What is Behind Azerbaijan’s Rising Belligerence?

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The Armenian government is caught between a rock and a hard place; it has been negotiating on two fronts with Turkey and Azerbaijan, and most probably, giving in on major issues in hope of achieving an elusive peace, yet it has to put on a brave face for its citizens and proclaim that the negotiations will be yielding positive results.

At issue are the settlement of the Karabakh status and the creation of the Zangezur Corridor through Syunik, Armenia. For all practical purposes, it looks like Turkey and Azerbaijan will be receiving what they have sought; as one Turkish newspaper heralded, “the gate to Great Turan is opening,” referring to the Zangezur Corridor, while Armen Grigoryan, the secretary of the National Security Council, has been reassuring the public that Yerevan is not after territorial claims but only after the security and rights of the people of Karabakh.

Finally, Grigoryan has conceded that negotiations are for peace, and are separate from the issue of the Karabakh conflict. Thus, while the government has been crafting the appropriate semantics to couch the inconvenient truth from the public, the opposition is denouncing the regime of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan for selling out the country to the Turks and Azerbaijanis.

As Armenia grudgingly swallows the compromises, Azerbaijan is becoming more belligerent, with the firm belief that this is the best time to push Armenia to the breaking point. Indeed, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev believes that the stars can never align again to offer another such chance, which was handed to him by the combination of the might of the Turkish and Israeli drones, Pakistani pilots and Syrian Jihadists. Time is not a friend of Azerbaijan, as the window is closing for those who will be seeking settlement of their problems through violence in the region.

Azerbaijani forces on a daily basis have made incursions into Armenia and Karabakh, and publicly blame the Armenian side. In fact, Zakir Hasanov, Azerbaijan’s minister of defense, announced a few days ago that his country’s armed forces stand in full readiness to counter any provocation from the Armenian side.

Azerbaijan is rebuilding its armed forces at a rapid pace. During the recent war, despite defections and security breaches, Armenia withstood the aggression for 44 days and damaged Azerbaijan’s forces considerably. But Baku, this time around, is replenishing its arsenal with even more modern weaponry. Fuad Shahbazov, writing in Eurasianet.org, states, “The modernization of Azerbaijan’s military is part of a broader post-2020 military expansion, including a significant increase in the military budget. Aliyev has cited the risk of Armenian revanchism as the reason. But a more likely motivation is the overall declining security environment in Azerbaijan’s neighborhood. The full-scale conventional war now underway in Ukraine, and the relatively successful defense mounted by the NATO-trained Ukrainian armed forces has only strengthened the case for military reform and moving beyond the Soviet legacy.”

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Armenia’s rearmament is a long shot, particularly in view of the fact that it does not have the same financial resources to compete with Azerbaijan. Armenia has just begun shopping for arms with the perspective of diversifying its resources, similar to Azerbaijan, as it is moving away from its Soviet legacy.

Ilham Aliyev received another moral boost when Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, recently flew to Baku to sign a gas deal, praising the Azerbaijani dictator to the hilt, although Azerbaijan’s capacity to replace the Russian gas flow is infinitely smaller.

Incidentally, Azerbaijan’s gas deal with Europe must have been problematic for the Kremlin, as two days before Russia launched its war against Ukraine, Mr. Aliyev was in Moscow signing an agreement with President Vladimir Putin, which called for, inter alia, that the parties will refrain from entering into any business with a third party which could damage the economic interests of the signatories. And yet, after von der Leyen’s visit to Baku, Moscow issued no objections.

As for negotiations between Armenia and Turkey, they have yielded insignificant results and don’t look very promising at this time.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavusoglu’s expectation that “Armenia needs to take concrete steps” is only an excuse to drag the negotiation process. It would have been more advantageous for Armenia to bring to the table the issue of recognition of the Genocide and the ensuing compensation, to put Turkey on the defensive. After all, it was Ankara which did not stick to its side of the bargain and began negotiation without preconditions only to bring in its condition of Armenia signing a peace treaty with Azerbaijan. Armenia needs to revisit its no-precondition approach and offer up a list of demands.

While plans are being made for another summit between Pashinyan and Aliyev in Brussels, tensions are rising. Are we heading to another conflict before finalizing a peace deal? An Armenian political analyst, Tigran Grigoryan, offers an answer to the question by stating: “The reported truce violations signify the Azerbaijani leadership’s dissatisfactions with the current state of the peace process. Baku may be trying to ratchet up tensions in the Karabakh conflict zone in a bid to clinch diplomatic political concessions from Armenia.”

This idea is further corroborated by the fact that Aliyev throws a fit every time the Armenian side reminds him that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Process is tasked with resolving the Karabakh status issue. Now the US has joined the fray, resurrecting the moribund OSCE process, contrary to Russia’s reluctance. To appease Mr. Aliyev, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had announced in Baku recently that the OSCE process is dead, because the other two co-chairs, France and the US, refuse to cooperate with Russia. In an interview on Azatutyun TV, US Ambassador Lynne Tracy reiterated that to the contrary, the US is ready to cooperate with Russia to settle the Karabakh conflict. We have to be reminded that the issue was raised at a higher level when Deputy Secretary of State Karen Donfried was in Yerevan.

Perhaps, adding to Mr. Aliyev’s nervousness is the fact that the US has shown renewed interest in the region and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been calling the parties on a weekly basis. After his most recent call to Pashinyan and Aliyev, Mr. Blinken Tweeted that he sees “a historic opportunity to achieve peace in the region.” Surprisingly, the Kremlin has also given a nod to the participation of third parties in the peace process in the region, provided that they don’t undermine Russia’s position.

Thus, Armenia alone cannot contain Mr. Aliyev’s tantrums, but it looks like the actions of major players may just do the job. This seeming cooperation between the US and Russia at a time when they find no common ground should put fear up Mr. Aliyev’s back.

One of the astute analysts in Yerevan, Hovsep Khurshudyan, believes that Blinken’s sustained interest in the region is a stabilizing factor, as he writes, “The frequency of the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s phone calls to Yerevan and Baku is only one of the demonstrations of Washington’s relevant efforts. In this context, I would like to note the clear and public identification of Azerbaijan as the source of provocations and Blinken’s latest talks with Pashinyan and Aliyev. The US’s heightened interest in the region is in Armenia’s interest, primarily due to the fact that it is preventing Ilham Aliyev from further adventurous actions. Baku continues associating solutions to the regional problems — Armenia-Azerbaijan relations and the Artsakh problem — with the possible use of force. …. US diplomacy is the ‘minimum threshold’ ensuring security guarantees for Armenia.”

Armenia desperately needs peace and stability to be able to recover from the devastating effects of war and maintain its sovereignty.

 

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