Caucasus in Conflict, Pt. I

Due to the recent events surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh IISA, has contacted experts from Armenia as well as Azerbaijan for strategic comments. Unlike in standard Western media this is a constantly recurring topic in the Caucasus, and heavily discussed on social media. N.b. The views presented do not necessarily reflect those of IISA.

Today in Part I we present thoughts from Armen and Karen. Armen Manuk-Khaloyan is an MA candidate in History at the California State University, Northridge. His interests lie in late Ottoman/European history, but he has been following the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for close to ten years now. Karen Harutyunyan is editor of CivilNet, a major online newspaper in Armenia, and the Civilitas Foundation, a development agency and think-tank that works to strengthen civil society, promote democracy, economic development and education in Armenia, and facilitate dialogue between Armenia and the international community on a number of pertinent political issues.

1) Why has the Nagorno Karabakh conflict triggered recently? Who is responsible?

Armen: As you probably know, the ceasefire signed between the warring sides in 1994 left Armenians in control of the territory that once was the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, as well as seven territories immediately adjacent to it. The ceasefire was simply a cessation of hostilities, however, not a permanent peace agreement. Peace negotiations, supervised by the OSCE, have been taking place ever since but over the past twenty-two years the absence of a peace treaty has meant that the line of contact (LoC) separating the forces of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) and Azerbaijan has come to be heavily fortified and militarised.

Violations across the LoC are frequent, but usually do not encompass more than the exchange of small arms gunfire and, on occasion, small calibre projectiles and artillery. For the most part, Armenia and the NKR see no real reason, indeed any benefit, to restart hostilities – they are comfortable with the status quo. The same cannot be said for Azerbaijan, which for years, originally under the late President Heidar Aliyev and recently with his son and successor Ilham Aliyev, has been threatening to retake the territories held by the Armenians by force. Their hand has been stayed, partially in order not to jeopardise the peace negotiations, partially due to pressure exerted by the OSCE, but mainly because there is still some hesitation as to whether Azerbaijan has the military wherewithal to challenge Armenia and the NKR. Though Azerbaijan has made no secret of purchasing billions of dollars in arms in ever greater quantities (mainly from Russia, but also from Turkey and Israel), it is widely considered by experts and analysts that the Armenian side holds the upper hand – in training, preparedness, military hardware, command of strategic positions, etc. – to check any serious advance or incursion (a belief which has been vindicated over the past few days).

Given that Azerbaijan’s economy is heavily reliant on drawing revenues from oil sales (around 94% of its export economy is based on oil and gas exports) as oil prices have lately been falling on the world market, the Nagorno-Karabakh issue has assumed new urgency for the country’s leaders. Only recently it was reported that Azerbaijani officials were in talks with the World Bank and IMF for a loan agreement that will help make up for the shortfall in revenues. This is after Azerbaijan burned through 60% of their national reserves last year just to defend their currency from sliding. Furthermore, wracked by dissent against Aliyev’s repressive domestic policies and heavy-handed tactics against those who criticized the regime, I feel Azerbaijan wishes to demonstrate to its people some tangible action that somehow justifies the billions of dollars that have been spent on arms rather than, say, civic infrastructure or refugee housing (to say nothing about allegations of family corruption as revealed recently in the story of the Panama Papers), as well as show that it is doing something to resolve the Karabakh issue. It is, of course, impossible to say with certainty who started the latest round of fighting.

However, given the above and the fact that Azerbaijan has in the past refused to pull back snipers from the LoC, as well as to install monitoring devices that would indicate the direction of incoming fire (two points which the Armenian side has expressed its desire to commit to), logic would militate toward that conclusion and it is not difficult to see why it might be more inclined to commence the fighting, an opinion which has been shared by others including a seasoned expert in this field, Thomas de Waal.

Karen: There is no simple answer of course, but I think it can be summarised into the following four factors: 1) The negation process is in a complete deadlock. 2) The general international setting is currently not favourable for resolution of the conflict. 3) There is an absolute lack of trust and respect between two countries’ leaders and foreign ministers. 3) Azerbaijan’s economy is declining, particularly with an eye to oil. This will continue in the coming years. Baku’s authoritarian regime is more interested in retaining power, than finding a solution to the problem. Azerbaijan’s military expenditures have created the false idea that conflict can be resolved militarily. Their plan was to have a blitz krieg and I think they failed.

Azerbaijan is responsible. It is Azerbaijan that aspires revenge, and uses military rhetoric and xenophobia. No Armenian, regardless of his/her citizenship can practically go to Azerbaijan. This is Nazism.

2) Is there an appetite for an all-out war in Yerevan or would the current ceasefire hold?

Armen: I would say that while there is no appetite for a new war in Armenia, if the fighting picks up at such intensity as to threaten the existential rights of the Armenians living in the NKR/Armenia, then its leaders might reconsider their military objectives in order forestall such a scenario.

