Nagorno-Karabakh: A Strategy To Break The Deadlock

After Azerbaijan’s successful offensive along the Iranian border, there was a threat to break the transport link between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. Experts spoke about Azerbaijan’s victory at the next stage of the Karabakh war. But is it true?

In tactical terms, Azerbaijan has certainly won a large-scale victory. And regardless of whether it is possible to organise a complete blockade of Karabakh. Baku has managed to win back a significant chunk of its territory and dramatically improve its military, information and negotiating positions.

But 26 years ago, Armenia (formally represented by the self-proclaimed independent Karabakh) achieved even greater success. The size of the occupied territories of Azerbaijan itself was approximately equal to the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh itself, the Azerbaijani army actually left the battlefield, and the foundations of the Azerbaijani statehood were shaken to the ground — several years in a row were followed by coups and serious attempts at coups.

However, this quarter-century-old military success did not solve the problem of peace. Despite the significant influence of the Armenian diaspora in political circles in both Russia and the west, Armenia failed to achieve even international recognition of the self-proclaimed NKR, let alone achieve the strategic goal of returning seven regions to Azerbaijan in exchange for the latter’s rejection of Nagorno-Karabakh + the possible exchange of the Lachin Corridor for a corridor from the main territory of Azerbaijan to Nakhichevan.

Even now, Azerbaijan’s military success can be complete only if it manages to reach the entire border of Armenia and finally cut off Nagorno-Karabakh. In this case, any attempt to break the blockade by Armenia will be considered as an attack on Azerbaijan, which will allow Baku (and its allies) to talk about a defensive war.

But there is a nuance here. It should be borne in mind that not only an attempt to occupy Nagorno-Karabakh, but even the establishment of a fully-fledged blockade of it will allow Armenia to raise the issue of the Armenian genocide at the international level. Moreover, taking into account Yerevan’s lobbying and media capabilities, there is no doubt that the exodus of Armenians from Karabakh under pressure from Azerbaijani troops (and the Armenians will leave without waiting for the arrival of Azerbaijanis) will acquire a much greater sound than the similar exodus of Azerbaijanis under Armenian pressure a quarter of a century ago.

The state of humanitarian disaster that a certain territory is plunged into, whether through the fault of its own authorities or through the fault of neighboring states, creates a legal basis for humanitarian intervention. After the tragedy in Rwanda, the world community is inclined to believe that humanitarian intervention to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe should be ahead of the curve. At the same time, during the 90s and noughties, the US created several precedents for humanitarian intervention without UN sanctions and on the basis of unilaterally interpreted data.

Therefore, in the case of Karabakh, such intervention is also possible.

It should be borne in mind that humanitarian intervention does not imply a war between anyone and Turkey or Azerbaijan. It’s just that an international air bridge is being organised in Karabakh (I know that there are no major airports there, but the necessary cargo can also be transferred by helicopters), as well as (if necessary) ground humanitarian convoys.

International peacekeepers are deployed along the borders of the NKR (which, as practice and experience show, can be there for decades), and thus the territory is inaccessible to Azerbaijani troops, and any blockade is ineffective.

In fact, Armenia is not fighting for victory on the battlefield. In this respect, only a miracle can help it. Yerevan, by delaying time with the help of persistent resistance, first of all, increases the price of the offensive for Azerbaijan. Secondly, it tries to internationalise the conflict sharply and quickly, seeking the support of the international community.

Of course, it is not necessary to expect complete exhaustion of Azerbaijan against the background of military victories. People, as a rule, consider such sacrifices not in vain. But so far, we are talking about only one breakthrough in the south, for which it needed to pay a considerable price and which has not yet acquired a strategic character. Azerbaijan is trying to build on its success and occupy the Lachin Corridor, the Armenians are fiercely counterattacking, and the front line is still mobile.

In such a situation, despite the obvious preponderance of Azerbaijan, any accident can lead to an unexpected dramatic change in the entire situation. For example, in February 1943, Soviet troops were standing 15-20 kilometers from Dnepropetrovsk, and in March they were forced to leave Kharkov and Belgorod, falling under a flank counterattack numerically and technically inferior to them, but competently used by Manstein’s troops.

For countries of the scale of Azerbaijan and Armenia, even 2-3 months of high-intensity maneouver battles (without the transition of the war to the positional stage) is a huge burden. It’s not so much depleted reserves of manpower (as a rule, there are enough people) as much as it is equipment being worn out and destroyed, ammunition consumed, and the national economy declining.

Based on this, the strategic goal of Armenia is clearly to hold out as long as possible, lose as little territory as possible (to return what they can) and organize pressure from the international community on Turkey and Azerbaijan.

In this case, the interests of Russia, the US, Iran and the EU are close — no one cares how many square kilometers of territory and at what cost the Armenians and Azerbaijanis will win back from each other, but no one wants to encourage Turkey’s independent game. If the Turks succeed by military means to solve the Armenian-Azerbaijani territorial dispute, they will not only dramatically strengthen their position in the Caucasus (which contradicts the interests of Russia and Iran, but a little bit concern France and the United States), Ankara in this case will take a more assertive position in other conflicts with their participation (Syria, Libya, Cyprus, Mediterranean shelf).

