It did not take long to smell a rat on this story. Question number one in these out of thin air conflicts is “why now”? And the answer to that is Russia is on a diplomatic roll and Turkey on a slide, so someone decided to put Armenia in play to possibly force Russia to support it militarily.
There were two big clues for that. Number one, Armenia needed to start this fight like it needed a hole in the head. It has nothing to gain with a 2 million population going up against 10 million Azeris plus Turkey, who would love to humiliate a close Russian ally, despite Azerbaijan also having had close relations with Moscow, and also being an arms customer.
But clue number two was laid squarely on the table when the Azeri ambassador to Russia, Polad Bulbuloglu stated, “We are ready for a peaceful solution to the issue. But if it’s not solved peacefully, then we will solve it by military means.” This was followed by an Azeri military offensive that Armenia said might push 150,000 out of the area.
Armenia is responding by rushing a mutual assistance agreement with Nagorno-Karabakh, and Baku has upped its ceasefire demands to “liberating the occupied territories and restitution of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan”, thus showing everybody why it started the conflict.
The conflicts roots run deep, with the gene pools running back to the Bronze, and even Copper Ages. In a strange twist of fates, while Khrushchev had once given Crimea to Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh had been given to Armenia much earlier, sowing seeds of contention that we are witnessing today.
Since the 1994 ceasefire, OSCE efforts to mediate a permanent solution have gone nowhere, and Russian attempts to insert peacekeepers between the parties have been rejected. Incredibly, the Global Militarization Index shows both Azerbaijan and Armenia among the top ten militarized countries in the world.
If it came to a knockdown drag out fight, things would not look good for Armenia in terms of defending Nagorno-Karabakh, as their respective military budgets run $447 million and $3.7 billion. Baku has been expanding its military heavily in the last few years and would have an advantage in heavy weapons. It can take the disputed area back, if it wants to.
And it seems like it does; and it seems that there was some preparation for it. Last August, President Aliyev tweeted that “the flag of Azerbaijan will fly in all the occupied territories”. With the economic distress caused by lower oil prices, taking back Nagorno-Karabakh would buffer Aliyev through to better times, politically.
Turkey has been quick to support Baku, and the timing of this renewed conflict comes during NATO naval exercises in the Black Sea. In fact, one Veterans Today source noted a surprise stop by a Turkish warship TCG Yavuz (F-240) at the southern port of Batumi in Georgia. That is something not usually done during a naval exercise, unless maybe something is being transferred, with that as cover.
Not only has Russia not taken a side, but actually stepped back, refusing to comment about the possibility that Baku might have active support in the conflict at this time from Turkey. Lavrov himself said, “We are not accusing any external forces and any external players of provoking the current outbreak of tensions (in Nagorno-Karabakh). Nor do we accuse Ankara.” He then went on to say that he was more concerned with Turkey’s behavior in Syria as it continues its support of the terrorist groups during the ceasefire.
Was Lavrov sending a message to Erdogan that he would not be taking the bait to get Russia militarily involved in preventing Nagorno-Karabakh being retaken? It would not affect Russia’s two bases there, nor its four to five thousand troops. Although Armenia is a military ally of Russia, that does not technically cover Nagorno-Karabakh. Baku and an outside party may have seen this as the perfect time to settle the issue by force of arms — a dangerous precedent to set in the area.
Russia’s State Duma Vice Speaker Serget Zheleznyak feels that there is a third force behind the current fighting. “It is clear that the force that continues to fan the flames of war in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucasus dissatisfied with the peacekeeping and counter-terror success of Russia and our allies in Syria is interested in the speedy exacerbation of the protracted conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.”
But the clock is ticking, so the debate may not last long. Both sides continue to claim the other will not stop shelling, which serves Baku the most. Its defense ministry ordered full mobilization of the Azeri heavy weapons to prepare for a strike on Karabakh’s two main cities. That would be the tipping point, as Armenia has threatened a major response, which is exactly what Baku may want it to do.
Turkey is exhibiting situational ethics here. On the one hand, it seems to see no problem with its supporting Turkmen forces fighting Assad in Syria, in alliance with al-Nusra and ISIL, as it wants a buffer zone to neutralize the Syrian Kurds. But Turkey supports Baku taking back Karabakh to restore the former Azerbaijani borders, and to hell with the issue of it always having had a large ethnic Armenian majority.
Erdogan says, “I want to say though that Nagorno-Karabakh is sure to be part of Azerbaijan someday”, but is adamant against Syria bringing all of its parts together. Sure, with the Russian sanctions hurting Turkey, Erdogan wants to tighten up relations more than ever with Baku and its oil and gas exports through Turkey.
There has been some silly “what if” talk about Russia cutting off gas supplies to Turkey, but I suspect that Moscow would rather sell the gas and use the profits for major things it wants to do. Moscow is nothing if not pragmatic, and not prone to make a bad situation worse by overextending itself.
So I fear for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, that they might regret not having worked harder to reach an earlier settlement. Who will save them from Baku’s clear military superiority and neighbors who might secretly be glad to have the issue settled?
And I fear for the Armenians who already have volunteers lining up to fight the Azeris, when that may just make the pile of dead that much higher. Victor Hugo saw that in the Balkans. “Liberation is not deliverance. One gets free from the galleys, but not from the sentence.”
Jim W. Dean, managing editor for Veterans Today, producer/host of Heritage TV Atlanta, specially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.