The existing international mediation mechanism to contain conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan “does not seem fit-for-purpose”, according to the former US diplomat who served as one of its three co-chairs from 2006 to 2009.
The Minsk Group of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has mediated between Azerbaijan and Armenia since 1992. Co-chaired by the US, Russia, and France, its role has been thrown back into the spotlight by the military skirmishes that broke out between the neighbouring South Caucasus states in July, marking the second most serious flareup in fighting between the two adversaries since their 1994 ceasefire following their war over the Nagorno Karabakh breakaway territory.
Location of confirmed skirmishes marked with red square and location of skirmishes claimed by Azerbaijan to have occurred, but not by Armenia, marked with blue square.
However, as observed by the former co-chair, Matthew Bryza, in an August 27 analysis written for the Atlantic Council think tank, the location of these latest clashes, in an area extending from Azerbaijan’s Tovuz Province to Armenia’s Tavush Province, is significant. “Tovuz,” observed Bryza, “is far from Nagorno Karabakh”, but the Minsk Group’s mandate, “limits its focus to Nagorno-Karabakh and its seven surrounding Azerbaijani regions rather than to Armenian territory”.
Further explaining the insufficiency of the Minsk Group in the face of the new hostilities, Bryza—a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center and former US ambassador to Azerbaijan and US deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs—said: “These latest clashes may have unleashed a dangerous new geopolitical dynamic: heavy weapons fire near strategic transportation assets, military posturing between Russia and Turkey, and lack of an appropriate mediation mechanism. In the absence of US or EU leadership, it may be up to Turkey and Russia to redirect Azerbaijan and Armenia away from the battlefield and toward the negotiating table.”
“Tovuz is different”
Frustrated by Armenia’s non-compliance with four United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding Armenia withdraw from Nagorno Karabakh immediately, Baku has repeatedly threatened to liberate these territories by force. “But Tovuz is different,” continued the former envoy. “It is one of the last places Baku would want to see fighting because it lies directly on strategic transportation lines that are essential to Azerbaijan’s independence, economic vitality, and strategic significance.”
He specified the strategic lines as:
• Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Supsa oil pipelines, delivering primarily Azerbaijani crude oil to Mediterranean and Black Sea ports (respectively);
• South Caucasus natural gas pipeline, a key element of the EU’s Southern Corridor that will soon pump Azerbaijani gas to the EU via Georgia and Turkey;
• Azerbaijan-Georgia highway, part of Europe’s second-longest road project, the E60, which connects France’s Atlantic coast to the Kyrgyzstan-China border;
• Kars-Tbilisi railroad, providing similar strategic connectivity; and
• Fibreoptic cables linking Europe with Central Asia and beyond.
Bryza also wrote: “Even if its mandate were broadened, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev both seem to have given up for now on the Minsk Group. Pashinyan affirmed during an August 14 BBC TV interview that he had abandoned the basic principles of a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement negotiated by the Minsk Group to which his predecessor informally agreed in January 2009. Aliyev, meanwhile, cited ‘meaningless negotiations’ with Armenia when he fired his respected and veteran Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov on July 16. This occurred against the backdrop of tens of thousands of protestors in Baku demanding a revenge attack against Armenia for what they viewed as a military provocation in Tovuz.
“It may therefore fall to Ankara and Moscow to fill a diplomatic vacuum and convince their respective allies to return to the negotiating table. Despite sharp differences with Russia and Turkey on many fronts, the United States and its European allies would be wise to encourage and shape such a forum. The alternative could be a mutual escalation of emotions and military tension between Azerbaijan and Armenia. While neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan could sustain a full-scale war, even a more limited armed conflict could knock out strategic assets on which NATO and the EU depend. The only beneficiaries would be Russia, Iran, and perhaps China and its Belt and Road Initiative [for trade and transport infrastructure].”
'Strategically important to US, Nato'
The oil and gas pipelines were strategically important to the US and Nato partly because Washington has promoted the infrastructure for 25 years to help its European allies reduce their dependence on Russia, while also avoiding Iran, said Bryza. “Meanwhile,” he added, “the road and rail lines and airspace above comprise a crucial US logistics channel into Afghanistan, enabling one-third of all non-lethal supplies to NATO troops at the height of the Afghan war. And by providing alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, these transit links can also help the countries of Central Asia and the South Caucasus maintain their own financial independence.
“Russia, of course, opposes these routes, seeking to maximize flows of energy, goods, and data via its own networks. Tehran, meanwhile, is expanding its trade corridor into Armenia and onward to post-Soviet and European markets thanks to Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (led by Russia) and its Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU. Iran has also reportedly been delivering fuel to Nagorno-Karabakh via Armenia, while Iran’s airspace was essential for Russia’s delivery of weapons to Armenia following its clash with Azerbaijan in July.”
Members of the Armenian diaspora community in Los Angeles demonstrate following the armed clashes (Image: VoA).
Another notable aspect of the clashes was, said Bryza, that “Azerbaijan’s shelling of Armenia’s sovereign territory in Tavush, even if in self-defense, provides a justification for Yerevan to request military assistance from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance that includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Armenia’s leaders have long tried to leverage the CSTO against Azerbaijan. They were unable to do so during larger military clashes in April 2016 because that conflict occurred on Azerbaijani territory (near Nagorno Karabakh). At that time, then-Secretary General of the CSTO Nikolai Bordyuzha explained that the CSTO could assist Armenia only if an attack occurred on Armenia’s internationally recognized territory.
“Last month’s fighting, in contrast, occurred partially on Armenia’s sovereign territory, which provided Yerevan an opportunity to request an emergency session of the CSTO. Yerevan quickly withdrew its request, however, as an evenhanded CSTO statement on July 14 criticized the ‘…violation of the ceasefire agreed by the leaderships of [both] Armenia and Azerbaijan’.
“Russia nevertheless responded unilaterally, launching its own snap combat drills in Armenia during July 17-20, drawing on its 102rd military base in Gyumri, Armenia.”
Turkey also responded firmly, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stating on July 14 that “Turkey will never hesitate to stand against any attack on the rights and lands of Azerbaijan, with which it has deep-rooted friendly ties and brotherly relations”.
Who shot first in the clashes remained unclear, said Bryza, writing: “Both sides agree a pair of Azerbaijani soldiers were riding that night in a jeep along the two countries’ un-demarcated international border. Yerevan claims its troops warned the two Azerbaijani soldiers to retreat and Azerbaijan responded with artillery fire; Baku claims Armenian artillery fired unprovoked.
“Ultimately, fifteen Azerbaijani soldiers, including a general, were killed, along with one civilian in Tovuz Province. Four troops and one civilian perished across the border in Armenia’s Tavush Province.”