One successful military adventure inevitably leads to another.

So far, the countries that Armenia hopes for as possible allies are waiting. Russia stated that its military guarantees apply only to the territory of Armenia proper, while the rest simply call for peace. However, gradually bayonets begin to loom behind the backs of diplomats, and if, for example, Iran deploys troops in Transcaucasia (to the border with Karabakh), then Russia intensifies military activities in Idlib, where Turkey, in addition to breeding militants for the needs of local conflicts, also positions itself as a “defender of the Turkomans”, thus trying to secure the status of one of the parties to the Syrian settlement.

France has once again declared its readiness to support Greece in the event of a military conflict with Turkey. The US initiated a discussion on Turkey’s exclusion from NATO.

Each of the interested countries, taking steps, which, in principle, cannot be not done, provides partners with the opportunity to enter into a confrontation with Erdogan in order to act in the less burdensome and more profitable role of a mediator.

Yerevan is stepping up information and lobbying efforts to ensure that international intervention follows as soon as possible. Armenia has achieved some success.

Two Russian-brokered but not enforced “ceasefires” narrow Moscow’s room for maneouver. As an intermediary in the negotiations it has assumed a sense of moral obligation. Failure to fulfill the agreements of one of the parties is also a blow to the prestige of the mediator. Similar talks have already been held in Washington. So far, the result is the same.

The war, which Moscow, Washington and the EU cannot stop together, ceases to be a problem only for Armenia.

Baku is well aware that sooner or later the demand to stop the fighting will take the form of an ultimatum. If such an ultimatum is not obeyed, one can quickly lose on the diplomatic field everything that was won on the battlefield. Therefore, as long as the international situation allows, Azerbaijan is trying to occupy as much territory as possible, believing that in this way it will be able to secure its preferred positions in the negotiations on a final settlement.

However, the great powers never allow one of the parties to the conflict to win an absolute victory in such a situation. As I wrote above, there are a lot of mechanisms for negating Azerbaijani achievements on the battlefield (and all of them are in strict accordance with the norms of international law). In other words, in the end, we can only talk about a new line of demarcation. For its change, the parties will pay thousands of lives and immediately begin to prepare for a new war.

In addition, Yerevan has a risky, but quite effective move in reserve. Armenia, which did not recognise Nagorno-Karabakh under the pressure of the international community, hoping to resolve the conflict in its own interests, may in a critical situation declare its recognition of the self-proclaimed NKR due to the need to protect the Armenians living on this territory from extermination. Such a statement will certainly be a prologue to an open Azerbaijani-Armenian war, in which Turkey clearly threatens to intervene.

This is a much more serious challenge to the international community than the operation currently being formally conducted by Azerbaijan to restore its territorial integrity, since without external assistance in such a situation, the Armenian state will simply be destroyed. Therefore, it will be necessary either to stop the war immediately with the help of coordinated actions of the US, Russia and the EU, or external intervention will follow to preserve Armenia, which may turn into a big war in the entire greater Middle East with a very bizarre mixing in different coalitions of NATO and non-NATO countries.

In general, Azerbaijan’s strategy is to win back as much of its territory as possible before the world community decides it is time to intervene, and then, having secured a new line of demarcation, wait for the right moment for a new offensive, so that eventually the line of demarcation coincides with the border of the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic and the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, after which Baku will not care at all how long negotiations on a fully-fledged settlement will continue.

Armenia’s strategy, which, obviously, could easily repel the offensive of the Azerbaijani army, but is unable to resist the combined efforts of Azerbaijan and Turkey, is to internationalise the conflict as quickly as possible, creating conditions where the world community, including Russia, will no longer be able to limit itself to appeals and will be forced to start a forced stop of military operations.

The sad thing is that both of these strategies are designed not to achieve peace, but to create the most favorable conditions for the continuation of the war. Baku is well aware that the Armenians will use the first opportunity to return what they have lost and restore the line of demarcation along the foothills that is convenient for them.

Yerevan also believes that no matter where the Azerbaijani army stops, it is only a matter of time before it reaches the Armenian border.

There is a mechanism that involves transferring the disputed territory for several years or even for a couple of decades under the UN administration, after which a referendum on joining one of the states claiming it will be held there. But I doubt that such a decision will be supported by Azerbaijan as long as Nagorno-Karabakh is controlled by Armenians, as well as that Armenia will agree to such a proposal if it comes under the control of Azerbaijan.

In Karabakh and seven districts, half of the settlements have long been depopulated and destroyed, and those where people still live are stagnating. The current military campaign will lead to another outcome. In the end, if the parties do not find the strength to stop the mutual extermination, we will witness a surreal picture when two armies pour rivers of blood for a poor mountain region without a population, with cities and towns turned into piles of stones with no prospects for development, because development is possible only in conditions of peace.

So far, none of the parties to the conflict has a positive strategy, and Turkish adventurism only further aggravates the situation, threatening to turn the entire Transcaucasia into one big Karabakh.

Rostislav Ishchenko

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