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5 April 2016

Artsakh or Black Garden?

Will Russia and Turkey be fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh

On the night of Friday, April 1, Azerbaijani armed forces launched an offensive in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. As later stated by Baku, the actions of the Azerbaijani military constituted a response to numerous provocations from the Armenian side, including heavy shelling along the entire frontline with the use of artillery, mortars, and other high-caliber weapons. The Azerbaijani armed forces used artillery, armored vehicles, and aircraft in retaliation.

Towards the end of the day, Baku announced that it had managed to regain control over several highlands and settlements in the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), and to destroy six Armenian tanks (Azerbaijan traditionally makes no distinction between the armed forces of the NKR and Armenia), 15 pieces of artillery, and more than 100 soldiers as a result of a successful offensive by the Azerbaijani army. The advancing army’s losses totaled only 12, according to the Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense.

In keeping with the best traditions of the information war between Yerevan and Baku, representatives of the Armenian armed forces have refuted all of these figures. In turn, the NKR’s Ministry of Health reported that six civilians were wounded and one teenager had died as a result of Azerbaijani shelling. According to Stepanakert (the so-called capital of the NKR), the Azerbaijani army had suffered 200 casualties, lost two helicopters, two tanks, and two drones by late April 2. Baku has acknowledged the destruction of only one helicopter (downed during air strikes carried out by the Arminian side) and one tank (which tripped a mine).

However, whatever the number of victims and armored vehicles destroyed by mines on either side, the fact of the matter is that in 1994, the Karabakh conflict was virtually frozen, and diplomats from the OSCE Minsk group - the United States, Russia, France, Belarus, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Armenia - engaged in bringing about a resolution. Recent events constitute the largest escalation since. Taking into account the overall political tensions in the region, spanning from Russia to the Arabian Peninsula, highly unpredictable circumstances are afoot.

As in the days of Alexander the Great and the Achaemenid Empire, the Roman Empire and the Parthian Empire, the Byzantine and Persian Empires, and the Crusaders and Seljuks, Southwest Asia has become an area in which the interests of the world’s leading players, religions, and geopolitical concepts clash. Unfortunately, Nagorno-Karabakh fits neatly into the picture of this confrontation and risks becoming yet another part of the global Eurasian front.

It is widely believed that the beginning of the Krabakh conflict dates back to 1991. However, its the conflict dates back to 1990, on the territory of a single state – the USSR. The first bi-lateral artillery shelling followed the joint decision of the Supreme Soviet of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic and the National Council of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) on the integration of Nagorno-Karabakh into Armenia. It subsequently continued between two independent republics – Armenia and Azerbaijan. Incidentally, the war did not prevent the two countries from participating in a number of regional structures which emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union: the CIS, CSTO, and others.

Nagorno-Karabakh (derived from the Turkic “kara” -black and Persian “bagh” (or “bakh”) – garden) is referred to as Artsakh by Armenians. Indeed, this land was long inhabited by Armenians who were forced to flee the flatlands of the region during numerous Muslim invasions. In antiquity, the territory of today’s Nagorno-Karabakh was, at one time, part of Greater Armenia. And while other borderland areas of this kingdom lost their Armenian population over centuries, in Artsakh it was preserved, to a relatively large extent, even when these lands were incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1822. After that, largely as a result of the exodus of Muslims to Turkey and Iran, the proportion of the Armenian population gradually began to climb. And despite ethnic cleansing carried out by the Azerbaijanis during the Civil War (the massacre in the village of Gayballu in 1919, the Shusha massacre in 1920), they accounted for almost 90 per cent of the population by 1926. Although, It must be said that, by the 1980s, the figure had declined slightly due to the fact that the proportion of the Azerbaijani population on the territory of the NKAO incorporated into the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic was rising (from 10% in 1926 to 21% in 1989).

The war for Karabakh, the most active phase of which was observed in 1991-1994, claimed the lives of over twenty thousand soldiers and civilians, and brought about the formation of the NKR – the self-proclaimed republic whose independence is not recognized by any country in the world, including Armenia. However, resolutions on the recognition of the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh have been adopted by seven U.S. states including Hawaii, Louisiana, and Massachusetts over the past few years, as well as Australia’s New South Wales. From the point of view of the international community, Nagorno-Karabakh is an occupied territory of Azerbaijan which has repeatedly declared its intention to reclaim the lands of the NKR over the last two decades – if not through diplomacy, then through the use of force.

