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Who’s Who in Nagorno-Karabakh

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The return of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous territory that has been disputed between Azerbaijan and Armenia for several centuries, raises the fundamental question of what the belligerents’ expectations are and what diplomatic and military means they have at their disposal to impose themselves on the ground.

In Soviet times, Nagorno-Karabakh was an autonomous oblast with a mixed population — Armenians and Azeris — within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. This affiliation, far from being the outcome of consultation between Yerevan and Baku, was imposed by Moscow in order to divide the peoples of the South Caucasus to rule them better.

Baku, for fear of losing control over the Nagorno-Karabakh oblast, was ready to grant many concessions to the Kremlin. Similarly, Yerevan did not fail to adopt a conciliatory attitude towards Moscow during the Cold War in the hope of one day regaining control over this territory. As for the inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh, identity affiliation to one country or another depended essentially on ethnicity, which led to sporadic and recurrent tensions in the region.

With the introduction of glasnost and perestroika by Mikhail Gorbachev at the end of the 1980s, Armenians and Azerbaijanis began to express themselves more freely and to oppose each other over the legitimacy of governing this area. As mentioned in a 1988 CIA report “Unrest in the Caucasus and the Challenge of Nationalist” (declassified in 1999), Moscow was unable to reach an agreement between Azerbaijanis and Armenians, and had no alternative but to send troops to the region to stop the violence.

After 1991, as the USSR disintegrated, Armenians and Azerbaijanis clashed and the troops of Armenia-backed Nagorno-Karabakh managed to dominate Nagorno-Karabakh and expelled the Azeri populations who found refuge in the rest of Azerbaijan.

Diplomatic Strategy of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh

Since the 1994 victory, Armenia has been trying to have Nagorno-Karabakh recognised as an autonomous country under the Montevideo Convention, without success to date, except for territories that are themselves partially recognised, such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Armenian diplomacy is active with the diaspora, particularly in the United States and Australia, and to date, it is more than 10 American states — California, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Rhode Island, Colorado and Minnesota — which have recognised Artsakh (another name given to Nagorno-Karabakh), although for Washington the region remains de jure in Azerbaijan.

Yerevan’s strategy is to achieve recognition of the territory as an independent country in order to hold a referendum on the incorporation of Nagorno-Karabakh into Armenia. Therefore, for Nagorno-Karabakh, it is a question of surviving the time of a diplomatic recognition which will ultimately lead to its reattachment.

Because of financial difficulties and poor relations with Turkey since the events of 1915, Yerevan is strengthening its partnerships with Moscow, which is the only power capable of imposing itself against Turkey (a member of NATO). Yerevan is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union, and as such relies on Moscow’s support to preserve its territorial integrity. However, Russia made it clear that its agreements did not extend to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenian Armed Forces

With 51 500 men and an annual budget of $634 million, the Armenian forces depend largely on Soviet equipment, good knowledge of the terrain and mastery of guerrilla techniques. The land forces consist of T-80, T-72, T-54/55 tanks and armoured personnel carriers dating back to the Soviet era, including BTR-60s. The AK-74 rifle is a standard in the armed forces. The air force has a mobile multi-channel ground-to-air missile system S-300, 9K33 Osa, S-75 Dvina, 2K11 Krug, Strela10, 2K12 Kub and ZSU-23-4.

In addition, Sukhoi Su-30, Su-25, Mil Mi-8 and Mil Mi-24 helicopters are available with Ilyushin Il-76 for troop transport and Czechoslovak Aero L-39 for training. The other pieces of equipment present, such as the Mi-2, are of little relevance.

Armed Forces of Nagorno-Karabakh

20 000 men, interoperability with Armenian forces and a guerrilla strategy similar to that of the Afghans against American and Soviet troops. Although they have few resources, they have T-72 and T-55 tanks, a large number of armoured personnel carriers such as the BTR-80, and above all affordable artillery and rocket launchers that can hold out against Azerbaijan in the event of an attack. Some reports also mention the presence of Chinese-designed WM-80 MRLs.

The importance of snipers and good knowledge of the terrain, the psychological motivation of the troops and the pragmatism of the soldiers should be highlighted. It is thus customary to take over the opponent’s equipment, repair it and then use it against them afterwards.

