1 Nov 2011
Possible War over Nagorno-Karabakh or Weapons ‘Fashion Show’?
Two major regional developments — the 2008 Russian-Georgian war and Armenian-Turkish rapprochement — have returned international attention to Nagorno-Karabakh and cultivated a renewed sense of urgency. The war in Georgia had a sobering effect on the regional actors and external powers alike, demonstrating the inherently fragile character of so-called frozen conflicts. During the Russian-Georgian war some believed that Azerbaijan might have been tempted to follow the Georgian example of a quick war with South Ossetia and the frozen conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh would have reactivated.
Since the 1994 ceasefire agreement, formidable defensive fortifications have been erected and expanded along the 110-mile line of contact replete with underground tunnels and minefields (International Crisis Group, 2011). The intensity and the number of cross border shootings and casualties are increasing. The escalating intensity, number of ceasefire violations, and defense budget increases on both sides are particularly worrying, because of the failure to make progress in the once promising peace negotiations mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs.
The latest meeting of the presidents of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Russia in Kazan in June 2011 failed to produce any results. During the negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh both sides always mention the necessity of a peaceful resolution, yet each side makes threats of a new war to pressure its opponent at the negotiating table, while also preparing for the possibility of a full-scale conflict in the event of a complete breakdown in the peace talks. A premeditated offensive by either side is unlikely at this point, but there is a growing risk that the increasing frontline tensions could lead to an accidental war (Giragosian, 2010). Moreover, if there is no breakthrough in the talks, there is a real chance that one side or the other could decide to go on the offensive.
With a rising oil-driven economy and military budget, Azerbaijan feels confident about its diplomatic and military strength (Azerbaijan’s annual value of oil exports in 2008 was $24 billion; due to lower oil prices, this figure is predicted to be $12 billion in 2009) (International Crisis Group, 2009). Combined with frustration over the talks this confidence is often translated into threats of war. Armenia sometimes also threatens back, and in turn blames the lack of progress on Azerbaijan and its belligerent rhetoric.
The military buildup of the conflicting sides might also evoke a security dilemma. To increase its security one of the conflicting sides starts the military buildup and in turn forces the other side to be engaged in it. This military buildup of the conflicting sides has a vicious circle. Moreover, we can see that neither conflicting side is interested in engaging in renewed war, so this buildup is just for increasing security and showing off.
I would like to draw your attention to a bright example of military showing off: two parades took place in 2011 in both Baku and Yerevan. A military parade is a visual form of subconscious influence that inspires confidence and gives people a sense of security.
On June 26, Azerbaijan held its biggest military parade since the fall of the Soviet Union.
The parade was attended by over 6,000 personnel — about 400 military vehicles, 60 weapons produced in Azerbaijan, 14 local military vehicles, 22 aircrafts, a lot of helicopters, and warships participated. The State Anthem of Azerbaijan was played, and the head of state made a speech before the parade started. President Ilham Aliyev announced that currently the Azerbaijani army is capable of carrying out any military operation, including the restoration of the country’s territorial integrity. He added that military spending has been increased 20 times and is now set at $3.2 billion, 50 percent higher than Armenia’s entire budget (Eastern Partnership Community, 2011).
Some months later, on September 21 Armenia’s fifth parade was held since its declaration of independence in 1991. The parade was attended by about 4,000 troops and featured 300 pieces of modern military hardware. Most importantly, though, the military demonstration for the first time featured Armenia’s offensive arsenal, including modern sophisticated weaponry. At around midday columns of servicemen, as well as tanks, military vehicles, towed artillery systems, and other pieces of modern hardware, paraded past the country’s leadership standing on a podium in Yerevan’s Republic Square.
Meanwhile, warplanes and helicopter gunships roared overhead with jets spraying the colors of the Armenian tricolor (red, blue, and orange) in the sky to the delight of the public.
Anyone following these two military parades can probably compare them with a fashion show. Moreover, like in fashion shows the commercial agents try to convince the world that their line of clothes are the most fashionable and their models are the most professional — the same picture was demonstrated during the parades in Azerbaijan and Armenia. Furthermore, as done by commercial agents for their stars, during the parades with the help of military forces each side persuaded the other with the powerfulness and professionalism of its army and the best quality of weapons, while simultaneously putting down the other side. Each side believes that its army is superior to that of its rival both technically and qualitatively. That is why numerical or qualitative superiority isn’t considered to be enough for comparison, thus the conflicting sides think that their military power should be even higher and this naturally brings forth an arms race and military build-up.
An arms race, escalating front-line clashes, rhetoric, and a virtual breakdown in peace talks are increasing the chance that Armenia and Azerbaijan will go back to war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Is it possible? Who knows? But one thing is obvious — preventing renewed war is urgent. Increased military capabilities on both sides would make a new armed conflict in the South Caucasus far more deadly than the 1991-1994 one that ended with a shaky ceasefire. Neither side would be likely to win easily or quickly. Regional alliances could be formed with the participation of Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Vital oil and gas pipelines near the front lines would be threatened impacting regional stability and security. Another refugee crisis and loss of human lives would be unavoidable. If large-scale hostilities resume, there would be little certainty over their duration, consequences, or outcome. Much would depend on the reaction of the international community, especially Russia and Turkey. Even though both sides have massively invested in their military might and tried to increase their troops, the balance of forces suggests no easy or quick victory. It’s obvious that a resumption of hostilities over Nagorno-Karabakh could pose a larger challenge for regional and European security than the Georgia-Russia war of August 2008. The biggest risk is that regional powers, particularly Russia and Turkey, would be pressured to become directly involved, contrary to their larger foreign policy interests.
A resumption of hostilities would seriously undermine energy interests of the U.S. and EU. Both seek to develop the South Caucasus as an alternative source and transit route for energy imports to Europe. A full-scale war would also threaten the Caucasus air corridor that accounts for nearly 70 percent of all NATO’s military transport flights to bases in Central Asia as well as the alternative overland supply route to Afghanistan via Azerbaijan.
Eastern Partnership Community (2011, October 25). Military parade in Azerbaijan – show of power. Retrieved from http://www.easternpartnership.org/daily-news/2011-06-27/military-parade-azerbaijan-show-power
Giragosian, R. (2010, July 6). Getting ready for an accidental war [Готовиться к случайной войне]. Lragir.am. Retrieved from http://www.lragir.am/russrc/print.politics14523
International Crisis Group (2011). Armenia and Azerbaijan: Preventing war. Europe Briefing No. 60. Retrieved from http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/europe/caucasus/B60-armenia-and-azerbaijan-preventing-war.aspx
International Crisis Group (2009). Nagorno-Karabakh: Getting to a breakthrough. Europe Briefing No. 55. Retrieved from http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/europe/caucasus/armenia/b55-nagorno-karabakh-getting-to-a-breakthrough.aspx
News service of the President of Russia. (2011, June 20). Presidents of Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan will hold a trilateral meeting in Kazan on June 24. Retrieved from http://eng.kremlin.ru/news/2430