It should also be noted that Baku has tried everything it could to make such threats appear more than mere empty bravado. In the end, it was Azerbaijan which became the losing party in the Karabakh war and the republic has been getting ready for a rematch over recent years. Fortuitously, the high price of hydrocarbons exported by Azerbaijan, which has recorded the most impressive GDP growth rates among all the post-Soviet republics, has made this rematch a distinct possibility. While the Minsk Group was trying in vain to grasp at the slightest chance of a dialogue between Yerevan and Baku (and there is no chance a priori given the present-day status of the NKR being under the control of Armenia, in fact), Azerbaijan was building up its muscles: the military budget of the country increased almost 20-fold from 170 million to 3.2 billion dollars from 2004 to 2012 alone. As President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev boasted in 2013, the country’s military spending exceeded the entire state budget of Armenia.

Devoid of oil and gas reserves, Armenia placed its stake on military cooperation with Russia which barely managed to confirm its military superiority in the Caucasus following wars in Chechnya and the armed conflict with Georgia in 2008. And this is despite the fact that this very Russia is virtually the main supplier of arms to Azerbaijan (tanks, helicopters, anti-aircraft missile systems and so on). The 102nd Russian military base in Gyumri, where military personnel numbering approximately five thousand are stationed, is the key to Armenia’s security, or so it is believed by many in Yerevan, at least. It is Russia’s second largest foreign military base (after Tajikistan). Moreover, according to the agreements reached by the parties, any external threat to Armenia is regarded by the Kremlin as a military threat to Russia.

Nevertheless, placing its bets on the Kremlin does not mean that the Armenian armed forces and their affiliated personnel from the NKR’s army have relaxed. Local skirmishes along the line of contact continued, and this did not give Yerevan time to wind down in the military race with its eastern neighbor. Now Armenia’s military spending exceeds 430 million dollars (three times that of ten years ago), which is a great deal for a republic which can hardly be described as rich. The high level of morale of the Armenian army is noteworthy. It can be assumed that all of this combined resulted in the fact that the latest offensive by an a priori stronger enemy has nevertheless been halted.

In turn, Russia which has traditionally gravitated towards friendship with Armenia, has been left with this friend eventually: relations with Georgia have been spoiled for a long time, and Azerbaijan has its own way which does not always meet Moscow’s expectations. Yerevan is in line with the Russian polic,y and even flirting with the European Union, cannot ruin this alliance.

Yet another party, although not directly involved in the conflict yet, nevertheless historically having its own interests in the region, is Turkey which became Azerbaijan’s patron and benefactor from the outset, in line with political tradition. So far, it is difficult to say to what extent the Russian-Turkish conflict, which has gone on for more than six months, influenced the outbreak of violence in Karabakh, although the NKR has unequivocally deemed Ankara the originator of the recent exacerbation. On the one hand, this bears little resemblance to the truth, since present-day Turkish leaders, deeply mired in the Kurdish issue, could well do without another hotbed of tension on the doorstep. In this case, Russia, which is building such geopolitical schemes that it cannot figure them out itself, and which has managed to become entangled in several conflicts simultaneously, serves as a case in point.

On the other hand, every action elicits a counteraction and it is quite possible that the incongruity of today’s Russian leadership, which sees a plot against Russia in everything happening around it, could provoke a subsequent, imprudent, and ill-advised counteraction from Ankara. Thus, a clear message has been sent to Baku which reads, “Go ahead! If something goes wrong, you can count on us.” Hence, Nagorno-Karabakh will simply become a military area of Russian-Turkish confrontation which already has its tourist, horticultural, and construction fronts. Although neither Russia nor Turkey will join the conflict officially.

Azerbaijan, having encountered resistance from the NKR’s armed forces (which was probably not expected by Baku), back-pedaled on the following day, announcing a cessation of hostilities (the NKR denied it, so, as always, one can suggest anything). One can only hope that the impossibility of the blitzkrieg will provide additional incentives for the parties to try to resolve the conflict at the negotiation table and not on the battlefield. 

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