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Conflict Between Armenia And Azerbaijan Threatens Europe’s Energy Security

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On 12 July 2020, Armenia’s military shelled the village of Aghdam in Azerbaijan’s Tovuz district in the northwest of the country. The forces of Azerbaijan responded, attacking Armenian military structures, and by 14 July both sides stood down most of their forces. Azerbaijan reported 16 dead and four wounded; the Armenians claimed five dead and 36 wounded.

What made this outbreak of violence in Tovuz different, the most serious since the Four Day War in 2016, was that it was distant – over 300 kilometers – from the longstanding arena of conflict along the Nagorno-Karabakh line of contact.

Azerbaijan’s Tovuz district hosts much of the country’s critical infrastructure, such as oil and natural gas pipelines that supply Europe, the Transit Europe-Asia terrestrial (fiber optic) cable, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway that connects Azerbaijan to Turkey, the M2 motorway that connects Azerbaijan and Georgia, and the Lapis Lazuli corridor, a multi-modal trade route that runs from Afghanistan to Turkey.

Why did fighting break out now?

In January, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) mediated talks between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The meeting raised hope for limited progress, coming after 2019 which saw an increase in tensions between the two countries that increased when Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan declared “Artsakh [the Armenian word for Karabakh] is Armenia, and that’s it.” The year was described by Azeri President Ilham Aliyev as a “lost year for the conflict settlement.”

2020 dawned with the worldwide spread of the Wuhan Coronavirus which damaged Armenia’s economy and increased pressure on the Pashinyan government. The economy was already sagging from the paucity of trade with Iran that was expected to jump after the Iran nuclear deal, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Instead, in 2018 the U.S. withdrew from the JCPOA and increased economic sanctions on Iran, damaging Armenia’s prospects.

So, the attack on Azerbaijan could have been an effort by the Pashinyan government to distract the people from their economic woes. It could have been meant to hurt Baku when oil prices were down and three months before the start of Azeri natural gas supplies from the Shah Deniz field to Europe via the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC). Or it could have been authored by Russia as leverage against Turkey, Azerbaijan’s ally, as Moscow and Ankara are competing for influence in Libya and Syria. Russia also has economic motivations as the SGC will compete with GazProm’s TurkStream gas line. Related: String Of Bearish News Shifts Sentiment In Oil Markets

The United Nations and the European Union urged both sides to cease fire and on the 22nd the respective foreign ministers spoke but diplomacy doesn’t have much to show for itself since 1994 cease fire between the belligerents.

Modern Azerbaijan, which borders Russia, Turkey, and Iran, was founded while defending its territory against Armenian secessionists in Nagorno-Karabakh. But the country had a history of early independence that predated the Soviet Union, where it was the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR).

The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, a parliamentary republic, was founded in 1918 at the fall of the Russian Empire, but lost its independence in 1920 to the Red Army. In 1923, at the order of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union’s commissar of nationalities, the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), was established within the borders of the Azerbaijan SSR.

In 1988, as nationalism increased across the Soviet Union, protestors in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, demanded that Nagorno-Karabakh be attached to the Armenian SSR. Fighting between Armenians and Azeris increased and in 1990 the leaders in the NKAO voted to join the territory to Armenia. Soviet troops cracked down to stop the violence and, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence which kicked off fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The conflict paused in 1994 with 20,000 dead and 1 million displaced persons.

Since 1994, negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan have been sponsored by the OSCE and fighting has flared sporadically, most recently in the 2016 Four Day War and the July 2020 attacks.

A short history filled with instability and violence has led, naturally enough, to Azerbaijan’s National Security Concept which highlights concerns with sovereignty, territorial integrity, and separatism.

What should Azerbaijan do now?

First, don’t rely on the U.S. and Europe. They are distracted by crises in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Belarus, Ukraine, and the South China Sea. And with presidential elections to attend to, the Americans will be otherwise occupied until January 2021

Azerbaijan’s foreign policy leaders were already there in the 2010s as they considered an erratic Turkey and a strengthening Iran, took the measure of the West when it failed to defend its interests in Ukraine and Syria, and “reached the conclusion that the West cannot guarantee its security.”

Azerbaijan’s alternative? Russia, which was “a tactical solution intended at helping maintain internal stability and to weather the unfavorable geopolitical, economic and social conditions.”

