Azerbaijan’s ultimatum on Nagorno-Karabakh leaves little room for de-escalation
7 Oct 2020|

On 4 October, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev delivered a televised speech on the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh that was heavy in inflammatory rhetoric but also represented a clear statement on Baku’s objectives. Aliyev laid out a number of demands for a ceasefire, reiterating parts of his UN General Assembly speech in September, including that Armenia withdraw its troops from the region and recognise the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.

Aliyev also called Azerbaijani soldiers ‘saviours, because they are liberating their native land from invaders’ and exhorted them to ‘drive [the Armenians] away like dogs’, raising the spectre of a mass expulsion of Armenians from the disputed territory.

Importantly, Aliyev’s statement came at a time when Azerbaijan appeared to have gained the upper hand in the conflict. Over the weekend, Azerbaijani troops managed to secure control of eight villages previously under the control of Armenian militia and also launched strikes against Stepanakert, the de facto capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. In retaliation, the ethnic Armenian Artsakh (the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh) Defence Army launched rocket strikes against Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-largest city, in a troubling expansion of the conflict beyond the disputed enclave’s borders.

However, Aliyev’s ultimatum not only is practically impossible for Armenia to meet, but also represents a troublingly simplistic approach to a conflict that is deeply entrenched and without any clear path to resolution.

The almost exclusively Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh is a militarised society in which the ‘state and society … exist to support the military’. Of the approximately 150,000 residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, about 20,000 serve in the Artsakh Defence Army and many more are part of a ready reserve or are war veterans with easy access to weapons.

Armenia also devotes a significant proportion of its budget to subsidising Nagorno-Karabakh and sees the security of the Armenian population of the enclave as a central element in a broader struggle for Armenia’s survival. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan touched upon this theme in early October when he said, ‘We are probably living through the most decisive phase of our millennia-old history.’ He also declared that, ‘Victory and only victory is the outcome which we imagine at the end of this fight.’

Given this context, the practicality and symbolism of any Armenian disengagement from Nagorno-Karabakh make it almost impossible for Yerevan to accede to Baku’s demands. Doing so would require Yerevan to abandon ethnic Armenians in the enclave to an uncertain future that would likely involve widespread punitive reprisals from Azerbaijani forces. Aliyev clearly plays to Armenia’s fears by raising the spectre of the mass expulsion or even genocide of the disputed enclave’s Armenian population.

However, despite its recent successes, it is not yet clear whether Azerbaijan can capitalise on its current advantage and force Armenia’s capitulation without dramatically escalating its offensive operations.

On paper, the Azerbaijani military appears to have a distinct advantage over both the Artsakh Defence Army and the armed forces of Armenia. In 2017, Azerbaijan’s defence budget was approximately US$1.55 billion, significantly higher than Armenia’s US$430 million. Over the past decade, Azerbaijan’s military has lavished around US$24 billion on a modernisation program, significantly more than the US$4 billion Armenia spent on its armed forces during the same period. If measured in terms of raw firepower, Azerbaijan maintains clear superiority over Armenia.

However, Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh have a distinct home-ground advantage and occupy the higher ground in the enclave’s mountainous region, making it likely that Azerbaijan’s casualties will increase the further it advances. And with winter approaching, Baku has a limited window in which it can force its advantage, so it may feel compelled to press forward faster than is sustainable.

Still, it’s not yet clear how Baku’s strategy will play out. Matthew Bryza, a former co-chair of the Minsk group—tasked with facilitating negotiations between Yerevan and Baku—said on 2 October that Baku’s objectives were likely limited to recapturing some territory without overextending. But he also said that Baku will ‘need to continue into the higher ground … so that Azerbaijan will be able to defend that territory it has gained’, an objective that makes escalation more likely.

The rhetoric on both sides is also problematic. As noted by Thomas de Waal, an expert on the region, ‘Given that public expectations in both societies run extremely high, it will be harder for the leaders to stop soon and claim success. The risk of escalation and of mass destruction is alarmingly high.’

Another factor that increases the risk that the conflict will escalate into a war engulfing the entire region is the apparent absence of any external states able to step into the role of external mediator to effect a ceasefire. Armenia reached out directly to the US for support on 1 October. But Washington is ‘distracted by other bigger issues like China’ and its disengagement has created a power vacuum.

While Russia and Turkey have agreed that a ceasefire is needed, neither country is positioned to play a more constructive role, given that they’re both prejudiced by their support for opposing sides in the conflict. Nagorno-Karabakh could already be the latest front in a Russo-Turkish confrontation that expands into Syria and Libya.

The idea that Turkey could play a role as an honest broker is particularly untenable, since Ankara has clearly sided with Baku. There’s also a growing number of credible reports that Ankara has deployed between 320 and 1,000 ethnic Turkmen militants from northern Syria to Azerbaijan in support of Baku, dramatically changing the tenor of the conflict. The legacy of the Armenian genocide in the early 20th century also haunts Ankara’s role in the region.

De Waal pessimistically predicted that the conflict will continue ‘for at least another generation unless it can be smothered by an international security operation … [which] is highly unlikely in the current international situation’.

The bellicosity on display in both Baku and Yerevan is also making the prospect of a ceasefire increasingly unlikely, particularly as casualties mount on both sides. Given the events of the past week, the conflict is clearly approaching the point of no return while the rest of the world does little more than watch.