Baku-Yerevan arms race surfaces in Caucasus
Hürriyet Daily News
Barçin Yinanç

Caucasus-watchers are alarmed by the
potential for renewed hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia over
Nagorno-Karabakh. Frustrated at the lack of progress through diplomatic
means, Baku is rapidly boosting its arsenal as Yerevan ramps up military
cooperation with Russia, raising concerns that armed skirmishes could
resume and even spiral into war.

Increased frustration
with the lack of progress in diplomatic efforts to solve the
Nagorno-Karabakh issue is fueling ramped-up military initiatives in
Azerbaijan and Armenia, raising concerns about a revival of armed
conflict in the Caucasus.

“The conviction that the
[Nagorno-Karabakh] problem cannot be solved through peaceful means is
becoming the predominant view in Azerbaijan,” Sinan Oğan, director of
the Turkish Center for International Relations and Strategic Analysis,
or TÜRKSAM, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review.

to recent statements from Baku, Azerbaijan’s military spending has
increased more than 13-fold over the past seven years, to .15 billion.
Armenia is attempting to keep pace with its rival over Nagorno-Karabakh,
an Azerbaijani territory under Armenian occupation, by developing
military cooperation with Russia.

The “arms race” has the
international community worried about the prospect of another war in the
region, said Richard Giragosian, the director of the Armenian Center
for National and International Studies, or ACNIS. The domestic political
context has Baku talking tough, he told the Daily News, quoting
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s recent statement that “if
negotiations are scuttled, a new situation will arise and the issue of
solving the problem by military means will be included on the agenda.”

by the so-called Minsk group, established by the forerunner of the
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, to find a
diplomatic means of resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have been
unsuccessful and have even delayed a solution, Oğan said. “No one is
putting pressure on Armenia to solve the problem. So Baku is telling the
world: ‘If you can’t solve it, we will.’”

The possibility that
the frozen conflict in the region could break out into armed hostilities
was greeted with skepticism, however, by Igor Torbakov from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

is beefing up its military muscle, but Aliyev cannot fail to understand
that any war in the Caucasus would ruin Baku’s energy aspirations,”
Torbakov said. “Baku does pump tons of money into its military, but this
appears to be a way to ramp up psychological pressure on Yerevan and
the international community at large and send a signal that the current
status quo is unsustainable.”

A flashpoint of the Caucasus, the
region known as Nagorno-Karabakh is a constituent part of Azerbaijan
that has been occupied by Armenia since the end of 1994. While
internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory, the enclave has
declared itself an independent republic and is administered as a de
facto part of Armenia.

The Nagorno-Karabakh War from 1988 to
1994, and the subsequent occupation by Armenia, led to the deaths of
more than 30,000 and created nearly 1 million refugees, who largely
remain in temporary settlement camps and facilities in Azerbaijan.

of negotiations involving Russia, the United States and Europe, as well
as Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders themselves, have failed to resolve
the enclave’s status or enable the return of refugees. Turkey closed its
border with Armenia in 1993 in support of its close ally Azerbaijan in
the conflict.

Messages from Moscow

frustration with the lack of progress on the issue, combined with
Baku’s unhappiness and sense of betrayal over Ankara and Yerevan’s moves
toward a tentative reconciliation, make the situation dangerous,
TÜRKSAM’s Oğan said.

He said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev
embarking Thursday on a visit to Armenia is a message to Azerbaijan “not
to resort to military measures.” Under a far-reaching deal to be signed
during the visit, Moscow will extend its lease on a military base in
Armenia by 24 years and upgrade the mission of the estimated 3,000
Russian troops stationed there.

“The rising tension along the
‘line of contact’ separating the Karabakh and Azerbaijani sides has
sparked new concerns over the fragility of the cease-fire agreement that
first ‘froze’ the Karabakh conflict in May 1994 and has led to fresh
worries about the possibility of further clashes or skirmishes,” said
Giragosyan, the ACNIS director.

“The danger is not one of all-out
war, however, but rather of a danger of ‘war by accident,’” he said,
adding that smaller-scale clashes and skirmishes could spiral
dangerously out of control.

“Although both sides might want to
avoid all-out war, the potential for war, unfortunately, does exist,”
Torbakov said. “As each side is prone to brinkmanship and we’re dealing
with a bunch of pretty hot-headed leaders, a series of provocations
combined with miscalculations might indeed send the shaky equilibrium
spinning out of control – as happened in Georgia in 2008.”

renewal of hostilities would be short-lived and take place in the seven
Azerbaijani regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh that are also under
Armenian occupation, Oğan said. “The war will not spread to Karabakh,
but Azerbaijan might strike to take back some of the surrounding

Though Giragosian cautioned that such skirmishes
could quickly expand to bring in other powers, such as Russia or even
Turkey, Oğan expressed doubts that Russia would actually interfere in a
small, short-lived armed conflict.

“Russia does not have the
right to interfere in the regions surrounding Karabakh,” he said. “It
might even use a small-scale conflict to exert pressure on Armenia to
solve the issue, since the Russian administration does not want the
status quo to continue.”