The small regional conflict in Nagorno Karabah in Caucasus erupted again on September 27th. The conflict has over 100 year history and has varied between skirmishes and full blown wars. This time was different. It immediately became one of the hottest topics around the world mostly because it would significantly affect the world energy markets. After two weeks of military operations, Armenia and Azerbaijan were asked by the unusually insisting Sergei Lavrov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, to agree to a ceasefire, which seemed to have changed absolutely nothing. Immediately after that, Turkey, which was officially not part of the conflict, expressed categorically its disappointment. It had clearly shown its support for the Azerbaijan offensive and the new old status quo logically achieved nothing. What were they after?
The Caspian Sea has become a region of high importance for the European and internal energy markets with the discovery of the massive Shah Deniz and its neighboring fields. The oil and gas pipelines start from the area of Baku and pass north of Nagorno Karabah, reach Georgia and then Turkey, where they are distributed to either Europe or some of the local Mediterranean ports. Turkey plays an important role in the trade, but still has to consider its actions as it tries to increase its role in the Islamic world being responsible to both the US and Russia.
It is possible that the growing ambitions of Turkey would push them to look for alternatives, where they are independent from US or Russian pressure. Another energy route, which would not pass through Georgia, and which would allow Turkey to set the terms of the trade.
The only theoretical alternative to the current routes is south of Nagorno Karabah along the valley of the Aras river. Turkey must have had a plan to clear the area, so that it could build another pipeline and secure its operation.
However, to link it to Nakhchevan, which would naturally give easy access to Turkey, there had to be a second step, where Turkey and Azerbaijan could force into certain territories of south Armenia:
- either the valley north of Arevik National Park – everything along the 80 km Tegh – Goris – Balak road;
- or manage to separate a 20 km long piece of land connecting the Betschenagsku Pass next to Shahbuz National Reserve with the border facing the Minkend village;
- or surround Armenia and pressure them into some sort of cooperation for such project.
Currently, all the routes connecting the oil and gas fields with its distribution centers in Turkey follow the road of the trade between Asia and Europe. Azerbaijan is the only place for that if Iran and Russia are to be avoided. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, has only one option – a narrow 40 to 90 km wide valley, known as the “Ganja Gap”, named after the largest city in the area.
North and south of it are the Caucasus mountains with steep hills of over 3,000 m (9,800 ft) altitude offering a hard terrain even for the skilled trekkers. Any construction going through the mountains would require immense amount of effort and risk, which is why the Ganja Gap has no alternative to date.
The only other valley, which could potentially offer an alternative due to its basic infrastructure is the valley on the Aras river. It is the natural border between Iran on the south and the Nakhchivan province, Armenia and Azerbaijan on the north. The problem is that the population is ethnic Armenian and the Azeri state has little or no control.
Should an important and expensive project is developed there, it could easily be sabotaged along its entire length as the distance to the mountain would be less than 20 km and the military batteries would have direct visibility. The Ganja Gap, on the other hand, is naturally protected from the areas of ethnic Armenians by the uninhabited Murovdag range with its ridges at 3,200 m (10,500 ft) altitude, making it practically unpassable.
The origin of the conflict dates back to the decisions of Lenin and Stalin to use the region as a way to appease the growing ambitions of secular Turkey a century ago and create a buffer between them, Iran and the core of the Soviet Union. Even though the area has been inhabited predominantly with Armenians for over 2,000 years, it was classified as Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast within the Azerbaijan SSR. Following the strict control by Moscow, the conflict ceased for the next decades, but escalated immediately after the fall of the USSR.
Throughout the last 3 decades, Russia supplied the majority of the arms to both sides as the military leadership was intimately familiar with it – they had been part of the same system not long ago. The ongoing war suited Moscow very well as it created both demand for their products and instability in the region, which could be exploited diplomatically. The defensive batteries, which the Armenians built on higher grounds with their help, allowed for very effective resistance against the Azeri attempts. As a result, Nagorno Karabah is even now de jure under the Republic of Azerbaijan, but de facto independently run by Armenians with a local government. The Republic of Artsakh, as they call it, is not recognized by any country in the UN.
The situation is highly questionable. Azeri and Turkish leadership claim that Armenia should stop its occupation. The region, however, is formally part of Azerbaijan and claiming that they have to get it back is lacking substance and logic. To add to it, they do not have control over it and have never had, which serves to ask if this really is a liberation or an outright invasion.
