by Giuliano Bifolchi
The Caucasus might become the theatre of a new conflict whose consequences will impact the entire Eurasian region if the international community will not stop the military escalation at the borders of the de-facto Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan.
Since yesterday morning Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijani forces are fighting each other along the borders in a new escalation which might be interpreted as the epilogue of a long summer of small military operations, borders clashes, and political propaganda. Actually, during the entire summer, Armenia and Azerbaijan have accused each other of creating the conditions for a new war, especially after the Armenian and Azerbaijani military forces clashed in the area of Tavush the last July.
According to the Armenian sources and Stepanakert’s official statement, in the morning of the 27th of November 2020, the Azerbaijani army launched a military offensive along the contact line shelling Nagorno-Karabakh’s soldiers with heavy artillery.
The Armenian side accused also Azerbaijan of targetting Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, Stepanakert, posing a serious threat to the local civilians. Nagorno-Karabakh’s government reported that its military force shot down two Azerbaijani helicopters and three drones and destroyed several tanks.
The Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinian, imposed the martial law and the general mobilisation asking his people ‘to be ready to defend the motherland’.
The Azerbaijani side confirmed the destruction of one of its helicopters although Baku stated that all the soldiers survived after having completed their mission of destroying several Armenian anti-aircraft batteries. The Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev accused the Armenian government of undermining the peace talks because during these years of an attempted dialogue Yerevan have been deploying tens of thousands of soldiers at the Nagorno-Karabakh borders with the goal of attacking the Azerbaijani military forces.
The Head of the presidential Foreign Affairs Department, Hikmet Hajiyev, stated that Armenia deliberately bombed Azerbaijani civilians who live near the conflict zone causing civilian and military victims and destroying several public buildings and infrastructures. What is happening now at the borders, according to Baku, could be easily forecasted considering that the Armenian strategy of deploying its soldiers in Nagorno-Karabakh is the first reason of the peace process’ failure and regional instability.
As always it is impossible to determine which side started the fight because both Armenia/Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan accuse the enemy side of breaking the cease-fire. This is a classical modus operandi which have characterised the ‘frozen conflict’ in Nagorno-Karabakh since 1994 when Armenia and Azerbaijan signed the cease-fire and accepted to be involved in the peace process under the supervision of the OSCE Minsk Group.
The escalation at the borders was followed by the general mobilisation in Armenia and Azerbaijan, a prologue to the war which might destabilise the entire Caucasus involving regional and international key players. Actually, although both Baku and Yerevan were involved in the peace process, for years Armenia and Azerbaijan have spent a significant part of their state budget to buy military equipment, hardware and weapons and be ready for a possible conflict.
Turkey is directly involved in the Caucasus and Ankara has always supported Baku in the fight against Yerevan. Turkish implication in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict underlines Ankara’s foreign policy of controlling the Caucasus which is considered a ‘bridge’ between Europe and Asia and an energetic and logistic hub.
Russia plays a primary role in this ‘frozen conflict’ because the Kremlin considers the Caucasus part of its lebensraum (vital space) where the Russian government wants to impose its political and economic influence in the confrontation against the West, especially after the Russo – Georgian War (2008) and the Ukrainian Crisis (2014). Furthermore, Armenia is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, the Kremlin’s organisation whose goal is to create an ‘economic alliance’ which has been often interpreted as an alter ego of the European Union and an obstacle for the EU Eastern Partnership.
Moreover, the Kremlin has a military base in the city of Gyumri (Armenia) as part of its Transcaucasian Group of Forces. As the map shows, the base is close to the Armenian-Turkish borders and prevents a possible Turkish involvement in a regional conflict. In 2019 Russia reinforced the base numbering up to 5,000 soldiers with helicopter gunships and other military hardware since a 2010 Russian-Armenian agreement extended its basing rights in Armenia to 2044.
In a possible future scenario, if Turkey will decide to actively support Azerbaijan in its military operations against Armenia, the presence of the Russian military base of Gyumri might deter Turkish military operations or become another trigger point of a broader conflict which will involve Moscow and Ankara whose diplomatic relations have been fluctuating since the Kremlin’s military support to Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Conflict in the South Caucasus undermines also the EU interests in the region. In fact, Bruxelles has individuated the Caucasus, especially Azerbaijan, as the market where it is possible to import oil and natural gas to support its Energy Security Strategy whose main goal is to decrease the dependence from Russian energy export. Italy is a vital actor in the EU Energy Security Strategy because in the south of the country (Apulia) is located the last terminal where Azerbaijan will export through the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) its natural gas extracted from the Caspian field of Shah Deniz.
Moreover, the entire Caucasus is part of the EU Eastern Partnership which aims at strengthening and deepening the political and economic relations between the EU, its Member States and the partner countries, and supports sustainable reform processes in partner countries.
In conclusion, we might state that looking at the official statement released from the Armenian and the Azerbaijani governments and politicians, the conflict seems inevitable considering also the fact that both Baku and Yerevan have spent a considerable amount of money to modernise and implement their military capabilities.
The international community should actively stop the conflict to avoid a geopolitical and humanitarian crisis. A new conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan can have a catastrophic consequence because the Caucasus plays a fundamental role in the Eurasian geopolitical chessboard where foreign actors as Turkey, Russia, the European Union, the entire West and also the near Iran (Tehran has an alternate foreign policy with Baku because although Iran shares a common historical, religious, and cultural background with Azerbaijan, the Iranian leadership suspiciously sees the Azerbaijani-Israeli relations and has established a commercial partnership with Armenia) are challenging each other to affirm their supremacy inside the international arena.