Azerbaijan & Armenia: Conflict Underscores Changing Security Dynamics

Azerbaijan flag is depicted in liquid watercolor style isolated on white background

The outbreak of renewed fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh demonstrates a shifting security situation in the region. A belligerent Azerbaijan, encouraged by escalating Turkish backing, combined with a more recalcitrant Russia, will embolden Baku’s attempts to reclaim territory. This, in turn, will leave Armenia isolated and more willing to compromise or risk protracted conflict between the two sides.

Background

Fighting erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas on 27 September. Hundreds of deaths have been reported as a result of  the fighting, with heavy shelling reported in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s regional capital. The two longstanding adversaries previously fought a war over Nagorno-Karabakh, between 1988-1994, which resulted in 30,000 deaths and ostensibly an Armenian victory. Since then, the majority ethnic Armenian populated territory, while internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, is under de-facto control by Armenian backed forces.  

Failure to diplomatically resolve the frozen territorial dispute has culminated in decades of severely strained relations between Baku and Yerevan, prompting intermittent outbreaks in cross-border skirmishes. Currently, the fighting appears to be at its highest level since 1994, superseding a flare-up of violence in 2016, which killed hundreds of combatants on both sides. The latest clashes also follow exchanges of cross-border fire in July, further north, outside of Nagorno-Karabakh, which killed tens of combatants. 

Uptick in fighting

Nagorno-Karabakh Azerbaijan Fight Armenia Turkish Moscow

The recent fighting is notable for its intensity and duration. Previous flare-ups have been successfully subdued by Russian diplomatic interventions, who also helped broker the 1994 ceasefire. However, after a fortnight of conflict, with rising death tolls on each side, diplomatic efforts have been slow to gain traction. In comparison, the 2016 conflict lasted four-days before culminating in a fragile ceasefire. This new development is significant because a bellicose Azerbaijan, buttressed by military assistance from Turkey, appears set on achieving long-term objectives. This means recapturing territory lost in 1994, rather than mere brief tit-for-tat engagements across the Line of Control. Both Baku and Yerevan mobilising their reservist forces demonstrates simultaneous expectation of sustained conflict

Wider regional security concerns

The fighting also represents an immediate threat to security both in Nagorno-Karabakh and the wider region. Fighting appears to have already spilled outside the territory. Baku has accused Yerevan of shelling its second largest city, Ganja. Meanwhile, stray missiles have purportedly landed in Iranian territory. The interest of both Turkey and Russia risks Nagorno-Karabakh becoming a proxy war for their geopolitical aims, akin to their involvements in Syria and Libya. Further material support from these states enables both Armenia and Azerbaijan to prolong fighting rather than seek a peace accord. This exacerbates the risk of the conflict becoming protracted  similar to the Syrian Civil War, ongoing since 2011, which has drawn in several international actors. The fighting reverberates further than two small nations in the South Caucasus.

Despite its location on the periphery of Europe, the conflict is geo-strategically important due to the location of energy pipelines flowing from Azerbaijan out of the Caspian Sea. Baku has further accused Yerevan of targeting the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, which lies north of the conflict zone, although these reports are unverified. Fears arise that a prolonged conflict could threaten critical infrastructure and energy flows from the Caspian Sea. For now, the impact on energy markets appears limited, notably due to the glut of oil supply in the markets due to diminished demand stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and the availability of alternative supplies. Yet this remains a cogent risk for Baku. Azerbaijan relies on oil and gas exports for 37% of its GDP and supply disruptions would seriously harm its economy.

Azerbaijan: Ambitious aims and increasing power

Azerbaijan, buoyed by further hydrocarbon discoveries has spent the intervening years developing its military capacity, purchasing weaponry from Turkey and Israel. With its new-found strength, Baku appears set on reclaiming territory outside Nagorno-Karabakh it lost in 1994, which represents its most determined military overtures since the war ended. During the war, Armenia also seized seven de jure Azerbaijani districts outside of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which Armenia has utilised as a militarised buffer zone and to connect the exclave to Armenian territory. Subsequently, Baku’s current offensive has targeted Fizulu and Jabrayil, two of these districts lost, which Armenia has since been settling with its own citizens. New impetus from Turkish backing, combined with strong domestic support for the conflict has enticed President Aliyev to make meaningful steps to recover lost territory.

