Aggressive Azerbajan

Talk of war from Azerbajan, over Nagorno-Karabakh

Having spent heavily on its military, Azerbaijan has raised the possibility of recovering Nagorno-Karabakh and its other occupied territories by force. Although the forthcoming presidential election is a factor, this more aggressive stance is not mere bluster. Azerbaijan is frustrated at the failure of 14 years of negotiation and has concluded that a credible military threat might be the best way to force the Karabakh Armenia’s to make concessions–or, if that fails, to drive them out.

Talk of war
OSCE observers carried out an unscheduled monitoring of one section of the ceasefire line by Nagorno-Karabakh on July 16th, following allegations from both sides of violations. The atmosphere has been tense ever since Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, said in early June that although Azerbaijan would continue to take political steps to recover Karabakh and neighboring territories under Armenian control, “we should be ready to liberate our lands in a military way at any time.” He added that Azerbaijan’s army was the strongest in the region.

In the wake of Mr Aliyev’s remarks there has been considerable debate in Azerbaijan’s press regarding a military solution to the Karabakh problem. Armenian politicians have been deeply critical, seeking to draw international attention to Mr Aliyev’s remarks and to generate support for their position. Within Karabakh itself, the response has been less diplomatic. On July 16th the entity’s defense minister claimed that he had sufficient military capability to repel any Azerbaijani attack.

Burning issue
As the exchanges of gunfire across the ceasefire line in recent weeks attest, Karabakh is not really a frozen conflict–nor has it been for much of the time since the 1994 ceasefire. For Azerbaijan, moreover, the stakes are enormous: some 15% of its territory is under occupation. In addition to Karabakh, seven other regions within Azerbaijan’s internationally recognised borders are being held by the Karabakh Armenia’s, only two of which are needed to maintain a land connection to Armenia. The occupation of the seven regions arguably arouses more ire within Azerbaijan than the occupation of Karabakh itself, because there is no political justification for it.

The major change in the situation in recent years has been on the Azerbaijani side: the army that lost the war is undergoing a transformation funded by the country’s oil windfall. Mr Aliyev said recently that defence spending had risen tenfold since 2003 and now stood at US$2bn annually. Already this is far in excess of Armenia’s defence budget and it is set to rise still further. The military hardware that Azerbaijan has acquired is not on its own regarded as sufficient to recover the occupied territories, but it is a statement of intent. The crucial element is understood to be the quality of Azerbaijan’s troops. Pointedly, Mr Aliyev said in early June that their professionalism is increasing daily.

Welling frustration
The more bellicose tone adopted by Azerbaijan’s government is probably connected in part to the presidential election due later this year, which Mr Aliyev is all but certain to win. However it is wrong simply to ascribe the increase in war talk to electoral factors.

Azerbaijan is deeply dissatisfied with the work of the OSCE’s Minsk Group, which comprises the US, Russia and France and is charged with seeking a solution to the conflict. Since 1994, the Minsk Group has achieved little or nothing. In Azerbaijani eyes, Russia prefers to keep the conflict frozen in order to preserve its own influence in the Caucasus. France is regarded as passive and biased in favour of Armenia because of the Armenian diaspora among its citizenry. Most hope is invested in the US, but it is viewed as having failed to overcome Russian obstructionism (and the US too has an influential Armenian diaspora).

Muscular diplomacy
The frustration with the Minsk Group is understandable, but perhaps misses the point. The conflict has remained frozen not because the mechanisms are wrong, but because there is insufficient political will on both sides to compromise. The conflict is deadlocked because, while the status quo is unacceptable to Azerbaijan, the Karabakh Armenia’s are broadly satisfied with it–or rather, they prefer the status quo to a compromise that would involve the loss of a land-bridge to Armenia or the acceptance of substantial autonomy in Azerbaijan. Hence the failure to reach a negotiated solution.

Until recently, the threat of Azerbaijani military action was not sufficiently serious to sway Karabakh Armenian calculations. Baku seems to have concluded that the best way forward is to change the other side’s calculations by posing a more credible military threat.

It is therefore wrong to dismiss Azerbaijan’s re-armament and more aggressive stance merely as pre-election bluster. It is a response to the failure of conflict resolution, and it betrays a belief that a change the balance of power in the region is one way to force the Armenian side to be more flexible in negotiations. For Azerbaijan’s leadership, this course of action has the added attraction of creating an option to seek to recover the territories by force if its more muscular diplomacy fails.

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