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16 September 2022

Russian failures in Ukraine have emboldened Azerbaijan to attack Armenia

Energy demand in Europe, coupled with the Ukrainian advance, have changed the geopolitical calculations in the Caucasus.

By Ido Vock

A recent clash between Azerbaijan and Armenia has resulted in the heaviest casualties since the countries’ war in 2020. At least 176 soldiers have died, according to the two governments, with no civilian causalities reported. An internationally brokered ceasefire appears to be holding, although the two days of fighting have revived fears of an escalation in the long-simmering conflict over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Nagorno-Karabakh, a region in the south Caucasus that is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but controlled since the 1990s by ethnic Armenian forces, has been the key point of contention in relations between both countries for more than 30 years.

A delicate status quo established after a 1994 ceasefire was suddenly disrupted in 2020, when Azerbaijan launched a war against Armenian forces, conquering parts of Nagorno-Karabakh. A ceasefire ended active fighting, with Russian troops serving as peacekeepers, although the status of Nagorno-Karabakh remains unresolved and both sides have intermittently fought since general hostilities ended.

This month, however, Azerbaijan has reportedly been directly shelling Armenia, rather than just the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The development suggests Baku may be seeking to put pressure on Yerevan to make concessions in ongoing negotiations over the final status of the area.

The Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan has recently suggested that he may be ready to make diplomatic concessions to Azerbaijan over the contentious region. In a speech to parliament on 14 September, Pashinyan said: “We want to sign a paper, as a result of which we will be criticised, scolded, called traitors, even the people may decide to remove us from power. But we will be grateful if as a result of this Armenia receives lasting peace and security on an area of ​​29,800 square kilometres.”

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[See also: With Russia tied down in Ukraine, other frozen conflicts are thawing]

Many analysts believe that with the Russian military overstretched in Ukraine, it will be unable to fulfil its role as security guarantor in Nagorno-Karabakh. It is likely no coincidence that fighting broke out days after Russian forces were routed in the Kharkiv region of north-eastern Ukraine by Kyiv’s counteroffensive: Azerbaijan seems to be using this moment of Russian weakness to test the resolve of Armenia and its alliance with Russia.

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Russian travails in Ukraine mean that it is unlikely to intervene in another conflict in the Caucasus, according to the Armenian ambassador-at-large Edmon Marukyan. He said in a television interview that: “We don’t expect foreign troops to come to our aid, we expect political pressure on Azerbaijan.”

Armenia, as a member of the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) military alliance, has requested assistance from the group in response to the latest bout of fighting. The CSTO’s chief of general staff Anatoly Sidorov rejected the demand, saying: “The CSTO’s military involvement was not discussed on 13 September, nor yesterday, nor today, and I think it won’t be discussed in the near future.”

The CSTO, nominally an alliance of sovereign equals, is in reality largely directed by Moscow. Instead of troops, it has merely chosen to send a diplomatic mission to the border of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Europe’s energy crisis may also be playing a role in emboldening Azerbaijan. With Russia having almost completely ceased deliveries of its gas to the EU, the bloc has been looking to alternative suppliers, including energy-rich Azerbaijan. In July, Baku signed an agreement with the EU to increase its exports of gas to Europe by 50 per cent next year, rising to two and a half times by 2027. Visiting Baku, the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, called Azerbaijan “a reliable partner”.

With Azerbaijan’s new-found leverage over Europe, and Moscow’s reputation for military prowess in tatters, Baku seems to have calculated that this moment was ripe for testing how far it can push Armenia.

[See also: Azerbaijan’s difficult road to reconciliation after victory in the Nagorno-Karabakh war]

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