Azerbaijan’s Politico-Military Approach

Azerbaijan wishes to regain control over its territory in accordance with international law. According to Baku, a debate on the autonomy of the region is conceivable provided that the Azerbaijani refugees can also vote in the referendum. This rhetoric is combined with the strengthening of the armed forces which aims to allow the territory to be regained by force, which seems to be the most realistic prospect for Baku because Yerevan and Stepanakert are refusing to accept any possibility of the return of the land within Azerbaijan to date. The sale of hydrocarbons gives a considerable financial advantage to the Azeris who can upgrade their military equipment with drones from Israel, Russian fighter planes and various equipment from several countries.

Baku can count on the diplomatic and military support of Turkey since the fall of the USSR. The objective for Ankara is to support an allied country in the region but also to show solidarity with the Muslim world. In this respect, Nagorno-Karabagh has the appearance of a holy war and it is customary to note the presence of Chechen and Syrian mercenaries, and members of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin alongside the Azeris. As a member of NATO, Turkey’s approach which favours Azerbaijan is badly perceived because it could lead to a conflict between NATO and Russia, a threat already mentioned by the CIA in its 1988 report and which worries the White House.

Azerbaijani Armed Forces

With 66,000 men for $2.2 billion of the annual budget, the Azerbaijanis have at their disposal modern equipment with the ambition to carry out a military intervention in Nagorno-Karabakh.

This includes land forces with T-90s, T-72 and T-55 tanks, as well as troop transport with BMP-3, BMP-2, BMP-1, BTR80A, 82A, BTR-70, BTR0-60, BTR-3. A long list of armoured cars from Israel, such as the AIL Abir, South Africa, such as the Matador, Germany (Mercedes), Great Britain (Land Rover) and the United States are also in that list.

It can be seen that the upgrading brings together a set of equipment from various sources which attests to a strategy that aims to establish diplomatic relations with the purchase of military equipment. Baku seems to favour the rapid movement of troops, which seems logical insofar as Azeri strategy is to advance in the territory rather than occupy a stationary position. Several missiles and launchers from Israel such as LORA, Lynx, EXTRA but also from the USSR and Czechoslovakia, including the RM-70 are deployed. Anti-tank systems are numerous with France’s MILAN and South Korea’s LIG Nex1 AT-1K. Presence of American FIM-92 Stinger.

As for the air force (with more than 12 000 men), fighter aircraft are all from Russia and the USSR, with MiG-29, Sukhoi Su-25 and MiG-21. In addition, there are Russian helicopters — Mil Mi-24, Mil Mi-17 and Kamov Ka-27 — as well as American Bell 412s. Italian Aermacchi M-346s and Czechoslovakian Aero L-29s and L-39s are used for training.

The air force is not Baku’s strong point — with the exception of the drones — which is banking above all on the physical occupation of the ground with the reconquest of Nagorno-Karabakh. As such, the objective is to locate, monitor and destroy ground equipment in order to advance more rapidly. There are drones, all from Israel — Hermes 450 and 900, IAI Heron, IAI Searcher, Orbiter, Aerostar — which are less expensive than fighter aircraft and more relevant insofar as the Azerbaijan air force will meet little resistance from the Armenian air force. In addition, there are Russian defence systems, including the S-300PMU2, 9K37 Buk-1M, Pechora-2TM, and Igla-S/SA-24 (more than 1000).

Because of its access to the Caspian Sea, the Azerbaijani Navy is developed with ships from the USSR including the Polnochny Class, the Svetlyak Class and the Osa Class, from Turkey such as the Kılıç class (German design), and some small submarines as well as European-designed helicopters such as the Airbus Helicopters H215 and the Sud-Aviation SA.365 Dauphin. Unlike Russia, which has ships in the Caspian Sea capable of sending missiles to the Middle East, as was the case during the conflict in Syria, Azerbaijan is limited to ensuring a military presence in the Caspian Sea without the equipment being able to be used in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The Approach of the Members of the OSCE Minsk Group (Russia, USA, France)

Russia sells arms to the two protagonists and has the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) with Yerevan that ensures military intervention by Moscow in the event of an attack on Armenian territory. Trade agreements, participation in the Eurasian Economic Union, the CSTO does not apply to Nagorno-Karabakh and Moscow is absent and has no diplomatic or military representation. Unlike Abkhazia, South Ossetia or Transnistria, the Kremlin does not take a position and remains neutral without proposing any concrete solution other than the application of a ceasefire.