While Russia is the biggest source of arms for Azerbaijan, it is also Armenia’s patron, and in July shipped an emergency supply of weapons to Armenia, which it claimed was “construction materials.” After the start of hostilities Russia conducted military exercises in the southwest of the country and offered to act as a mediator between Baku and Yerevan.

But after the Tovuz attack, “erratic” Turkey gave its full-throated support to Azerbaijan. One of its considerations, aside from its self-regard as the “big brother” of another Turkic country, was concern about the surety of the Caucasus transport lines as they are the only overland routes from Turkey (and Europe) to the Caucasus, Central Asia, and China not controlled by Russia or Iran. Another was to get ahead of Washington’s threatened sanctions on companies involved in Russian pipelines to Europe and Turkey which twins with Turkey’s policy of reducing its reliance Russian natural gas, which has seen a 70% fall in takings since 2019.

And, since military exercises are now a thing, Turkey and Azerbaijan held military exercises in August and, in early September, Russia and Armenia conducted drills.

Next, don’t rely too much on Russia. Turkey can be overbearing but at least it came to the party, while Russia expected Baku to believe it suddenly needed to ship bricks and lumber to Armenia by air. Or, more likely, it knew it wouldn’t be believed and didn’t care. And there are those military drills with Armenia…Related: Total Ditches Environmentally Sensitive Brazilian Oil Blocks

And Western interest in deep engagement may wane now that the signing of the “Contract of the Century” is almost 30 years past and the gas and oil pipelines to Europe are near completion. In the future, the U.S. and EU may now engage Baku with a normative focus to deal with what they perceive as “governance issues” and to pursue “democracy promotion.”

The region has problems, the U.S. isn’t interested in lengthy engagements, Europe won’t jump in the deep end if the U.S. is absent, so the solutions may be in the hands of the local governments.

One place to start may be the OSCE Minsk process. Should there be a different format? One solution may be a reboot of the Astana Process as Iran, Russia, and Turkey have more at stake in regional peace than most OSCE members. But Armenia will probably refuse any format that includes Turkey but may favor the role of friendly Iran.

In 2018, Azerbaijan suspended the oil and gas trade with Iran to comply with U.S. sanctions. Relations between the two further were hurt when Azerbaijan voiced support for Israel’s position on Jerusalem (and Israel is a weapons supplier to Azerbaijan). That said, the two countries have had a lengthy relationship and, despite the recent policy splits, Iran has no interest on a conflict on its northern border to go along with all its other problems. And if Azerbaijan has to deal with Iran, it may have a slight edge when Iran is weakened from sanctions, economic mismanagement, and COVID-19.

Azerbaijan will have to balance among the three powers, but the recent conclusion of the Caspian Sea treaty of 2018 among Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan highlights the potential for more regional solutions.

And Azerbaijan may want to define “regional” to include participation by Central Asian states which have seen energetic diplomacy since the 2016 accession to power of Uzbekistan’s president Shavkat Mirziyoyev. The Central Asian states will be keenly interested as secure overland transport routes north through the Caucasus are a necessary complement to southern routes controlled by Iran or Pakistan.

Baku’s “to-do” list includes:

– Diversify sources of military equipment. Meaningful defense trade with the U.S. is hobbled by Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act which makes long-term cooperation subject to a stop-and-go waiver process. Most of Azerbaijan’s military equipment is Russian, but in 2019 Baku and Ankara inked a defense industry cooperation agreement which may increase Turkey’s role as a supplier to Azerbaijan. Baku should also explore more opportunities with Israel; Japan, Ukraine, and South Korea can also supply high quality equipment.

– Seek regional solutions to regional problems. Russia, Turkey, and Iran (and China) will prefer to deal with the states of the Caucasus and Central Asia piecemeal so the small states should miss no opportunity to deal with the local powers as a group.

– Pursue partnerships with Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). All three are small states with abundant energy supplies that live in bad neighborhoods. They should consider joint technology projects or energy exploration, or “bundling” foreign aid funds for priority efforts.
– Keep reminding Europe the name of the game is energy security and a peaceful Caucasus is key to ensuring Europe enjoys secure energy options. In fact, the Continent would benefit from an explainer about how the attack on Tovuz is an attack on Europe’s energy security. Azerbaijan can team with Georgia and the Central Asian neighbors to highlight the risk the region can become an oil and gas chokepoint if one player can secure a veto on free transit or participation by others, or exclusive control of vital infrastructure. A template may be Baku’s attitude to Chinese investment: welcome but within limits.

