David Stepanyan (Political Commentator) An Alternative When Peace Has No Alternative


Despite the indefinite ceasefire regime that has existed since May 1994 between the parties to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the situation remains tense along the contact line of the Defense Army of the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh and the Azerbaijani Armed Forces, as well as along the Armenia-Azerbaijan interstate border. Accompanied by numerous victims on both sides, periodic shootings continue to be an indispensable attribute of negotiations. Since 1994, the most significant violation of the ceasefire regime from April 2 to 5 in 2016 was the so-called "Four-Day War". The result of the offensive initiated by the Azerbaijani Armed Forces was the takeover of some positions and posts formerly occupied by the NKR Defense Army, as well as several hundred dead and wounded on both sides from among the military personnel and civilians. We have to state that the notorious armistice regime exists rather on paper than is observed by the parties in practice. Moreover, the permanent tension and shots across the borders make the opinion that the conflict is in a "frozen" state even more unconvincing. As a result, we are facing years of talk about an upcoming large-scale war.
Evaluating the Probability of a New War. Azerbaijan.

The Rhetoric

Against this background, the resumption of hostilities, at first glance, is quite likely. And, in general, many in the societies of the conflicting countries believe in the possibility of transforming the conflict from its current state of "neither war, nor peace" into a large-scale war. For Azerbaijan, the Karabakh war ended in the loss of 11,5 thousand square kilometers or 14% of the territory of the Azerbaijan SSR1 . These territories, including the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region and the surrounding areas, currently constitute the territory of the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh. That is why a certain stratum of citizens of Azerbaijan declares the desire for war from revanchist motives. Militaristic sentiments exist in both Armenia and Artsakh, however, for a variety of reasons they do not dominate in these societies. Here we should especially highlight the role of the Azerbaijani authorities in the generation of such sentiments.

The intention to "return the lands" was voiced by the highest authorities in Baku practically ever since the very start of the ceasefire regime. However, ever since Ilham Aliyev came to power, such statements have become much more frequent, and their geography has expanded. Previously, Baku claimed "only" the territory of the NKAO and the seven adjacent areas. However, today Ilham Aliyev has pretenses for the basin of Lake Sevan, Syunik region and even Yerevan2 . During negotiations on the settlement of the conflict, which have been ongoing since 1992 under the mandate of the OSCE Minsk Group, such claims by the Azerbaijani negotiators are never made, especially considering that the negotiations are held on the basis of the "Madrid principles" which presuppose mutual compromises. However, the level of perception of the neighboring Armenians by ordinary Azerbaijanis is certainly influenced. The analysis of opinions voiced in social networks from the neighboring country makes it possible to assume that the purposeful cultivation of the image of the enemy-Armenian in Azerbaijan is already bearing fruit. And revenge declared as a major foreign policy vector significantly increases the risk of a smoldering conflict in the hot phase. Baku continues to pursue an aggressive offensive policy along the domestic and foreign vectors with a view of bringing its own readiness to initiate a war at any time “to attention".\

The Reality

However, there are serious restrictions on the way of this policy. The external vectors are as follows: the Defense Army of Artsakh, the Armenian Armed Forces, the possible reaction of the international community and the world centers of power. And the internal vectors are as follows: serious issues with the economy, the polyethnicity of the population that is harshly suppressed, yet continues to feel more and more dissatisfied with the permanent rule of Ilham Aliyev. Meanwhile, the accident at the Mingachevir hydroelectric station in early July this year that de-energized almost the whole of Azerbaijan visually demonstrated the degree of energy vulnerability of the country that is an exporter of energy resources. The attempt at a protest action in Ganja in the same period became evidence of growing public discontent with the power. Despite the fact that almost all religious preachers (both Shiites and Sunnis) have long been imprisoned, Baku immediately tried to ascribe a religious character to the unrest in Ganja. According to the Azerbaijani conflicts specialist and human rights defender Arif Yunusov3, the Azerbaijani society is split into believers and secular ones, with no trust between the two groups. The latter in a panic fear of believers, which often prevents them from seeing the constant presence of the "Islamic factor" in games within the government. According to the expert, the Mingachevir accident and the unrests in Ganja are links of the same chain leading to Baku. The authorities needed an excuse to divert public attention from the consequences of the accident, hence the assassination attempt on the mayor of Ganja with the subsequent murder of two police colonels.

