The rivalry over disputed region Nagorno-Karabakh has begun since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The conflict lasted about three years, costs the life of more than 30.000 people from both sides while the territory was illegally occupied. Although a ceasefire agreement has been reached between both of sides in 1994, the conflict has not been quite frozen for two decades and has been accompanied by fire exchange. The deadly skirmishes have erupted in August 2014 that caused serious human casualties from both sides.
Taking into account the sensitive situation in the region, it should be noted that there has always been a balance of power in Nagorno-Karabakh but asymmetric. In the term of Azerbaijan, the overall military balance has been shifting in favour of it since the 2000s. The country has used its oil wealth to purchase new weaponry (mostly Russian made) in order to increase the capability of the army. Even though official Baku has serious economic problems and financial shortages accompanied by social unrest in several cities due to the decreasing oil prices, according to official statements of the Ministry of Defence the military budget of Azerbaijan estimates around 2 billion dollars, as of 2016.
Regarding Armenia – there is a superiority of strategic place d’armes which means the country is able to defend easily the occupied territories rather than carrying out a new counter operation. As a part of it, Russian presence in this country both militarily and politically can be seen as a way of maintaining the balance of power, as Armenian army faced serious problems of modernization in recent years due to its limited military budget and manpower. Another point that secures Armenia from a surprise attack of Azerbaijan is a joint air defence agreement between Yerevan and Moscow. The agreement obliges Moscow to be the core defender of Armenia from possible rocket attacks of Azerbaijan. But in all terms, it is obvious that Baku and Yerevan would not go into an all-out war.
The war woke up a week ago between the units of National Army of Azerbaijan and the separatist regime in Nagorno-Karabakh with the involvement of sophisticated armoured vehicles, heavy artillery, and battle tanks. Reportedly Azerbaijani army units have achieved to advance further and liberate several strategic points across the city of Horadiz (Fizuli). The escalation of a new phase of the conflict arose many speculations as on the eve of new clashes, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan were attending the Nuclear Summit that held in Washington D.C. Even though both of leaders were supposed to hold an official meeting, they had no chance to shake hands.
In tandem, the passive role of the main mediator Russia in the conflict strengthened the concerns of official Yerevan, as Russia is the major guarantor of Armenian sovereignty alongside with the Kremlin-oriented Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). But the blind reaction of the closest ally crashed the Armenia’s hope for the further de-escalation of the conflict. From a broader perspective, the Russian factor appears more complicated than “simply” a military alliance with Armenia. For a long time, Moscow has been exploiting protracted conflicts, be it Nagorno-Karabakh or South Ossetia, to maintain grounds for its military presence in the former Soviet Union territories, while these deployments prolong the protracted conflicts, generating a vicious cycle.
Seemingly official Baku supported by Turkey, Pakistan, Israel, Ukraine, Germany, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and other countries, is intended to remind that Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not frozen conflict, comparing to the other conflicts in the post – Soviet region.
The endless talks and meetings over Nagorno-Karabakh issue have not justified the hopes of both sides. Therefore, some would surmise that there is a lack of compromises between the conflict sides but in fact, there were numbered of suggestions such as a large autonomy for ethnic Armenians in Karabakh within the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan, non – buffer zones and some international guarantees, and so on. Yet it is not so easy to persuade both of sides and overcome political obstacles for compromise. Azerbaijan which lost 20% of its territories definitely refuses to hand over Nagorno-Karabakh demanding a full withdrawal of Armenian troops and termination of separatist regime. Unlike Azerbaijan, Armenia sees itself as a victor of the first Karabakh war but does prefer to maintain the status – quo claiming for independency from Azerbaijan.
The potential political crisis between Ankara and Moscow would make the situation more precarious. Turkey supports Azerbaijani army by providing it with missile systems and military advisors. This fact further was highlighted as a “negative” development in the South Caucasus by the Kremlin-backed media, blaming Turkey for encouraging a new war in the region. Nevertheless, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict would become a battlefield for a proxy war between Russia and the regional power Turkey. Apparently, the source of concern for Turkey is energy security issue, as Azerbaijan represents one of the main natural gas suppliers of Europe through the Turkish territory.
There is a common perception in Baku and Yerevan that the key to a solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh war is in the Kremlin. Since, the involvement of the West and the U.S in the conflict does not go beyond the frames of official statements. Despite the fact that the Nagorno-Karabakh resolution process formally is being patronized by the OSCE’s Minsk group, in practice, its status depends on the Russia’s attitude.
To sum up, by the current muscle show official Baku may achieve to enter the new phase of the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations in the light of the official visits of Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Russian Prime Minister Medvedev. Thus, Baku is eager to fulfil its goals through rapid counter operations along so–called line of contact (LOA). Hence, the latest deadly clashes showed that no one fully controls the situation in the South Caucasus.