Givi Gigitashvili explains different interpretations of this seemingly intractable and complex frozen conflict on the edges of Europe, and how Russia might be trying to assert influence in the region, 22 years after the end of full-scale hostilities.
Fallout between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region has palpable traits of ethnic conflict. Although this discord has its origins in the aftermath of the First World War, full-scale war between two parties erupted only after the demise of Soviet Union. The all-out war ended with shaky truce in 1994. However, ceasefire violations and contact line skirmishes have continued over the last 20 years, increasing the possibility of an accidental war. Nowadays, the Nagorno-Karabakh region along with 7 adjacent Azerbaijani districts remain under the control of Armenia, a situation that is unbearable for Azerbaijan. Due to irreversible accumulation of military assets in both countries, Azerbaijan and Armenia were included in the list of the 10 most militarized nations in the world in 2014.
The latest clashes, which broke out on April 2nd, saw the highest level of escalation after the ’94 ceasefire agreement. Both countries employed tanks, artillery, helicopters and most notably, Grad Multiple Launch Rocket Systems were used for the first time since the ceasefire. Grad rockets are ‘dumb weapons’ which can produce heavy collateral damage. On April 5, conflict parties reached a ceasefire agreement in Moscow. Yet skirmishes have been continued and the danger of new escalation has not faded away. Because of the absence of an independent monitoring mission in the region, there is no reliable reporting which would provide unbiased analysis of why and how the current hostilities blew up; this paves the way for conspiracy theories. Instead, fact-based analysis is essential as a rebuttal. However due to the lack of reliable information, despite using the best info available, this work contains some elements of guesswork.
Scenario 1: Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, played the nationalist card
Given that 14% of its de jure territory remains occupied, and a diplomatic solution to the conflict seems off-putting, Azerbaijan is utterly frustrated by the current situation. This allegation gives credence to the assumption that Baku had a bigger motivation to shake the status quo. Presumably, mounting economic and social problems in Azerbaijan encouraged Baku to undermine the ceasefire. As the International Crisis group warned in 2007, when Azerbaijan’s oil-driven economy reached its limits and socio-economic problems multiplied, the regime may be tempted to take a nationalist gamble, including the war with an aim to distract people’s attention from waning oil revenues and other economic problems.
Interestingly, Azerbaijan’s economic growth has been stalled significantly over the last two years, largely due to the decline of global oil prices, and far-reaching turmoil in the region. In 2015, Azerbaijan’s GDP grew by only 1% and the national currency, the manat lost half of its value. Amid growing inflation, the costs of some goods reportedly increasing by as much as 100%, and after spending half of its foreign currency reserves, the Central Bank of Azerbaijan had to shift to a free-floating exchange rate. The deteriorated state of the economy prompted protests in several major cities of Azerbaijan, resulting in raids by state security forces. According to some estimates, Azerbaijan’s economy faces one of the most (if not the most) obstinate crises after its oil boom in 2000s.
Several observers claim that Azerbaijan has sought to divert people’s attention from soaring socioeconomic hardships by launching a limited military campaign against Armenia.. In addition to this, the country is suffering from the national trauma of losing the war in 1990s. Even a symbolic victory could rally people’s support to the president. In a speech on April 3rd, President Ilham Aliyev claimed that Azerbaijan was reckless, and it punished Armenia for violation of international agreement. An inconsequential success was offered to domestic audiences as Azerbaijan’s victory; this campaign has been conceived largely for domestic consumption. Furthermore, without achieving tangible goals, it is becoming more arduous for the state to justify its skyrocketing military spending.
Here I would like to draw parallels between Azerbaijan’s actions on the frontline and Putin’s campaigns in Ukraine and Syria. As Kadri Liik puts it, “the collapse in oil price and the sanctions of 2014 erode the foundations of hitherto workable social contract [in Russia]. This means that now Putin is in need of a new type of legitimacy – which can be found in military chieftain type of leadership and permanent state of emergency”. Azerbaijan’s oil-dominated economy encountered difficulties due to a sharp decrease in oil prices, and the political establishment might be trying to distract people’s attentions from this with advances on the frontline.
