Military action broke out in several areas at once. Azerbaijani troops moved to Syunik, a region on the territory of Armenia, and occupied several strong points there. In this area, according to the existing agreements, a highway must pass connecting the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan with the main territory of Azerbaijan. For its part, Azerbaijan stated that on the morning of November 16, Armenian units launched an offensive in the direction of the Lachin and Kelbajar regions of Azerbaijan and delivered artillery strikes at its forces. As always in such cases, the parties accuse each other of unleashing hostilities and demonstrate burning or captured equipment of the other side. Azerbaijanis also showed Armenian prisoners of war. There is a lull at the moment, but there is no doubt that hostilities could start again at any moment.
After a 44-day war (Second Karabakh war, September 27 – November 10, 2020), in which Azerbaijan prevailed, a ceasefire was in force in the region. But in practice, it has not been observed for several months. Shots are heard at the borders, there are killed and wounded on both sides. In fact, the situation returned to the sluggish armed confrontation between the countries that took place before the Second Karabakh War. The latest outbreak suggests that full-scale military operations may also resume.
Why do the parties fail to come to an agreement?
During the 44-day war, Azerbaijan regained 7 regions previously occupied by Armenian troops, as well as some regions of Nagorno-Karabakh, including Shusha. But most of Karabakh remained under the control of the Armenian forces and the Russian military contingent, peacekeepers. Russian troops are in Karabakh in accordance with a tripartite post-war agreement for a period of 5 years.
Nevertheless, Azerbaijan considers these regions to be its own – during its stay in the USSR, they belonged to it. Armenia thinks differently, calls these regions “Artsakh”. She advocates that they be under independent Armenian rule (and under the de facto control of Yerevan), moreover, there are tens of thousands of Armenians living there. Azerbaijan is not going to give Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, but does not object to the residence of local Armenians there, whom it considers its citizens.
Azerbaijan wants an agreement with Armenia on the borders of the countries. He considers Nagorno-Karabakh to be his territory, relying on the fact that practically no one in the world has recognized the independence of Karabakh. He also wants Armenia to recognize Karabakh as Azerbaijani.
Azerbaijan won the 44-day war and the force is undoubtedly on its side – the Armenian army was literally crushed in the recent past. Azerbaijan’s huge military budget, its ability to acquire high-precision modern weapons from Israel and Turkey (it was this that played a key role in the 44-day war) and Turkey’s serious military-political support dramatically changed the balance of forces in its favor.
Time still does not work for Armenia. For 20 years, oil-rich Azerbaijan has been buying weapons on average for a billion dollars a year and intends to do so in the future. The Armenian state does not have such funds. In addition, the population of Azerbaijan is three times larger.
Azerbaijan, according to the signed ceasefire agreement, also wants to get a route from Nakhichevan to Azerbaijan (through the territory of Armenia – Zangezur / Syunik). He agrees to the fact that she was under the protection of the Russian (but not Armenian) military, who will ensure unhindered transport links between the Azerbaijani territories.
Armenia refuses such a decision, interpreting the agreement in its favor – the Armenian military will themselves ensure the safety of the route. Armenia fears that the loss of control over the highway will eventually lead to the loss of control over the whole of Syunik and to cut off the territory of Armenia from friendly Iran. In addition, the route, if carried out, will be under the protection of the Russian army, which will strengthen the already enormous influence of Russia in Armenia – after all, at present the Armenian state is saved from the complete defeat by Azerbaijani-Turkish forces by the presence of Russian troops on its territory and in Karabakh.
Armenia does not want to transfer the route and does not want to recognize Karabakh as Azerbaijani. For the government Nikola Pashinyan such a recognition would be a death sentence, since the idea that Nagorno-Karabakh or Artsakh is Armenia is almost a consensus in this country and lies at the basis of the national ideology. Pashinyan, whose authority within the country has already radically diminished after the defeat in the Second Karabakh War, is unlikely to make concessions on the Karabakh issue.
All together means that a border treaty and a peace treaty between Azerbaijan and Armenia will not be signed in the foreseeable future.
