Khumar Huseynzadeh (Doctoral Candidate (PhD) in Historical Sciences, member of the board of the "Azerbaijan without a Dictator" Movement) The Risks of the Resumption of Military Actions

The Risks of the Resumption of Military Actions

For already 24 years, two countries – Armenia and Azerbaijan – have been living in a state of neither peace nor war. Such a status quo was made possible, thanks to the 1994 ceasefire agreement. Although all these years the truce was repeatedly violated by both sides, there were no major changes along the contact line. It can be assumed that the existing status quo somehow suited all parties, including the external centers of influence. In my opinion, the status quo suited Azerbaijan and Armenia also because of fears that the situation could change for the worse for one of the republics. It is enough to recall the reactions of our societies to the non-official statements of Russian experts on the existing arrangements for the liberation of the five districts. There were protests about the impossibility of returning the districts in Armenia, and in Azerbaijan they spoke of the necessity to claim for the release of all seven occupied regions. That is to say, the thinking was the current situation is better than any change.

However, this situation cannot last forever. Sooner or later, one of the parties will try to change the situation in its favor. In April 2016, Azerbaijan tried it. We may give various evaluations to these events, but a change in the front line factually did happen. It is true that active hostilities were halted under the pressure of Moscow, but there is already a precedent for military solution.

Often when considering the options for solving the Karabakh conflict, they oppose the peaceful (political) and military options. In my opinion, it is wrong to talk about either a political or military solution, because they appear in pure formvery rarely. In my opinion, only a military-political solution is more realistic. I will try to justify my point of view below.

The peaceful political solution to the Karabakh issue, without saber-rattling or an arms race, and moreover without military action, will require a number of prerequisites, both external and internal ones. First of all, there should be the readiness of societies and political elites to compromise and make peace. And this will take strong pacifist movements and sentiments in the societies both in Armenia and Azerbaijan. No serious politician will sign a peace treaty and make significant compromises without relying on the society. Because after all, even imperfect peace in the form of the above-mentioned status quo was a result of not political, but rather a military-political solution. The signing of the ceasefire agreement in May 1994 required several years of bloody battles. Only after the complete exhaustion of military, human, economic and other resources did the majority of the population in the societies, and political elites made this agreement, even though there were forces opposed this agreement even then. Today, the militaristic worldview prevails both in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Both societies are very far from concessions and compromises. They are not ready for concessions and compromises, moreover they are not even ready to discuss them.

When we talk about a military solution to the Karabakh issue, there is practically no prospect here either. After all, a military solution implies the complete victory of one of the parties and the surrender of the other. Suppose, even if Azerbaijan decides to launch an offensive and liberate 1 or all the 7 regions around Nagorno-Karabakh. Will the conflict be resolved? The issues of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, the return of refugees, and so on will still remain unresolved. The Azerbaijani army will have to stop or move further into the territory inhabited by Armenians, which will cause great losses among the military and civilians. Azerbaijan will not be allowed to do this by external power centers (because of political considerations) and international organizations (because of humanitarian considerations). That is to say, it would still be necessary to return to the negotiations process. The same thing will happen if, say, Armenia starts hostilities in the direction of Kura, Ganja or Nakhichevan (about which we sometimes hear in statements made by Armenia). The parties will still have to sit down at the negotiations table. (That is to say, again there will be a military-political solution, simply with new trump cards in the hands of one of the parties).

Scenarios of the military-political solutions

Speaking about the military-political solution to the Karabakh conflict, we must understand that this concept presents itself with several options.

1. Demonstration of power. This is what the two parties have been doing for the last few years: strengthening the army, procuring weapons and demonstrating them, organizing military maneuvers and parades, conducting active military diplomacy, concluding agreements on military cooperation with other countries. The purpose of such a demonstration of force is to make the other side more amenable in the negotiations without the direct use of military force. In the so-called "arms race" over the past 10-15 years, Azerbaijan has achieved a certain advantage. Due to a more developed economy and larger financial reserves, Azerbaijan has managed to increase and update its arsenal with a number of new types of weapons. And it is important to note that this was done not only at the expense of Russian weaponry, but also weapons from other countries of origin, namely Turkey, Israel, Belarus, the Czech Republic, China, Pakistan, as well as due to the establishment of its own (including joint) military production. Firstly, it reduces the dependence of the Armed Forces of Azerbaijan on the Russian military-industrial complex, and secondly it forces Russia to conclude profitable contracts with Azerbaijan in order not to lose its positions in our market. Without gloating delight, it should be noted that Armenia's economy will not last long in such a race. The latest two contracts for the supply of Russian weapons to Armenia were secured by Russian loans. Time will not show whether Russia will continue arming Armenia on credit under its current economic situation and in the conditions of uncertainty of its relations with the new government of Armenia.