Increased support from Turkey shifts the balance of power in the region, galvanising Azerbaijan’s attempts to reclaim lost territory. Provision of military hardware and of militiamen on the battlefield enable Baku to continue the fight from a position of strength. Turkish made drones have appeared on the battlefields in recent weeks, further underscoring the importance of support from Ankara. These drones are particularly effective against a country with limited UAV defence capabilities. 

Similarly, they ameliorate deficiencies in Azerbaijan’s own air force capabilities, affording a cheap alternative, which can be rapidly deployed in the mountainous regions of Nagorno-Karabakh. Meanwhile, drone footage showing strikes on Armenian air defence systems and tanks has emboldened support for the fighting for a domestic audience. Impassioned protests and patriotic displays in July, during the last conflict have emboldened Baku to pursue further military action. Footage displaying military successes, which is made possible by Turkish technology, will stoke further jingoistic domestic support to continue the fighting rather than settle for a truce.

Turkish involvement

Signs of overt Turkish involvement in support of its longstanding ally Azerbaijan adds an unprecedented dynamic to the security nexus. Turkey, which shares cultural linkages and receives energy imports from Azerbaijan, has vociferously backed Baku in recent weeks. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for Armenia to leave lands he claims it occupies from Azerbaijan. Assistance comes in the form of military hardware, observers have noted the presence of Turkish F16 fighter aircraft at Azerbaijani military bases. Meanwhile, evidence suggests Turkey has shipped hundreds of fighters from Syria to support Baku in its military offensive. In turn, Yerevan has accused Ankara of shooting down an aircraft in its airspace.

Russian reluctance to intervene

Russia has traditionally acted as a mediator between two former Soviet Republics. Moscow holds cordial relations and vested interests with both sides, including arms sales with Baku. Yet it retains more significant cultural and bilateral ties with Yerevan. Moscow holds a collective security agreement with Armenia, which is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, offering protection against foreign aggression. However, this does not extend to Nagorno-Karabakh. Militarily it maintains a base in Armenia close to the Turkish border. 

However, Russia has not rushed to the defence of Armenia since the fighting began. In fact, it has become increasingly ambivalent towards Armenia’s stance on Nagorno-Karabakh in recent years, deterring greater Russia intervention in the future. Moscow has grown tired of Yerevan dithering on the Madrid Principles, which seek to return the seven de jure districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. Failure to move forward with these agreements has led to Moscow questioning Armenia’s intentions to resolve the frozen conflict. The arrival of Armenia’s government in 2018, which Moscow perceived as the latest ‘Colour Revolution’ in the region has exacerbated Moscow’s antipathy towards Yerevan, further deterring Moscow’s support. Remiss of reliable backing from Moscow leaves Armenia isolated against renewed Azerbaijani aggression. 

Mediation to continue in coming weeks

Russia has ramped up diplomatic efforts, after sluggish initial attempts at finding a peaceful solution. The Foreign Ministry invited Azeri Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov and Armenian counterpart Zohrab Mnatsakanyan to Moscow on 9 October. This resulted in a fragile ceasefire agreed on 10 October. However, forming a prolonged ceasefire will prove an extremely difficult task. Initial reports suggest that shelling occurred in several areas, merely hours after the initial truce came into force. The talks in Moscow appear beset with difficulties. Azerbaijan are unwilling to accept Armenian calls to recognise Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state. Similarly, the likelihood of agreement is limited while Azerbaijan continues attacks with limited prospect of a lasting truce. 

Fighting between the two sides is becoming a more regular phenomenon and risks becoming increasingly intractable moving forward. Russia, alongside the Minsk group will continue to pursue diplomatic means to resolve the conflict. Moscow, currently dealing with crises in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and protests in Khabarovsk does not wish to see further upheaval on its borders. However, its increasingly recalcitrant policies towards Armenia, coinciding with Azerbaijan’s new-found confidence will make conciliation hard to come by. This is compounded by Turkey’s support for Baku, which will encourage further aggression. An isolated Yerevan will face further attempts to be cajoled into returning to the Madrid Principles, as a starting point to normalise relations and return the territories outside Nagorno-Karabakh. Failure to do this will result in likely continued hostile actions from Azerbaijan. 

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