Commentary: The Specter of War Looms over Caucasus Again

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

Azerbaijani leaders always contend that they have lost a battle with Armenia, but not the war. They believe that the war is not over, and that military conflict cannot be ruled out any time. Indeed, since May 1994, a tenuous ceasefire has been in place, as the threat of a military conflict continues to loom over the horizon.

The US State Department, the Russian Foreign Ministry and the European Union don’t miss any opportunity to announce that a military solution to the Karabagh conflict is not an option. Contrary to these warnings, the Azeri leaders continue their bellicose rhetoric without any party slapping their wrists. In the past, their claims were confined to the Azeri territories surrounding Nagorno Karabagh, under Armenian control, yet, recently they have been emboldened to include also Karabagh itself, targeted for “liberation.”

For a long time, the international observers and Armenian government circles believed that the war rhetoric was only for domestic consumption. However, Azerbaijani military build up, fueled by petro dollars and intransigence at the negotiating table, have given a more ominous significance to Baku’s intentions.

Until recently, military and government leaders in Armenia had only restrained responses to Azeri threats. That posture seems to have led Azeri leaders believe that their threats were intimidating Armenia into possible compromises. Not any more.

Armenia, in its turn, launched a media campaign to counter Azerbaijan’s military posturing. The public celebration of the 18th anniversary of the founding of the Armenian armed forces and the sober warning of Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian has heightened the tension between the two neighbors.

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After the end of the Cold War, a confrontation between the great powers is very unlikely, because East and West have been integrating economically at a rapid pace and interdependence has become a major contributor to stability. However, the dynamics of conflicts and wars are different for smaller nations; they are mostly determined by major powers and they are well calculated ahead of time.

A case in point is last August’s war in the Caucasus, when Russia snatched two regions from Georgia, namely South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Kremlin leaders knew in advance that the US and the West could not and would not go beyond a verbal condemnation. Thus, Russia initiated the war and concluded it when its objectives were achieved.

Today, a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan can be launched if it is in the interest of any or all major powers. And thus, many theories abound about the possibility of conflict between Yerevan and Baku; some observers believe that Russia wouldn’t mind such a conflict if it is meant to interrupt the West’s energy supplies. Countering that theory, some others believe that the US may condone Azeri aggression it if is convinced that oil pipelines would remain unscathed and that the Russian vanguard military base in Armenia would suffer a beating.

Pundits in Armenia are convinced that the escalation of tensions by Azerbaijan is intended to scare Armenia into making concessions. These, of course, are all within the realm of speculation.

Azerbaijan’s threats began to be taken seriously in Armenia and the entire region, when the US Intelligence Chief issued a stern warning. Indeed, testifying in front of a US Senate Committee the Director of the National Intelligence Dennis Blair announced, “Although there has been progress in the past year toward a Turkey-Armenia rapprochement, this has affected the delicate relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and increases the risk of renewed conflict over Nagorno Karabagh.”

If that risk is real, Washington cannot pretend to remain in the position of innocent bystander, because it has been contributing to that risk effectively. Indeed, during the Bush administration, Congress authorized the executive branch to waive Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, based on Azerbaijani good behavior. Yet Azeri behavior has been anything but good. The policy is being continued by the Obama administration, contributing directly to the Azeri military build-up.

Russia tried to diffuse the tensions through certain measures. Thus, Nicolai Borduzha, the secretary of Collective Security Pact, announced that war is very unlikely on the territory of the former Soviet Union. “In general, only political and diplomatic means are sufficient to settle the conflicts,” he said.

Then, in Moscow Article 21 of the Collective Defense Pact surfaced in the news media stating that any aggression on a member state is considered aggression against all members, which will deal collectively with such threats.

Then again, Moscow’s interests are so entangled with those of Turkey and Azerbaijan, that any excuse can be presented for inaction, should such a conflict arise.

If war breaks out, it will certainly not be of Armenia’s choosing. Yet is Armenia ready for that war?

Defense Chief Ohanian assures the public that the army has the technological edge over the enemy. But that, again, may be part of the psychological war. There are so many unknowns that it would be difficult to predict the outcome. This time around, Turkey will not be sitting idly. The military brass is already heavily involved in Azerbaijan’s war preparedness, as Israel is behind that country’s development of military technology.

It has been observed that when major powers plan to ignite a regional conflict, there is always a diversionary act in play. In that sense one would believe that rising tensions between Iran and the West is intended to set the stage for a Caucasus conflict.

Internally, Armenia is divided as ever. The Armenian National Congress, headed by Levon Ter-Petrosian, is continuing to undermine the current administration. One would hear mothers at Ter-Petrosian rallies, “We don’t have sons for Serzhik’s war.” This is reminiscent of a tragic situation in 1918 when General Antranik was begging Eastern Armenian volunteer soldiers to stay put in the Kars fortress but the latter quit arguing that “this is not our homeland.”

Although the ARF and Ter-Petrosian cannot see eye to eye, they seem to have a common plan to weaken the government and bring about a regime change. The debate over the protocols seems to have partially achieved Turkey’s intended goal of pitting the diaspora against Armenia.

The diaspora has a very important role to play. It cannot finance the war, however, what it can do is leave aside internecine bickering, mobilize the Armenian public opinion and then sensitize international media and legislators, especially in the US. We don’t have the luxury of continuing business as usual.

Therefore, the gathering of clouds over Armenia calls for national unity. All the dividing issues are minimized when the destiny of the homeland is at stake. If war comes, it will not be Serzhik’s war, nor Levon’s war. It will be the war to liquidate Armenia, and 95 years after the Genocide fulfilling the Turkish plan of complete annihilation, with Karabagh returning under the yoke of Azeri rule.

The scenario may not be as somber, but we have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.