The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is de facto occupied by Armenia, but is internationally recognized de-jure part of Azerbaijan. The conflict has its origins in the early 20th century. Under the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin decided to make the Nagorno-Karabakh region an autonomous oblast of Soviet Azerbaijan. The present conflict began in 1988 and escalated into a full-scale war in the early 1990s. Armenia forcibly occupied 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory, which includes the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding districts. The war claimed the lives of 30,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis and expelled one million more from their homeland.
A ceasefire signed in 1994 provided for two decades of relative stability, which significantly deteriorated along with Azerbaijan’s increasing frustration with the status quo and efforts from Armenia to cement it. A four-day escalation in April 2016 became the deadliest ceasefire violation to date until the recent attack of Armenia to Tovuz district of Azerbaijan on 12th of July, 2020.
The whole international community recognizes and supports the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Azerbaijan and in connection with the settlement of the conflict, international organizations have adopted numerous decisions and resolutions based on the norms and principles of international law. United Nations Security Council gave 4 resolutions Armenia to immediately withdraw its military from Nagorno Karabagh and 7 other occupied regions of Azerbaijan, but until now none of these resolutions fulfilled. Resolution 822 (30 April 1993), Resolution 853 (29 July 1993), Resolution 874 (14 October 1993), Resolution 884 (12 November 1993).
Recently, a few days ago the Committee on Rules of the House of Representatives of the U.S. Congress adopted an amendment that addresses the illegal occupation of Azerbaijani territories and demands a report on the humanitarian situation of ethnic Azerbaijanis who were killed and displaced. The amendment calls on the U.S. secretaries of state and defense to submit a report on the status of the internally displaced persons in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan. The secretaries are required to assess the number of citizens of these countries who have been forcibly displaced and killed in illegally occupied regions of these countries by foreign forces since 1991.
Negotiation and mediation efforts, primarily led by the Minsk Group of OSCE, have failed to produce a permanent solution to the conflict. The Minsk Group was created in 1994 to address the dispute and is co-chaired by the United States, Russia, and France.
Without successful mediation efforts by Minsk Group and cease-fire violations by Armenia threaten to reignite a military conflict between the countries and destabilize the South Caucasus region.
Tensions between the two neighboring countries turned into fighting on 12th of July when Armenian armed forces opened fire on Azerbaijani positions stationed along the border with Armenia by artillery fire. Armenia’s violation of the ceasefire has resulted in the death of eleven Azerbaijani servicemen, including one general, one colonel and two majors and one civilian was killed in an artillery strike on a village in the Tovuz district. Although Azerbaijan’s military capabilities are at a very high level, Baku has been focusing on finding a peaceful solution to the decades-old Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for almost 30 years.
There are couple of reasons why Armenia has attacked to Tovuz district of Azerbaijan and now.
The far western Tovuz region of Azerbaijan located on the border with Armenia has become a hot spot for intense clashes between the two countries. The fact that Armenia assaulted Azerbaijan far from the main conflict zone in the Nagorno-Karabakh region raised questions about Armenia’s intentions. It is also obvious that Armenia cannot dear doing this on his own and they get support from their Patrons. To summarize:
- Tovuz is located in a strategically significant area along the routes of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, and the Southern Gas Corridor, a megastructure that carries natural gas from Azerbaijan to Turkey and Europe through the territory of Georgia, which locates 78 kilometers west from Tovuz.
Armenia’s goal was to gain control over the oil, gas and railway routes passing through the territory. The minimum goal was to disrupt oil and gas exports from the region.
Azerbaijan is one of the world’s oldest oil-producing countries and is a crucial oil and gas supplier in the Caspian Sea region. BP is the largest foreign investor in Azerbaijan and has been operating there since 1992. In December 2016, it signed a letter of intent with SOCAR that will see the company commit to the further development of the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli (ACG) oilfield until 2050, 26 years beyond the duration of the existing 30-year PSA signed in 1994. Although Azerbaijan has historically been an oil producer, its significance is growing as a gas producer and exporter. The Shah Deniz field is one of the world’s largest gas and condensate fields and accounts for most Azerbaijan’s natural gas reserves. Operated by BP, Shah Deniz is located 70 kilometers southeast of Baku in water depths of up to 1,600 meters and has approximately 1 tcm of gas in place. The first gas started to flow in 2006. In June 2018, the Shah Deniz Stage 2 project commenced production. Stage 2 is expected to reach a plateau output of 16 bcm per year. Azerbaijan held proven gas reserves of 2.1 tcm. Exports and oil and gas production are key to Azerbaijan’s economy. While Shah Deniz is the current star, Total’s Absheron field also has a promising future. In November 2016, Total and SOCAR announced they had signed an agreement for the project’s first development phase. Work is also underway on the Southern Gas Corridor, which consists of the South Caucasus, Trans-Anatolian and Trans Adriatic pipelines, and will be ready to transport Shah Deniz gas via Georgia, Turkey, Greece, Albania and on to Italy and the rest of Europe by the end of the 2020.
- Armenia’s current leadership aims to escalate the situation, against the backdrop of socio-economic problems deteriorated further by the widespread of COVID-19 in Armenia, caused by its incompetent performance, and distract attention from the domestic problems in the country. The country has been operating in a state of emergency since the peak of the first outbreak. The capacities of its hospitals are exhausted. The pandemic led to income loss, layoffs and lockdowns and many citizens face serious financial problems. In this case, the only way out of the impasse could be a small war with Azerbaijan to distract attention of its people from the serious socio-economic problems within the country caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
- Creating new conflict hotbeds outside the Nagorno Karabagh to keep status-quo. Tovuz is located far from the contact line – in the north-west of the country, a couple of hundred km away from the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region. Armenia tries to widen the geography of clashes demonstrating its absolute unwillingness to engage into constructive peace talks with the Azerbaijani side.
- Armenia is a member state of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) along with Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. By switching the attacks from the contact line in Azerbaijan’s occupied lands to border, Armenia deliberately aims to activate the involvement of CSTO in the conflict. Any hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and surrounding districts occupied by Armenia bypass the alliance’s jurisdiction since the occupied lands are acknowledged as part of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territories.
In the end, it is also important to note that, the balance between the military, diplomatic and economic opportunities of Azerbaijan and Armenia changed very much in favor of Azerbaijan compared to the beginning of the 1990s and the situation of “neither peace nor war” is beginning to become a source of risk for everyone, but especially for the occupying Armenia. After the clashes, which began on July 12, this stance was emphasized more clearly and persistently.
Governments and International Organizations involved into the conflict need to take these into account and act quickly on the solution of the Nagorno Karabagh conflict based on the international law and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.
Moreover, the attacks occurred in the close vicinity of the region’s oil and gas pipelines, including the Southern Gas Corridor, which provides vital energy security for Europe, should raise concerns among the international community.
*Basrad Pashayev was born in Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan and is international relations expert and energy-trade specialist. Several of his articles are published in major international news sites and journals. He has also contributed and moderated the Silk Road Conference in Chicago, USA focusing on economic, energy and trade issues in Azerbaijan, Central Asia countries and Turkey. He is also invited by Kent and Oxford Brooks Universities in UK to continue his studies in International Relations and Diplomacy.