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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

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.


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