Azerbaijan seems unlikely to submit to such pressure / by Elena Chobanyan



As many know the presidents Vladimir Putin, Ilham Aliyev and Serzh Sargsyan had a trilateral meeting in Sochi in August to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The sides resumed negotiations. The head of the sub-department for higher journalism mastery at the MSLU Alan Kasayev said that the key results were that the sides decided to start the peace process pointing out that the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia had no pretensions towards Putin. And the most important aspect is that the ceasefire agreement was reached after 10 days of tensions on the contact line. The director of the Institute for Oriental Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia Ruben Safrastyan said in his turn that Russia played the key role in the settlement process. The expert assumes that organizing the meeting was a demonstration of the active role of Russia in the peace process as a host of the talks and a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk group.

But what brought that meeting to Artsakh and Armenia every expert has different opinions.

A broader context, in what is seen as the most serious escalation of clashes since the May 1994 ceasefire agreement, a recent round of clashes between Azerbaijani forces and Armenian and Nagorno Karabakh front line troops has renewed concern over increasing tension over Karabakh.  This latest round of clashes represented a vivid example of the danger of a rapid escalation of hostilities, as each side responds to a skirmish or clash with overwhelming response, thereby increasing the danger of such incidents to quickly spiral out of control. What made this recent round of clashes different from earlier incidents was more than their intensity, however.  Rather, the broader context is more important as a driver for such clashes tan even the military considerations.  For example, there is a pronounced new, more assertive force posture by Azerbaijan, expressed through an increase in the number of incursions or reconnaissance probes of Armenian and Karabakh defensive positions”, – said Richard Giragosian, the director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC).

In his words, there are several factors driving this current situation: the timing of a reported heightened state of readiness and a more assertive force posture by the Azerbaijani side may be timed with the diplomatic activity by the OSCE Minsk Group, with a related possible consideration of the Crimea crisis; the meaning of such a possible attack or escalation is also aimed at sending a strong message well beyond Armenia or Karabakh; the dividends from such a move for the Azerbaijani leadership may be equally driven by domestic political considerations within the country; the utility of any new attack may stem from a new opportunity for the new Azerbaijani defense minister to demonstrate his own capabilities.

Azerbaijan’s heightened state of readiness and a more assertive force posture by the Azerbaijani side may be timed with the diplomatic activity by the OSCE Minsk Group.  As with earlier attacks and incursions, there is now an established trend of military activity and ceasefire violations correlating directly with diplomatic meetings and mediation. This also poses an additional challenge, whereby the developments on the ground are not based on military logic, but are rather driven by a diplomatic and political agenda, adding greater uncertainty and unpredictability that only increases the danger of “war by accident,” bolstered by threat misperception, tactical miscalculation and the likelihood of small skirmishes that may spiral quickly out of control“, – affirmed Mr. Giragosian.

In this case, continued the RSC director, the timing of the diplomatic efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group may be a key driver for these developments, for two main reasons: to secure a stronger Azerbaijani negotiating position prior to a planned meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents by provoking a strong Armenian military response, and to seize an opportunity to reiterate Azerbaijan’s frustration at the lack of any tangible progress from the peace process. And in terms of this second factor of frustration, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the ceasefire, only exacerbating Azerbaijan’s growing frustration from the lack of any real progress from the peace process seemed likely to trigger an escalation. Another related consideration may also be the current crisis in Crimea, with some in Baku perhaps sensing a fresh opportunity to act while most countries are distracted and diverted by the more pressing situation in Ukraine. And Azerbaijani attacks or an escalation is also aimed well beyond Armenia or Karabakh, also designed to reiterate the strategic significance of Azerbaijan, especially as the withdrawal from Afghanistan lessens the importance of the air corridor through the country.  It may also be a message for Turkey, which by prioritizing its relationship with Russia over fulfilling its pledges of support to the Crimean Tatars has already raised fears within Baku that Ankara is a less reliable ally.

“The dividends from such a move may be equally driven by domestic political considerations within Azerbaijan, especially in light of heightened fear within the ruling elite after the recent overthrow of the Ukrainian president.  And as with the case in January 2014, a military operation may bolster the nationalist credentials of the government and make good on the long standing threats of war by the Azerbaijani president. And a final consideration may be as a show of force by the defense minister.  The appeal of any new attack may also stem from a new opportunity for the new Azerbaijani defense minister to demonstrate his own capabilities, as his successful performance in a similar incursion in January 2014 has only boosted his self-confidence and his own political position”, – stated the political scientist.

Moreover, there is also an important affect on the “regional order,” and it is now clear that the main driver for a regional shift is a resurgent Russia, which has a pronounced impact on many other countries within the “near abroad.” And for Russian President Vladimir Putin, one of the most serious outcomes of his Crimean adventure was not that he exceeded expectations but that he exceeded any limits. But his blatant disregard and disdain for the costs of his actions also foretell a shift in Russian policy to one with little or no restraint. Within that context, such a more assertive Russian posture directed toward its neighbors may also result in a sudden shift in Moscow’s policy toward Nagorno Karabakh.