The very fact of such manipulations testifies to the presence of a smoldering potential for a riot in Azerbaijan. And it seems that it is precisely the unleashing of a large-scale war that is quite capable of becoming a spark for its ignition. People, including Ilham Aliyev, have fresh memories of the march by the rebellious colonel Suret Huseynov onto Baku in 1993 that culminated with the resignation of Abulfaz Elchibey. Later, Heydar Aliyev managed to calm Huseynov down by only appointing him prime minister. And in the case of a second Karabakh war, the military may well repeat Huseynov's march, especially if we consider the presence of a large number of dissatisfied people in the country. Here we arrive at a very interesting topic that is relevant for Azerbaijan and was relevant for Armenia, too, until the most recent times. In the midst of the "four-day war", the leader of the "Pre-Parliament" movement, Zhirayr Sefilyan, accused the Armenian authorities of refusing general mobilization for domestic political reasons4.  After that, the seizure of the Yerevan Police regiment in July 2016 clearly demonstrated the weakness of the illegitimate authorities over a handful of armed members of the Sasna Tsrer group. In this light, it seems that the general mobilization of tens of thousands of armed citizens who hated the authorities involved a threat of a violent shift of this very power. After the Velvet Revolution in April-May 2018, the situation with the legitimacy of power in Armenia has changed. Whereas a general mobilization is still equal to death for the leadership of Azerbaijan. A large-scale war without general mobilization seems to be a nonsense.

Another significant obstacle to the revanchist plans of Azerbaijan is the polyethnicity of the population. The Lezgin, Talish, Tat, Rutul, Tsakhur people, Mountain Jews, Avars and Ashkenazi Jews are not at all eager to lay down their heads for their homeland, where, to put it mildly, they are not treated in the best way. Baku is making significant efforts to underreport statistical data in order to assimilate the national minorities living in the country. So, officially, Azerbaijanis constitute 90% of the country's population, while unofficially alone Kurds make up more than 10% of the population in Azerbaijan. The official number of the Dagestani-Lezghin community in Azerbaijan is reported to be 200,000 people, which according to Lezgin sources, is understated by half. The number people representing Iranian ethnic groups residing in the south of  the country reaches half a million people, according to unofficial data. According to an expert at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences Andrey Areshev, Baku's policy of assimilating the national minorities in Azerbaijan creates conditions for future domestic political destabilization because of ethnic belonging5.  As a consequence, separatist sentiments are ripening among ethnic minorities, often striving for independence, after the example of the idea on creating Talyshistan.

Besides, religious separatism is maturing in Azerbaijan, and the authorities react to it roughly, too. The reaction of Baku was most pronounced in November 2015 against residents of the village of Nardaran, the population of which differed in their particular religiosity and opposition to secular power6.  At that time, the operation to prevent the terrorist attack planned by the "Muslim Union" group took the toll of four citizens and two policemen. The famous Muslim theologian Taleh Bagirzade and his followers were arrested. The Nardaran people are Shiites, the influence of Iran is very noticeable in the village, which makes the authorities of Azerbaijan feel worried. However, Baku has established a very strictly control over the activities of other religious communities, especially those living in the north-eastern regions of the Sunnis-Salafis. According to the expert at the Center for Caucasus Problems and Regional Security at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, ethnographer Ahmet Yarlikapov, the rapid conversion of the Azerbaijani population into Sunnism is already entering a hardly controllable phase, which is significantly promoted by Baku's policy of limiting Shiism, i.e. the Iranian influence7.  

Thus, the probability of Azerbaijan’s initiation of a full-scale war is small. Due to the combination of the above factors, Ilham Aliyev will not try to solve a thirty-year-old, stagnant problem by military means, neglecting the bouquet of modern domestic, religious, ethnic, geopolitical and even global challenges. In such conditions, for the Azerbaijani clan-based an oligarchic system of power a new war will be equivalent to cutting the branch it is sitting on. Perhaps no one can predict the possible course and outcome of hostilities against the background of the chaotic and variegated ethno-confessional map of Azerbaijan of the day, as outlined above. In this light, the only “internal” cause of the war will be the situation when Aliyev has almost been overthrown and all he can do is an attempt to cling on a straw. However, due to a number of reasons, including the above- mentioned ones, such a scenario seems unlikely.

Evaluating the Probability of a New War. Armenia and Artsakh.