– Don’t completely give up on the U.S. and Europe. The Trump administration recently successfully brokered deals between Israel and the UAE and Serbia and Kosovo. The U.S. isn’t interested in a decades-long process with indefinite troop deployments, but the White House can offer a convening space if both sides need a push to close a deal. And Trump won’t have any appetite to reorder the politics and society of the parties after seeing the results of U.S. efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

And while Germany always seems exasperated with others’ behavior, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a status quo politician who probably won’t spurn a project if it’s important to German business. For example, she is refusing to link the status of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and the German response to the alleged poisoning of Russian political activist Alexey Navalny. And in 2019, the German government announced a ban on the export of weapons to Turkey in response to the offensive against Syrian Kurds in northern Syria. Later it was realized the ban was only on new export licenses and that existing agreements would stay in effect.

The attack on Tovuz is an opportunity for Azerbaijan to avoid adding more to the OSCE’s Minsk process backlog and to consider a new negotiation process, to prosecute local problems with the local powers and the newly-active Central Asian neighbors, and to highlight the region’s importance for Europe’s energy security.

By James Durso

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Tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan appear to have flared up

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(CNN)Long-simmering tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan appear to have flared up in the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region, with both sides accusing each other of attacking civilians amid reports of casualties.

The neighboring former Soviet republics have long been at odds over the territory — which is situated within the borders of Azerbaijan — and fought a war over it that finished in 1994.
Despite the conflict ending with a Russian-brokered ceasefire, military skirmishes between the two sides are not uncommon.
While Armenia said it was responding to missile attacks launched by its neighbor Sunday, Azerbaijan blamed Armenia for the clashes.
In response to the alleged firing of projectiles by Azerbaijan, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan tweeted that his country had “shot down 2 helicopters & 3 UAVs, destroyed 3 tanks.”
Arayik Harutyunyan, leader of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, a de facto independent Armenian state not recognized internationally which controls Nagorno-Karabakh, said the region had lost positions to Azerbaijan.
“We have lost some positions. Mostly in the direction of Talysh and in the southern parts,” Harutyunyan said during a press conference Sunday.
As a result of the escalating tensions, the Armenian government has decided to impose martial law and to order “general mobilization,” Pashinyan said in a later tweet.
Azerbaijan’s parliament on Sunday voted to impose martial law, effective as of midnight (4 p.m. ET), and President Ilham Aliyev approved the decision.
Armenia earlier claimed that its neighbor had targeted civilians in peaceful areas, including in Stepanakert, the region’s capital.
Artak Beglaryan, an Artsakh official Artsakh, said in a tweet that a mother and child had been killed.
Beglaryan also said dozens of people had been wounded and large infrastructural damage had been caused, adding: “Azerbaijan is intentionally targeting civilian objects.”
However, Azerbaijan suggested Armenia was accountable for the latest flare-up between the two countries.
Hikmet Hajiyev, assistant of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan and head of the Foreign Policy Affairs Department of the presidential administration, tweeted Sunday: “There are reports of dead and wounded among civilians and military servicemen. Extensive damage has been inflicted on many homes and civilian infrastructure.”
Accusing Armenia of “an act of aggression and use of force,” Hajiyev added that the “political-military leadership of Armenia bears full responsibility.”
At least five people in one family were killed as a result of artillery shelling by Armenian armed forces on Sunday, according to Azerbaijan’s state news agency APA, which cited the Azerbaijani prosecutor general’s office.
So far, 19 civilians have been injured and hospitalized following the clashes, APA reported.
At least 14 civilians were injured in villages along the border due to artillery and tank fire from the breakaway Armenian enclave, according to state media Azertac. CNN has been unable to independently verify claims by either side.
“Currently, the Azerbaijan Army is taking retaliatory actions and our troops fully control the operational situation,” Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense said in a statement Sunday.
But Armenia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement: “We strongly condemn the aggression of the military-political leadership of Azerbaijan.”
“The military political leadership of Azerbaijan bears full responsibility for the consequences of their aggression,” the statement added.
Fighting between the two sides has been increasing in recent months.
In 2016, dozens of soldiers from both countries died during clashes. Two years earlier, then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Armenia and Azerbaijan to “commit themselves to immediate de-escalation and continuing dialogue” after reports of violence and casualties along the border.
The Nagorno-Karabakh region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but is governed by a majority group of ethnic Armenians.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan voiced support for Azerbaijan on Sunday, claiming that Armenia is “the biggest threat to peace and security in the region.”
“The Turkish nation continues to stand by its Azerbaijani brothers and sisters with all its means, as it has always done,” Erdogan said on Twitter.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the escalation in a phone call with Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan, according to statements from the Kremlin and from the Armenian Prime Minister’s Office.
The Kremlin statement said Putin expressed concern at the clashes, saying, “It was noted that it is important now to take all necessary efforts to prevent a military escalation of the confrontation, and most importantly, to stop military operations.”
The United States said it was “alarmed” by reports of military action between Armenia and Azerbaijan and urged both sides to cease hostilities immediately, according to a statement from US State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus.

