In the South Caucasus, a cold war may soon turn hot

Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at a state of conflict since 1988. While a ceasefire agreement was signed six years later, sporadic clashes have erupted frequently since then. Both countries have lately stepped up their military spending. The Perspective spoke to both countries’ foreign ministers about how severe the current threat of war is.

Situated in the Caucasus between Turkey and the Caspian Sea, Armenia and Azerbaijan have a troubled past. The two countries declared independence in 1918 after the fall of the Russian Empire. While diplomatic relations were briefly established between Yerevan and Baku, a war broke out between the countries later that year, only ending when both were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1920.

With the Eastern Bloc beginning to fall apart in the late 1980’s, tensions arose in the Caucasus once again. In 1988 the inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh, a majority Armenian region that was a part of the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic, held an independence referendum and announced their sovereignty from Baku.

Nagorno-Karabakh based legality of this on a 1990 USSR law, which authorized autonomous entities and compact ethnic groups within a Soviet Republic to independently decide their own legal status in case the Republic secedes from Soviet Union. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, considered the declaration illegal – referring to UN Security Council resolutions 822, 853, 874 and 884 – and acted militarily on the separatists. This caused Armenia to intervene – resulting in a war that lasted until 1994.

Both countries have since become highly militarized. Armenia spends 21 percent of its state budget on defense, while Azerbaijan reserves 11 percent for that purpose. However, Azerbaijan’s economy is much larger than that of Armenia – and in total its military spending is three times as large.

But too much focus should not be put into these numbers, Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan told The Perspective during his visit to Stockholm.

“It is not about the money. Nagorno-Karabakh has sufficient capacity to defend itself. Armenia is their only security guarantor and we are able to defend both ourselves and our compatriots,” Mnatsakanyan said.

Azerbaijan, on the other hand, sees Armenia as the far more militarized and aggressive party in the conflict.

“Azerbaijan continues to face military aggression, which has resulted in the occupation of
one fifth of our territory and more than one million Azerbaijani refugees and IDPs”, Elmar
Mammadyarov, Azerbaijan’s foreign minister told The Perspective in an email.

“Regretfully, the military occupation of the Azerbaijani territories by Armenia continues to represent a serious threat to regional and international security and undermines the efforts of my country to utilize its full potential for sustainable development,” Mammadyarov said, also stressing that the reason for a higher military expenditure is due to Azerbaijan’s much larger state budget than that of Armenia.

Azerbaijan Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov. Photo: Azerbaijan Press Offfice.

He also noted that since its inception, combat operations have been conducted exclusively inside the territory of Azerbaijan, and that Armenia, according to the Global Militarization Index, is the third most militarized country in the world.

Skirmishes between the two nations have been frequent ever since a ceasefire was agreed in 1994, with hundreds of soldiers killed since, and a peace treaty has yet to be signed. Since Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally considered as Azerbaijani territory, Baku has in recent years grown increasingly impatient with the current status quo.

The past decade has seen the border conflict increase in scope. Azerbaijan announced in July 2014 that eight of its soldiers had been killed over the course of three days and responded militarily. Russia, maintaining good relations with both countries, issued a statement warning both sides not to escalate the situation further, but to no avail – by the end of the year, 27 Armenians and 39 Azerbaijanis had died, and a Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army helicopter gunship had been shot down.

The fiercest clashes since the ceasefire came into effect erupted in 2016. The most intense fighting happened in the beginning of April, and while casualty sources vary, both countries put their own losses at close to a hundred soldiers each. Armenia admits to losing 14 tanks in the battles, while Azerbaijan says they lost one tank, one drone and one helicopter gunship.

The clashes, later known as the Four Day War, also saw territorial changes for the first time since 1994, to Azerbaijan’s advantage. Their sources say that twenty square kilometers was captured, while Armenia puts the number at eight square kilometers.

With skirmishes erupting spontaneously, the northern part of the border is manned by the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army and Armenia’s Interior Police forces on one side, and Azerbaijan’s State Border Service on the other – not the military forces of respective country. Foreign Minister Mammadyarov sees this as a positive development, able to build reciprocal confidence to reduce violations of ceasefire along the borderline, but makes reservations regarding the independence of the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army.

