so-called Basic or Madrid Principles, envisages the return of six occupied districts plus special modalities for the seventh, the so-called Lachin Corridor that serves as the sole overland link between Nagorno-Karabakh and the Republic of Armenia. In return, the status of Nagorno-Karabakh vis-a-vis the central Azerbaijani government would be decided in a "manifestation of popular will" (the original formulation specified a referendum) at some unspecified future date.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has used the proceeds from the exploitation of its Caspian oil and natural-gas reserves to build up and reequip its armed forces with the aim of launching a new war to win back control over Nagorno-Karabakh if/when negotiations are deemed to have failed absolutely. That said, Azerbaijani officials' frequently vaunted boast that the country's $3 billion defense budget exceeds the entire budget of the Republic of Armenia is misleading in that much of the weaponry it has acquired is intended for the defense of its offshore oil and gas installations.

Over the past three years, however, the military, diplomatic and geopolitical situation has changed, partly on Baku's initiative, and seemingly to its advantage. As of the summer of 2011, the Azerbaijani Army has launched ever more frequent raids and attempts to penetrate the Line of Contact east of the de facto border between Nagorno-Karabakh and the rest of Azerbaijan and that separates the Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces. The objective of those probes is presumably to test the enemy's combat readiness and identify weak points in the Armenian defenses.


At the same time, Azerbaijan has stepped up its deployment of snipers along the Line of Contact, and consistently rejected successive appeals by Minsk Group co-chairmen to withdraw them, in contrast to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, which have publicly expressed willingness to do so provided Azerbaijan reciprocates.

On the diplomatic front, following the failure of Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, to reach a widely anticipated interim peace agreement during talks in Kazan in June 2011, Baku has upped the ante by implicitly pegging a resumption of the process of hammering out differences over the Basic/Madrid Principles to Armenia's implementation of one of those principles, namely the immediate return of the seven occupied districts to Azerbaijani control. 

That gambit has effectively deadlocked the peace process, even though it has not put an end to the tireless efforts of the Minsk Group to induce the conflict sides to reach a compromise.

The chances of doing so are minimal, however, in light of the difference of opinion between the Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh leaderships over what constitutes an acceptable solution to the conflict. Writing on Facebook in late July, Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto prime minister, Ara Harutiunian, reportedly rejected as "unacceptable to us" the requirement that the seven occupied districts contiguous to the disputed region be returned to Azerbaijani control. Harutiunian said those districts were vital to the republic's continued economic development.

That intransigence places Armenia in a difficult position insofar as President Sarkisian (who himself was born and brought up in Nagorno-Karabakh) has said repeatedly that Armenia will never sign a peace agreement that is unacceptable to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Baku Seeing Its Chance?

Three factors may have contributed, singly or in combination, to the recent escalation of fighting.

The first, as U.S. Minsk Group co-Chairman James Warlick has pointed out, is that the international community is already facing two major crises, in Ukraine and the Middle East, that require its undivided attention. This may have emboldened Azerbaijan.

The second is that in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea and the threat it is perceived to pose to Ukraine and the Baltics, the search for alternative supplies of natural gas to Western Europe has become more urgent. Azerbaijan, by virtue of the agreement it signed in June 2012 with Turkey on construction of the TANAP pipeline to export gas from its offshore Shah Deniz field, could at least partially fulfil that need, albeit not until 2018-19.

It is therefore not inconceivable that the Azerbaijani leadership has advanced, or is preparing to advance, the argument that in light of its increasing strategic importance as a source of energy, its international partners should either (figuratively) bludgeon Yerevan into agreeing to a Karabakh peace deal on Baku's terms, or turn a blind eye should it launch a new war with the aim of restoring its control over the break-away region.


The third is the appointment in October 2013 of former interior-troops commander Zakir Hasanov to succeed veteran Azerbaijani Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiyev. Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army commander Lieutenant General Movses Hakobian opined earlier this week  that Hasanov may have initiated the recent offensive with the twin aims of putting his stamp on military tactics and pressuring Armenia to make concessions in the peace process.