2. "Forcing peace." This is how Russia called its aggression against Georgia in 2008. To punish Georgia for its desire for European integration, cooperation with NATO and, most importantly, not taking into account Russian interests, Russia in fact cut Abkhazia, South Ossetia and part of the Gori region from Georgia. Then she had to openly enter troops into the territory of independent Georgia. If Russia for some reason decides to "force peace" onto Armenia, it will not even have to bring in its troops. Firstly, they are already deployed in Armenia. And secondly, Azerbaijan can do it for Russia on its own territory in Karabakh. It will be enough not to react very enthusiastically to the actions of the Azerbaijani army for 10-15 days. There will be loud statements and protests, the co-chairs will become acutely active. Then Moscow will act as a peacemaker and "once again save Armenia, but without any European integration." And the successive government of Armenia will launch negotiations with Azerbaijan without preconditions.

3. “A Preventive strike.” The Armenian leadership, realizing the risks of the first two scenarios, and securing illicit Russian support, decides to inflict one or more preemptive strikes. These can be attempts to break through several places in the front line or strike at the infrastructure units of Azerbaijan. The Armenian expert community often speaks about strikes at Ganja, Mingechaur, pipelines or the Sangachal terminal, at the same time referring to the fact that Armenia has Russian "Iskenders". Then, as in the previous case, negotiations resume without preconditions.

Such a development is also probable without the participation of Russia. For example, the Armenian leadership may do this to relieve tension in the society and consolidate it in the face of a common enemy. Or those who disagree with the current military command may provoke a "pre-emptive strike," and then Moscow will act as a peacemaker and "once again rescue Azerbaijan." In this case, Russia will have to somehow resolve the issue with Turkey, yielding something in Syria.

4. "An anti-terrorist operation." Azerbaijan, using the example of Turkey (operations "Shield of the Euphrates" and "Olive Branch" in Syria), independently begins to carry out a sweep in the occupied areas or regains control over the sections of the Iranian-Azerbaijani state border. The operation will not aim at the liberation of all occupied areas, but rather the liberation as many settlements as possible, possibly one or two regions. Then, under international pressure, it stops the offensive. Negotiations are renewed, but already in conditions of a new status quo. At the same time, Azerbaijan can count on Turkey's political support and Iran's neutrality.

Undoubtedly, to implement one of the above scenarios or their variations, it will be necessary to take into account a number of internal factors in Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the role of external actors with their own interests in the South Caucasus.

Azerbaijan did not take advantage of the period of instability during the "velvet revolution"in Armenia for a number of reasons. Firstly, we must admit that Azerbaijan was not ready for such rapidly developing events in Armenia. Therefore, they did not take abrupt steps to destabilize an already unstable situation. Secondly, I think the leadership of Azerbaijan was not against the change of the intractable, "stubborn" Serge Sargsyan. Therefore, any action undertaken by Baku could be handy for S. Sargsyan, and would help him to remain in power because of the threat to Karabakh. However, this does not mean that if there is another event of instability, Azerbaijan will not try to take advantage of the situation. And then the internal Azerbaijani factors will play a role. The army, especially the officer corps and the generals, are eagerly awaiting for a permission to carry out an operation to liberate the territories. Part of the society, especially after April 2016, is also eagerly waiting and wants another victorious operation. In case of a successfully conducted operation, the image of the Liberator will be fixed after the leadership of the country. Today in the Azerbaijani society there are practically no real political, religious and ethnic groups that would oppose the liberation of the occupied territories. It may sound strange, but the liberation of some of the territories can even relieve some social tension. After all, the liberated territory will have to be developed, cleared up of mines, have restored infrastructure, roads, houses, schools, have the refugees return, and so on. All this will attract additional financial projects, loans, foreign investments, and most importantly this will create new jobs. The restoration of the village of Chochug Marjanly, after April 2016, can be a small example.

