Armenia – Azerbaijan Feud at International Level

Strategic’s Interview

with Emil Souleimanov

Tomáš Baranec/Strategic Analysis (TB): Between July 12 – 16, 2020 the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan escalated into a major military confrontation along the state border straddling Azerbaijan’s Tovuz and Armenia’s Tavush regions. Although the real cause of the conflict is not yet known, several possible scenarios are being mentioned by experts and pundits.  Some say that the Azerbaijani government wanted to generate a “rally around the flag” effect and/or to express its growing discontent with the peace process regarding the Nagorno Karabakh. Several Azerbaijani experts, on the other hand, claimed, that Yerevan provoked conflict on the common border in an attempt to lay the ground for the involvement of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in the conflict. Yet other analysts assess that current flare-up in hostilities was caused by mistake on the ground, without involvement from the governments. Which of these explanations seems to be most plausible for you, or do you see some other causes of recent hostilities?

Emil Souleimanov (ES): What we can say is that we do not know for sure, because there are different explanations and perspectives. And we do not really know who fired the first shot. But the general assessment, most observers agree on, is that because Azerbaijan is not interested in the status quo it has been quite willing to poke Armenian forces either on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border or around the Nagorno Karabakh. So that is a general understanding. Then there is one specific piece of information I received some four or six years ago; I do not remember exactly, but it was before the 2016 “four-days war”, stating that the Azerbaijani government adopted a new strategy. This new strategy is based on so-called small steps, meaning that Azerbaijan wants to go through the policy of “managed escalation”.

TB: How should this managed escalation look in practice?

ES: In practice, Azerbaijanis would systematically attack at some locations, and they would kind of try to advance, step by step. Not that much for the stake of “we will occupy Karabakh” or gain control over some areas along the Armenian-Azeri border, but rather to send a message to the Armenians that says: “We are determined, we can take your territory, and we have superiority in respect to weapons, and manpower, we are committed, and we are willing to sacrifice more people than you would. We have more people, and we have this commitment”. This eventually led to the 2016 “four-days war”. There was this increased sense of superiority in the Azerbaijani society, and in expert circles, suggesting that returning of the Nagorno Karabakh is a matter of time, once the deal will be reached with Moscow. So this is the Azerbaijani perspective and strategy. And because Azerbaijanis consider events of 2016 their victory, they feel to be entitled to more. Now Azerbaijani public expects this from the government, and there are some not very really realistic expectations in the sense that “we have to do something, and we gain the control (of the Nagorno Karabakh)”, but that’s not so easy – for so many reasons.

TB: And what about possible Armenian motivation to heat up the conflict? Is there any?

ES: Yes, the other thing is Davit Tonoyan’s doctrine in Armenia. Davit Tonoyan is the Minister of Defence in the government of the Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. He said that Armenians have to counterattack, or even that they have to attack preventively. Point is to show Azerbaijanis that if they do something, take control of some territory on the Nagorno Karabakh for example, Armenians will retaliate, and that retaliation will be more sombre than the initial attack. So due to this doctrine, Armenians cannot let some territory to be taken from them just like that.

„The general assessment is that because Azerbaijan is not interested in the status quo, it has been quite willing to poke Armenian forces either on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border or around the Nagorno Karabakh.“

Photo: Emil Souleimanov

TB: Was this new Armenian doctrine a reaction to the so-called April war from 2016? Armenians lost some territory, and now they have to regain some land to save their face.

ES: Yes, this came as some kind of reaction to events of 2016. Due to Tonoyan’s doctrine, Armenians cannot be only reactive, acting solely in response to Azerbaijani attacks. Moreover, this doctrine also postulates that Armenians should not react equally to the initial attack. They should respond in a more committed way. That is the main idea. Therefore, we do not know what exactly happened on the Armenian-Azeri border in the Tavush province, but we should bear this information in mind while analysing these events.