The Rhetoric

The leadership of Armenia had long got used to the militaristic-revanchist rhetoric of their colleagues from Absheron during all these years and commented rather sluggishly, as extreme necessity arose. In Artsakh, oddly enough, they generally treated this rhetoric rather indifferently. This was before the change of power in Armenia as a result of the Velvet Revolution. July 2018 was marked by a number of rather tough statements made by the Armenian Defense Minister David Tonoyan8,  his counterpart in Artsakh Levon Mnatsakanyan9 and, most importantly, the Prime Minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan10.  It seems that such a sharp change of sentiments in Yerevan and Stepanakert is primarily meant for the world centers of power and only after Baku itself. The Armenian authorities have realized the impossibility of any positive progress should they continue to hunker down. Hence, the need to inform the international community about  their own capabilities and deriving intentions. In other words, aggressive, if you would like, approach of Yerevan and Stepanakert that is symmetrical to that of Baku, should no longer be a surprise to anyone.

The Reality

At the same time, there is no demand for a new war with Azerbaijan in Armenia and Artsakh, just as it was not there before. In both republics, there are citizens who hold extremely uncompromising sentiments, who are guided by the "not a single inch of land to the enemy" slogan in the Karabakh settlement. However, even these people do not seek a large-scale war with Azerbaijan. There is no such demand by the new Armenian authorities either. If earlier, the Republican Party of Armenia had turned the appeal to the threat of war into a frequently used internal political crib, the new and currently provisional Government of Armenia simply does not need it. In other words, replacing the illegitimate government with a power supported by society has by definition removed the interconnection of domestic policy and the threat of war from Azerbaijan. The existing status quo is beneficial to the Armenian republics, in general; accordingly, there is no reasoning in a new war either. And Yerevan and Stepanakert are not clearly going to threat such a status quo for the sake of adventurous and phantom plans for "going out onto to the Kura" or "returning Nakhchivan".

The Factor of Arms Race

There is another factor potentially increasing the probability of a large-scale war, and this is an arms race that has reached an unprecedented level in the recent years. The main supplier to both sides to the conflict is the OSCE Minsk Group co-chair country, i.e. Russia. It is followed by Israel, China, Pakistan, Turkey, Ukraine, and more recently, Armenia's CSTO ally – Belarus. The other two co-chairing countries - the United States and France - do not supply weapons to the parties to the conflict. With its financial capacity exceed the Armenian one, Baku can set the direction in this race. In 2018, defense expenditure in the state budget of Azerbaijan was increased by 6.1% (to $ 1.6 billion)11 . Armenia’s defense expenditure ($ 512 million) is three times less. As a result, Yerevan goes for reciprocating purchases, making a bet not on the quantity, but on a certain asymmetry, which allows to neutralize the advantages of Baku, entirely based on quantity and quality. In the recent years, Azerbaijan has acquired the most advanced weapons: T-90S, Multiple Rocket Launcher “Smerch”, IFV-3, heavy flamethrower systems TOS-1A, Israeli UAVs of all classes, OTSC "Tochka-U" and LORA, heavy MRL "Polonaise" "Smerch" and T-300 Kasirga, cruise missiles SOM-1B. Meanwhile, before the April war in 2016, Armenia basically armed its forces with Soviet-made weapons and equipment "from warehouses". Here the 5 divisions of air defense systems S-300PS / PT-1, T-72 tanks, IFV-2 need to be mentioned. However, after April 2016 it turned out that modern weapons were also supplied: “Iskander” missile launcher, “Smerch” MRLS, “Infauna” electronic warfare system. In the past two years, the Armenian armed forces have replenished their armor with ATMC "Kornet", MANPADS "Igla-S" and "Verba", short-range missile systems Tor-M2.

The impressive number of heavy MRLS purchased by Baku testifies to the tendency to build up long-range weapons, which leads to the shattering of the balance of power again. According to the intelligence officer, military expert Vladimir Vartanov12, the Azerbaijani command began equipping its frontline with long-range guns after the destruction of two of its explosive ordnance disposal teams in the south and north of the contact line in Artsakh in February 2017. The latter, in his opinion, became possible because the Armenian forces had elementary military systems of night surveillance at their disposal. The expert is convinced that the balance of forces, which is again violated as a result of the procurement of long-range artillery and MRLS by Azerbaijan, is necessary and possible to be restored mainly by training Armenian servicemen for a lightning attack in mountainous conditions. Such an attack will make it possible to reach a level of contact allowing to deprive the enemy's artillery of the opportunity to strike at the Armenian troops.