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Armenia and Azerbaijan Clash Over Disputed Region

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Fighting erupted Sunday between Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former Soviet republics that have clashed over control of a disputed territory for three decades, raising fear of a new full-blown war in the South Caucasus.

Armenia declared martial law and military mobilization after accusing Azerbaijan of launching a missile and artillery attack on the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan blamed Armenia for triggering the fighting, calling it an act of aggression. Both sides reported civilian deaths and injuries, without…

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Tanks Ablaze As Azerbaijani Forces Attack Armenian Troops In Disputed Nagorno-Karabakh

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On Sunday morning, Azerbaijani artillery, rockets, drones and combat aircraft began a series of attacks on Armenian positions in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, just two months after clashes in July left at least seventeen dead. The shelling and air strikes were apparently followed by ground attacks.

The new round of fighting has reportedly resulted in civilian deaths and the destruction of multiple armored vehicles and combat aircraft. Both sides accuse the other of inventing the losses. Armenia has declared martial law and is mobilizing its reservists.

The conflict also threatens to involve regional powers Russia and Turkey in support of the opposing nations.

The website of Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense claims it was “striking enemy command posts…along the length of the entire front” in retaliation for Armenian artillery fire. The attack, which began around 8 a.m. local time, extended to the Nagorno-Karabakh capital of Stepanakert and reportedly resulted in the deaths of at least two civilians: a girl and a woman.

Screen capture of video released by Armenian Defense Ministry purportedly showing an Azerbaijani T-72 tank being struck by a mine or anti-tank fire.

A spokeswoman for the Armenian Defense Ministry claimed its forces shot down four Azerbaijani helicopters and 15 drones, and destroyed ten tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.

It also released multiple videos appearing to show at least five tanks hitting mines or being struck by munitions, as well as several lighter vehicles apparently being destroyed.

A tank struck by a munition may not necessarily be destroyed. However, one video appears to show ammunition stores cooking off internally inside a tank, resulting in horrific jets of flame leaping from the turret. Another video shows a very tightly grouped unit of tanks being hit by shellfire—a significant tactical error.

Photo released by Nagorno-Karabakh armed forces purportedly to show destruction of an Azerbaijani armored fighting vehicle (AFV) on September 27, 2020.

Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense responded by stating the Armenian claims were “false and disinformation,” conceding only the loss of one Azerbaijani helicopter, the crew of which reportedly survived.

In turn, the Azerbaijani military claimed to have destroyed twelve Armenian 2K33 Osa (SA-8) short-range air defense systems. It released a video appearing to show three being knocked out by drone strikes.

Azerbaijan’s military also claims to have captured a half-dozen villages in territory formerly controlled by Armenian forces. Armenia denied the loss of territory.

Three Decades Of War

The two small Central Asian nations—Armenia counts nearly 3 million citizens and Azerbaijan, over 10 million—have been locked in conflict for 32 years over the fate of the ethnically diverse Nagorno-Kabarakh region, which has an Armenian majority but which was administratively designated an autonomous region in Azerbaijan during Soviet rule. Violent clashes over the region’s status began in 1988, before the Soviet Union’s dissolution.

Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh War. Military actions in Shelli village. Photo ITAR-TASS / Sergei Mamontov; Alexander Nemyonov (Photo by TASS via Getty Images)

Full-scale warfare ended in 1994 after 30,000 deaths and atrocities committed by both sides. Today, Armenian forces back a de facto Nagorno-Karabakh (or Artsakh) Republic which is not recognized by Baku. But Armenian and Azerbaijani forces never stopped skirmishing over the heavily fortified border, even escalating to a brief but intense border war in 2016.

Armenian forces well-entrenched in mountainous terrain have historically prevailed in most skirmishes with Azerbaijan. However, Azerbaijan has over three times the population and can draw on substantial oil wealth—and in the last decade Baku has used it to purchase billions of dollars in advanced military systems.

