Varouj Vartanian

An Analysis of Blinken’s Statement: Azerbaijan Won’t Invade…For Now

2843
0

By Varouj Vartanian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

On October 13, a Politico article reported that US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated that the US State Department is concerned about a possible invasion of Armenia by Azerbaijan. The context of this must be underlined, because the article has caused severe panic among Armenian citizens and diasporans. This conversation took place as the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-linked Artsakh government folded and surrendered to Azerbaijan in the aftermath of the Azerbaijani offensive (September 19-20). In the following weeks, Armenians from Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) were forced to flee to Armenia due to valid fears of abuse, kidnapping, rape, homicide, and genocide. As of October 13, nearly all of the 120,000 Armenians from the region have fled, and the only Armenians who have stayed behind are essentially elderly, mentally disabled, or unable to escape. As this was ongoing, it was uncertain what Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev was planning to do, regarding any further escalations.

It was unexpected for the Artsakh government to surrender in one day. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the international community were caught off guard. Regarding how these talks of an Azerbajani invasion of Armenian came about, it is possible that Aliyev had a plan to invade Syunik if Artsakh put up a fight, so that concessions (dissolving Artsakh’s government) could be made in exchange for Azerbaijani forces retreating from Syunik.

It should be noted that Aliyev has used the tactic of invading Armenia in the past with the purpose of getting what he desires from the Armenian government. When Armenia resisted Aliyev’s desire to oversee the “Zangezur Corridor,” and Aliyev saw that Armenia’s government was not open to the idea of giving a road connecting Azerbaijan to Nakhichevan, Aliyev began to change his rhetoric to a more aggressive tone. In May 2021, Azerbaijani forces invaded the Armenian provinces of Gegharkunik and Syunik, and the excuse was that the border is not demarcated or delimited. Later in July 2021, clashes occurred along the Armenian-Nakhichevan border, and a few months later in November, Aliyev ordered his troops to shoot at Armenians in Gegharkunik.

All of these minor incursions in 2021 were met with little to no resistance from the Armenian side, as Armenia was trying to signal to the international community that Armenia is not an aggressor and is trying to follow all terms of the November 9 Ceasefire Agreement (it should be noted here that Armenia stayed true to all terms and agreements, however Azerbaijan violated every single term listed by blocking the Lachin Corridor, continuing hostilities in Artsakh on a regular basis, not allowing refugees to return to the region, and holding on to hostages and prisoners of war. These were all explicitly prohibited, yet Azerbaijan disregarded the entire agreement). These minor incursions from 2021 could also have been a chess move to see if Aliyev could trick Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan into retaliating, giving Azerbaijan the casus belli to invade and occupy Armenia properly. From May 2021 to November 2021, we saw these minor incursions play out to pressure Armenia, but they failed.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

As 2022 was approaching, Aliyev began to plan a full invasion of Armenia. In September 2022, Freedom House, Reuters, the Jerusalem Post, Eurasianet, and Carnegie Europe were quick to report that Azerbaijan had launched an attack, and that this was indeed a proper invasion. The invasion lasted two days as the Armenian army put up strong resistance and caused serious losses on the Azerbaijani side. Armenian forces lost 202 servicemen defending Armenia while 431 Azerbaijani soldiers were killed during the invasion. Due to heavy losses, Azerbaijan failed to progress forward but is still holding onto captured strategic heights along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. Approximately 140-215 square kilometers of Armenian territory are currently occupied by Azerbaijan.

The EU and US failed miserably trying to placate the leader of an authoritarian dictatorship, and Aliyev will only ask for more and more after seeing such a weak response from Western powers. The indecisive plans among Western nations and lack of action to protect Armenians in Artsakh proved to be fatal, but there is a new attitude emerging among European and regional leaders towards Aliyev and his genocidal rhetoric.

