Armenia and Azerbaijan Headed for All-Out War?
… or just stoking domestic support as usual?
Everyone wishes it was easier to tell the difference.
“Bellicose” has become the favorite word of South Caucasus diplomacy this summer as rhetoric and actions have been ramping up between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the past few months despite several moderated peace summits, leading some to fear a definitive heating up of the two nations’ frozen conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
After backing an ethnic-Armenian secession movement in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan in the early 1990′s, Armenia continues to militarily control most of Karabakh and other Azeri lands.
To a certain extent, these new daggers in the dialogue are not surprising as politicians from both sides have made diplomatic sniping into a sort of sport, but Azerbaijan has increasingly shown its dissatisfaction with the peace talks, with statements focusing on a expedient resolution “by any means possible.” On June 25, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev said publicly that if the long-running peace talks did not yield a positive result soon, then Azerbaijan was prepared to retake Karabakh and the Azeri territories surrounding it by force.
This came exactly one week after the deadliest skirmish on the line of contact between Armenian and Azeri forces in two years. It occurred near the village of Chayil just 24 hours after a meeting between the Armenian and Azeri presidents in St. Petersburg as a part of a Russian-mediated peace conference. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe released a statement three days later that said the skirmish ”can only be seen as an attempt to damage the peace process.” Experts said the facts pointed towards an Azeri incursion into Armenian-held lands, which killed four Armenian soldiers and one Azeri.
Richard Giragosian, director of the Armenian Center for National and International Studies (ACNIS) in Yerevan, said that while the June 18 attack fits into “a consistent pattern of limited skirmishes and probes, especially Azerbaijani probing the defensive positions on the Armenian side,” it was nonetheless the most serious cease-fire violation in the past two years.
Citing unidentified Armenian military sources, he said the attack must have been prepared over a period of several days. He described it as more professional and more deadly than previous such incursions. The attack began with an Azerbaijani sniper inflicting a fatal head wound on an Armenian soldier on the front line.
The skirmish was followed by an Armenian counter attack which killed one other Azeri soldier. The Azeri soldier, Ensign Mubariz Ibrahimov, who was killed in the initial skirmish was later awarded the title of National Hero of Azerbaijan. His service was described by Azeri news agency News.az as such:
On the night of June 19 Ibrahimov killed four occupants and injured five, one of whom is in coma. The hero was shot dead from the back. Ibrahimov’s body has not yet been returned to the Azerbaijani side.
One month later, both sides came together once again in Almaty, Kazakhstan to talk through the OSCE’s proposed resolution for the conflict, which includes “the return to Azerbaijani control of the territories bordering on Nagorno-Karabakh currently occupied by Armenian forces; interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh that provides guarantees of security and self-governance; a land corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia; future determination of the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh through ‘a legally binding expression of will’; the right of all internally displaced persons and refugees to return to their former places of residence; and international security guarantees that would include a peacekeeping operation.”
Sounds simple enough, no? The issue is that the OSCE path does not directly outline the sequence of these events, and although it includes nearly everything that each side wants, the two sides could not even agree upon a joint statement at the end of the conference that would have outlined some sort of progress or uniting principles.
Both [Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard] Nalbandian and [Azeri Foreign Minister Elmar] Mammadyarov said the initial intention was to release a joint statement by all five officials. Each blamed the other for thwarting that planned statement. Nalbandian termed Mammadyarov’s approach “destructive.” Mammadyarov for his part told journalists he has the impression that “Armenia has no desire to reach an agreement.”
In the end, there are a number of different ways to interpret this summer’s events:
– The pessimistic one is that after more than 15 years of fruitless peace talks, Azerbaijan, now far richer, more developed and more populous than Armenia, has decided to prepare for the final push to resolve this fight militarily. It has been steadily modernizing its military with new Turkish, Israeli and American arms, and now that it has made itself into an important supplier of energy production and transit, the international community will limit their reaction to condemnation, rather than raise their own energy prices over poor little Armenia.
– The optimistic version is that this is nothing we haven’t seen before, and the stalemate is going to remain in place because of the larger forces at work. These new tensions can be explained away by the fact that politicians on both sides maintain their power amid their flawed democracies by instilling nationalistic pride of their armed forces in the people, supplying examples of heroism in the face of ever-present boogeymen.
The wild card in all of this is Russia. Russia has signed several major energy deals with Azerbaijan over the past few years, and hopes to secure as much Azeri natural gas as it can in order to scuttle Western pipeline projects like Nabucco, which would reduce Europe’s energy dependance on Russian exports. On the other hand, Russia has 4,000 troops based in Armenia, and Armenia is the most enthusiastic member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a loose post-Warsaw Pact military alliance that Russia hopes to eventually fashion into a competitor with NATO.
In a sign that Russia hopes to continue to balance Armenia and Azerbaijan and maintain the status quo, Russia announced last week increased cooperation between Yerevan’s and Moscow’s respective defense industries, and this week announced it would redefine in “more explicit terms” its military cooperation with Armenia.
It said one of the amendments proposed by the protocol makes clear the Russian base will not only protect Russia’s interests but also contribute to Armenia’s national security.
Under another change cited by Interfax, Moscow will explicitly commit itself to providing its main South Caucasus ally with “modern and compatible weaponry and [special] military hardware.”
Here’s to hoping the Russians know what they’re doing.
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