Armenia seems to be comfortable with the status quo – the current fragile balance of power. For her leadership, this is the least evil. The problem is that this situation does not suit Azerbaijan at all and it clearly intends to destroy this balance. He is not going to give in on this issue and is putting pressure on Armenia to force it to accept his point of view.
This is due not only to issues of geopolitics, but also to the president’s internal policy. Ilham Aliyev… In Azerbaijan, the 44-day war has been declared victorious, which leads to the rallying of the nation around the president. But at the same time, the overwhelming part of Nagorno-Karabakh is still not under the control of Azerbaijan. This factor is important and may affect the situation in the future (“we won the war, but Karabakh is still Armenian, albeit without Shushi, which passed to Azerbaijan”). In addition, military confrontation plays into the hands of the leaders of both countries to some extent, since it distracts society, especially the poorest segments of the population, from serious social and economic difficulties.
So, the Armenian leadership refuses to recognize Karabakh as Azerbaijani and to conclude an agreement on the delimitation of borders, and also refuses at present to create a highway through Syunik. Therefore, Azerbaijan continues to put pressure on Armenia, using its military superiority, in order to force it to make concessions. A few months ago, I warned that now, in response to Armenia’s refusal of Azerbaijani conditions, Azerbaijani troops may make small (and in the future, perhaps, large) breakthroughs in the territory occupied by the Armenian military. And this already applies not only, and even not so much to Nagorno-Karabakh, which is protected by Russian troops, but to any region where the forces of Armenia are today, to its own territory.
In that case, what is Armenia hoping for? To Russia and Iran.
The Armenian borders and Karabakh are protected by the Russian army. This seriously changes the balance. Azerbaijan does not want to fight with Russia and cannot. But Russian troops cover far from all Armenian territories, and therefore the Azerbaijani Armed Forces were now able to advance in Syunik. The length of the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan is about 1000 km and only a small part of it is covered by Russian forces. Azerbaijanis can attack in different places.
In addition, the Russian armed forces are located in Nagorno-Karabakh for 5 years, and if Azerbaijan does not want to extend their status, they will have to leave. If they do not leave, Azerbaijan may declare the occupation of its territory and this will cause new international sanctions against Russia, as well as aggravate its relations with Azerbaijan’s main ally, Turkey.
In principle, Moscow and Yerevan are linked by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a regional international organization within which the parties must protect each other from aggression. But an official request for protection from Armenia has not yet been received. In addition, Azerbaijan says that since there is no agreement on the delimitation of the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, then these events cannot be interpreted as aggression against the sovereign Armenian territory. Russia might not have noticed such legal subtleties, but … Of course, Russian troops could defend Syunik. However, Russia is interested in a corridor through this territory, which it wants to control. Armenia does not concede, saying that if it agrees to a transport corridor, then only under its control. This drastically reduces the motivation of the Russian Federation to defend Syunik.
Armenia has another ally and neighbor – Iran. He recently loudly announced his desire to prevent the strengthening of the Turkish-Azerbaijani alliance on its borders. Iran demonstratively carried out large-scale military maneuvers on its territory in the regions bordering with Armenia and Azerbaijan. He warned Turkey and Azerbaijan about the undesirability of their military onslaught on Armenia.
But Turkey is on the side of Azerbaijan, with which it has, in fact, a military agreement on mutual assistance (Shusha Declaration). Turkey has entered this situation incomparably deeper than before. If earlier the South Caucasus was a zone of absolute domination of the USSRRF, now a new and very strong player has appeared there – Turkey, whose influence – military, political and economic – is comparable to that of Russia. Will Iran decide on a conflict with Turkey over Armenia?
So far, Azerbaijanis clearly intend to use “salami tactics”. There is only 35 km between the main territory of Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan through Syunik. Azerbaijani troops will cut off a slice from Armenia over and over again, punching a corridor to Nakhichevan. Blow – ceasefire – new blow …
All this creates conditions for rivalry and confrontation between powers. Azerbaijan is under the Turkish military umbrella; Russia and Iran are on the side of Armenia. This makes the Armenian-Azerbaijani military confrontation extremely dangerous. After all, it is quite capable of provoking a war between the powers.