Column of Azeri tanks around the Talis region. Via Cassad.
Another Flareup in the Caucasus
The past two days has seen some of the most intense fighting over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh since the 1994 ceasefire that froze the conflict. It was a typical post-Soviet tale: Illogically drawn up borders, stranded Armenians in the historically Armenian territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, the flareup of nationalist tensions in the late 1980s that resulted in the outbreak of anti-Armenian pogroms, and the slide into war between two collapsing states as Nagorno-Kabakh declared independence and deported its Azeris.
As it was, Azerbaijan collapsed faster. Composed of incompetent generals and unenthusiastic soldiers and facing a highly motivated enemy with support from Russia and the vast Armenian diaspora, the Azeris were unable to make gains in the region’s mountainous terrain and eventually retreated after being bled dry by a 5-1 casualty ratio. The Azeris continue to pine for revenge. There are monthly small-scale artillery exchanges, their borders are sealed (Turkey also blockades Armenia), and there was an infamous case in 2004 when an Azeri officer axed a sleeping Armenian to death while they were both on a NATO-sponsored training seminar in Budapest.
Officially, there were 18 Armenian dead and 12 Azeri dead in the recent clashes, as well as the loss of some military equipment. The Azeris claim this was provoked by Armenian bombardments. However, the higher number of Armenian dead plus the fact that the Azeris were the ones who seized a chunk of Nagorno-Karabakh territory throws some doubt on these claims. (That said, the usually well informed Colonel Cassad claims that both sides’ losses were substantially higher, especially those of the Azeris).
The territories Azerbaijan has taken on April 2 according to an Azeri news source.
Three graphs that explain the renewed clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh
First, Russia is in a precarious position. The situation in Syria can change at any time while the conflict in Donbass has again been simmering up (recent reports from NVF troops indicate intense Ukrainian Army attempts to seize the E50 highway from Donetsk to Gorlovka and dozens of deaths on both sides). It is also apparently committed to keeping a low profile until the next EU vote on extending sanctions. Although Russia is formally committed to come to Armenia’s defense as part of its CSTO obligations, it has been carefully ambiguous on whether the guarantee applies to the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized by noone. All of this will be factors that the Azeris are sure to be weighing and considering.
Second, since the 1990s, the Azeris have massively increased their military preponderance over the Armenians. It may by now be cliche, but it is true nonetheless that Azeri military spending exceeds the entire Armenian state budget. Although Armenia enjoys preferential rates for Russian weaponry – it is something like Israel with regards to the US in this regard – ultimately soaring oil revenues matter more. The two biggest spurts, around the mid-2000s and the early 2010s, were clearly associated with high oil prices.
According to the Comprehensive Military Power (CMP) index, which integrates personnel quantity, equipment stocks, and technology to provide an assessment of each country’s military potential across time and space, Azerbaijan’s preponderance over Armenia has climbed from a multiple of no more than 1.5 in the 1990s – nowhere high enough to force a breakthrough across heavily defended mountainous terrain – to a multiple of 3 in the last few years. At this degree of disparity, formerly impossible things become possible.
Third, the Azeri economy is extremely fragile. The collapse in oil revenues has forced Baku to impose capital controls and devalue the manat twofold, but nonetheless, foreign currency reserves have plunged from a peak of $15 billion to $4 billion by January. Its credit ratings have been reduced to junk. Discontent is beginning to brew with the Aliyev dynasty, which is criticized for corruption and the ineffective use of Azerbaijan’s oil wealth.
Most tellingly, military spending is going to be axed by as much as 40% in 2016. This will allow Armenia to tilt the balance of power back in its favor a bit.
So to sum this all up, as I noted at the start of the year, now would not be the absolute worst time for Azerbaijan to engage in some geopolitical adventurism, to take minds off economic woes. If there ever was a time for reclaiming Nagorno-Karabakh, it’s now. All the more so if in addition to the factors listed above Azerbaijan also enjoys support from a Turkey (and even Ukraine? Though tying the clashes around Yasinovataya to this would be a long stretch, and is probably connected mainly to Poroshenko’s visit to the US) whose relations with Russia have collapsed in recent months.
But there are reasons for be optimistic. The recent clashes are appearing to die down instead of escalating into something bigger. Neither side has declared a mobilization. Instead, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev is appealing to the Security Council with a renewed demand for Armenians to vacate the “occupied territories.” And the fate of the late President Abulfaz Elchibey – whom Ihham’s own father replaced in a coup after his string of losses during the Nagorno-Karabakh War – must weigh heavily on President Aliyev’s considerations.