Are Armenia and Azerbaijan preparing for another small war in Karabakh?
16 November 2016

In this commentary for Caucasus Concise, regional analyst Dr Dennis Sammut considers the risk of further escalation of violence in the Karabakh conflict zone, as tension on the line of contact increases, and in the context of a fluid international situation

In the week when the world braced itself for a Trump Presidency in the United States, and as Russians woke up to unprecedented TV footage of a Federal Minister being arrested for corruption, events in the South Caucasus appeared to be mundane as usual, stuck in their own surreal contradictions. Asked about the situation on the frontline in the Karabakh conflict zone on 15 November, the Chief of the Armenian General Staff, General Movses Hakobyan said, it "is the same as during these 24 years..... There is nothing extraordinary".

Yet everything indicates that the region may be on a trajectory for another violent flare-up, similar or probably larger than the four day "war" in April between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone.

All the conditions are in place for Armenia and Azerbaijan to have another go.

The hope of a breakthrough in the peace talks that reached excitable levels after Russia's attempt to push through a solution to the conflict post-April has now fizzled off. No meeting between the presidents is on the agenda. A meeting between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan is now likely to take place on the margins of the OSCE Ministerial meeting in Hamburg on 8 December. The timing and location suggests convenience rather than any sense of urgency. A breakthrough, even on a decision for the next substantive talks, is unlikely.

Warmongering on the other hand seems to be ongoing in earnest. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have held large scale military manoeuvres recently. The Azerbaijani war games involving 60,000 troops, fifty aircraft and hundreds of artillery pieces and military vehicles are due to end on Friday. President Ilham Aliev, suitably attired in a military uniform, kicked off the proceedings with a blood curling speech to troops.

Whilst receiving very little media attention, events on the front line continue to be tense. Both sides report shelling, at least one Azerbaijani soldier was killed this week, and the Azerbaijanis say they have downed an Armenian drone, although the Armenians deny this.

The propaganda war continues in earnest. President Aliyev said Azerbaijanis will be able to drink tea in Nagorno-Karabakh soon. The Armenians responded that the only way the Azerbaijanis can do that is if they recognise the independence of NK and open an embassy there. And so it goes on.

Whilst the warmongering goes on, efforts to develop a more conducive environment for peace negotiations by work with the two societies are largely stalled.

Events on the ground may seem to be happening in isolation, but in reality developments in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and conflict resolution process are influenced by developments in the international arena. The changing of the guard in the United States is unlikely to have any major impact on the American approach to it - this conflict is not a high priority for Washington under any administration, and is likely to be less so under Trump. Unless Moscow forces the issue by doing something silly, a Trump presidency will prefer to muddle along.

Yet it is likely that Moscow may see an opportunity in the expected confusion resulting from the Presidential transition in Washington to push ahead with an initiative or two that are part of its grand design to re-assert Russian hegemony over the South Caucasus. The immediate Russian objective is to bring Azerbaijan back into the fold, and into an embrace that is similar to that currently the case with Armenia. This is going to require some imaginative Russian efforts related to the Karabakh conflict, and in the end they may need to force the issue one way or the other.

Russia has a range of hard and soft power tools that it uses in the region shamelessly. This week Russia added another tool in its toolbox of ways in which it can pressure the two countries. President Putin signed a decree creating joint Russian-Armenian forces under a single command. The role these forces can play (or not play) in a future Karabakh conflict remains very ambiguous indeed.

Russia may perceive that there is a window of opportunity which it should utilise, since at this point, and probably for another year or two, a timely and coherent response from Washington to any Russian action or initiative is unlikely.

This situation new requires a much sharper and agile EU role in the region. At their meeting in Brussels on 15 November, EU Foreign Ministers (gathered in the format of the EU Foreign Affairs Council) called "for renewed efforts to promote the peaceful settlement of conflicts in the region on the basis of the principles and norms of international law. The resolution of conflicts, building trust and good neighbourly relations are essential to economic and social development and cooperation. The EU remains committed in its support to the territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of all its partners. The Council recalls the EU's role in conflict resolution and confidence building efforts in support of the existing agreed formats and processes."

Buried in hundreds of pages of documents coming out from this session of the Foreign Affairs Council, such a statement is hardly earth shattering. But given what EU High Representative, Federica Morgherini, said two days earlier on the necessity that the EU steps up its international role in the aftermath of the Trump victory, such statements and commitments take on a higher significance than usual.

A serious military escalation, on the scale of April or bigger, can happen in a number of different scenarios. It can happen through misperception - one side thinking the other side has started something and responding, leading to a quick escalation that will take time to rein-in.

A more likely scenario is if one or the other of the sides feel they have an opportunity, or a need, to escalate and try to secure some military objectives. This, in the present circumstances, can be perceived as an option by both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

However, more ominous, is the scenario whereby Russia would acquiesce to either of the sides using force for a limited time to secure such objectives. There is a suggestion that Russia may have created a short window for Azerbaijan to engage in heightened military activity in April. As a minimum it is safe to say that they at least knew what was about to happen beforehand.

In none of these scenarios does anyone want to start an all-out war. The results will simply be too horrific and unpredictable. None of the leaders concerned is known to be keen on jumping in a swimming pool not knowing if it is full or empty. However the risk that Moscow's may not be able to use its "magic" power, to wave its wand and stop the fighting once it starts, as happened in April, is now considerably higher, given that both sides harbour considerable mistrust of Russian intentions. The danger that a small local difficulty in the South Caucasus can spiral into something much bigger remains high, and the only way to avoid it is by working for a durable peace

Source: This is an commentary prepared for Caucasus Concise by Dennis Sammut, Director of LINKS (Dialogue, Analysis and Research)

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photo: Azerbaijani helicopters conduct live fire drills during  military exercises held in Azerbaijan 12-18 November 2016. (Picture courtesy of APA News Agency, Baku)