TB: Unlike during the so-called April war in 2016, current clashes had not erupted in the Nagorno Karabakh, but directly on the Armenia-Azerbaijani border. Despite that, the reaction of Russia as the closest ally of Armenia, as well as the CSTO, a member of which Armenia is, was rather mild. Could we attribute this fact solely to the relatively pro-western orientation of the new Armenian government as some pundits did, or is the explanation rather different or multicausal? 

ES: Russians rarely react publicly. They have never made bold statements towards Baku or Yerevan. They don’t do public policy, but rather this “lobby policy”. There probably were some messages from Moscow to Baku about which we don’t know. We also know that there were some military exercises in the Caspian Sea by the Russian flotilla, and this probably somehow relates to this last series of complications (on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border), but we don’t know for sure. Another thing is that after many years Azeris started transporting its oil via the Baku-Novorossiysk pipeline. This might mean that they begin to consider the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline increasingly vulnerable, but probably they also want to please Kremlin. They want to make a stake toward Moscow too. Another thing is that Russians, as you mentioned in your question, are a bit angry with the Pashinyan’s government, so by being mild, they may be sending a message that because of its policies, Yerevan cannot count on its full support. So, this is just a warning for Armenia not to continue the given course, or Kremlin won’t back it in the future.

TB: And what about the CSTO? Is it all just about Russia or are there also other factors behind its reserved reaction to clashes on Armenian-Azerbaijani border?

ES: Another thing is that within the CSTO, there are different opinions on what should be done. Kazakhstan has been sending messages to its allies that it is not really willing to go into war with Azerbaijan because of political issues, cultural issues, and probably also because of the Turkic solidarity. So, this is a very delicate thing. And Belarus, we do not know what Belarus is going to do due to all the turmoil going on in Minsk, where political opposition is reviving its activities before the presidential elections. All these aspects play its role, and I think that also Russians want to observe what’s going on without making any bold statements for now.

„Russians are a bit angry with the Pashinyan’s government, so by being mild on Azerbaijan, they may be sending a message that because of its policies, Yerevan cannot count on its full support.“
„The public opinion in Azerbaijan is going to create a very strong pressure on the government and Baku might do things it is not willing to do, just to avoid severe backlash from the society resulting in the loss of credibility.“

TB: Pro-war protests in Baku spun out of control on the night from July 14 – 15, after several thousand protesters broke into the building of the parliament. Azerbaijani government used this protest as a pretext on the crackdown of opposition activists from the Popular Front Party. Although, it seems that for now that Aliyev’s government managed to reap dividends from this situation, could similar mass calls for a military solution of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict potentially endanger the current regime in Baku?

ES: Azerbaijani government claims that the given protest was sanctioned, and it is possible, but there is a massive problem because it can backfire. You have thousands and thousands of people taking into the streets and calling for a new war with Armenia. This warmongering public opinion is going to press the government into decisions, the rational government might not be willing to take under normal circumstances. So the public opinion is going to create a very massive pressure on the Azerbaijani government and Baku might do things it is not willing to do, just to avoid severe backlash from the society resulting in the loss of credibility. But on the other hand, Baku faces severe economic problems and short, successful war as the one from the year 2016 might help to restore its credit within the population. On the other hand, because the Azeri government created an impression that winning over Armenians is normal, we can observe an increasingly militant mood within the Azerbaijani society. They have a taste of victory, and they want more. They believe they can start a war and win it. But the problem is, that if they do start a war, and Armenians strike the pipelines (in Azerbaijan), Azerbaijani public might suddenly realise that the war is devastating and the victory is not feasible because of the Russian supply of arms (to Armenia) or due to some other factor. Although in a similar scenario, Russia can play on both sides. Once Azerbaijanis would see that victory is very costly and challenging, or unreachable, they might turn against their government. That would be the end of Aliyev’s rule. And he doesn’t want the war. He is probably the last person in Azerbaijan, who wishes such war.

TB: But such conflict could also get out of hand in a much more dangerous sense, since Azerbaijani military command recently proclaimed that in case of Armenian attack on Azerbaijani oil and gas infrastructure it would target Armenian nuclear power plant at Metsamor, 36 kilometres west of Yerevan which would turn this conflict into a global catastrophe rather than just regional one.