Scenario 2: Azerbaijan might be trying to bring Armenia back to the negotiating table
Whenever the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan conduct negotiations within the frames of OSCE Minsk group in Geneva, the situation is escalating along the line of contact between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh. In all probability, both sides believe that successful military operations can advance their positions at the negotiating table. Although both parties are eager to solve this conflict, Armenia is less interested in altering the status quo, while Azerbaijan is losing patience. So the latest clashes may be in part due to the deadlock in negotiations. However, if we accept this assumption as fully accurate, it still does not mean that Azerbaijan started first, since one can also support to the view Baku might have responded acutely to the provocation from Armenian side, with the pre-determined strategy to behave so. After all, no matter who opened fire first, the consequences could be devastating. inasmuch as consequences could be equally devastating for both countries and the entire region.
Against this backdrop, Zaur Shiriyev argues that “by not pursuing a limited war strategy, Baku demonstrated its strategic approach—a short, sharp intervention. This can be described as a policy of attrition: wearing down the enemy to the point of compromise through continuous losses”. After four days of fighting, Azerbaijan took several strategic positions from where it can target Armenian military infrastructure.. With these clashes, Baku sent a message to Armenia that if they don’t return to the negotiating table with more flexible, Azerbaijan is able to inflict greater losses to Armenia, thereby maintenance of status quo could become more costly for Yerevan. If the Armenian side refuses to compromise in negotiations, it will have to live under constant fear of Azerbaijan’s attack. Azerbaijan demonstrated a willingness to use force if diplomacy fails.
When the latest hostilities broke out, the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia were visiting Washington to attend a nuclear security summit. This timing might be somewhat telling in the sense that presumably, Azerbaijan sought to show to the US and international community gathered at the summit that the conflict is not frozen, and more proactive work is needed to find a solution. Interestingly, Azerbaijan has always been frustrated by a lack of attention from the international community towards the conflict. For instance, after the Crimean crisis, President Ilham Aliyev accused the West of applying double standards, saying that whereas the West imposed sanctions against Russia for its intervention in Crimea, sanctions against Armenia have never been in the agenda for the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Russia’s alleged interest in outbreak of latest hostilities
Another line of thinking is that Armenia provoked fighting aided and abetted by the Kremlin. On the other hand, it is easy to claim that Armenia would be reluctant to amend the status quo. This produces an ambiguity regarding Russia’s ability to urge on Armenia to escalate the situation. There is a growing support to the claim that Azerbaijan escalated the conflict, but Russia had been conscious of its intentions. Thus, knowing that Azerbaijan would not go too far, Moscow might have given tacit consent to Baku to undertake military activities or respond to the ordinary provocation from the opposite side. On this ground, the following section analyzes how Russia could benefit from the latest clashes.
As already mentioned, on April 2, when clashes erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan, both presidents, Ilham Aliyev and Serzh Sargsyan were visiting the United States. Within the frames of their visits, both leaders met with Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden. Against this backdrop, Thomas De Waal suggests that the Kremlin may have incited hostilities with an aim to discredit the eminence of the United States as a peacemaker and to allege Moscow’s indispensability as an arbitrator. Interestingly, US State Secretary John Kerry made his first telephone call to Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov and not his Armenian or Azerbaijani counterparts to discuss the Karabakh situation. To some extent, it gives credence to the assumption that the United States recognizes Russia’s role as the main conciliator.
Secondly, as Richard Giragosian notes, Moscow might have wanted to aggravate the fragile ceasefire agreement in order to claim an urgent need to deploy peacekeeping forces between the Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh forces and Azerbaijani army. As Russia’s strategic ally, Armenia would welcome the increased military presence of Russia in the conflict region and in fact, this escalation could be used by Moscow as re-entry point in the region, given that Russian peacekeeping missions in post-Soviet space typically serve Russian, not local, interests. In view of this assertion, Jarosiewicz and Falkowski argue the following: “it is possible that in the near future, Moscow will seek to impose a provisional solution to the conflict, involving for example the introduction of peacekeeping forces to Nagorno-Karabakh de facto Russian, de jure under the aegis of the CSTO or CIS”. This assumption is convincing enough, inasmuch as Russian Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov proposed international peacekeepers to both Armenia and Azerbaijan already in 2015. Along similar lines, while reporting the recent hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia, “Russia’s state-run news agency TASS on April 7 duly cited remarks from the breakaway region of Transnistria, tightly aligned with Moscow, about its own supposedly positive experience using Russian peacekeepers to prevent clashes with Moldovan forces”.. By installing a peacekeeping mission, Russia can increase its military presence in the region and acquire direct control of developments in the Nagorno-Karabakh. This would be a powerful leverage in Russia’s hands to exert influence on internal and external policies of both countries.