At the same time, Hakobian said that despite its acquisition of state-of-the-art weaponry, the Azerbaijani armed forces are no match for their Armenian counterparts. Armenian Defense Minister Seiran Ohanian (who lost a leg in the fighting of the early 1990s) similarly told journalists this week that "we need to bear in mind that any weapon requires a person qualified enough to use it.... The acquisition of large quantities of weapons requires their personnel to learn how to use them effectively."

Even some Azerbaijani experts have cast doubts on official Azerbaijani accounts of the nature of the fighting and the Armenian death toll. Military analyst Uzeir Jafarov was quoted by ANS Press as questioning how the Armenians as the attacking side incurred fewer casualties, given that "under the laws of war, the attacking side usually sustains more casualties." He said the Azerbaijani military command was guilty of "a serious tactical error."

Assuming that Azerbaijan has indeed merely been engaging in muscle-flexing intended to intimidate, rather than preparing for a major offensive, it may have played into Moscow's hands if, as many Armenians suspect, Putin intends to take advantage of the upsurge in tensions to "offer" to deploy peacekeeping force in the conflict zone. (Ohanian has affirmed unequivocally that third-party peacekeepers are not necessary.)  The deployment of Russian peacekeepers would not only preserve indefinitely the current situation of "not peace but not war," it would also preclude the use of much of the battlefield weaponry Azerbaijan has purchased from Russia in recent years at considerable expense.

-- Liz Fuller

Tags: Nagorno-Karabakh

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Mamuka
August 08, 2014 17:19
If Putin decides to send peacekeepers, there is nothing that Sarkisian or Oharian or Kocharian or even Kardashian can do to stop him... and he will try to road-march his MC through Georgia to do it.

by: RD
August 08, 2014 20:06
Aliyev is tagged as the most corrupt leader in the world. He knows that eventually, the people of Azerbaijan will see the theft and corruption that takes place in his country. Jailing dissidents, skimming the country's wealth etc. What does he do to take the focus of his people off himself? He rubs the one open wound everyone shares of losing Karabakh. That is the only way Aliyev can fool his people and avoid questions and being deposed.

by: RD
August 08, 2014 20:31
Aliyev calls his Armenian counterpart "fascist" while every other day, you hear of another critic of the government jailed. If I was Aliyev, I would not call the teapot "black"

by: John Harduny from: Reston, VA, USA
August 08, 2014 21:28
Liz Fuller has written an interesting piece because it is defying the "fake objectivity" syndrome that has been distorting any analysis on Nagorno-Karabakh for years. "Fake objectivity" is a premise that both parties to the conflict should be equally and symmetrically praised or found guilty in whatever is happening in and around Karabakh. This idiotic "methodology" has poisoned every material on the conflict and the region from the beginning of the events in 1988.

by: PermReader
August 09, 2014 18:36
Russians openly write about their ally Armenian`s military action.But the corrupt RFERL permanently appease Armenian`s policy.

by: Omar Alansari-Kreger from: Minneapolis, MN USA
August 11, 2014 14:20
There is nothing more morally repugnant than jingoism. Staunch nationalists feel that they are exonerated in some special capacity just because they were born what they are. These sentiments are usually overshadowed by a desire that seeks out fringe restitution which leads to greater atrocities. That typified variety of exclusivism creates a culture that succumbs to bigoted hatred and xenophobia becomes the order of the day. During the decades of Soviet communism, each premiership would try resolving ethnic tensions by deferring them into a policy of forced assimilated coercion; any opposition to that would be treated as a crime against the state.

On the positive side it seems that two ethnic rivals are forced to cooperate, effectively putting a demented past to rest; however, that only lasts long enough until the power structure of the omnipotent state starts to decline. Although these ethnic tensions are initially overcome they are virtually frozen in time; it is thought that future generations will put those ethnic tensions to rest simply because a direct experience can’t be linked to those that survived the experience of their antagonized predecessors. No matter how vast the generational disconnect happens to be once these conflicts thaw they flare up without warning only to bring the same ethnic tensions back into the geo-political equation.

