Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry stated its forces had “suffered losses” when repelling the large-scale Armenian assault. By a suspicious coincidence the skirmish happened just on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Khojaly genocide that was commemorated in Baku with a 40,000 people-strong march.
Azerbaijani diplomats consider that the recent Armenian provocation was aimed at disrupting the negotiation process over the conflict’s peaceful settlement. However, such an interpretation of the events could be too diplomatic and may not reveal the echoes of deeper geopolitical struggle in the region and beyond.
Lately there have been alerts on Armenia`s preparations for a new skirmish, which was strengthened by the news on supply of MiG-29 fighters and other sophisticated aircraft from Russia to Armenia in February 2016. The Kremlin also promised the Armenian authorities a $200 mln-credit for arms purchase. In the autumn last year, media reported the transfer of Iskander ballistic missiles to Armenia. The military cooperation was further deepened when Putin submitted a project of a Russian-Armenian agreement on creating the Unified Caucasus Air Defense System to the State Duma in October and approved a proposal to create a joint Russian-Armenian military group in November. It should have been obvious that such a massive and quickly armament poses a threat to the entire region. But ‘why?’ and ‘when?’ could be the main questions.
A few days prior to the shootouts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Baku hosted the Third Ministerial Meeting of the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) Advisory Council. The Azerbaijani authorities attached a great importance to the event; President Ilham Aliyev himself delivered an address to the meeting. It was attended not only by high-ranking officials of the countries involved in the Southern Gas Corridor, but also senior representatives from the European Union and United Kingdom.
The Southern Gas Corridor is a complex of several infrastructural projects aimed at bringing natural gas from the Caspian basin to Europe. With a total investment estimated at USD 45 billion, this route comprises the South Caucasus Pipeline, the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TAP) and the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TANAP). Although Azerbaijan`s Shah Deniz gas field is regarded as the major supply for the project, the involvement of other suppliers from the region is also being discussed. Several sources refer to the SGC as “…arguably the global oil and gas industry’s most significant and ambitious undertaking yet.”
The Southern Gas Corridor project is designed to improve the security and diversity of the EU’s energy supply, to reduce Europe`s dependency on Russian gas. Since energy has turned into a cornerstone of the foreign policy of Putin`s Russia as a vital source of income and tool of influence, the Kremlin feels quite jealous of any attempts to diversify Europe`s energy supply. And when such attempts are either initiated or supported by a former Soviet nation or Eastern European satellite such as Azerbaijan, to ensure independence in this issue or, even worse, to become an active energy player, Moscow may use its influence to prevent possible projects through both “carrots” (allegedly more efficient alternative projects, such as “South Stream”) and “sticks” (efforts to sabotage the projects viewed in Moscow as hostile). The TAP project which is the final stage of the SGC project, has been under constant threat from environmentalist groups in Italy, a country where Russian interests are well represented.
Even in the 1990s when Russia`s policies were relatively “dove”ish, the Kremlin did try hard to prevent the conclusion of the 1994 oil contract and later initiatives that directed the major energy flows from Azerbaijan towards the West. The occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and surronding regions, several coup attempts (one of them happening just 2 weeks after “The Contract of the Century” was signed) and terror attacks in Azerbaijan in early and mid-1990s unsurprisingly coincided with the period, when Azerbaijani officials and foreign companies were actively negotiating and signing oil agreements. Then Russian Ambassador to Azerbaijan Valter Shonia could not have been more frank when he was quoted as saying, “Any politician denying the reality of Russian power is not going to remain long in office. Russia is interested in cooperation with the West over Azerbaijan but if there is some attempt to unseat Russia, there will be unpleasant consequences.” In the end, Russia secured a considerable share of the contract to be entrusted to a Russian company. Moreover, Azerbaijan agreed to continue selling oil via the the outdated, lengthy and uncomfortable Baku-Novorossiysk pipeline.
In other words, since the 1990s Russia's policies have been aimed to block by all means all independent regional energy and other infrastructure projects in the South Caucasus that bypass Russia and there have not been any substantial changes in the policies of Russia to say that Moscow is happy with these projects. Moreover, the events around Ukraine and occupation of Crimea demonstrate that Moscow has become more aggressive toward any projects that diminish the influence of Russia in the post-soviet space. Thus, the recent escalation on the line of contact between Azerbaijan and Armenia can be viewed through prism to pressure Azerbaijan for its new energy project.
The interest of the European Union in diversifying its energy sources means that Europe has a real stake in the latest energy contest for the Caspian energy resources. The continuing Western standoff with the Kremlin means that Azerbaijani gas will become more important to Brussels in the coming months and years. Since weak Europe is a key to Russia’s “divide-and-rule” strategy in Eurasia, one should beware of the Kremlin’s attempts to undermine the feasibility of the SGC project.
Moscow has a couple of reasons to worry that a negative status-quo it helped to build up in the region, might be undermined in favor of a more cooperational approach. Such strategic initiatives as the SGC, as well as the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, set to be launched soon, bear potential for deepening the participation of the South Caucasus countries in global supply chains. In Armenia, many realize now that the only factor keeping their country from seizing these opportunities is the protracted conflict with Azerbaijan and quasicolonial dependence on the “Russian bear”. A large trend of the recent months has been the “Baku platform”, the first-ever attempt at independent people’s diplomacy whereby a number of Armenian public figures openly supported peaceful resolution of the conflict and normalization process, and some of them even visited Baku at the time where the intergovernmental contacts are probably at a historic low. The Platform discourse emphasized the benefits obtained by “the third forces” (usually an euphemism for Moscow) from the unrelenting conflict and alienation between the two neighbouring nations. The latest escalation might have been a signal sent to the countries “not to relax” and keep the confrontational mood that has recently become totally prevalent in both Baku and Yerevan, again raising security concerns of foreign investors.
(*) Murad Muradov is an independent researcher who has recently graduated from an MSc in Comparative Politics course at the London School of Economics. He also holds an MA degree in International Affairs from the ADA University (Azerbaijan). Mr. Muradov's spheres of interest includes the Politics of Europe, post-Soviet countries and the Middle East, as well as international political economy.