The United States has an ambiguous attitude, even going so far as to avoid referring to international law in its statements to the OSCE. To date, it is more than 10 American states that recognise Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent country, making the debate difficult for Washington, which prefers to avoid pronouncing itself on the question so as not to offend Turkey within NATO and the Armenian diaspora in the United States.

France, like the European Union, mentions international law and recalls the membership of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. However, Paris does not fail to take into account the reality on the ground and the need to find a solution between the protagonists and above all, without violence.

The recent events of September 2020 make the members of the Minsk Group fear possible interference from Turkey, which is problematic for both the West and Russia. Indeed, Russia does not want a military confrontation with Turkey, which is a member of NATO, and the United States and France do not support Ankara in its pro-Azeri stance.

Turkey and the Muslim World

Ankara recalls its closeness to Azerbaijan and the principle of ‘one nation, two countries’ which drives bilateral relations. Turkey is more assertive than it was during the Cold War and supports Baku, even going so far as to propose military interference, which was already the case in 1991-1994 with Turkish officers sent to train and support Azerbaijani troops.

For Turkey, it is a question of supporting an allied country, of showing solidarity with a Muslim country, and of confirming Turkish regional ambitions in the Middle East and the Black Sea. If Turkey intervenes militarily, the only two possible options will be to leave Nagorno-Karabakh to the Azeris or else a military intervention by Russia to support Armenia in its actions in Nagorno-Karabakh, as the Westerners do not want to risk interfering.

Azerbaijan can count on the sporadic presence of Chechens, often mercenaries, who are used to taking part in this type of conflict, as has been the case in Abkhazia and Syria. Mercenaries from Syria also join the conflict for similar reasons to the Chechens. The presence of Grey Wolves from Turkey, belonging to the extreme right affiliated to the Nationalist Action Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi) and members of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (حزب اسلامی گلبدین) from Afghanistan has been noted. While Turkey positions itself on the conflict for geopolitical and strategic reasons, the mercenaries do so mainly for ideological, pecuniary and religious reasons.

From our partner RIAC

Ph.D. in History of Europe & International Relations, Sorbonne University - INSEAD Business School, (Geo)political scientist working on Sino-European/Russian relations and soft power in the 21st century

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Eastern Europe

Latvia developed new tasks for NATO soldiers

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Member of the Latvian Saemas’ national association “Everything for Latvia!” and Freedom”/LNNK Jānis Dombrava stated the need to attract NATO troops to resolve the migration crisis. This is reported by la.lv.  In his opinion, illegal migration from the Middle East to Europe may acquire the feature of an invasion. He believes that under the guise of refugees, foreign military and intelligence officers can enter the country. To his mind, in this case, the involvement of the alliance forces is more reasonable and effective than the actions of the European border agencies. Dombrava also noted that in the face of an increase in the flow of refugees, the government may even neglect the observance of human rights.

The Canadian-led battlegroup in Latvia at Camp Ādaži consists of approximately 1512 soldiers, as well as military equipment, including tanks and armoured fighting vehicles.

Though the main task of the battlegroup in Latvia is country’s defence in case of military aggression, Latvian officials unilaterally invented new tasks for NATO soldiers So, it is absolutely clear, that Latvian politicians are ready to allow NATO troops to resolve any problem even without legal basis. Such deification and complete trust could lead to the full substitution of NATO’s real tasks in Latvia.

It should be noted that NATO troops are very far from being ideal soldiers. Their inappropriate behaviour is very often in a centre of scandals. The recent incidents prove the existing problems within NATO contingents in the Baltic States.

They are not always ready to fulfill their tasks during military exercises and training. And in this situation Latvian politicians call to use them as border guards! It is nonsense! It seems as if it is time to narrow their tasks rather than to widen them. They are just guests for some time in the territory of the Baltic States. It could happen that they would decide who will enter Latvia and who will be forbidden to cross the border!

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Eastern Europe

Changes are Possible: Which Reforms does Ukraine Need Now?

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Photo: Robert Anasch/Unsplash

The past 16 months have tested our resilience to sudden, unexpected, and prolonged shocks. As for an individual, resilience for a country or economy is reflected in how well it has prepared for an uncertain future.