Economic instability, dependence on the price of oil and the interests of Western companies involved in energy projects may be the only deterrents here. We also need to take into account the example of Armenia, where the military, who achieved success in Karabakh in the time of operations, actually seized power. So, in case of a successful operation, the leadership of the country will have to consider the interests of the generals who have brought them the victory.

External factors and risks of war

The main and most important role is undoubtedly played by external factors that can both stabilize and, vice versa, destabilize the situation. Here whether we like it or not, Russia comes as a primary actor. It has sufficient, if not too many levers of pressure and influence on our republics. Of course, currently being under economic sanctions, having stuck in Ukraine and Syria, Russia would not want to have another volatile region at its side. But in case there is a threat of losing control in the South Caucasus, Russia can consciously go for fueling instability in the region, facing the risk of a merger of Ukraine-Black Sea, South Caucasus and Middle East foci. I can give you an incorrect example: in 1812Russia surrendered Moscow to the French, but did not withdraw the troops from the Caucasus.

At first glance, it seems, that the United State have enough on their plate and can care less for the South Caucasus, but three big neighbors of ours are under American sanctions (Russia, Iran and Turkey). Their economies and financial institutions are feverish, which will certainly affect our region. Therefore, in my opinion, Washington has simply decided to deal with our big neighbors first, and then we will fall into their hands like ripe apples. Moreover, Azerbaijan respects the US energy interests, while Armenia and Georgia are striving towards the West.

Turkey is the only country in the region that holds pro-Azerbaijani positions. Unlike the previous decades, the Turkish-Iranian-Russian alliance of the day has been the most comfortable period for Azerbaijan. Despite a number of disagreements over Syria, Turkey, Iran (we'll talk about Iran separately) and Russia are very much interested in one another and depend on one another. We should bear in mind that Turkey treats Syria almost in the same manner as Russia treats the South Caucasus republics. They see these countries as their former territories. It is now difficult to predict how the division of the spheres of their influence in Syria and the South Caucasus will happen in the future. But we must understand that neither Turkey nor Russia will voluntarily withdraw from Syria, the same is true about our region. This may allow Turkey, jointly with Russia, to present itself even more actively as a regulator in our region. Turkey borders with Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, its political, economic and military influence on the region will grow. If in the 1990s the leadership of Turkey did not venture openly to provide military assistance to Azerbaijan, the current leadership can provide direct military support and assist any initiative of Baku, as previously coordinated with it.

Within the triad of Russia, Turkey and Iran, the latter today seems to be the most vulnerable. Iran has been under sanctions longer than the others, and the US presses on it even more than North Korea. Iran, unlike Russia and Turkey, is accused of Islamic radicalism, and a serious protest is ripening in the Iranian society. Therefore, Iran will not actively interfere in the resolution of the Karabakh issue, but will try to retain its influence in both republics. For many years, there was a stand-off between Azerbaijan and Iran, the issue of South Azerbaijan was painful for both sides. In Azerbaijan there was an opinion that Iran provides economic assistance to Armenia in revenge to us. However, in the last decade we have witnessed a significant warming of relations. Joint economic and transport projects have rolled out, and Azerbaijan has invested in the construction of a railway in Iran. Iran has finally given its approval to the status of the Caspian. But the situation around Iran remains tense, and this is fraught with risks for Azerbaijan, and to some extent also for Armenia. In the event of a growing US-Iran confrontation and the proliferation of protests in the Iranian society, we may face a flood of refugees, especially through the uncontrolled Iranian-Azerbaijani border in Karabakh. Neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia will be able cope with such a flow (it can be a million or more people). This can be considered a humanitarian catastrophe for all of us. It is unlikely that even in the face of such a threat, Armenia and Azerbaijan will try to unite their efforts. Most likely, each of the parties will try to take advantage of the instability in the region to solve their problems, which may lead to a situation when all are at war against all.

I admit that the scenarios and risks in the articlemay seem somewhat hypertrophied, but as the Azerbaijani proverb goes, "Talk about the evil, the good will arrive by itself."


30 January, 2014
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