September 29, 2020

Can the Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh be Solved?

An ethnic Armenian soldier fires an artillery piece during fighting with Azerbaijan's forces in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in this handout picture released September 29, 2020.
An ethnic Armenian soldier fires an artillery piece during fighting with Azerbaijan's forces in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in this handout picture released September 29, 2020.

Russia is busy in its Western Military District, especially in Belarus—now undoubtedly the Kremlin’s main political and military priority—where the situation remains volatile.

Exercise Slavic Brotherhood 2020, which Serbia decided to skip at the last moment, was delayed, finally taking place from 10 to 25 September at the firing range of the 38th Brest Independent Guards Air Assault Brigade, close to the Polish border. At the same time, at Alexander Lukashenko’s request, Russia deployed about 300 paratroopers from the 76th Guards Air Assault Division in Pskov to work alongside Belarusian Spetsnaz forces in Brest. This contingent is to be rotated indefinitely. More broadly, Moscow needs to urgently figure out a durable long-term scheme for the political and economic future of Belarus and the Union State, and for its military presence on the territory of its junior partner.

Meanwhile, a long pre-planned U.S. Army Europe-led exercise, Rapid Trident 20, took place from 16 to 25 September at the International Peacekeeping Security Centre in Yavoriv, in Western Ukraine, also near the Polish border. More than 4 000 troops from nine countries participated in the exercise. The American participation on the ground was half the size it had been 2019, but their contribution this year included a 23rd September flight of B-52H Stratofortress strategic bombers into Ukrainian airspace. Russia called this a “provocation” and responded by dispatching two Tu-160 strategic bombers from its Engels air base to Belarus to “practice interaction” with fighter aircraft of the Belarusian Armed Forces.

On top of this, Russia’s major annual strategic exercise, Kavkaz 2020, started on September 21 and lasted six days. While it could not compete with Russia’s activities in the Western direction, it still arrived with a great fanfare of propaganda. Kavkaz 2020 allegedly involved up to 80 000 troops, although Russia did not notify the OSCE. About 1 000 participating troops and observers from Armenia, Belarus, China, Iran, Myanmar and Pakistan (India declined to participate) took part in the exercise, which extended from Crimea through Russia’s Southern Military District to the Caspian Sea, and included operations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russian and Iranian missile boats and other vessels exercised around Azerbaijan’s territorial waters in the Caspian Sea, and Russian naval infantry units rehearsed assaults on beaches in Dagestan, close to Azerbaijan. In addition, massive Russian-Armenian drills took place in Armenia, practically on Azerbaijan’s border.

Last but not least, limited fighting had already erupted in July on the Armenian-Azeri border. In defiance of the Kremlin, Azerbaijan has repeatedly refused in the past months (probably at Turkey’s request) to allow Russian military aircraft to transit its airspace en route from Syria to Russia. Moreover, Turkey and Russia are increasingly involved in their proxy wars in Libya and Syria.

Given this complex picture, the renewal of hostilities around Nagorno-Karabakh right after the end of Kavkaz 2020 should not come as a surprise. The question of whether it was Azerbaijan or Armenia that started the fighting in the morning of 27 September would be a good indication of whether the crisis is likely to escalate or de-escalate. But there is no immediate and clear answer.

Armenia, emboldened by recent operations and the readiness it rehearsed in Kavkaz 2020, may have attacked Azeri positions. In this, it would be encouraged by Russia, determined to teach Azerbaijan a lesson, increase Moscow’s leverage in Baku, and demonstrate that Azerbaijan cannot rely on Turkey, but must ultimately depend on Moscow for its security. However, Armenia has consolidated its position in and around Nagorno-Karabakh (including in seven small districts of Azerbaijan between Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia and Iran, that were occupied in 1992-1994 by the Armenians) and would have no logical or pressing reason to seek to further advance into Azeri territories on its own initiative.

On the other hand, Turkey could have encouraged Azerbaijan to demonstrate force against Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia.

In any event, the conflict around Nagorno-Karabakh is now more polarised than ever. Russia has tried for many years to keep Azerbaijan in its orbit by selling arms at low prices —as it does to Armenia—and by offering economic opportunities such as lucrative transport corridors between Russia and Iran. But Baku sees little prospect for solving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through Russian facilitation and appears to be slipping increasingly into an alliance with Turkey. Moscow clearly prefers to keep the frozen conflict unsolved so as to preserve political and military leverage against both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The escalation or de-escalation of this conflict will not depend on political statements from the Minsk Group or the UN, but on the games played by Moscow and Ankara (including in Libya and Syria). Moscow will have to accept, sooner or later, that Nagorno-Karabakh may become a third proxy war between Russia and Turkey.