SNAPSHOT: Renewed clashes over Nagorno-Karabakh escalate likelihood of Azerbaijan-Armenia war

SNAPSHOT: Renewed clashes over Nagorno-Karabakh escalate likelihood of Azerbaijan-Armenia war

Overview

  • The likelihood of a large-scale Azerbaijan-Armenia military conflict escalated significantly following a series of clashes that erupted on 27 September. Intense fighting has entered a fourth day, with new strikes being continuously reported along the front lines.
  • Both sides blamed each other for initiating the hostilities. Armenia accused Azerbaijan of staging air and artillery attacks on Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region that is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but nominally controlled by ethnic Armenians. Azerbaijan said it launched a counter-attack in response to an Armenian offensive.
  • The declaration of martial law in both countries has been accompanied by a heightened military mobilisation. Around 100 people have been killed, though estimates vary.
  • France, Russia, and the EU issued statements calling for an immediate ceasefire. Echoing those statements, the US State Department said it contacted both countries and called on them ‘to cease hostilities immediately’. 


Background

  • The dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh dates back to the years of Soviet rule. In 1923, Joseph Stalin gave autonomy to the Nagorno-Karabakh region, where an Armenian majority lived within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.
  • In the years preceding the breakup of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh held a referendum and voted to become part of Armenia, triggering a war over control of the region. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, and an uneasy truce has been in place since 1994. Sporadic fighting has continued, and border clashes in July 2020 led to the deaths of 16 people. In April 2016, at least 200 people were killed during clashes.
  • Today, Nagorno-Karabakh has a population of 150,000 mostly ethnic Armenians. The self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh governs the landlocked region. Pro-Armenian forces also control some territory surrounding the enclave, granting direct land access to Armenia.
  • The Artsakh defence ministry said that 84 military personnel had been killed since the most recent clashes broke out on 27 September. Authorities in Azerbaijan did not reveal the military casualties count but said seven civilians have been killed.
  • On Tuesday (29 September), Armenia claimed that one of its SU-25 fighter jets was shot down by a Turkish F-16 in Armenian airspace. Ankara denied the claim.
  • Following this, the Armenian defence ministry on 30 September reported that artillery fire was taking place across the entire ‘Line of Contact’, which separates Azeri and Armenian forces. Air raids were also reported by authorities in Stepanakert, the de-facto Artsakh capital. 

 

Analysis

  • In recent years, Baku has used funds generated from energy resources to finance its army. Stronger and more public support from Turkey has also led to a more emboldened Azerbaijan. Historically strong ties stem from the fact that both countries share a common Turkic cultural and linguistic heritage. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has described Armenia as ‘the biggest threat to peace and security in the region’. Armenia’s foreign ministry accused Turkey of supplying Azerbaijan with weapons, UAVs, and military aircraft.
  • Armenia has no diplomatic relations with Turkey, and the border separating the two countries remains closed. Historical distrust originating from the 1915 genocide of ethnic Armenians under Ottoman rule continues to define modern relations.
  • Yerevan relies on Moscow for support and hosts a Russian military base in the north-western city of Gyumri. Armenia is also a member of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.
  • The recent clashes are notable due to their intensity and the type of military engagements involved. Both sides have accused each other of using heavy artillery to conduct strikes; the claims are supported by video footage released by the Armenian and Azeri governments. Yerevan, for example, claims to have shot down two helicopters, three drones, and destroyed three tanks.
  • On 29 September, Armenian forces switched to long-range strike systems after Azerbaijan used heavy missiles to attack positions across the line of engagement.
  • Baku said it had ‘liberated’ six ‘occupied’ villages previously controlled by Armenian-allied troops as well as strategically important hilltops. This was disputed by Armenia, while the defence army of Karabakh said it successfully managed to retake some lost positions overnight on 27-28 September. Neither side appears to have captured tactical positions during Monday’s fighting. The mountainous and heavily forested terrain in Nagorno-Karabakh makes it especially difficult for Azeri forces to capture territory without sustaining heavy losses.
  • Armenia has also denied reports from the Azeri defence ministry that the army had shelled the Dashkesan region of Azerbaijan from positions across the border in the south-eastern municipality of Vardenis.
  • Even if an exact picture of the military gains for either side is still lacking, the succession of severe military engagements represents the heaviest fighting since the 1988-1994 Nagorno-Karabakh War. 
  • In a sign that tensions over the conflict are spilling over elsewhere, local news reported that a group of ethnic Armenians temporarily blocked a road in the Georgian village of Kartsakhi near the Georgia-Turkey border crossing. Protesters argued that the road was being used to transfer weapons to Azerbaijan from Turkey.

