Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan

Why Azerbaijan Launched a New War and What Armenia Should Do

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By Benyamin Poghosyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

On September 13, Azerbaijan launched a new war against Armenia in multiple directions, shelling military and civilian infrastructure and seeking to advance into the Syunik, Vayots Dzor, and Gegharkunik regions. Everyone following the developments in Armenia – Azerbaijan relations expected the escalation; however, the scope of hostilities was unprecedented and went beyond that of the April 2016 four-day war. After two days of active hostilities, Armenia and Azerbaijan reached a ceasefire on September 14. Armenia applied to Russia, the US, France, the UN Security Council, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The UN Security Council held two meetings on the issue with both closed and open debates, while the CSTO sent a special mission to Armenia to assess the situation and prepare a special report for the heads of CSTO member states. There are conflicting narratives on which state played a decisive role in securing a ceasefire – Russia or the US. However, both were instrumental in seeking to end hostilities. According to Armenian official data, Azerbaijan made significant advances toward Jermuk, the resort city in the Vayots Dzor region, while its success in other directions were quite limited. As of the morning of September 17, Armenia confirmed 135 deaths among its soldiers, stating that the number would grow further. There were casualties among the civilian population too. Azerbaijan confirmed 77 deaths among its armed forces.

What was the reason behind the Azerbaijani decision to start a new war against Armenia? Just two weeks before this latest offensive, Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders met in Brussels to discuss how to move forward toward the signature of a peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan. On August 30, the Armenia-Azerbaijan border delimitation and demarcation commission met in Moscow. Apparently, Azerbaijan was not satisfied with the results of the meeting and decided to punish Armenia and force it to take some steps.

Azerbaijan has two main demands from Armenia — to accept the Azerbaijani position that no Nagorno Karabakh exists anymore and to provide a corridor via the Syunik region to reach Nakhijevan from Azerbaijan proper. Azerbaijan views the realization of the first demand through the signing of the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace treaty with no mention of Nagorno Karabakh. Thus, Azerbaijan does not demand Armenia drop any discussion about the autonomous status of Nagorno Karabakh within Azerbaijan. Baku wants Armenia to explicitly state that there is no territorial administrative unit named Nagorno Karabakh.

The external players involved in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus have different views on this issue. The European Union (EU) and the US support this vision and advise Armenia to sign a peace treaty without mentioning Nagorno Karabakh. They promise to work with Azerbaijan to secure the rights of the Armenian ethnic minority in Azerbaijan afterward and prevent the ethnic cleansing of Armenians. Simultaneously, they promise Armenia to protect its internationally recognized borders from further Azerbaijani attacks. However, the main driver behind this approach is the US and the EU’s intention to push Russian peacekeepers from Nagorno Karabakh after the expiration of their mandate in November 2025. If Armenia agrees that no Nagorno Karabakh exists and establishes peace with Azerbaijan, it will be challenging for Russia to justify the deployment of its troops in Nagorno Karabakh. The US and the EU view the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from Nagorno Karabakh as a necessary step toward decreasing Russian influence in the South Caucasus, which is a strategic priority for them given Russia–West ongoing war.

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The Kremlin understands the potential dangers of a Armenia–Azerbaijan peace treaty not mentioning Nagorno Karabakh. Meanwhile, Russia is interested in regional stability and understands that a peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan will contribute to normalizing the situation. As a possible solution, Russia proposed the inclusion of a special article on Nagorno Karabakh in the Armenia–Azerbaijan peace treaty, which will declare that this issue is not solved. It will note that it shall be solved during future negotiations without providing a concrete timeframe and modalities. Azerbaijan rejects this approach and demands a peace treaty without mentioning Nagorno Karabakh at all.

The second demand of Azerbaijan is the establishment of a corridor via the Syunik region with no Armenian control. Theoretically, Azerbaijan may agree to Russian control over the routes, making routes via Syunik similar to the Lachin corridor which connects Armenia with Nagorno Karabakh. Armenia rejects this demand and insists that Armenia should implement border and customs control according to national laws.

In the corridor case, the US and the EU support the Armenian vision as they do not want Russia to have exclusive control over these routes. Let us not forget that these routes will not connect only Azerbaijan with Nakhijevan but also Azerbaijan with Turkey, Russia with Turkey, and even China with Europe via the middle corridor (China–Kazakhstan–Caspian Sea–Azerbaijan–Armenia–Turkey-Europe). Russia is interested in having these routes as an additional connection with Turkey. However, Russia does not want to see these routes as an alternative China – Europe connection circumventing Russia. Thus, Russia calls for the restoration of communications and wants to have control over them, either with Armenia or without. An Azerbaijan – Turkey corridor without any Russian control is detrimental to Russian interests.

In contrast, Russian control will give the Kremlin leverage over Azerbaijan and Turkey and the possibility of controlling the flow of goods. The November 10, 2020, trilateral statement envisages the Russian border troops’ control over the traffic between Azerbaijan and Nakhijevan. It gives Russia an advantage, as both Armenia and Azerbaijan signed the statement. Meanwhile, the US and the EU are interested in restoring communications, including routes from Azerbaijan to Nakhijevan via Syunik, but with no Russian involvement.

So, by launching the new war against Armenia, Azerbaijan would like to force Armenia to realize these two primary demands. The key for Armenia is the fact that both demands are strategically crucial for Azerbaijan. It will not drop its demand for a corridor if Armenia agrees to forget about Nagorno Karabakh and signs a peace treaty with Azerbaijan without mentioning Nagorno Karabakh. Armenia should be cautious not to put itself into that trap, hoping that satisfying Azerbaijan on the Karabakh issue will free Armenia of further problems related to establishing the corridor. The September 14 statement of the Armenian Prime Minister in Parliament that he might sign a document which would provide security for internationally recognized territories of Armenia, but many would call him a traitor, suggested that the Armenian government was ready to accept the Azerbaijani demand for a peace treaty. Probably, the Armenian government hopes that Azerbaijan will drop its demands for the corridor or that the US and the EU will force Azerbaijan to do that. The negative reaction among society and the large–scale rally in front of parliament gathered immediately after the speech forced the prime minister to renounce his statement publicly.

As the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers are going to meet again by the end of September to discuss the peace treaty, the Armenian government thinks about accepting Azerbaijani demands on Karabakh, hoping to “save Armenia.” However, as already mentioned, implementing Azerbaijani demands on Karabakh and signing a peace treaty will not make Azerbaijan drop its demands for the corridor. This step will only accelerate the loss of Karabakh while making Azerbaijan bolder in its further demands on Armenia. The realistic way to save Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh is not a policy of appeasement. Instead, the Armenian government should concentrate its efforts on two primary issues — buying basic anti-drone capabilities and medium-range missiles. It will narrow the military power gap between Armenia and Azerbaijan and significantly reduce Azerbaijani possibilities to implement the strategy of coercive diplomacy. The dilemma that Armenia will lose either Nagorno Karabakh or Nagorno Karabakh plus Syunik, and therefore it should choose the first option and lose Karabakh, is false. Any strategy based on this narrative will lead Armenia to complete catastrophe and sooner or later transform Armenia into a client state of the Azerbaijan–Turkey alliance.

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