George Meneshian – In the early hours of September 13, 2022, the armed forces of Azerbaijan launched an offensive against Armenia. The Azerbaijani forces attacked military and civilian infrastructure in the Armenian provinces of Syunik, Vayots Dzor, and Ghegarkunik and advanced a few kilometers into the Armenian territory. Following two days of heavy clashes, a ceasefire was agreed between the two sides.
There is no doubt that, after the victorious 2020 Karabakh war, president Aliyev’s rhetoric became more revisionist, nationalist, and irredentist than ever before. His indirect claims over the Southernmost Armenian province of Syunik do not necessarily indicate that Azerbaijan is actually planning to occupy the entire Southern Armenian territory. No one in the world would accept such a development, expect, perhaps, from Turkey – Azerbaijan’s strategic ally – and Pakistan – which does not recognise Armenia and supports Baku since the collapse of the Soviet Union. This does not mean, however, that the Azerbaijani leadership did not want to capture Armenian territory on the non-demarcated Armenian – Azerbaijani borderline.
Since the end of the 2020 Armenian – Azerbaijani war in Mountainous (Nagorno) Karabakh, Baku and Yerevan have done major steps for the normalisation of their relations and the resolution of the interstate conflict that started before the independence of the two states in 1991. So why did president Aliyev decide to (temporarily?) end the diplomatic process and proceeded with the use of military force against Armenia? There are four main reasons:
The Azerbaijani regime has demonstrated its ability of understanding when is the right momentum for a military operation. In late March 2020, while the world was dealing with the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Azerbaijan launched an attack on the northeastern Armenian province of Tavush. The selection of autumn 2020 for a massive attack against the Armenian forces of Nagorno Karabakh was also a smart move by the Aliyevregime; back then, the US was dealing with its presidential election and France was in shock by a new wave of Islamic terrorism on its soil. Two out of the three members of the OSCE Minsk Group were dealing with internal issues, and Russia was dissatisfied with Pashinyan since his so-called ‘Velvet Revolution‘ led to the fall of Armenia’s pro-Russian regime in 2018.
Let us return to 2022. Baku is well aware of Armenia’s security dependence on Russia. The two countries signed a deal on mutual military assistance in 1997. Moreover, Armenia is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), and the Russian military maintains bases and outposts in Armenia. Aliyevwould never proceed with a direct military confrontation with the Russian Federation. He knows, however, that Russian president Putin is not going to militarily assist Armenia. Russia is focused on her disastrous war in Ukraine, and maintaining military presence in Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh is enough for Moscow, at least for the moment. It is not a coincidence that the Azerbaijani offensive started right after Russia’s defeat in the Kharkiv Front in Ukraine. On her part, Russia would never open a new front, especially in Transcaucasia where powers like Turkey are active.
Furthermore, CSTO member-states maintain close ties with Baku (or/and Turkey); neither Belarus nor Kazakhstan nor Kyrgyzstan would ever send troops to aid Armenia against Azerbaijan. In addition, Russia and Azerbaijan have upgraded their relations since the end of the 2020 war. The signing of a ‘Declaration on Allied Cooperation’ on February 22, 2022, is a notable example. The Azerbaijani regime knows, therefore, that Russia could not have an active role in this crisis. Last August’s Azerbaijani offensive against Armenian positions in Nagorno Karabakh was a crush test for the Russians; during Azerbaijan’s military operations against the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh, the Russian ‘peacekeeping’ mission did nothing to stop the Azerbaijani forces’ advance.
The International Community
But what about the rest of the international community?Aliyev acknowledges that his country’s geopolitical importance has been upgraded since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Azerbaijan maintains close ties with Moscow but she is not a strategic ally of Russia’s. Baku has adopted a balanced foreign policy and, thus, her policies are, sometimes, in conflict with Russia’s interests. This is why Azerbaijan is important for the US, the UK and the European Union (EU). This is why Azerbaijan is, sometimes, described as a partner of the West, despite her ties with the Russians. For instance,many Westerners are seeing Azerbaijan as a potential ally in ending Russia’s hegemony in the South Caucasus.
In addition, the Aliyev regime takes advantage of its potential role as a main EU gas supplier. Following the invasion of Ukraine, Brussels decided to minimise EU dependence on Russian natural gas and oil. In their quest for alternative energy sources, the Europeans started talks with Nigeria, Algeria, the US, Canada and other gas exporters, and signed gas deals with Israel, Egypt and Azerbaijan. On September 13, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs said that “Europe desperately needs Azerbaijan’s gas.” Indeed, Azeri natural gas has become more important than ever before for the EU. Aliyev believed that waging a small-scale war against Armenia won’t lead to EU sanctions against his regime. EU member-states as well as Western Balkan countries need Azerbaijan’s natural gas, and Brussels cannot lose an energy supplier during an energy crisis. Azerbaijan is also important for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well as the Middle Corridor which provides China with an alternative route to Europe bypassing Russia.