A look around the globe reveals how resilient countries have been to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have done well, others less so. The costs of having done less well are almost always borne by the poor. It is for this reason the World Bank and the international community more broadly urge—and provide support to—countries to undertake economic and structural reforms, not just for today’s challenges but tomorrow’s.

One country where the dialogue on reform has been longstanding and intense is Ukraine. This is particularly true since the economic crisis of 2014-2015 in the wake of the Maidan Revolution, when the economy collapsed, and poverty skyrocketed. Many feared the COVID pandemic would have similar effects on the country.

The good news is that thanks to a sustained, even if often difficult, movement on reforms, Ukraine is better positioned to emerge from the pandemic than many expected. Our initial projection in the World Bank, for example, was that the economy would contract by nearly 8 percent in 2020; the actual decline was half that. Gross international reserves at end-2020 were US$10 billion higher than projected. Most important, there are far fewer poor than anticipated.

Let’s consider three reform areas which have contributed to these outcomes.

First, no area of the economy contributed more to the economic crisis of 2014-2015 than the banking sector. Powerful interests captured the largest banks, distorted the flow of capital, and strangled economic activity. Fortunately, Ukraine developed a framework to resolve and recapitalize banks and strengthen supervision. Privatbank was nationalized and is now earning profits. It is now being prepared for privatization.

Second, COVID halted and threatened to reverse a five-year trend in poverty reduction. Thanks to reforms of the social safety net, Ukraine is avoiding this reversal. A few years back, the government was spending some 4.7 percent of GDP on social programs with limited poverty impact. Nearly half these resources went to an energy subsidy that expanded to cover one-in-two of the country’s households.

Since 2018, the Government has been restructuring the system by reducing broad subsidies and targeting resources to the poor. This is working. Transfers going to the poorest one-fifth of the population are rising significantly—from just 37 percent in 2019 to 50 percent this year and are projected to reach 55 percent in 2023.

Third, the health system itself. Ukrainians live a decade less than their EU neighbors. Basic epidemiological vulnerabilities are exacerbated by a health delivery system centered around outdated hospitals and an excessive reliance on out-of-pocket spending. In 2017, Ukraine passed a landmark health financing law defining a package of primary care for all Ukrainians, free-of-charge. The law is transforming Ukraine’s constitutional commitment to free health care from an aspiration into specific critical services that are actually being delivered.

The performance of these sectors, which were on the “front line” during COVID, demonstrate the payoff of reforms. The job now is to tackle the outstanding challenges.

The first is to reduce the reach of the public sector in the economy. Ukraine has some 3,500 companies owned by the state—most of them loss-making—in sectors from machine building to hotels. Ukraine needs far fewer SOEs. Those that remain must be better managed.

Ukraine has demonstrated that progress can be made in this area. The first round of corporate governance reforms has been successfully implemented at state-owned banks. Naftogaz was unbundled in 2020. The electricity sector too is being gradually liberalized. Tariffs have increased and reforms are expected to support investment in aging electricity-producing and transmitting infrastructure. Investments in renewable energy are also surging.

But there are developments of concern, including a recent removal of the CEO of an SOE which raised concerns among Ukraine’s friends eager to see management independence of these enterprises. Management functions of SOE supervisory boards and their members need to remain free of interference.

The second challenge is to strengthen the rule of law. Over recent years, the country has established—and has committed to protect—new institutions to combat corruption. These need to be allowed to function professionally and independently. And they need to be supported by a judicial system defined by integrity and transparency. The move to re-establish an independent High Qualification Council is a welcome step in this direction.

Finally, we know change is possible because after nearly twenty years, Ukraine on July first opened its agricultural land market. Farmers are now free to sell their land which will help unleash the country’s greatest potential source of economic growth and employment.

Ukraine has demonstrated its ability to undertake tough reforms and, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, has seen the real-life benefits of these reforms. The World Bank looks forward to providing continued assistance as the country takes on new challenges on the way to closer European integration.

This article was first published in European Pravda via World Bank

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Eastern Europe

Liberal Development at Stake as LGBT+ Flags Burn in Georgia

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Photo: Protesters hold a banner depicting U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan during a rally against Pride Week in Tbilisi, Georgia July 1, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

Protests against Georgia’s LGBT+ Pride parade turned ugly in Tbilisi on July 5 when members of the community were hunted down and attacked, around 50 journalists beaten up and the offices of various organizations vandalized. Tensions continued the following day, despite a heavy police presence.

