The Conflict No One Talks About: A Window of Opportunity for Azerbaijan

If Azerbaijan wanted to retake Nagorno-Karabakh, now would be the time to do so. The Armenian-dominated de facto state has been a festering wound in the Azeri national psyche ever since Azerbaijan lost Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding provinces in the Nagorno-Karabakh War following the fall of the Soviet Union. During the last two decades, the quest for the ‘liberation’ of the Armenian-occupied region has been a primary determinant of Azeri national policy as well as the backdrop against which most of the country’s political discourse takes place.

Azerbaijan has steadily invested in its military capabilities to enable their country to re-engage Armenia and take Nagorno-Karabakh by force. As the state of affairs currently stands, Azerbaijan utilizes its sizable oil wealth to invest in military capabilities that far outpace Armenia’s own. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Military Expenditures Database finds that the Azeris spend eight times more than the Armenians in military expenditures per year. As a result, Azerbaijan has a clear superiority when it comes to sheer military strength.

However, despite Azerbaijan’s direct military advantage, Russia has deterred the Azerbaijan’s military threat through a pledge to intercede with Russian military forces if Azerbaijan tries to reclaim the contested territory by force. In order to credibly convey to the Azerbaijani government that they are not bluffing, the Russians maintain a standing force of over 3,000 troops stationed in Armenia.

This security arrangement helps further Russian interests by maintaining the status quo in the frozen conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. As long as Azerbaijan does not invade the territory, Russia takes a decisively neutral stance on the conflict. This allows Russia to use the contested territory as a huge bargaining piece in projecting its influence in both Azerbaijan and Armenia and ensuring that neither country strays too far ‘West.’

For Armenia, Russia is the only force staving off an eager and well-equipped Azerbaijani military from invading Nagorno-Karabakh. As a result, Armenia is tethered to Russia, and the Armenianas are forced to subsume their own national interests to Moscow’s demands. This power dynamic was clearly displayed in Armenia’s decision to break off negotiations with the European Union for an economic trade agreement and instead join the Russian-led Customs Union.

Russia’s influence is more limited over Azerbaijan, but still plays a powerful role in shaping Azerbaijan’s diplomatic behavior. Azerbaijan knows that directly opposing Russia would lead Russia to shift their neutral stance on Nagorno-Karabakh to an outspoken pro-Armenian position, a move that would seriously jeopardize Azerbaijan’s hopes of ever repatriating the region.

A look at the current political landscape, however, suggests that if Azerbaijan were ever going to make a move on reclaiming Nagorno-Karabakh, now would be the time. First and most importantly, Russia cannot credibly threaten to dedicate significant military resources to aid Armenia. While Russia has regional interests in maintaining its powerful leverage over the Caucasian countries, for Russia, these interests pale in comparison to the critically important events transpiring in Eastern Ukraine. Substantial evidence points to the fact that the Russian military is actively abetting separatist resistance efforts, and Russia has deployed over 12,000 troops to the Ukrainian border. Moreover, Russia’s standoff with the West over the future of Eastern Ukraine requires Russia to credibly convince their Western counterparts that they are willing to fight to ensure separatist autonomy. As such, Russia cannot afford to divert the military resources necessary to repel the entirety of Azerbaijan’s national might against Armenia without compromising their commitment to escalation in Ukraine.

Further, Russia’s economy is currently strained beneath the weight of Western sanctions. The Russians cannot afford to open another military engagement that could disrupt trade relations with Azerbaijan, Turkey, and possibly the rest of the Muslim world. Therefore, during this limited episode, Russia’s deterrent threat of military intervention is largely irrelevant.

Another concern Azerbaijan has to anticipate is the international response to the aggressive use of force. Even though the United Nations has supported the right to Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and the end to Armenian control over Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan would still be violating the non-aggression norm by using military force to reoccupy territory and advance political interests. International condemnation could spur pressure against Azerbaijan and highly complicate the legitimacy of their campaign. However, the extent to which governments will feel obliged to challenge the legitimacy of Azerbaijan’s behavior will largely depend on the ability for Armenian supporters to capture the attention and sympathy of the international public.

Given the current standoff between Western governments and Russia, the West has strategic incentives to allow Azerbaijan retake Nagorno-Karabakh and rob Russia of a major lever behind its heavy influence in Caucasus region. Therefore, unless popular opinion forces democratic Western governments to intervene, Western states will be inclined to ignore the conflict.

And the humanitarian public is distracted. Between the crisis in Ukraine, the ongoing threat posed by the Islamic State, the ever-deadly Syrian civil war, and the attention-grabbing conflict in Israel and Gaza; a conflict in Azerbaijan will hardly attract international media coverage. Relatively few people have even heard of Azerbaijan, and an escalation of conflict will simply fade to the background beneath the noise of all of the other ‘high-profile’ violence occurring around the world.

Indeed, evidence indicates that we may be seeing the beginnings to a full-scale outbreak of violence between Azerbaijan and the Nagorno-Karabakh region. On August 1, fighting escalated between the countries, with media outlets offering conflicting reports on who initiated this current conflict. Tensions remain high around the ceasefire line, with the death count reaching 15 by August 3 after Nagorno-Karabakh representatives reported that they “foiled another attempt at Azerbaijani infiltration.”

If true, Azerbaijan may be testing the waters, daring Russia to respond and carefully monitoring the reaction of the international community. Thus far, Russian representatives have condemned the violence and offered to facilitate negotiations, but have not taken any further measures. The Western world has had too much on its mind for the news of violence to capture the public’s consciousness, and the fighting has not been a major headline in international news outlets. Thus, Azerbaijan’s behavior in the next few days will be critical, as the government has to decide if it is willing to gamble and seize this limited window of opportunity.

Lastly, it is important to note that many cynics suggest that President Aliyev’s regime has little interest in ending the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and that the ongoing ethnic conflict helps justify the continuation of Azerbaijan’s semi-authoritarian government. If so, then one would expect Azerbaijan to maintain a moderate level of conflict escalation with Armenia—enough to inflame the passions of the domestic public, but not significant enough to draw the ire of Russia or the attention of others in the international community.

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About Brian Mund

UPenn '13; YLS '18. My research focuses on sovereignty, the United Nations and the legitimacy of secession.
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