“This is not a type of proxy war but an inter-state war situation where Armenia’s armed forces are direct participants and the responsible party for the occupation of Azerbaijan’s internationally-recognized territories as enshrined in many international resolutions. It is evident by the well-known fact that the son of Armenian Prime Minister is doing his military service in the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan,” Mammadyarov said.

His Armenian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mnatsakanyan, instead emphasized that Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh are separate entities.

“Armenia is the only security guarantor of Nagorno-Karabakh. There is no way we can create or allow a vacuum for our compatriots, this is about human lives,” he said.

Mnatsakanyan argued that since the people of Nagorno-Karabakh are represented by their democratically elected government and they do not participate in Armenia’s elections, Yerevan does not have the mandate of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to speak on their behalf.

“People say that we can exert pressure on them if we are supporting them. Who would? There is no government in Armenia that will survive five minutes if it breaks this security guarantee. We Armenians are proud and self-confident people. We are aware of our history, and aware of and appreciate our identity,” the foreign minister said.

Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan. Photo: Fredrik Fahlman.

Earlier this year, Armenian Defense Minister Davit Tonoyan announced that his country would buy four Russian-made Su-30 fighter jets. The multirole combat aircraft is scheduled for arrival in the following months, in a deal that is said to be worth 100 million dollars. The country’s Minister of High-Tech Industry Hakob Arshakyan also revealed that Armenia’s military industry budget would increase by 122 percent in 2020.

Mammadyarov sees this as a safety concern for the region, and evidence that Armenia aims to cement the status quo through military occupation of Azerbaijan’s territories. He also expressed unease over Armenia’s offensive military trainings inside Nagorno-Karabakh.

“If we take a glance at the tactical profile of the weapons that Armenia purchases, we can notice that they are planning to double their prospective firing range beyond the occupied territories and deeper into Azerbaijan’s mainland areas,’’ he said.

Azerbaijan’s arms diversification, on the contrary, seeks to ensure its territorial integrity and is of purely defensive purposes, according to Mammadyarov.

For Armenia, stepping up arms acquisitions and military spending is a safety necessity. Mnatsakanyan strongly denies that his country has any offensive plans in mind.

“Our recent weapon acquisition does not mean that war is more likely – it means that we are making absolutely sure that our capacity to defend is adequate,” he said.

Russia is often acting as a mediator between the two countries. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (left), together with Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) and former Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan. Photo: Kremlin, 2016.

According to Mnatsakanyan, the uncertainty of war and the potentially massive loss of lives should be enough of a deterrent in itself, and that the alternative to peace is not what anyone would wish for.

“They seem to be talking the language of war with quite ease. If war would start, do they even know what will happen the next day, let alone who will win? I do not,” he said, stressing his country’s wish for a diplomatic solution.

But should push come to shove, Mnatsakanyan said that it does not mean that the language of threats will work on Armenia.

“We are able to defend ourselves and we have sufficient capacity to inflict damage on
aggressors. Therefore, we insist on peace.”

Mnatsakanyan has backing for his claims. The armed forces of Armenia possesses more than two hundred artillery pieces capable of devastating Azerbaijani border cities. More importantly, the country has an arsenal of ballistic missiles, including eight Soviet-era R-17 Elbrus and four modern Russian-made 9K720 Iskander. Both are capable of striking the Azerbaijani capital Baku – a city of more than two million – and the Iskander especially is known for evading anti-missile systems.

List of military assets between the countries. These numbers should, however, be seen with caution, as the quality of certain entities may vary significantly.

Azerbaijan’s military possess a multitude of missile defense systems, both aging and modern, but they are not known to ever have been test-fired. Should full-scale war erupt between the countries – and Armenia strikes Baku with a combined effort of its Air Force and ballistic missile systems – Azerbaijan can not guarantee the safety of its capital. Regardless of Azerbaijan’s superior military strength, this deterrent acts as an enormous advantage for Armenia in avoiding escalated conflict.