Recognizing the arms race as a factor contributing to the escalation of the situation around the conflict, it is impossible to ignore the following important circumstance. Missile systems with a range of tens and hundreds of kilometers are a double-edged sword and play the role of a so-called deterrent weapon. In the scales of Transcaucasia, the "Polonaise" systems that are at the disposal of the Armed Forces of Azerbaijan, and the "Iskander" systems that are part of the arsenal of the Armed Forces of Armenia and even the Soviet, yet modernized "Scuds" play the same role as intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads of the time of the "cold" war ". The presence of a nuclear power plant in Armenia and oil drilling facilities and oil refineries in Azerbaijan only give additional credibility to this assertion.

Potential External Catalysts

The analysis of the possibilities of unfolding a large-scale war over Karabakh due to geopolitical factors makes it possible to state the absence of an interest in such a scenario by Russia, the US and the European Union in the near future. For similar reasons neither Turkey nor Iran have such interest either. Both the world and regional centers of power currently have enough problems on other geopolitical platforms. They do not need another conflict with very vague prospects at the crossroads of the zones of influence of Russia, the US, Turkey and Iran. In this respect, it is important that the Karabakh status quo, by and large, does not confine itself to the parties to the conflict. The status quo of 1994 is the status quo among all the above-mentioned external players with interests in the region. Given the presence of Iran in the region, Israel and China can also be considered as external players with interests here. Accordingly, the consequences of the violation of the 24-year status quo by one of these players will roll out far beyond the region, which, at least at this stage, is not sought by anyone.
Thus, the main risk for igniting the Karabakh conflict seems to be its geographical location not far from the blazing Middle East: Syria and Iraq. And also the immediate neighborhood with the zone of potential instability - Iran. In recent years, major world players are trying to solve their problems through "hybrid wars" in the territory of third countries: Ukraine, Syria, Iraq. And because it is still unresolved, this smoking Karabakh conflict has every prospect of becoming another platform for geopolitical showdowns. For example, after settling the conflict around Ukraine. Or in the event that Iran does blaze up, which in the light of recent events in the neighboring country looks even more menacing. In this light, the transformation of Karabakh into a second Syria is the most dangerous, undesirable scenario of all existing one for both Armenia and Azerbaijan. With all the attendant "delights" in the form of Islamic radicals, terrorists, religious extremists, chaos, destruction, and so on. No one has canceled the global confrontation between the US and China, but at the same time it is impossible to enter the phase of a direct military confrontation (i.e., in the Third World War). And this confrontation is doomed to continue in the territory of third countries. Even at the cost of their complete destruction.


Due to the continuing saturation of the already militarized region of the conflict with the most powerful weapons and the still existing balance of forces the outcome of a large-scale war over Karabakh by the victory of one of the sides is, a priori, impossible. The parties are not able to take over Baku or Yerevan for a number of the above-mentioned domestic and foreign policy reasons. The scale and range of destruction will the consequences of the 1991-94 Karabakh war tens, if not hundreds of times. In such conditions, a new war will push back the whole region for decades. Perfectly understanding all these established realities, the leadership of Azerbaijan is left with nothing else but shaking the "ax of war". Baku realizes that if the negotiations on Karabakh are not backed up by the threat of war and the death of dozens of servicemen annually, will inevitably turn into something like the negotiations on Northern Cyprus.  
However, there is an alternative. And it consists in a peaceful, political, and compromise-based solution to the Karabakh conflict that already has no alternative. A settlement capable of pulling Armenia, Azerbaijan and Artsakh out of the list of potential "brown" zones of global confrontation. From the list of eternally unstable "third world" countries. It seems that only legitimate, democratic authorities will be able to come to such a settlement and stop the conflict. And there is no need to invent a bicycle here, because the fact that democracies do not fight was outlined in general by Immanuel Kant in the treatise "Towards Eternal Peace" as far back as the 18th century13.    And the "Velvet Revolution" in Armenia seems to be the first small step on this long towards peace that has no alternative.



30 January, 2014
Right after the New Year, the citizens of Armenia were shocked by the gas and electricity bills for December.

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