assessments

Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Current Tensions Over Nagorno-Karabakh

6 MINS READApr 25, 2011 | 12:21 GMT
DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia held a foreign minister-level meeting April 22 in Moscow to discuss several issues, but chiefly the dispute over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the region reached a peak recently, when the Armenian president announced his intention to be on the first flight to a reopened airport in Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan threatened to shoot down any flight into the territory. Tensions have eased some since then, but as the date of the airport's reopening approaches, diplomatic and military events could indicate what will happen at the slated reopening.
Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia held a foreign minister-level meeting in Moscow on April 22 to discuss various issues, chief among them the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. This meeting follows a peak in tensions in the southern Caucasus on March 30, when Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian announced he would be on the first flight from Yerevan to Khankendi (known in Armenia as Stepanakert) in Nagorno-Karabakh when an airport reopens there on May 9, and Azerbaijan threatened to shoot down any flight into the territory. Since Sarkisian's announcement, tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan have decreased slightly amid a flurry of diplomatic activity and military exercises by both sides. While the likelihood of a new war breaking out in the near future remains low, several factors bear watching as the date approaches for the first scheduled flight to the reopening airport in Nagorno-Karabakh. (click here to enlarge image)

Controversial Announcements

Nagorno-Karabakh has long been an issue of contention between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The countries fought a war over the territory from 1988 to 1994. Since then the conflict has simmered, resulting in lingering animosity between Yerevan and Baku and in sporadic skirmishes along the Line of Contact. This conflict showed signs of escalating when plans were made for an airport to reopen near Nagorno-Karabakh's capital — the airport has been closed since 1992, after full-scale war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan — and peaked when Sarkisian announced his plans to be on the first flight to the airport. Azerbaijan's previous announcement that it reserved the right to shoot down any flights that crossed its airspace illegally, which the flight from Armenia to the airport in Nagorno-Karabakh would have to do, implied that if Sarkisian followed through on his plans, he would be assassinated, and this would constitute an act of war. This then led to rumors of an impending war between Armenia and Azerbaijan after the airport's reopening. However, this aroused the concern and condemnation of various players with stakes in the region, such as Russia, Turkey and the United States, and Azerbaijan sought to defuse tensions shortly thereafter. On April 1, a spokesperson for Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry stated that Azerbaijan would not take action against civilian planes, adding that Baku has never used force against civilian flights and never intends to. But the Foreign Ministry did reiterate that flights to the occupied territories of Azerbaijan are "illegal and dangerous," without further elaboration.

Recent Diplomatic and Military Activities

There has been a significant amount of activity since the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry announcement, particularly in terms of defense-related meetings between Azerbaijan and Turkey and Armenia and Russia. On April 1, Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian met with Alexander Postanikov, the commander of the continental troops of Russia's armed forces, to discuss military cooperation issues. Then, on April 7, Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiyev visited Ankara to meet with Turkish Minister of National Defense Vecdi Gonul. These meetings are indicative of the growing ties between Azerbaijan and Turkey, which signed a strategic partnership agreement in December 2010, on the one hand, and Armenia and Russia, which strengthened their military alliance by extending Russia's lease of the Gyumri military base in Armenia to 49 years, on the other. Armenia and Azerbaijan appear to be boosting their alliance structures with their regional backers, possibly in anticipation of a crisis in which they might need to rely on these alliances. Armenia and Azerbaijan have also conducted several military drills near Nagorno-Karabakh. On April 1, Armenian troops held drills in the Agdam region near Nagorno-Karabakh, and on April 14, several fighter jets and military helicopters from the Azerbaijani air force held military exercises near the front-line zone. Also on April 14, Armenia began artillery exercises in the Agdam region immediately after Azerbaijani combat aircraft's flights along the front line. These drills and military meetings indicate that Armenia and Azerbaijan are drawing the battle lines, and both countries are looking for signs of solidarity from Russia and Turkey, respectively. More important, the two sides are trying to create the perception of strength to gain leverage as the Khankendi airport's reopening approaches. However, these recent activities are hardly indications that a full-scale war is looming. Armenia and Azerbaijan both frequently conduct military drills, and though meetings have reached higher levels in recent weeks, such delegations meet regularly under normal circumstances. More important, the fundamental constraints that have kept war from breaking out until now are still in place; Azerbaijan is still not at a point in its military buildup where it would feel comfortable launching an offensive against Armenia, particularly when Baku knows that such action would likely result in Russia's defense of Armenia. Furthermore, the international community, including the United States, would condemn such an action. In short, moving too aggressively holds more risks than benefits for Baku.

Developments to Watch For

As May 9 approaches, several important developments will give indications as to what will happen when the Khankendi airport reopens, if it reopens at all. First, Russia has been eerily quiet on the airport issue since Sarkisian's announcement, which could be part of an effort on Moscow's part to put pressure on Baku and keep it distracted from pursuing independently minded activities harmful to Russia's interests. Russia is the most influential external player in the Caucasus, and therefore any statements out of Russia as the reopening approaches will be important to monitor. It is likely that Russia is working with both Armenia and Azerbaijan behind the scenes, as that is what Moscow does best when dealing with issues between the two. Second, it is important to watch for any official statements or activity from the United States. A planning conference on military cooperation between Azerbaijan and the United States will be held April 27-28 in Baku, and this will be key to watch given a recent cancellation of military drills between Azerbaijan and the United States. This cancellation showed Baku's dissatisfaction with Washington over the latter's level of commitment to the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiation process just as frictions are escalating with Armenia, as well as over arms sales and other issues. The relationship between Azerbaijan and the United States is shaky, as Washington is juggling several issues and trying to rely more on Turkey to manage frictions in the Caucasus. In addition, any legal arbitration or rulings over the status of the airport from the International Civil Aviation Organization could affect the timing of the first flight, if the flight is allowed at all. Finally, any attacks on or manipulation of the Nagorno-Karabakh airport infrastructure leading up to the first flight, whether directly from Azerbaijan or through external or proxy groups, could cancel the airport's reopening altogether. The heightened level of activity in the Caucasus is only set to increase in the coming weeks, and these diplomatic and military developments surrounding the controversial airport reopening could have significant implications for the future of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

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