 

Karen: The word “appetite” and the question is not correct in the context of Yerevan. Armenian leadership has always been ready for compromise based on three principles – self-determination, return of territories, and abstaining from the use of force. Azerbaijan wants to ignore self-determination and change the format of negotiations under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group. It is Azerbaijan, not Armenia, that refuses to put international investigative mechanisms on the line of contact. It also refuses to pull out snipers from the line of contact. So my simple answer is that Yerevan does not want war. The current ceasefire is very shaky but it will not grow into an all-out war. However, short escalations like the one we saw in April could happen in the future if the international community continues to fail at the negotiation table.

3) What role is Russia playing, if any? How do people see the EU?

Armen: Russia’s role in all this is complex, to say the least. Russia supplies arms to both sides, but with Armenia it has enjoyed a long, if not always harmonious relationship. Russia also has a formal defence alliance with Armenia and operates two military installations in Armenia: the 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, which is primarily intended to protect Armenia from attack by neighbouring Turkey, and the 3624th Air Base at Erebuni, which contains the Russian military’s aerial contingent in Armenia, consisting of a squadron of air superiority MiG-29 fighter jets and several Mi-24 attack helicopters. It sells weapons to Armenia at severely discounted rates. Some Armenians in Armenia are ambivalent toward Russia and do wonder why it does not adopt policies that wholly align with Armenia’s interests, but most find its military presence reassuring and necessary given the hostile climate of the region. Feelings are less pronounced with regards to the EU – some would wish that it show a greater interest and concern in events taking place in the Caucasus, but it does not currently appear to rank too high on the EU’s list of international priorities.

While Russia is sometimes viewed as a power that occasionally stirs trouble in the region to fulfil some nebulous foreign policy objective, it should be understood that it is not as omnipresent to exert influence on every single event that takes place in the Caucasus. This is especially the case for the breakdown of the ceasefire on the LoC, where there are localised actors who sometimes do take matters into their own hands.

Karen: Russia is a big secondary actor and both Armenia and Azerbaijan are militarily dependent on it for arms supplies etc. Armenia is also very dependent on Russia economically. I think Russia would be interested in a settlement, which would entail the deployment of its peacekeeping forces in the region. Given Russia’s huge arms supplies to Azerbaijan I would say Russia has played a destructive rather than a constructive role, knowing the purpose of Baku.

The EU does not have any substantial role in the Karabakh peace process. And in my opinion its approach on the NK issue is largely formulated by the USA’s and France’s positions.

4) Does the instability in the Middle East and Ukraine etc. plays a role in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict?

Armen: It is somewhat hard to define. It would be difficult to deny that events in those places have some (however slight) effect on what happens in Nagorno-Karabakh. In early 2015, for example, some Armenians did wonder if the right to self-determination can be applied more forcefully given Russia’s championing of the rights of the people living in the Donbass and Crimea. With regards to the Middle East, the connection between events taking place there and Nagorno-Karabakh is perhaps more tenuous. There might be something to be said about the recent flare up in relations between Russia and Turkey (the latter being a staunch supporter of Azerbaijan), and these skirmishes might figure as a component of that rivalry.

 

Karen: I do not think these instabilities directly triggered escalation in Karabakh. However, Russia’s and the West’s contradictions over Ukraine and Syria are not favourable for the Karabakh peace process, given the fact that Russia, the USA and France are the co-chairs of the Minsk Group.

5) What role should international community play in addressing and eventually resolving the conflict?

Armen:  This has been a vexing issue for all parties involved. Very briefly, I do not think it is possible to impose a solution, but certainly the most important thing at the moment would be to see the cessation of hostilities, followed perhaps by some minimal steps to demilitarise the border (such as the withdrawing of snipers and the installing of monitoring systems, as mentioned in point 1). A greater number of observers, whether operating as part of an OSCE- or UN-commissioned mandate, working along both sides of the LoC with both sides’ permission may also help inspire confidence-building measures.

Karen: I think the international community will make clear that there is no military solution to the conflict. It also should clearly blame certain side(s) for violation of the ceasefire, rather than ordinary statements. The international community will also work to bring NK to the negotiation table. The international community, especially the EU and the USA, must put more effort into democratisation of the Caucasus region.

6) How do people of Armenia see recent hostilities? Is there a support for government?

Armen: Most Armenians in Armenia view the skirmishes along the LoC as tragic. They consider the attacks launched on April 1 as unprovoked and instigated by Azerbaijan for its own political purposes. Reports of atrocities committed against Armenian civilians by Azerbaijani troops in the frontline village of Talysh have certainly not put a damper on that perspective. The rhetoric in Armenia has not revolved too much around the politicians, but there is widespread confidence in the competency of the political and military leadership of Armenia and the NKR.

 

Karen: Armenian government has a lack of legitimacy. However, in national issues, like NK issue, there is a consensus among almost all the parties. For example, Armenia’s current president, Serzh Sargsyan, met president Levon Ter-Petrosyan yesterday, to discuss the Karabakh issue. Their 1st meeting since 1998. So there is a national consensus on the Karabakh issue, and it is that Karabakh cannot be returned under Azerbaijani control under any circumstance.

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