Commercial Threat

  • The wider Caucasus region carries deep geopolitical significance. Since its inception as an independent state, Russia has sought to pacify the volatile North Caucasus and restore strategic depth it lost after the breakup of the Soviet Union. After Libya and Syria, an escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh creates a new theatre of confrontation between Russia and Turkey. By supporting rival camps, both countries are vying for influence and seek to establish themselves as the dominant regional power. The South Caucasus also functions as a key transit corridor for oil and gas destined for Europe.
  • Indeed, commercial interests in the area could be under threat. Opposing forces are engaging principally on the 180km-long Line of Contact. This is about 30-40 km from the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) crude pipeline and the South Caucasus gas pipeline (SCP). BTC, SCP as well as the Baku-Supsa oil pipeline are currently operating normally. Baku-Supsa and BTC account for nearly 95 per cent of Azerbaijan’s crude exports. So far, the impact on energy prices has been negligible. This is likely because of a decline in demand due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
  • The SCP, which runs parallel to BTC in Azerbaijan, forms part of the Southern Gas Corridor, which is expected to transport natural gas from the Caspian Sea to Greece and Italy via Turkey later this year. Historical analysis indicates that Armenia has resisted attacking pipelines during past clashes, suggesting that it is unlikely to carry out such action, which may risk alienating the country internationally. An enduring conflict that spreads across a larger geography, however, may cause operational disruption and permanent damage to crucial energy transportation infrastructure.
  • During the July clashes, the Azeri defence ministry hinted that the country’s missiles had the ability to reach the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, located around 36km west of Yerevan. The catastrophic consequences such an action would have, underscore the high stakes involved in the current conflict.
  • International engagement aimed at defusing military confrontations has been limited, a contributing factor to the current situation. This has been due to international pre-occupation with events in Belarus, the COVID-19 crisis, and the forthcoming US presidential elections. The US for instance was the last major country to issue a statement, suggesting a lack of engagement in developments impacting the region.
  • The OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States was formed in 1992 to help find a long-lasting solution to the dispute. However, lack of substantive progress has fuelled discontent in all parties, providing fertile ground for nationalist rhetoric to harden and expand.

Forecast

  • Hostilities will likely continue in the coming days but probably remain largely concentrated around Nagorno-Karabakh. However, indications that the conflict is spreading to other areas along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border will inevitably escalate the chances of a widespread war.
  • This could have a devastating impact on both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Both sides are heavily militarised, and a heavy death toll will increase the probability of a prolonged conflict.
  • Given the strong militaristic rhetoric, neither side will be inclined to cease aggressive operations unless they are in an advantageous position to declare victory.
  • Russia will likely be forced to intervene if Azerbaijan launches an all-out assault on Armenia; however, Moscow will likely seek to avoid this outcome and focus on exerting political pressure aimed at forcing both sides to disengage.
  • If Russia manages to successfully bring both sides to end hostilities, it will win considerable praise amid mounting international criticism over its support of the Alexander Lukashenko regime in Belarus and the high-profile poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny. It will also reinforce its status as a broker of stability in the region.
  • A ceasefire may only be temporary as the risk of further high-impact military engagements will remain heightened. Once the fighting subsides, however, confidence-building measures could be used to defuse the risk of future clashes. This may include withdrawing some army personnel from the borders and stopping large-scale, provocative military exercises near the Line of Contact. Ultimately, any significant progress towards resolving the dispute will depend on the level of international engagement and whether leaders in both countries are willing to accept politically difficult compromises.