Israeli drones in particular seemed to have facilitated some Azeri tactical successes, and also conveniently provide drone strike footage which can be used to support narratives of military success.

The unmanned combat aerial vehicle Harop is presented at Israel’s IAI Chalet at the International Paris Airshow at Le Bourget on June 17, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ERIC PIERMONT (Photo credit should read ERIC PIERMONT/AFP via Getty Images)

Looming over the region is Russia, which is supplying powerful weapons like TOS-1 thermobaric rocket artillery to both sides of the conflict despite its alliance with Armenia. Other potent hardware Moscow has sold to the belligerents include T-90 tanks and Mi-35M armored helicopter gunships for Azerbaijan, and Iskander-E ballistic missiles which Armenia could use to strike Azerbaijan’s oil industry.

At the same time, Russia is involved in the OSCE’s Minsk Group alongside France and the United States, which is attempting to mediate a peaceful resolution to the long-running Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Turkey, meanwhile, has openly supported Azerbaijan, and its recent offensive against Armenia, which it Erdogan described Sunday as “an obstacle to peace.” The Turkish leader has in the past invoked shared Muslim faith and ethnic affinity with Azerbaijan. Erdogan also appears increasingly drawn to foreign adventures in places like Libya and Syria in a bid to reclaim the former regional influence of the Ottoman Empire.

There are unconfirmed claims that Turkey may have recruited and airlifted refugee fighters from Syria to support Azerbaijani forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, but Ankara denies the allegations.

There are also indications that Turkey may have supported Azerbaijan’s offensive with its own very capable drone forces, possibly performing surveillance flights or even air strikes using precision munitions.

The July Clashes

The current attack was preceded by hostilities begun on July 12 on the northern end of the Armenian-Azerbaijan border, ostensibly after Armenian forces opened fired on an Azerbaijani UAZ jeep heading towards their position. (Azerbaijan claims the Armenian forces opened fire unprovoked.)

Fighting rapidly escalated to involve mortar and heavy artillery bombardments, armored vehicles, and combat and surveillance drones. Azerbaijan employed Israeli Spike-NLOS loitering precision strike missiles against Armenian positions and targeted the Armenian internet with a wave of cyberattacks. Armenia deployed Su-30SM jet fighters on air patrols and domestically built X-55 drones on reconnaissance missions. Both sides claimed to have destroyed well over a dozen drones.

Perhaps most consequentially, on July 14 over 30,000 nationalist protestors gathered in Baku calling for an escalation in the conflict. The protests eventually took on anti-government tone, leading to the storming of the parliament before being broken up.

Fighting petered off a week later, by which time twelve Azerbaijanis were killed, including a Major General and a 76-year-old civilian. The Armenian side lost five dead and one mortally wounded soldier.

Senior U.S. officials barely made any note of the crisis. Paul Stronski wrote for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that “the administration of President Donald Trump has yet to issue a policy on the South Caucasus region, creating a vacuum that other powers—including Iran and Russia—appear eager to fill. The lack of senior level response to the latest violence shows once again that Washington does not see the Caucasus as a priority.”

Given the distractions of the U.S. presidential campaign, U.S. diplomatic disengagement seems likely to continue.

In an article in Foreign Policy magazine, Neil Hauer notes that Azerbaijani governments were toppled twice in the 1990s due to military failures in the conflict with Armenia. Thus the escalation of the protests on July 14 were likely particularly alarming for autocrat Ilham Aliyev, who has ruled Azerbaijan since 2003.

Therefore, the current Azerbaijani offensive may be a bid by Aliyev to stabilize his government by seeking to satisfy nationalistic demands for military escalation and victory, while diverting attention away from domestic problems including economic recession brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic and collapsing oil prices.

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA – JUNE 20: (RUSSIA OUT) Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev at Konstantin Palace June 20, 2016 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The Presidents of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia gathered in Saint Petersburg to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh conflct. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Moscow, in turn, may pressure Baku to deescalate as the attack weakens the credibility of the military deterrence Russia provides Armenia. Reportedly, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has already had telephone conversations both with Armenian foreign minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan and Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.

Whether the new offensive can deliver military success, real or perceived, for Aliyev’s government and to what degree the fighting may escalate remains to be seen.

Whatever the case, the renewed fighting is a blow to hopes for peace in the region and the civilian communities exposed to deadly heavy artillery and drone strikes.

Article updated 8:40 AM EST on Sunday with new claims, links and videos pertaining to losses in the conflict.

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