There are three possible scenarios for future developments and they are interrelated to a great degree.
A) Turkey will continue to press Azerbaijan to gain control of the region, which will be their proxy for that. However, it is likely that at some point they will have to step in directly as the Azeri army might not be capable because:
i) low morale – numerous reports for alcohol abuse by Azeri leadership and demotivated mercenaries from Syria knowing that they are sent as human shields.
ii) inability to advance further – the only advances were on small villages in the flat lands at 300 – 400 m (1,000 – 1,300 ft) altitude. It is unclear how they intend to capture bigger towns at 1,000 – 1,600 m (3,300 – 5,200 ft) altitude and the surrounding mountains where guerrilla warfare will likely ensue.
If Azerbaijan continues this course of action, it is likely that nothing significant will be achieved.
B) Israel gets lobbied unofficially by the US to offer Armenia a countermeasure to the Azeri attacks, as their drones and missiles seem to be giving the biggest advantage so far. This is likely to trigger Russian response as they are already unsettled from the recent sale to Georgia of Israeli Defense System.
C) If Turkey intervenes directly, it is possible that Russia interferes as well, not missing the chance to increase its influence in the region. Miscalculated strategy by Turkey with regards to the severity of their participation could become a major threat to the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.
Understanding each of the indirectly involved sides other than the two countries at war seems to be the root to understand the core of the dynamics in the conflict. Turkey’s foreign policy has raised many reactions from foreign leaders and diplomats. They have been the most outspoken party in this conflict even if they are not a direct side in it. Ibrahim Kalin, the Speaker of President Erdogan, declared that the ceasefire would not solve the problem and that peace could not be a solution.
It is clear that Turkey has greater motivation than Azerbaijan to eliminate the unwanted presence in Nagorno Karabah. The statements by President Aliyev follow those by President Erdogan practically word for word or include unfounded high impact threats. Such threat was the opportunity to target the Mitsamor Nuclear Power Plant in Armenia. A little research shows that if this step is taken, Turkey and Azerbaijan have a lot more to lose. A possible Chernobyl scenario would put large territories of Turkey at risk (the border is just 15 km away), while weather conditions this time of the year and the Coriolis effect for the atmospheric movements would affect the direction of the potential radioactive clouds.
The increased partnership with China should not be neglected as well. While Turkey used to be a safe heaven for the Uighur refugees and Erdogan himself qualified the policies in the Xinjiang as “a genocide”, the state policy changed its direction diametrically in 2016 when an Uighur political activist, who had resided in the country for 15 years, was arrested and sent back. Hundreds of similar arrests and extraditions followed in the next years.
Apparently that served as the condition precedent and since that both sides have signed 10 bilateral agreements. China has become Turkey’s second largest import partner and has invested over $3 billion between 2016 and 2019 with the intention to double that amount in 2020 alone. It also acted as safe heaven big brother providing $1 billion swap agreement in 2019, salvaging various poorly managed large scale projects or taking majority stakes in other multi billion projects, essentially tying the Mediterranean access to the Belt and Road Initiative.
Turkey, however is facing the wall. The coronavirus fueled crisis has put serious pressure in the economy and Ankara is simply looking for alternatives to their usual partners. The intimacy with China, especially in times of such aggressive foreign policy by Beijing, is making many traditional allies uneasy. Mike Pompeo has repeatedly outlined an increasingly hard line US policy with regards to that. Should Turkey complete all local Chinese funded projects, that would mean empowering China in the mid to long term, which would mean that Turkey will have to make some hard choices very soon, including possibly leaving NATO and thus decreasing its US and EU pressure. A possible new route for pipelines would give significantly more leverage to Ankara.
Georgia is the pebble in the shoes of Turkey, because all the routes pass through its territory, but is, in the same time, politically hard to influence and predict. The small Caucasus country remained neutral all along as they benefit from the operation of the current oil and gas pipelines. However, with regards to Turkey, their foreign policy could always be risky as they generally shift between Western/US or Russian political orientation and both of these are risks for Erdogan, who might pursue an alternative for the oil and gas transportation.
