Azerbaijan accused Armenia of stoking unrest in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh after a gunbattle that killed 15 people March 5. Azerbaijan is using its petroleum wealth to arm itself for a potential conflict with Armenia over the separatist region, which on paper belongs to Azerbaijan but in reality is controlled by Armenia. The West does not want to see this conflict re-emerge, but Russia does — to a point.
Following a gunbattle in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan said 15 soldiers were killed and it accused its neighbor Armenia on March 5 of deliberately stoking unrest in the breakaway region. If true, 15 dead would mark the worst clash in recent years between Muslim Azerbaijan and Orthodox Christian Armenia, which technically remain at war. Renewed conflict in the disputed enclave would displease the West, but would suit Russia just fine unless Azerbaijan scores a decisive win — something becoming increasingly likely, however, as Azerbaijan converts its petroleum wealth into armaments. Pro-Armenian forces seized the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in a war in the 1990s. The two sides have remained in a tense deadlock over the territory ever since, but the conflict has been relatively dormant since a 1994 cease-fire. Technically, Nagorno-Karabakh is still part of Azerbaijan, even though Armenia controls it. International pressure, lack of support from every nation but Russia and Iran, and fear of Azeri retaliation have kept Armenia from annexing the territory. Azerbaijan has been held back from retaking the land due to pressure from the West and the Azeri military's relative weakness. But the situation slowly has been changing as Azerbaijan has grown stronger and richer following the 2006 completion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, which Western companies developed to feed oil to Europe. The BTC led to a more pro-Western Azerbaijan, and the tremendous new wealth it generated has helped the country increase its defense spending from $175 million in 2004 to more than $1 billion at the start of 2008. This, of course, has Armenia more than nervous, but the much poorer country can barely increase its spending to follow Azerbaijan's lead. In the past year, Armenia has increased its defense spending by 20 percent, from $125 million to $150 million — almost all of which was spent on boosting its defensive capabilities. The Azeris constantly speak about wanting to take Nagorno-Karabakh back by force, and now actually are closing in on the ability to do so. And there is another force pushing for a conflict: Russia. Following the 2004 eviction from its military bases in nearby Georgia after the Rose Revolution, Russia has been slowly withdrawing its vast military equipment from Azerbaijan's and Armenia's fellow country in the Caucasus. Officially, Russia said the last of its equipment was removed from Georgia in the summer of 2007 and much of the hardware was shipped back to Russia. But quite a bit of it was relocated to Russia's large base in Gyumri, Armenia. Uncertainty remains about the relocation of 40 armored vehicles and 20 tanks; Russia says they are back home, but Azerbaijan suspects they are in Armenia. Armenia has accused Moscow of helping fuel Azerbaijan's military buildup. It alleges that quite a bit of the military equipment from Georgia found its way to Azerbaijan. Russia has myriad reasons to fuel another conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. First, the Kremlin is still smarting after the West recognized Kosovar independence from Serbia despite Russia's and Serbia's vigorous objections. In the run-up to Kosovar secession, Russia insisted that the breakaway province's independence would cause flare-ups in other separatist regions. A renewed scuffle over Nagorno-Karabakh would represent a major told-you-so for Moscow. Second, Russia is very interested in destabilizing Azerbaijan and in having the West become displeased with Azerbaijan. The United States and Europe have warned Azerbaijan not to restart conflict with Armenia — especially the United States, which has a very large Armenian diaspora with a great deal of clout in Washington. During an election year, U.S. politicians cannot afford to offend constituencies, so they are liable not to ignore pressure from Armenian-Americans. The West worries that renewed conflict could destabilize their investments in Azeri energy infrastructure. Third and last, Russia would just relish the opportunity that renewed conflict would create for it to sweep in as the great mediator. Moscow repeatedly has said it wants to send troops, perhaps as part of a peacekeeping force, into Nagorno-Karabakh. More fighting would give it the perfect opportunity to do so. Ultimately, having the southern Caucasus in flames greatly increases Russia's leverage with every player previously mentioned. However, Moscow does have one concern: what if Azerbaijan actually wins the fight against Armenia? A victory by Baku would be a palpable blow against Russian power, allowing Azerbaijan to continue on its Westward push without fear of Moscow.
Armenia, Azerbaijan: Russia, the West and Nagorno-Karabakh