ES: There is this issue of which side of the conflict would behave more ruthlessly because as you mentioned, Armenians have been claiming that in the case of war they would not only target the pipeline, but they would also target the Mingachevir Dam, which would cause a massive catastrophe in the North Azerbaijan. So, both sides are competing who is more robust and more committed. But of course, making such statements is somewhat dangerous, to put it mildly.

TB: Information about causalities and losses on both sides differ significantly for now. Is it possible to assess the performance of both respective militaries at this point?

ES: We don’t know for sure because we lack information from satellites, the way we had them back in 2016. Armenians said that they have gained control over some height in the area. We do not know for sure. The problem with the Armenian-Azerbaijani border in that area is that it is not properly demarcated. I would say that at least the public opinion after killing the general and the major of the Azerbaijani army is inclined to think that Armenians won. So as far as we know, we have four Armenian soldiers killed and if I’m correct thirteen or fourteen Azerbaijani soldiers killed. Therefore it seems that Armenians have been more successful, but we do not have verified data.

TB: Could lower causalities on the Armenian side imply that they were indeed defending themselves in advantageous terrain? Especially taking into account fact, that the Azerbaijani army at the moment is better equipped? 

ES: We cannot say this for sure, because we do not have a statistically significant number of losses. This might be a result of just one successful hit.

TB: On July 6, shortly before clashes, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has decried international mediators of his country’s negotiations with Armenia on Nagorno Karabakh conflict, describing the peace process as “meaningless “. Does this statement in combination with recent hostilities signalise a more significant change in the dynamics of Nagorno Karabakh conflict, or shall we rather expect “business as usual” with repeating periods of escalation and de-escalation?

ES: Unless the situation spins out of control, I believe it will be back to the escalation and de-escalation phase of the conflict. The problem is that Azerbaijanis want a lot of things and they have often been sending messages that they want to start the war, but as I mentioned earlier it is not really willing to start it, because the current regime in Baku does not want to lose the power. So they are inclined to keep these militaristic attitudes in Azerbaijani society, but without going into an open (military) conflict with Armenia. Therefore, Baku will continue poking Yerevan, and meanwhile, Armenians will be more assertive in defending themselves or keeping the status quo, but unless things become irrational, I do not think that there will be war. But still, because of this escalation, it is more likely as it was before. And we should not forget that most of the time, the government can control the escalation, but once it loses control, there is a fully-fledged war. For example, one side would suffer significant losses, and the war is more likely because this losing side would probably respond by excessive violence to restore “the balance” of losses.

TB: Could we say that if the current situation doesn’t spin out of control, there will be the business as usual but with increased frequency of these escalation and de-escalation phases?

ES: Yes, increased frequency and increased causalities. Especially because we know that Azerbaijanis want to test Armenians more, while Armenians are keen to punish Azerbaijanis more (severely). But then if Azerbaijanis see that they are being hit by Armenians, they will be inclined to hit them back even more. This could be a path to a total war between both countries. This is the main problem. As we see nowadays Azerbaijanis kind of backed down, and they will probably review their strategy. They can either adopt the new strategy without poking Armenians, or they can go along the path of continuous escalation.

TB: So, in the worst-case scenario, we could observe the South Caucasian version of the North Caucasian escalation of the blood feud on a national level?

ES: Yes.

TB: Thank you for your time, Emil.

ES: Thank you for having me.

Emil Souleimanov is Associate Professor with the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic (https://cuni.academia.edu/EmilSouleimanov). His most recent book is “Individual Disengagement of Avengers, Nationalists, and Jihadists”, co-authored with Huseyn Aliyev (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

Disclaimer: Views presented here are those of the interviewee solely, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Strategic Analysis.

„Escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan is more likely now. If one side would suffer significant losses, this losing side would probably respond by excessive violence to restore the balance of losses.“