On the face of it, the Georgian state condemned the violence. President Salome Zourabichvili was among the first with a clear statement supporting freedom of expression, members of parliament did likewise and the Ministry of Internal Affairs condemned any form of violence.

But behind the scenes, another less tolerant message had been spread before the attacks. Anxiety about this year’s events had been rising as a result of statements by the government and clergy. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili suggested the march “poses a threat of civil strife.” The Georgian Orthodox Church meanwhile condemned the event, saying it, “contains signs of provocation, conflicts with socially recognized moral norms and aims to legalize grave sin.”

For many, these statements signified tacit approval for the abuse of peaceful demonstrators. Meanwhile, the near-complete absence of security at the outset of the five-day event was all too obvious in Tbilisi’s streets and caused a public outcry. Many alleged the government was less focused on public safety than on upcoming elections where will need support from socially conservative voters and the powerful clergy, in a country where more than 80% of the population is tied to the Georgian Orthodox Church.

The violence brought a joint statement of condemnation from Western embassies. “Violence is simply unacceptable and cannot be excused,” it said. The Pride event was not the first and had previously been used by anti-gay groups. Violence was widespread in 2013 — and the reality of attacks against sexual minorities in Georgia remains ever-present.

In a socially conservative country such as Georgia, antagonism to all things liberal can run deep. Resistance to non-traditional sexual and religious mores divides society. This in turn causes political tension and polarization and can drown out discussion of other problems the country is marred in. It very obviously damages the country’s reputation abroad, where the treatment of minorities is considered a key marker of democratic progress and readiness for further involvement in European institutions.

That is why this violence should also be seen from a broader perspective. It is a challenge to liberal ideas and ultimately to the liberal world order.

A country can be democratic, have a multiplicity of parties, active election campaigns, and other features characteristic of rule by popular consent. But democracies can also be ruled by illiberal methods, used for the preservation of political power, the denigration of opposing political forces, and most of all the use of religious and nationalist sentiments to raise or lower tensions.

It happens across Eurasia, and Georgia is no exception. These are hybrid democracies with nominally democratic rule. Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and others have increasingly more in common, despite geographic distance and cultural differences.

Hungary too has been treading this path. Its recent law banning the supposed propagation of LGBT+ materials in schools must be repealed, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on July 7. “This legislation uses the protection of children . . . to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation . . . It is a disgrace,” she said.

One of the defining features of illiberalism is agility in appropriating ideas on state governance and molding them to the illiberal agenda.

It is true that a mere 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union is not enough to have built a truly liberal democratic state. Generations born and raised in the Soviet period or in the troubled 1990s still dominate the political landscape. This means that a different worldview still prevails. It favors democratic development but is also violently nationalistic in opposing liberal state-building.

Georgia’s growing illiberalism has to be understood in the context of the Russian gravitational pull. Blaming all the internal problems of Russia’s neighbors has become mainstream thinking among opposition politicians, NGOs, and sometimes even government figures. Exaggeration is commonplace, but when looking at the illiberal challenge from a long-term perspective, it becomes clear where Russia has succeeded in its illiberal goals. It is determined to stop Georgia from joining NATO and the EU. Partly as a result, the process drags on and this causes friction across society. Belief in the ultimate success of the liberal agenda is meanwhile undermined and alternatives are sought. Hybrid illiberal governments are the most plausible development. The next stage could well be a total abandonment of Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

Indeed what seemed irrevocable now seems probable, if not real. Pushback against Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic choice is growing stronger. Protesters in front of the parliament in central Tbilisi violently brought tore the EU flag. Twice.

The message of anti-liberal groups has also been evolving. There has been significant growth in their messaging. The anti-pride sentiment is evolving into a wider resistance to the Western way of life and Georgia’s Western foreign policy path, perhaps because it is easily attacked and misrepresented.

To deal with this, Western support is important, but much depends on Georgian governments and the population at large. A pushback against radicalism and anti-liberalism should come in the guise of time and resources for the development of stronger and currently faltering institutions. Urgency in addressing these problems has never been higher — internal and foreign challenges converge and present a fundamental challenge to what Georgia has been pursuing since the days of Eduard Shevardnadze – the Western path to development.

Author’s note: first published at cepa

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