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On the Brink of War: Tensions Escalate between Armenia and Azerbaijan

Nikola Mikovic explores the implications of war between the two energy-rich territories and how Russia and Turkey are expected to become more directly involved

An Armenian tank takes part in the Kavkaz-2020 [Caucasus 2020] military exercise at the Alagyaz training ground. Photo: Vagram Bagdasaryan/Tass/PA Images

ON THE BRINK OF WARTensions Escalate between Armenia and Azerbaijan

Nikola Mikovic explores the implications of war between the two energy-rich territories and how Russia and Turkey are expected to become more directly involved

Arch-enemies Armenia and Azerbaijan are on the edge of a military confrontation over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

After Azeri forces, backed by Turkey, reportedly attacked Armenia-sponsored Nagorno Karabakh troops yesterday, the latter declared martial law and a general mobilisation, while the Azeri Army claims to have captured several strategic heights and villages – thawing the decades-old frozen conflict.

The two countries have a history of tense relations, stemming from the ongoing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh – also known as Artsakh – a region of Azerbaijan that has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since the conclusion of war in 1994.

Even though Armenia is part of Russia’s Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), which should make it Moscow’s ally, Russia is actually supplying weapons to both countries.

In 2017, Russia reportedly delivered a new batch of anti-tank missiles to Azerbaijan as a part of a lucrative arms deal with Baku. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev rejected the ensuing criticism, saying that “providing weapons to both sides creates a military balance in the conflict”.

Reports suggest that, over the weekend, a military transport aircraft landed in Armenia from Rostov – allegedly providing Russian weapons to the Armenian Army.

Meanwhile, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued statement calling Armenia “the biggest threat in the region”, saying that Ankara would fully support Azerbaijan.

There are indications that Turkey is pushing Azerbaijan to capture Artsakh, even though the mountainous terrain makes a land invasion very difficult. Ankara’s support for Baku is much more explicit than ever before, while the Kremlin maintains its demands for a ceasefire and negotiations.

Despite supplying munitions to both sides, an escalation of the conflict is not beneficial to Moscow. Due to its strategic alliance with Armenia, Russia may well be forced to side with the country if tensions rise, stopping the Kremlin from portraying itself as a regional arbiter.

The CSTO states that “if one of the states parties is subjected to aggression by any state or group of states, then this will be considered as aggression against all states parties to this Treaty”.

However, there is a get-out clause. Azerbaijan attacked the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, not Armenia itself, which could give the Kremlin an easy excuse not to ride to the aide of its ally if it doesn’t see the benefit of favouring one side in the conflict.

A Proxy War?

Whatever Russia’s role, the current battles appear to mark the most serious spike in hostilities since 2016.

Although both sides traditionally exaggerate the enemy’s losses, there are reports that dozens of military personnel and civilians have been killed during the most recent clashes.

Turkey is reportedly transferring its militant proxies based in northern Syria to Azerbaijan, while Ankara claims that Kurds are fighting on the Armenian side. Indeed, Turkey-backed Azerbaijan has the upper hand in terms of high-tech military kit, but that does not mean it will manage to capture the region in a blitzkrieg operation.

So far, the main hostilities have been localised on the territory of Artsakh, although fighting directly on Armenian or in Azeri territory would very quickly escalate the conflict. If that happens, Russia and Turkey are expected to become more directly involved, to decide the future of the energy-rich territories.

If this happens, the two controlling parties will undoubtedly barter their share of natural resources in the region, as they already have in Syria and Libya. The spoils of this conflict will once again be shared by superpowers, not their subservient allies.

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