The most unsettling development to occur near Russia’s border since the most recent phase of the Ukrainian Conflict, which was provoked by the United States, started in February is Azerbaijan’s covert special military operation against Armenia. Given the loss in Ukraine last weekend, it might even end up changing the game in the worst way imaginable for Russian interests at the most crucial moment for its own special military campaign.
The bloodiest fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan since a conflict in 2020 over Nagorno-Karabakh has claimed the lives of at least 170 soldiers. At a time of already high geopolitical tensions, the violence, which each side blamed on the other, has threatened to include Turkey, Azerbaijan’s main backer, and Russia, Armenia’s ally, in a larger confrontation.
Bone of contention
In the south Caucasus, Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous enclave that is internationally recognized as belonging to Azerbaijan but that, until 2020, was entirely inhabited and governed by ethnic Armenians. Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former Soviet states, have been at war with one another over it for decades.
That year, Azerbaijan gained a sizable amount of territory in and surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh during a six-week battle.
A truce mediated by Russia put a halt to the combat, but despite the presence of Russian soldiers, clashes have continued on and off ever since.
Russia has historically been the most effective mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan; therefore, the timing is critical.
Even though the Kremlin said on Tuesday that President Vladimir Putin was doing everything in his power to stop violence in the south Caucasus, the Russians are drilling through a bigger conflict in Ukraine. That might have given Azerbaijan the confidence to make more claims.
There is a substantial difference between Azerbaijan and Armenia on the details of a comprehensive peace accord. Baku wants to abolish Nagorno-Karabakh as a political entity and prevent Yerevan from intervening there, while Armenian officials have vowed to protect local Armenians’ rights.
How things unfolded
Even though the precise sequence of events preceding this most recent act of violence has not yet been established, it is still possible to reconstruct what took place. First, despite the November 2020 ceasefire calling for armed Armenian factions to leave the territory, Russian peacekeepers have not yet arrived in the regions of Karabakh that are still under Baku’s authority.
Second, when the truce was reached, political instability erupted in Armenia. Third, in February 2022, Azerbaijan ratified a document on allied cooperation with Russia. Fourth, in July, the CIA director made a trip to Yerevan. Fifth, Russia recently claimed that the EU was attempting to drive it out of the region.
Moscow getting challenged in the Caucasus
This buildup to the most recent violence implies that since the November 2020 truce, Russia’s historical position in the South Caucasus has become significantly more complex. Turkey and the West are now posing a threat to Iran’s dominance, and it is far from being the undisputed regional leader as it once was. Azerbaijan has since moved closer to Russia, but Baku still has close ties with Ankara, Brussels, and Washington.
Therefore, this buildup to the most recent violence implies that since the November 2020 truce, Russia’s historical position in the South Caucasus has become significantly more complex. Turkey and the West are now posing a threat to Moscow’s dominance, and it is far from being the undisputed regional leader as it once was.
With this background, what likely happened earlier this week becomes rather more obvious. The unwillingness of Armenia to withdraw its unconventional forces from Karabakh, which Baku views as terrorists but Yerevan views as patriotic defenders of their ancient land, has obviously worn thin with Azerbaijan. As a result, Azerbaijan came to the conclusion that the only way to make Armenia adhere to its legal duties is to launch airstrikes against sites inside its internationally acknowledged territory that are thought to be aiding those same irregular forces in one way or another. Whatever the legal foundation Baku presumably intended to use to support its position, this still constitutes a huge jump.
What Baku is thinking?
Azerbaijan chose not to make public its intention to launch unilateral military action in defense of what it sees as its interests, in contrast to Russia, which made a final diplomatic push for peace prior to the start of its own special military operation in Ukraine to restore the integrity of its national security red lines that NATO had crossed. In addition, the perceived threat Armenia poses to Azerbaijan pales in comparison to the existential one NATO impliedly posed to Russia in Ukraine prior to Moscow’s military participation there. In addition, Baku plainly delayed the start of its operation until Moscow suffered a military setback in Ukraine.
How Moscow and the West will act?
Both are unlikely to interfere in order to forcibly remove Azerbaijan from the 10 kilometers of Armenian territory Pashinyan claims it is occupying. Russia opposes the idea of a “second front,” and none of the other CSTO members are allowed to host foreign forces without unanimous agreement.
Additionally, criticizing Azerbaijan’s special operation serves soft power interests for both Russia and the West. The first is required to maintain the integrity of the CSTO’s mutual defense justification, but the second comes across as hypocritical by criticizing Russia’s special operation but not Azerbaijan’s.
However, this prediction could prove wrong if Azerbaijan continues to occupy Armenian land or if NATO member Turkey intervenes actively in the conflict. It’s difficult to predict how Russia and the West would respond in any case, but a serious crisis would almost certainly break out.