It is not surprising, therefore, that many top European and American officials did not initially condemn Azerbaijan’s aggression and adopted a more balanced approach, calling the two sides to renew talks and find a solution via diplomacy.
Nevertheless, the targeting of civilian infrastructure and the blatant violation of Armenia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity convinced part of the international community to condemn Azerbaijan and call for an immediate ceasefire; France called a special meeting of the UN Security Council. During that meeting, France, the US, Norway and Ireland condemned Azerbaijan’s aggression. At the same time, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi paid a visit to Armenia and showed her and the administration’s support for Armenia. The ceasefire itself was a product of American pressure on Azerbaijan, according to Armenian sources.
A ‘Treaty of Versailles’
In 1919, the Allied Powers imposed the Treaty of Versailles to punish and humiliate the German Empire which had lost the Great War a year before. Baku wants to follow the same recipe and impose a ‘peace’ treaty to defeated Armenia; a final agreement between the two countries which will satisfy Azerbaijan. Only Armenia will have to make concessions and Azerbaijan will emerge as a strong, confident regional power which serves its national interests and punishes its enemies. Azerbaijan wants a corridor in Southern Armenia. A corridor that will facilitate land and railway connection between the Nakhijevan exclave and Azerbaijan proper, but won’t be under Armenian control. Baku also wants to end any discussion on the rights and the status of the remaining Armenian population of Nagorno Karabakh.The disarmemnt of Nagorno Karabakh’s self-defenceunits is also in Baku’s agenda. Another Azerbaijani demand is the signing of a final border demarcation agreement, but in Baku’s terms; Armenian premier Pashinyan told that Azerbaijani president Aliyev has presented territorial claims over the Republic of Armenia during official talks. Additional Azerbaijani demands are now circulating by Azerbaijani officials and pro-regime media outlets; they argue that this new Azerbaijani offensive against Armenia aimed to the creation of a ‘security’ – buffer zone on the borderline – a rhetoricsimilar to Turkey’s for North Syria.
Despite her defeat in 2020, Armenia did not accept Baku’s terms, and advocated for a solution via negotiations and mediation by third parties such as Russia, the European Union or the OSCE Minsk Group. Aliyev believes that Diplomacy is not enough to convince Armenia signing a treaty which will satisfy Azerbaijan’s unilateral demands. The last Aliyev – Pashinyan – Michel meeting in Brussels seems to have brought little or no results for Azerbaijan’s demands. This is why a new war was necessary for Baku. But is this strategy sustainable? Everyone knows that the Treaty of Versailles did not eventually bring peace and stability in Germany and Europe…
An internal struggle
The Nagorno Karabakh issue and anti-Armenianismwere used by the Aliyev regime to finish the country’s post-independence nation-building and identity-building processes. Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 Karabakhwar boosted Aliyev’s popularity. However, after the war, Azerbaijan essentially lost its main nation-building component. Aliyev’s openness to Pan-Turkism and Islam cannot fill the void. Thus a new identity crisis is erupting, 30 years after the country’s independence, and that is not a positive sign for the regime.
Additional problems emerge for the regime due to the financial and other socio-economic difficulties many Azerbaijanis face. Azerbaijan is an oil-rich wealthy nation. The Aliyev regime, however, is corrupt and many Azerbaijanis, including war veterans (several have committed suicide), face various difficulties. The Aliyevregime is authoritarian, and its survival is its number one priority. Boosting nationalistic sentiments and waging a war against Armenia, the ‘enemy’ of the Azerbaijani nation as per the regime-promoted anti-Armenian narratives, gives a temporary solution to the aforementioned issues, although many Azerbaijanis are not satisfied with this war and the death of their soldiers in Armenia.
Aliyev’s rhetoric indicates that a new war is possible if Armenia does not agree on further concessions. With its latest attack on Armenia, Azerbaijan is testing the international community’s limits. Will the international community, including the US and EU, impose any sanctions if Baku wages a massive invasion against Armenia? Will Armenia receive any assistance, equivalent to the assistance Ukraine received, if she is invaded by Azerbaijan – with the support of Turkey? How about Nagorno Karabakh? The Russian ‘peacekeeping’ mission ends in 2025. Is the world going to react if Azerbaijan conducts a final, catastrophic attack against the remaining Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh – a de jure Azerbaijani territory? The two-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan was a good way of addressing the abovementioned questions.