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Renewed war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Broader implications

The diplomatic challenge is daunting, as Russia has little interest in anything short of strengthening its own power and position, while Turkey has already exposed itself as the primary obstacle to a cessation of hostilities.

September 30, 2020 - Richard Giragosian - Hot Topics

Photo: Albert_Khachatryan / Shutterstock

Editor’s note: At New Eastern Europe we aim to bring to you information and analysis on all issues related to our region of Central and Eastern Europe, this includes publishing voices from the region itself. However, our region is one of many unresolved conflicts and war. The case of the Nagorno-Karabakh is one that raises high emotions on both sides of the conflict – Azerbaijan and Armenia – and it is nearly impossible to get an objective point of view on the conflict from either side.

On September 27th fighting has broken out between Azerbaijan and Armenian in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Both sides blame each other for shooting first and we do not have confirmation to say definitively. Nevertheless,  we understand the importance of providing some context and local perspective, even in the case of conflict. That is why, we have asked analysts from Azerbaijan and Armenia to give their view on the situation and what consequences might be as a result of the escalation.

It is our hope that with these two perspectives, you – the readers – can have a more informed understanding of the complex and serious situation faced in this part of the world.

This text presents an Armenian perspective. Click here to read an Azerbaijani position.

For Armenians, September 2020 will be remembered as a month of vulnerability, victimhood and vigilance. An early morning offensive on September 27th by Azerbaijani military forces on Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) brought a sudden reminder earlier attacks. For the Armenians of the region, the Azerbaijani offensive was only the latest in a round of attacks from Azerbaijan. Each of those earlier military attacks represented new and unprecedented chapters in the long-standing history of fighting over the unresolved conflict.

Edging Closer to War

The previous alarming level of hostilities was a similar Azerbaijani military offensive in April 2016 which saw the most intense fighting since a fragile ceasefire was reached in May 1994. In what became a brief but deadly “five-day war”, the fighting in April 2016 stood out in that it set a new context. More specifically, that round of fighting was the first time that the Azerbaijani side was able to execute and achieve a clear and limited military campaign objective: to seize and secure territory from the Armenian defenders in Karabakh. Although those territorial gains for Azerbaijan were small in size, the unprecedented military success offered Azerbaijan an important sense of victory and self-confidence. Yet, that limited success was largely based on an element of surprise that no longer applies, as Armenian forces reinforced its extensive defensive positions.  

Since the 2016 “five-day war,” tension has lingered and tough rhetoric from Azerbaijan has only escalated with a dramatic increase in the reliance on an aggressive and threatening discourse by the Azerbaijani leadership. Through the past several years, Azerbaijan’s surging defence spending and purchase of more advanced and offensive weapons systems continued unabated. As Azerbaijan’s frustration with the lack of progress from diplomatic negotiations over the conflict grew, it also demonstrated a more dangerous degree of over-confidence and a greater willingness to use force to bolster its position within the peace process.

After a series of consistent ceasefire violations and sporadic clashes, the situation worsened in July 2020, with an unusual outright Azerbaijani attack on Armenia proper, some 300 kilometres away from Nagorno-Karabakh. Such an offensive against Armenia was also unprecedented in recent years and, for many observers, affirmed the growing risk of renewed warfare. Sadly, that concern was proven correct in the recent outbreak of fighting.

Against that backdrop of a demonstrable move towards war, a significant element of this escalation has been an ever-present and ever-increasingly degree of pressure on Azerbaijan from dangerously rising expectations for a military victory. Although the pressure on Azerbaijani leadership is a result of its own use of aggressive rhetoric and threats, it is increasingly risky for Baku to “ride the tiger” of such bellicose nationalism.

Broader challenges

After the eruption of this latest fighting, the well-planned and coordinated Azerbaijani offensive against Karabakh poses new challenges on several levels. First, in military terms, the scale and scope of current combat operations have been driven by high intensity attacks using tanks, helicopters and most notably, weaponized UAVs or military drones. Moreover, the combat has also been defined by a sweeping geography of battlespace, with Azerbaijani attacks all along the “line of contact” separating Karabakh from Azerbaijan.

Amid a “war of words” over which side actually started the fighting, the situation on the ground reveals that the force posture of the Armenian and Karabakh sides is one based on a defensive position, posing no offensive threat and demonstrating that there is no logic underlying any claim that the Armenian forces in Karabakh attacked first. Most importantly, from a military perspective, the forces defending Karabakh would not risk losing their defensive advantage by launching a risky offensive that would diminish the tactical advantages inherent in their entrenched fortified defensive positions. Yet, unlike the political and diplomatic context, in terms of military logic, the question of which side actually started the fighting is less important and largely irrelevant because once engaged, combat operations follow their own logic and operational tempo.

But a second challenge stems from the external environment. More specifically, although the current situation on the ground remains grim, with little sign of willingness to de-escalate or disengage, the strategic threat environment is heightened by a combination of three external factors, each of which encouraged the renewed fighting: First, a much more robust and assertive Turkish posture in open support of Azerbaijan, which not only encourages Azerbaijan to follow a bolder, more offensive military strategy aimed at seizing and securing territory, but also greatly complicates the likelihood of a return to diplomacy over force of arms; second, a justified Armenian perception of questionable and unreliable backing from Russia in the event the current fighting expands to include combat operations targeting Armenia proper, coupled with an apparent calculation to risk a Russian reaction of response; an third, an Azerbaijani expectation of a weak and divided western response, based on the premise that the European Union is distracted and divided over both Turkey and Russia and on the assumption that the United States will only continue to remain disengaged from the region, especially given the political pre-election turmoil in the United States.

Diplomatic challenge

Clearly, the urgent objective should be to halt the fighting and hold talks seeking a ceasefire. If that is not possible, then the minimal goal would for all sides to agree at least to “cease firing” and disengage. The diplomatic challenge is daunting, however, as Russia has little interest in anything short of strengthening its own power and position, while Turkey has already exposed itself as the primary obstacle to a cessation of hostilities. Meanwhile, for its part, the US is distracted and disengaged from the South Caucasus region, leaving the EU as the only hope.

Thus, the key test will be one of European commitment and engagement. And the only path forward would be to engage all parties to the conflict, leveraging Armenia’s greater legitimacy from truly free and fair elections and success in a peaceful transition to democracy, and finally engaging the democratically elected representatives in Karabakh through a new “status neutral” approach. Only then can there by a real chance to forge a lasting ceasefire and foster a new climate more conducive to genuine and sincere diplomatic negotiations.

Richard Giragosian is the Founding Director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC), an independent “think tank” in Yerevan, Armenia.

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