While it is alarming that Azerbaijan has plans to invade Armenia and forcefully connect Azerbaijan’s mainland to Nakhichevan, it is important for Armenia to stay alert and not panic. While Azerbaijan’s goal is the extermination of all Armenian civilians and removing Armenia from the world map, it seems unlikely that Azerbaijan will be successful in achieving their goals in the near future due to various obstacles that can quickly result in setbacks and losses for Azerbaijan:

  1. Compared to 2020, Armenia’s military is much more developed and organized. With Azerbaijan’s invasion of Artsakh in September 2020, many analysts argue that it wasn’t a true Armenian-Azerbaijani war as Armenia couldn’t use its military to its full potential. Many Armenians are also fearful that if Artsakh collapsed, then Armenia is also powerless. This opinion doesn’t coincide with reality, however. Artsakh had a population of 150,000, while nearly 3,000,000 live in Armenia. It will be difficult for Azerbaijan to accomplish. When Azerbaijan invaded Artsakh in September 2023 as the final blow, Azerbaijan was fighting against a total of 5,000 soldiers. Artsakh had been starved and blockaded for 9 months, and was in an extremely fragile and insecure state.
  2. Invading Armenia’s Syunik Province is different from invading Artsakh. Artsakh was never recognized as a country, despite being a de facto independent state. Artsakh is such a complex, contentious, and disputed territory that it cannot be compared to the actual invasion of a recognized country. The backlash from the international community would be tremendous and it wouldn’t come as a surprise if Azerbaijani oligarchs were to be sanctioned if Aliyev gave the order for total war.
  3. It is expected that Iran will retaliate if Aliyev is emboldened to attack and conquer territory. It would be a huge loss to Iran to lose Armenia as a neighbor, and a complete disrespect and disregard to Iran as a regional power will almost certainly result in a swift response. If Azerbaijan does attack, and Iran does not act, Iran’s bluff will be called, and non-friendly countries will seek to take advantage of Iran or weaken Iran even further. Azerbaijan’s rhetoric in recent years shows that officials, TV commentators, and the public generally view Iran’s northern territory as “historical Azerbaijan.” This is a term that confuses many internationally, as Azerbaijan was never on the world map before 1918, while Iran has been a state for millennia. Due to Azerbaijani desires of “liberating” northern Iranian territories, the last thing Iran would want is Azerbaijan as a northern neighbor supplying and arming a separatist organization. Although Iran hasn’t fought a conventional war since the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), warfare doctrine has changed in recent decades and Iran has used missiles, psyops, and commandos in Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Bahrain, Yemen, and Iraq to accomplish goals. As tension is quite high between Israel and Iran due to the terrorist actions of Hamas, if Israel acts in a manner against Iranian interests, Iran could also indirectly act against Israel by punishing Azerbaijan. When two nations have a balanced and near equal chance of causing serious damage, they don’t war head-to-head but often fight in proxy wars if it’s an option. It would be quite a shock to see an Azerbaijani invasion of Armenia without consequence.
  4. Azerbaijan forcing a corridor to open and connect with Nakhichevan could cause Russia to object to it. Due to the fact that there is a serious concern of Iran being pulled into a regional war with Aliyev’s hypothetical decision, it would mean that Iran would not be able to ship drones and other supplies to Russia. Not because the road would be closed (Iran uses the Caspian Sea), but because if Iran gets pulled into a regional conflict, it could threaten Russia’s stream of drones and arms from Iran for the Ukraine conflict, as Iran would need all war matériel for its own needs.
  5. Aliyev is an evil and despicable dictator, but he is smart. He waited decades to develop Azerbaijan’s military. Azerbaijan used their natural gas and oil industry to build wealth, all while forming close diplomatic relations with relevant nations. Aliyev waited until there was a drift in Russian-Armenian relations, which sparked in 2018 and continuously got worse since. Aliyev struck when the iron was hot in 2020, and the 2nd Nagorno-Karabakh War aftermath was in Azerbaijan’s favor. The recent assault in September 2023 couldn’t have unfolded better for Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan now has complete control over Artsakh, without any Armenians in it. There are no concerns about future insurgencies or rebellion movements. There are no concerns about sanctions or consequences from the international community. There isn’t even the problem of how to commit genocide and get away with it without international backlash. Everything lined up in Aliyev’s favor. If Aliyev is calling the bluff of the EU, US, and Iran and instead chooses to wage war and invade Armenia, it could be a deadly mistake. Aliyev already has Artsakh. If he wagers a bet and loses, it could potentially risk what he has gained and accomplished so far. A severe enough backlash could be detrimental to the Aliyev family and oligarchs in his circle. Hence Aliyev will wait again to strike at another time in the future.

(Varouj Vartanian is a political scientist with a focus on Eastern European politics and genocide prevention. With bachelor’s and master’s degrees respectively from the University of Pittsburgh and Harvard University, his academic background is in political science and anthropology, and his articles have been published by the Times of Israel, EVN Report, and Hetq. He is currently a reviewer for the Harvard Public Health Review and a 4th year medical student with an interest in public health.)

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: