Ukraine War, Energy Issues Muddle Azerbaijan-Armenia Peace Efforts

16/09/2022

Armenia and Azerbaijan appear to have negotiated a cease-fire in the past day, pausing fighting that has reportedly killed more than 170 troops on both sides since fighting erupted earlier this week.

Armenian officials announced the cease-fire starting Wednesday in a television broadcast. There has been no confirmation from Azerbaijan’s government.

“We welcome the cessation of hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia and will continue to work with the parties to seek to cement it,” tweeted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday.

The renewed fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia has stoked fears of further military escalation in the decades-old conflict. Experts warn the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis facing Europe might complicate peace efforts.

Azerbaijan and Armenia, both former Soviet Union republics in the Caucasus, have accused each other of restarting violence that has been the worst fighting in two years.

Armenia said Azerbaijani forces shelled towns and villages along the border, forcing its military to respond. Azerbaijan’s military argued its infrastructure was first targeted by Armenia.

Both militaries have reported heavy casualties, but the exact numbers have not been verified by independent sources.

Russia, which is a close ally of Armenia, called for restraint and quickly brokered a cease-fire after the outbreak of hostilities. But it failed to hold with clashes across the border continuing the next day.

‘Frozen conflict’

The two neighbors have been fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but has been controlled by ethnic Armenians supported by Yerevan since a six-year war that ended in 1994.

The last time they fought was in 2020. Azerbaijan reclaimed significant territory in Nagorno-Karabakh during that war which also lasted six weeks and came to an end with a cease-fire brokered by Russia.

With no comprehensive peace treaty to the satisfaction of the warring sides, despite years-long efforts, the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia has remained unresolved to this day.

That’s why many scholars describe it as a “frozen conflict,” which is usually characterized by sporadic skirmishes that could potentially restart the war at any moment, thus creating uncertainty and instability.

Reason behind renewed fighting

New clashes came at a time when Russia, the traditional broker between Azerbaijan and Armenia, is struggling in its effort to militarily subdue Ukraine.

Armenia is in a military alliance with Russia through the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which is composed of former Soviet nations. The country is home to a Russian military base. Russia also has close ties with oil-rich Azerbaijan.

On Tuesday, Blinken spoke to the leaders of both countries by phone, urging them to cease hostilities and stressing that the U.S. and Western partners “would push for an immediate halt to fighting and a peace settlement.”

Blinken expressed his concern over the shelling in Armenia during those calls, according to a statement by State Department spokesperson Ned Price.

The spokesperson reiterated to journalists during Wednesday’s briefing that they are “particularly disturbed by continued reports of civilians being harmed inside Armenia.”

The Biden administration also dispatched its senior adviser for the Caucasus, Ambassador Philip Reeker, to the region.

“For our part, we do remain deeply engaged. Ambassador Reeker met with President Aliyev yesterday in Baku. We remain committed to doing all we can to promote a peaceful and prosperous future for the South Caucasus,” Price said.

Experts tell VOA that the latest fighting has included not just Nagorno-Karabakh as in previous exchanges, but also reported shelling inside Armenia.

“This represents a serious escalation that has brought immediate international attention, including calls from Secretary of State Blinken to the leaders of both countries,” said Max Hoffman, senior director of the national security program at the Center for American Progress.

Pointing to the shift in momentum on the battlefield in Ukraine that appears to be working against Russia, he argued that Azerbaijan is trying to “take advantage of Russia’s perceived diminished ability to intervene forcefully,” and press the Armenians into handing over territories more rapidly.

Laurence Broers, who has more than 20 years’ experience as a researcher of conflicts in the South Caucasus, agrees. In written comments to VOA, the associate fellow with Chatham House in London described it as Azerbaijan seeking to enforce its vision of a peace agreement.

Baku’s natural gas leverage

Azerbaijan is rich in oil and natural gas resources. According to its country profile on International Energy Agency’s website, Azerbaijan has an estimated 1.3 trillion cubic meters of proven natural gas reserves.

Russia has recently reduced gas supplies to parts of Europe through the Nord-Stream 1 pipeline in retaliation against Western economic sanctions for its invasion of Ukraine.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen clinched a deal with Azerbaijan in July to double the gas supply to Europe by 2027 saying, “this will help compensate for cuts in supplies of Russian gas.”

Baku recently said it plans to increase natural gas exports to Europe by 30% this year as the European Union strives to reduce its energy dependence on Russia amid the Ukraine war.

Experts tell VOA that the agreement between Baku and Brussels affirmed Azerbaijan’s role as a reliable EU partner.

But the country is also pursuing policies that could benefit Moscow. Azerbaijan news media reported last week that Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan signed the Baku Declaration, a trilateral cooperation deal on logistics, to affirm their commitment to the International North-South Transport Corridor.

The goal of the project is said to attract the cargo flows from India, Iran and Persian Gulf nations through Russian territory to Europe.

“The deal is symbolic for Russia’s interests in the sense that it provides alternative connectivity for Moscow given the collapse of its Western vectors and markets,” said Broers of Chatham House in written comments to VOA.

Turkey’s position

Turkey has close cultural and ethnic ties with Azerbaijan. Baku used Turkish-made armed drones in the war in 2020, when Azerbaijan reclaimed large swaths of land in and around Nagorno-Karabakh.

Turkey does not have diplomatic relations with its other neighbor, Armenia, and the border between the two countries has remained closed since 1993, when Ankara sealed it in support of Azerbaijan during the war over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Turkey and Armenia are also at odds over mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War I. Armenia and some other countries, including the United States, recognize the events of 1915 as genocide.

Ankara continued to support Baku after recent clashes, accusing Armenia of provocations.

Security analyst Max Hoffman says the six-week war in 2020 was a victory for Turkey in the sense that it boosted the country’s image at home and the reputation of Turkish drones to markets abroad. Turkey’s Bayraktar drones are also used by the Ukrainian army against Russia.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking at a rally in Ankara on Wednesday, warned that “Armenia’s attitude towards Azerbaijan would have consequences.”

He accused Armenia of violating the agreement reached after the fighting in 2020.

Risks for the wider region

Experts predict that even if the renewed clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia subside, more will be likely to follow.

“There is no effective deterrent to the use of force in the South Caucasus today. The region’s security architecture is in crisis,” Boers told VOA, warning that the conflict in the South Caucasus could see other regional actors such as Russia and Turkey get dragged into the fighting.

“A wider conflict could become quite anarchic once the conflicting interests of Russia, Turkey, Iran and regional states are taken into consideration,” he said.

Although broader recognition of a mutual interest in regional stability could lead to a brokered diplomatic resolution, Boers suggested, that would require “all actors to take a pragmatic, strategic approach to their relations.”

“We are not seeing that,” he told VOA.

This story originated in VOA’s Turkish Service.

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