Thirdly, as regional scholars argue, one of the preceding conflict outbreaks in 2014 was sparked by Armenia, and likely manipulated by Moscow. Immediately after the outbreak of violation, Putin invited both presidents in Sochi, where he arranged a trilateral meeting between conflict parties and Russia. Consequently, the situation on the frontline was stabilized and Kremlin played an important role in cutting short clashes. Thus, the Kremlin stimulated escalation to display its role as the principal mediator in the regional conflicts.
Likewise, amid the recent escalation, Russia expressed its enthusiasm to play the role of conciliator. Firstly, the Armenian and Azerbaijan army chiefs were invited in Moscow, where they agreed on ceasefire on April 5. Subsequently, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov visited Azerbaijan, concurrently with PM Sergei Medvedev’s visit in Armenia on April 7. During his meeting with President Ilham Aliyev, Sergey Lavrov used the chance to emphasize Moscow’s special role in the affairs of its former Soviet republics and what’s more, the Kremlin took an advantage to cast its diplomatic mission as entirely altruistic.
Fourth, it is well-known fact that Azerbaijan’s non-alignment foreign policy represents an acute hurdle for Russia. Although Azerbaijan’s geo-economic position in the region is extremely attractive for Moscow, Baku pulls away from the Russian-led regional organizations, such as Eurasian Economic Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization. Hence, Moscow misses no chance to invite Azerbaijan into these organizations. In his latest interview with Russian news agency TASS, Sergei Lavrov once again sent an implicit invitation to Azerbaijan, saying “the Collective Security Treaty Organization and Eurasian Economic Union do not include all Commonwealth of Independent States countries. For example, Azerbaijan is not part of either the EAEU or the CSTO. Although, I hope that this situation may change”.
Noticeably, the Kremlin seeks to back up this invitation strategy with combined use of carrots and sticks toward Azerbaijan. For instance, after Crimea’s annexation, the summer of 2014 saw the largest number of reported cases of ceasefire violations in the region since overt hostilities ended in 1994. As Valiyev argues, “[Azerbaijani] authorities feared that through these tensions Russia was sending a signal to Azerbaijan not to align closer with the West and even to consider the possibility of joining the Eurasian Union”. Thus, the latest hostilities may have entailed the hint for Azerbaijan that the door of Eurasian Economic Union remains open and Lavrov’s interview further validates this assumption. What is more, on 5 April, Russia embarked on military trainings, involving motorized brigades in its Southern military district in Daghestan, which shares border with Azerbaijan. Showcasing of its military power through the unforeseen exercises represents the common tactic for Kremlin, when it intends to affect on the developments in neighboring countries. As for the carrots, there are certain allegations that Moscow has offered Baku a deal – if Azerbaijan joins the Eurasian Economic Union, restoration of its territorial integrity can become reality. It is worth to note that if Baku accepts this deal, Moscow will have to give significant compensating incentives to Armenia, to avoid alienating Yerevan.
Unless there is an independent monitoring mission in Nagorno-Karabakh, we will never get to the bottom of how and why violence broke out once again recently. It seems that Azerbaijan might have had ample reasons to shake up the status quo. If this is the case, Ilham Aliyev might be posturing, to remedy deep-seated feelings of defeated nation. Time will tell as to whether Azerbaijan’s insignificant success on the frontline will result in a positive breakthrough in negotiations. Both leaders pledging to achieve a remarkable triumph for their populations does not leave room for compromise. Achieving a deal which assuages both countries will be extremely difficult.
Nevertheless the only power to benefit from these clashes is Russia. It is unlikely that Azerbaijan launched military action without considering Russia’s position. In view of the fact that Russia did not take measures to protect its strategic ally, Armenia, Moscow might have expected some gains from this situation. After Russia’s (claimed) successful campaign in Syria, Russia might be trying to play the role of arbitrator in South Caucasus conflicts. If Russia manages to deploy peacekeepers in this region, it will empower the Kremlin and diminish the West’s engagement in the region. Most likely, the Kremlin will toughen its pressure on Azerbaijan to drag the country into the Eurasian Economic Union.
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