In the South Caucasus, a matter whose roots stem back a long time has been reawakened after a short sleep.
Over the last six years, Azerbaijan-Armenia relations have been dominated by tension over the Nagorno-Karabakh region that could form the basis of a new conflict process in which the frozen conflicts are resolved. Since the summer of 2014, dangerous but limited clashes between the military forces of the two countries were an almost daily occurrence, but it only became part of the international agenda when there were casualties.
After the Four-Day War of 2016, when 94 Azerbaijanis, including two civilians, and 84 Armenian soldiers were killed, the parties are again on alert.
The tension in the region escalated once again, however, when Armenia suddenly attacked Azerbaijan on July 12. This offensive was different, as Tovuz, the target of the attack, is within the Azerbaijani territory, not a a part of dispute in Karabakh. The Yerevan administration’s aggression that took place in an undisputed area, accepted by Armenia, is an action that is contrary to international law and clearly reveals Armenia’s policy against peace.
Although Armenia’s new prime minister, Nikol Pashinian, has stated that they are making plans to normalize relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey, he has been taking an aggressive line, contrary to his rhetoric. In a previous visit to Karabakh, Pashinian said, “This is the land of Armenia.” His so-called peace-promising statements seem to be mere efforts to create an image.
Whether there is one country or several countries that support or even encourage Armenia is still unknown. The place where the attack took place is highly suspicious. Tovuz is very close to the Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey corridor, right next to transportation and energy routes. Caspian oil and gas are carried to Turkey via this corridor. A conflict in this region, where the heart of the Azerbaijani economy beats, has the potential to directly affect the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the Southern Gas Corridor and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway.
The Minsk Group, founded 24 years ago by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to resolve the issue, has failed to turn a cease-fire between the two countries into a compromise and has since been unable to make any progress beyond bringing an international aspect to the problem. The Minsk Group is co-chaired by France, the U.S. and Russia, along with its members Turkey, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, Belarus, Sweden and Finland. It is known that France’s approach to the Armenian issue, in particular, is not very neutral, while the process jointly maintained by the U.S. and Russia is unlikely to produce good results. This being the case, even just by looking at the co-chairs, it is possible to understand why the group has made little progress, and moreover, it has no intention of inviting Armenia to withdraw from the territories it occupies.
Both countries have been arming for years against a possible large-scale conflict. Azerbaijan has and continues to invest in its defense industry, thanks to its high oil and gas revenues. While Armenia is able to buy special equipment in exchange for loans from Moscow, Azerbaijan can more easily acquire large numbers of weapons from Russia and other countries. Baku has bought arms from Turkey and imported Altay tanks, T129 ATAK helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and armed unmanned aerial vehicles (AUAV). With the UAVs and quasi-ballistic long-range missiles (LORA) it has purchased from Israel, Azerbaijan has the capacity to hit any target in Armenia. Neither Yerevan nor Moscow have in their inventories some of the weapons owned by Azerbaijan, such as Israeli and South Korean-made anti-tank missiles. On the other hand, Armenia has Soviet-era tanks and similar heavy weapons and is capable of hitting sensitive areas such as Azerbaijan’s oil and gas facilities with its Scud and new quasi-ballistic missiles. Such an attack, however, could lead to the bombing of the Metsamor nuclear power plant, 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Yerevan. Therefore, Armenia is in a weaker position against Azerbaijan.
It is normal that ongoing regional conflicts pit global players against each other as the new games built on energy lines and the recent developments in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean bring Russia to mind as a hidden player in the tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Indeed, Russia seeks to maintain close ties with both countries while also selling arms to each.
Pashinian took office two years ago as a result of anti-regime demonstrations. For the time being, Russia regards him as a Western-backed “revolutionist,” hence it is watching and following Yerevan.
On the other hand, it does not want to escalate the tension between Azerbaijan, which has rich oil and natural gas resources, and Armenia, and allow Baku to turn into a bigger player in the Caucasus beyond its control. It is possible to say that Russia, which maintains good relations with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, aims to dominate the region by maintaining its strategic proximity not only with Yerevan but also with Baku and Tbilisi. Therefore, it does not want to be involved in tensions with Azerbaijan. When Turkey gave its harsh response to the most recent attack, Yerevan called on the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which itself and Russia are members of, to provide support and solidarity against Azerbaijan and “any possible Turkish intervention.” All it could find, however, was a call for a truce by its allies.
Furthermore, the ongoing closeness between Azerbaijan and Israel due to their oil and gas initiatives, apart from arms sales, is not overlooked by Russia. Israel also wants to block the acceptance of Armenia’s “genocide” lie as it wants to be the “only nation that has suffered genocide.”
Iran, on the other hand, is Armenia’s leading trade partner. Besides Azerbaijani Turks, there is a large and highly influential Armenian community in Iran. Therefore, Russia stands one step closer to the Iran-Armenia side against a Turkey-Azerbaijan-Georgia coalition in the region. Armenia’s proximity to Iran is noted by U.S. ally Israel, although it has a broad Armenian lobby.
All this shows that Russia wants to lose neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, Moscow may be sending messages that it is distracted due to Turkey, which has grown in strength from the Caucasus to the Mediterranean. Although Ankara has developed close relations with Moscow over the last four years, it is obvious that Russia does not want a powerful Turkey, which has announced that it will provide military support to Azerbaijan against Armenia’s aggression. Russia has several thousand troops, fighter jets, armored vehicles and anti-aircraft missiles at its military base in Armenia. The purpose of their presence is not to fight Azerbaijan, but to have a deterrent in Armenia against Turkey. If push comes to shove, however, Ankara is in a more advantageous position. This is because, for Russia, sending military support to Armenia via Georgia would be a problem. It should also not be forgotten that Russia has threatened places it cannot reach, such as Eastern Europe, with its nuclear power.
As a result, the tension that started with Armenia’s attack is unlikely to lead to worse consequences, and the cease-fire will be resumed. That is what the equation in the region shows. To put it in a nutshell, it seems that the frozen conflicts will fall into a short sleep until they are awakened again, and the tension, which rises and falls, will continue until it at some point explodes.