Between the Armenians and the Azeris, resettlements occurred displacing and uprooted both during the Soviet era; however, determining proper legitimacy to these lands creates a situation that virtually copies the crisis of the Mideast Peace Process. Establishing legitimate rights to historical territories is usually justified with enough ideological thrust and that is where jingoism comes into play, but these types of conflicts lead to wars of attrition where wanton scorched Earth policies seize the day depriving any geo-political region of a future; sustainable or otherwise.

by: Peter from: Istanbul
August 11, 2014 16:13
In fact it'd be quite good for Armenia to deploy international peacekeepers in Karabakh. The Azerbaijani snipers are targeting not only soldiers but Armenian civilians too. And not only in Karabakh but also in Armenia. Azerbaijan is trying to destabilize the status quo while Armenia is trying to achieve peace.

by: Dominique from: Old Europe
August 13, 2014 09:26
The Nagorno-Karabakh is a fascinating conflict, in that both Russia and the US support the same side! That of Armenia, for the same reasons, the active and diligent work of the Armenian diaspora in both Russia and the US.

Azerbaijan is a strange country, in that despite being majority Muslim, it has excellent political, economic and military relations with Israel.

Armenia despite being a majority Christian has excellent economic, political and even cultural relations with Iran.

The US and Russia BOTH support Armenia's claims to Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Azeris have no viable option other than war to regain their lost territory. Because the diplomatic table is heavily titled to the Armenian side, Armenia can count on only the support of Russia, the US but also the EU through its staunch support from France, and to a lesser extent from the Netherlands and Germany.

Armenia will never voluntarily cede Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan and the US, Russia and EU will NEVER force Armenia to cede Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan..

Therefore if the Azeris really want Nagorno-Karabakh they must fight a war for it, otherwise the Azeris should stop talking about Nagorno-Karabakh.

In Response

by: Peter from: Istanbul
August 14, 2014 11:35
The Azeris are way less battle-capable and their soldiers are not motivated at all. Why should they die for an ethnically Armenian region without oil? They don't need Karabakh, they're just pissed off because their "Turkish pride" has been hurt as they've lost the war and had to ask for cease fire.
In Response

by: Dominique from: Old Europe
August 14, 2014 18:13
Azerbaijan is far a richer country, and on paper has a superior military. So war is definitely an option if the Azeris are serious. I'm not too sure how you would know what the Azeri military's morale is like.

Arguing that Armenia only want peace and that it is the Azeris who are destabilizing the status quo, is equivalent to saying Russia only wants peace and any Ukrainian attempts to regain Crimea would destabilize the status quo.

Not too sure what you mean by "Turkish Pride", the Azeris are of Iranic extraction despite the absurd propaganda disseminated by Turanists.

A conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia has the real potential to escalate and draw in both countries' patrons Turkey and Russia. Armenia unlike Azerbaijan is a member of a military alliance the Collective Security Treaty Organization; therefore can invoke assistance from its treaty allies Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, etc.

The West has pandered to Aliyev dictatorship, permitting and even assisting him and his family to loot Azerbaijan's wealth. So long as the Aliyev regime permitted Western energy companies and supported the West’s NABUCCO project. However I think this Faustian pact is coming to an end; witness the constant negative coverage of the Aliyev regime and Azerbaijan in the Western media.

Azerbaijan missed the color revolutions of Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and Kyrgyzstan (2005). Azerbaijan never really reformed its political, administrative and judicial institution since it gained its independence. The excuse the Aliyev regime gave has always been Nagorno-Karabakh and the imminent threat of a new war with Armenia, to justify the lack of freedom and political repression. Azerbaijan's economic boom has also helped to ameliorate the Aliyev regime.

If Aliyev removed war from the table with regards Nagorno-Karabakh, he will be pressured to make domestic political and economic concessions. Something that he and his corrupt entourage are reluctant to do, as they wish to keep the power and wealth they have amassed in the years since.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.