There are three new factors that suggest a new “Putin paradigm” for Nagorno-Karabakh and, by extension, for the broader South Caucasus region.  First, in the wake of the erosion of restraint and the eradication of limits, Putin may now seek to only garner greater leverage in the South Caucasus, with Karabakh offering an attractive avenue toward a deeper consolidation of Russian power and influence.

Of course, even before the recent clashes, it was clear that Russian influence in the South Caucasus was neither imperiled nor impartial. And Moscow’s power rested on several elements, ranging from a security partnership with Armenia, which also hosts the only Russian military presence in the region, to outright self-interest, as the leading arms provider to both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

“Regarding Azerbaijan, however, Moscow has simply little leverage, and even less credibility. Instead, it has followed a policy favoring incentives and inducements, such as larger arms deals, over any direct interference of intervention. In the case of Karabakh, Russian power and prestige were never as assured or secure as Moscow desired. Unlike Georgia’s “frozen” conflicts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where Russian-led CIS peacekeepers and Russian passports offered effective instruments for intervention, Moscow has long lost real leverage over Nagorno Karabakh. With no military presence and even less military influence, Karabakh has long resisted ceding its position to any outsider, even to Russia“, – added Mr. Girakosian, then continued that a second factor suggesting a new Putin paradigm for Karabakh is the peace process. Russia has long held the advantage of proximity and presence over its fellow mediators, France and the United States, but past diplomatic cooperation and coordination may be sacrificed in the new post-Crimea climate. Moscow may seek to collude but no longer cooperate with Western interests in mediating the Karabakh conflict, and a new attempt by Moscow to push out Paris and Washington from equal footing in the mediation effort is more than likely, given the new anti-Western refrain from the Putin camp.

And a final factor suggesting a dangerous new round of insecurity and instability in the South Caucasus may emanate from a new Russian calculus on Karabakh. Adopting a refined cost-benefit analysis based on the absence of limits and the reckless disregard of restraint may lead Moscow to alter course, no longer content in benefiting from the conflict’s unresolved status quo as an instrument for power and influence. Rather, Russia may seek greater but riskier dividends from transforming the “frozen” Nagorno Karabakh conflict into a hot war, thereby attaining even greater leverage and latitude. Thus the real danger is that these recent clashes may be only the prelude to the onset of a much broader danger of possible Russian provocation, leveraging the Karabakh conflict as an instrument over both Yerevan and Baku. And in that scenario, no one in the region wins, and everyone loses.

Throughout the peace process over Nagorno Karabakh, the OSCE Minsk Group has attempted to mediate the conflict and help all sides reach a negotiated settlement.  In recent years, however, it is clear that there is no possible resolution any time soon, and the diplomatic process has been challenged by many obstacles.  Most recently, it has been the Azerbaijani side that has seriously impeded the peace process. More specifically, Azerbaijan has refused to implement any confidence-building measures and continues to unilaterally violate the ceasefire.  On the other hand, the Karabakh side has offered a new idea, aimed at building trust and confidence, by offering the use the “joint management” of water resources.  That offer would allow Azerbaijan to benefit from the use of water from the Sarsang reservoir in Karabakh, and was welcomed y the OSCE.  Unfortunately, despite the good will gesture, Baku has refused the offer”, – said Mr. Giragosian.

This latest development also reveals the larger problem. While both the OSCE Minsk Group mediators and their host governments see Azerbaijan’s rhetoric of aggressive threats and diplomatic bluster as serious obstacles to the peace process, Azerbaijan seems unwilling to climb down from the threats of war.  Moreover, the current outlook for the peace process is poor, with little if any sign of progress. In many ways, the mediators are now engaged in a much more limited “back to basics” approach, seeking merely to keep Azerbaijan at the negotiating table and to prevent an outbreak of hostilities. But what makes this current situation much more serious is the danger that Azerbaijan’s stronger threats are now matched by an increasing willingness to use offensive military action to demonstrate its frustration.

Reflecting this greater risk, there is a new sense of diplomatic urgency among the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs, who are exerting new pressure on all sides to de-escalate tension.  Yet under the present format, such diplomatic urgency may be difficult to sustain.  First, Azerbaijan seems unlikely to submit to such pressure, especially given the lack of external leverage.  An additional limitation on any such pressure stems from Russia, which has little real incentive to push for a breakthrough in the peace process.  Rather, Russian interests seem to be better served by either maintaining the current status quo or by exploiting an expansion of tension.

“Beyond the OSCE, there is also a need for greater engagement by the European Union (EU).  A greater role for the EU would help to expand the number of stakeholders and would offer a much needed new sense of external concern.  More specifically, bringing in the EU directly, not as a replacement or rival for the OSCE, but to strengthen and support both the mediation effort and the ceasefire monitoring mission.  Such a greater EU role is not only feasible; it is also desirable as a means to expand the power of stakeholders in preventing and preempting any outbreak of war, especially as Karabakh is the only conflict within wider Europe where the EU has no role whatsoever.  And EU engagement would also bolster the “back to basics” diplomatic approach of the Minsk Group and help in addressing the underlying lack of trust among the parties to the Karabakh conflict by introducing a greater degree of transparency in the peace process”, – concluded R. Giragosian.

Elena Chobanyan 

Posted by on Aug 30 2014. Filed under Armenia / Diaspora, News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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