19 May 2016
From ‘Not-so-frozen’ to Enduring Violence: Conflict Escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh
A military escalation over the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh could lead to further destabilization in the South Caucasus. This article discusses the most recent flare-up along the line of contact in Nagorno-Karabakh in early April 2016 with a focus on Azerbaijan’s domestic policy and its international implications.
In the evening of Friday, April 2, fighting erupted around the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Azerbaijani sources allege that in response to the shelling of Azeri positions the night before, Azerbaijani troops launched a series of attacks on Armenian forces dug in along the line of contact around the region of Nagorno-Karabakh (The Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan, 2016) using heavy artillery and helicopters resulting in hundreds of casualties on both sides. Armenian officials however deny this statement saying Azerbaijan is solely responsible for the outbreak (Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Ministry, 2016). This latest iteration of violence of Nagorno-Karabakh is the most violent the region has seen since 1994.
According to Azerbaijani official sources, a result of the sudden offensive, Azerbaijani troops took control over two strategically important hills in Lele Tepe (The Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan, 2016). After only four days of fighting, a truce was declared; although sporadic fighting continued resulting in further causalities.
While many familiar with the conflict anticipated an eventual resurgence of violence, the conflict dynamics in Nagorno-Karabakh have changed significantly over the last two years. Unable to offer terms that would satisfy the conflict sides, the international mediation through the OSCE Minsk Group (spearheaded by the OSCE Co-Chairs Russia, the United States, and France), proved largely unsuccessful at achieving a peace agreement. Disappointed with the Minsk process, Azerbaijani officials had increasingly hinted that Baku would consider a military solution to the conflict.
Fighting had intensified from early 2014, with a gradual increase in the use of large-caliber weapons supplied to both sides by Russia. Until recently, Azerbaijan seemed reluctant to return to large-scale warfare with Armenia, despite its obvious discontent with the stalemate in the peace process over Nagorno-Karabakh.
After the early April flare-up, many are left wondering why the long-frozen conflict suddenly escalated.
Belligerent reprisals come as oil feeds crisis
If frustration over the initial defeat in the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s and the subsequent ability of Armenia to maintain the post-conflict status quo was indeed the driving force behind the Azerbaijani assault on the line of contact, the international oil market could certainly have been a powerful trigger. The plunge in oil prices that occurred in autumn 2015 led to a revenue shortfall in Azerbaijan’s hydrocarbon economy. Whereas from 2006-2014, oil prices helped Azerbaijan boost its defense industry, increasing the gap in military spending between Baku and Yerevan (3,2 billion USD against 381 million USD in 2012), the growing loss in revenues has raised questions about the sustainability of Azerbaijan’s militarization. Experts point to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Dmitri Rogozin’s visit to Baku in March 2016 as indicative of the new constraints on Azerbaijan’s strategy of a military build-up as the primary means to raise pressure on the Karabakh issue. During his visit, Rogozin discussed delayed payments on heavy weapons and infantry vehicles shipped to Azerbaijan, inferring that the government in Baku was unable to meet its financial obligations (Azadliq Radiosu, 2016). Against this background, Baku was confronted with the prospect of losing its strategic military advantage over Armenia.
Within Azerbaijan, the most recent assault on the line of contact was largely met with enthusiasm. Over the last several years, Karabakh has come to symbolize Azerbaijani identity and militarist rhetoric has played a key role in legitimizing the actions of the Azerbaijani authorities. Tensions over Nagorno-Karabakh have often been used by President Ilham Aliyev as a means to brand whoever opposes his policy as a ‘public enemy’ of the Azerbaijani state. With regard to domestic political considerations, it could be argued that the military assault also served as a PR campaign designed to distract constituents from Azerbaijan’s growing economic woes and unstable currency.
Russia, Turkey, and Nagorno-Karabakh
Because the violence erupted while Presidents Ilham Aliyev and Serzh Sargsyan were attending the Nuclear Summit in Washington, D.C., some analysts have suggested the possibility of Russian involvement. Proponents of this theory suggest that Moscow may have planned to provoke Azerbaijan in order to undermine US credentials as a mediator (De Waal, 2016). However, this theory misreads Russian interests in the Caucasus. Moscow is unlikely to seek further destabilization in Nagorno-Karabakh because of fears that the conflict would spill over into the broader region, notably the North Caucasus.
Furthermore, since Moscow is heavily engaged in the Syrian conflict, another war on Russia’s doorstep, in what is arguably its most volatile neighboring region, would likely cost President Vladimir Putin more than he would stand to gain from it. Somewhat contrary to the popular belief that Armenia and Russia maintain special diplomatic relations, this may explain Moscow’s reluctance to support Yerevan, instead calling on both parties to stop the fighting.
Another line of thinking, popular with Russian experts, identifies Turkey’s role in Azerbaijan’s decision to assault Armenian positions in Nagorno-Karabakh. Since Turkey downed a Russian Sukhoi SU-24 jet in 2015, the two countries have been pursued harsh rhetoric and sanctions against one another. On the other hand, Baku enjoys good relations with both Ankara and Moscow. When the incident broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu issued a public statement of support for Azerbaijan (Azadliq Radiosu, 2016). Although Davutoğlu’s comment hints at the potential for a proxy war between Russia and Turkey, it would not be in Azerbaijan’s best interests to play along such a scenario. The extent to which Turkey is able to influence Azerbaijani politics remains to be seen. It is more likely that Azerbaijan, perceiving an impending loss of superiority over Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, sought to change the balance of power in the region on its own with a low-scale military campaign, an alternative that Baku has flirted with for some time.
Will diplomacy speak?
There is an old Soviet saying: “When the cannons are heard, the muses are silent.”. Like the metaphorical muses, diplomacy can also be muted. In fact, as fighting resumed in Nagorno-Karabakh, the silence among the main stakeholders was deafening. While the Minsk Group co-chairs have routinely condemned violence, it has become clear that international mediation suffers from insufficient interest on all sides. At the same time, Azerbaijan’s military assault has significantly challenged the regional status-quo. While Azerbaijani troops managed to take a small section of territory, their ability to retain this land is uncertain at best. Moreover, Armenian forces are almost certain to seek those territories’ return through means that may well fuel further escalation. As tensions reach the boiling point, new assaults and increased casualties along the line of contact are almost unavoidable. The question however remains how soon we will get to hear diplomacy, and not cannons, speak.
Azadliq Radiosu. (2016, April 5). Davutoglu:”Türkiyə Azərbaycanın yanındadır”. Retrieved April 13, 2016, from http://www.azadliq.org/content/article/27655673.html (in Azerbaijani)
Azadliq Radiosu. (2016, March 3). Dmitry Rogozin Bakıdadır. Retrieved April 13, 2016, from http://www.azadliq.org/content/article/27586493.html (in Azerbaijani)
De Waal, T. (2016, April 2). Dangerous Days in Karabakh. Retrieved April 5, 2016, from Carnegie Europe: http://carnegie.ru/commentary/2016/04/02/dangerous-days-in-karabakh/iwiu
Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Ministry. (2016, April 2). Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Ministry. Retrieved April 5, 2016, from http://nkrmil.am/main/en/newsMore1240.html
The Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan. (2016, April 2). Cəbhədə vəziyyətlə bağlı son məlumat. Retrieved April 5, 2016, from Müdafiə Nazirliyinin: http://mod.gov.az/index2.php?content=news/2016/20160402_melumat_cebheson (in Azerbaijani)