Despite the countries’ differences, Mammadyarov and Mnatsakanyan have held half a dozen meetings this year under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, and their working group called the Minsk Process. Both Foreign Ministers agree on that the talks are important for de-escalation and that concrete progress is being made, with Mnatsakanyan saying that there has been a visible reduction of ceasefire violations for more than a year since the talks began.

His Azerbaijani counterpart agreed, saying that his country is striving for a peaceful coexistence of both Armenian and Azerbaijani communities in Nagorno-Karabakh, while highlighting that the region lies inside Azerbaijani territory. He also underlined, however, that meetings should not be held just for the sake of it.

“We should strive to have tangible progress towards a resolution to the conflict,’’ he said.

Lamberto Zannier, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, sees the role of the Minsk Process as more important than ever, while also expressing concern over the recent military buildup on both sides.

“It is a matter of finding the right incentives. We had moments that were difficult and we have seen lots of casualties, and while it has not exploded entirely, the situation is certainly very dangerous. The potential for major conflict has increased,” he told The Perspective.


Timeline of Nagorno-Karabakh and hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan:

1915 – 1917: Between 600,000 and 1.5 million Armenians from Anatolia are deported or massacred, due to the Ottomans believing that they were conspiring with the Russian Empire. Today 32 countries recognizes the occurrence as a genocide, including the US, Russia, and most of the EU. Turkey and Azerbaijan denies the historical factuality of the event.

1918: Armenia and Azerbaijan declare independence. They later declare war on one another.

1920: The Red Army conquers both countries.

1922: Armenia and Azerbaijan, along with Georgia, are incorporated into the Soviet Union.

1930s: While benefiting from industrial development, Armenia also suffers from Stalin’s purges.

1985: Mikhail Gorbachev introduces Glasnost, a policy of increased openness, throughout the Soviet Union.

1988: Encouraged by increased freedom of speech, Armenian’s campaign for Nagorno-Karabakh – a region populated mainly by Armenian’s but within Azerbaijan’s borders – to be united with Armenia. Many Azerbaijanis begin to leave Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, and Armenia’s leave Azerbaijan. Violence between the two ethnic groups are erupting.

1989: Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh begins.

1990: Armenian nationalists win parliamentary elections and declare self-rule, which is ignored by Moscow.

1991: Both countries declare their  independence from the Soviet Union. 

1992: Full-fledged war is erupting over Nagorno-Karabakh.

1992-1993: Armenian forces captures more Azerbaijani territory, creating a corridor linking Armenia to Karabakh.

1994: Russia broker a ceasefire between the countries. 30,000 people are killed and more than a million civilians are displaced.

1994: Baku signs an agreement with a consortium of international oil companies, allowing for exploitation of three of its oil fields. It is called the “contract of the century”, giving rise Azerbaijan’s economic boom.

1998: Heydar Aliyev, previously head of Azerbaijani KGB and the Azerbaijani Communist Party, is re-elected president. Protests erupt and international observers report irregularities.

2001: The US lifts aid ban on Azerbaijan after the country provides intelligence to Washington in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey agrees on a set of oil and gas pipelines linking Turkey with the Caspian Sea.

2003: Before his death later this year Heydar Aliyev appoints his son, Ilham, as prime minister, followed by an election. Armenia also holds parliamentary elections. Observers say that neither were satisfactory by international standards.

2008: Large-scale clashes, the biggest so far since the ceasefire, break out in Nagorno-Karabakh. Both sides blame each other for initiating the fighting.

2009: Azerbaijani-Armenian meetings regarding Nagorno-Karabakh end. No major progress was made.

2014: Border clashes are becoming increasingly frequent. Azerbaijani forces shoot down an Armenian military helicopter, killing its crew.

2016: The fiercest clashes to date erupt over Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia loses 14 tanks in the battles, while an Azerbaijani helicopter is shot down. Both sides say they lost nearly a hundred soldiers each. Azerbaijan captures between eight and twenty square kilometers of territory, marking the first time territorial changes happen since 1994.

Source: BBC.

Fredrik Fahlman
James Rhys Davies

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