No analysis in Eastern Europe or West/Central Asia could skip Russia as they are the real heavyweight in the region with regards to diplomatic and military influence. Being formerly part of the USSR, both Armenia and Azerbaijan leaderships have close ties with them, but both are somewhat looking elsewhere. Armenia is officially pro western, but is dependent on Russia for energy and a number of state policies indicate a rather close Moscow link. Azerbaijan is aligned with Turkey, but is still governed by the same people since the fall of the USSR and the memories of the past are still fresh. Using all this, Russia manages to sell arms to both sides and they have been doing that since 1989. Theoretically, they would be motivated to have the conflict continue as long as possible.
The oil and gas lobby is important as well. The Hajiqabul – Mozdok gas pipeline allows Russia to import 175 billion cubic feet per year, while the Baku – Novorossiysk (Northern Route Export) pipeline imports oil at over 38 million barrels per year.
The most important relationship for Moscow, however, is the regional influence that they could have. Considering both Turkey and Iran have grown their relationships with Beijing from very friendly to heavy influence from them, Russia would want to have a buffer of countries, which would be very unlikely to have their own expansionist agendas and possibly be politically influenced by them. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan serve the purpose very well and that lets Moscow worry about their own 4,209 km long frontier with China. Another reason why such buffer states are useful is the possible spread of Jihadist groups from Turkey or Iran. Last, but not least, Russia has to act in such a way, that the US or the West would have less motivation to affect the region.
Considering this, it is possible that the Russian strategists saw that the new equipment of Azerbaijan – the Israeli missiles and drones – might quickly erase the advantage that the Armenians had from the high land batteries and for the first time in decades genuinely threaten the existence of the enclave. This way, their best move would be to intervene fast and insist on peace agreement. This is exactly what happened on October 11th when Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, under the insistence of Vladimir Putin, mediated over 10 hrs of peace talks between both sides resulting in cease fire.
Israel sold two major types of weapons to Azerbaijan – drones and missiles. Their strategy to sell weapons to them is very complex and should not be viewed as simply opportunistic. It is clear that the defense industry has to find clients. What is more important, though, is the angle with the major geopolitical risks and threats. Even though Azerbaijan is allied with Turkey and Turkey’s foreign policy with Israel is rather questionable (Erdogan even recently referred to Jerusalem as their own city), President Aliyev is viewed as a potential friend in case of future hostilities with Iran, which is perhaps the biggest threat to Israel’s existence. Azerbaijan has a complicated relationship with its neighbor from south because of the marginalization of ethnic Azerbaijanis, who also account for about a fifth of Iran’s population.
The drones, which Israel supplied Azerbaijan with, are two types – Harop and Orbiter 1K. Harop is manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries and is able to carry a 25 kg warhead. Orbiter 1K is made by Aeronautics is able to carry a 3kg warhead. Harop have been in use in Azerbaijan since at least 2017 and scare reports suggest that they might have been used in the previous clashes in 2016.
Additionally, there were various reports that the LORA rockets, made by Israel Aerospace Industries, were used. This is the most modern missile of its class, being hypersonic and having a range of 400 km and CEP of 10 meters. It could be launched from a ship from a standard intermodal container or it could be land launched. Because it is delivered in a standard cargo looking containers, it can be transported to any point without raising suspicion by the population. The range allows them to be fired off from any point in Azerbaijan.
US have been relatively quiet and there could be a number of reasons – relationship with Turkey, bigger direct problems with China, upcoming Presidential elections and so on.
Until several years ago they were not part of the supply for Turkey’s LNG thirst, but now about 10% of that is allocated for American companies. Additionally, Eerdogan announced on October 8th that Trump and him had set a goal to increase their bilateral trade to $100 billion. Additionally, US has one of its largest air bases in Incirlik, which is strategically important for the regional influence in the Middle East.
However, US will not want increasing Russian influence in Caucasus. This automatically suggest that they would try to deter Turkey from achieving their goals for Nagorno Karabah.
The conflict in Nagorno Karabah is not simple and its importance spreads far outside of the region. It is hard to believe that a remote mountainous area of 4,400 sq. km. with population of 150,000, hardly surviving local economy dependent on its few monasteries to attract less than 10,000 tourists per year, attract so much attention by the big military powers. So far Turkey is likely to win the most should the plan to have the Armenians leave the territory succeeds. This, however, has not happened in the last 2,000 years and even the atrocious Armenian Genocide was not able to change significantly the ethnic composition in the region. One of the great powers has a lot to lose in such scenario. Considering all this, the future can turn to be especially interesting and important.
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