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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

Unhappy Iran Battles for Lost Influence in South Caucasus

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Events that might not matter elsewhere in the world matter quite a lot in the South Caucasus. Given a recent history of conflict, with all the bad feelings that generates, plus outside powers playing geostrategic games, and its growing importance as an energy corridor between Europe and Central Asia, the region is vulnerable. 

This has been worsened by the two-year-long Western absence of engagement. In 2020, Europe and the U.S. were barely involved as the second Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, leaving about 7,000 dead. With tensions now on the rise between Azerbaijan and Iran, Western uninterest is again evident, even though this might have wider ramifications for future re-alignment in the South Caucasus. 

The drumbeat of Iranian activity against Azerbaijan has been consistent in recent months. Iran is getting increasingly edgy about Israel’s presence in the South Caucasus — hardly surprising given Israel’s painfully well-targeted assassination and computer hacking campaigns against nuclear staff and facilities — and especially its growing security and military ties with Azerbaijan, with whom Iran shares a 765km (430 mile) border. Iran has also voiced concern about the presence in the region of Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries, who were used as Azeri assault troops last year.  

Much of the anger has been played out in military exercises. The Azeri military has been busy since its victory, exercising near the strategic Lachin corridor which connects the separatist region to Armenia, and in the Caspian Sea, where it has jointly exercised with Turkish personnel. Iran, in turn, sent units to the border region this month for drills of an unstated scale. 

This week, the Azeri and Iranian foreign ministers agreed to dial down the rhetoric amid much talk of mutual understanding. Whether that involved promises regarding the Israeli presence or a pledge by Iran to abandon a newly promised road to Armenia was not stated. 

Iran’s behavior is a recognition of the long-term strategic changes caused by the Armenian defeat last year. Iran has been sidelined. Its diplomatic initiatives have failed, and it has been unwelcome in post-conflict discussions. 

It is true that Iran was never a dominant power in the South Caucasus. Unlike Russia or Turkey, the traditional power brokers, it has not had a true ally. Iran was certainly part of the calculus for states in the region, but it was not feared, like Russia or Turkey. And yet, the South Caucasus represents an area of key influence, based on millennia of close political and cultural contacts. 

Seen in this light, it is unsurprising that Iran ratcheted up tensions with Azerbaijan. Firstly, this reasserted the involvement of the Islamic Republic in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. It was also a thinly-veiled warning to Turkey that its growing ambitions and presence in the region are seen as a threat. In Iran’s view, Turkey’s key role as an enabler of Azeri irridentism is unmistakable. 

Turkish involvement has disrupted the foundations of the South Caucasian status quo established in the 1990s. To expect Turkey to become a major power there is an overstretch, but it nevertheless worries Iran. For example, the recent Caspian Sea exercises between Azerbaijan and Turkey appear to run counter to a 2018 agreement among the sea’s littoral states stipulating no external military involvement. 

The Caspian Sea has always been regarded by Iranians as an exclusive zone shared first with the Russian Empire, later the Soviets, and presently the Russian Federation. Other littoral states play a minor role. This makes Turkish moves in the basin and the recent improvement of ties between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan an unpleasant development for Iran — fewer barriers to the Trans-Caspian Pipeline threatens the Islamic Republic’s ability to block the project.  

This is where Iranian views align almost squarely with the Kremlin’s. Both fear Turkish progress and new energy routes. The new Iranian leadership might now lean strongly toward Russia. With Russia’s backing, opposition to Turkey would become more serious; Iran’s foreign minister said this month that his country was seeking a “big jump” in relations with Russia. 

The fact is that the region is increasingly fractured and is being pulled in different directions by the greater powers around it. This state of affairs essentially dooms the prospects of pan-regional peace and cooperation initiatives. Take the latest effort by Russia and Turkey to introduce a 3+3 platform with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as well as Iran. Beyond excluding the West, disagreements will eventually preclude any meaningful progress. There is no unity of purpose between the six states and there are profound disagreements. 

Thus, trouble will at some point recur between Iran and Azerbaijan, and by extension Turkey. Given the current situation, and Iran’s visible discontent, it is likely it will take some kind of initiative lest it loses completely its position to Turkey and Russia. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Eastern Europe

Right-wing extremist soldiers pose threat to Lithuania

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It is no secret that Lithuania has become a victim of German army’s radicalization. Could this country count on its partners further or foreign military criminals threaten locals?

It is well known that Germany is one of the largest provider of troops in NATO. There are about 600 German troops in Lithuania, leading a Nato battlegroup. According to Lithuanian authorities, Lithuania needs their support to train national military and to protect NATO’s Central and Northern European member states on NATO’s eastern flank.

Two sides of the same coin should be mentioned when we look at foreign troops in Lithuania.

Though Russian threat fortunately remains hypothetical, foreign soldiers deployed in the country cause serious trouble. Thus, the German defence minister admitted that reported this year cases of racist and sexual abuse in a German platoon based in Lithuania was unacceptable.

Members of the platoon allegedly filmed an incident of sexual assault against another soldier and sang anti-Semitic songs. Later more allegations emerged of sexual and racial abuse in the platoon, including soldiers singing a song to mark Adolf Hitler’s birthday on 20 April this year.

It turned out that German media report that far-right abuses among the Lithuania-based troops had already surfaced last year. In one case, a soldier allegedly racially abused a non-white fellow soldier. In another case, four German soldiers smoking outside a Lithuanian barracks made animal noises when a black soldier walked past.

Lithuania’s Defence Minister Arvydas Anušauskas said later that the investigation was carried out by Germany and that Lithuania was not privy to its details. The more so, Lithuania is not privy to its details even now. “We are not being informed about the details of the investigation. […] The Lithuanian military is not involved in the investigation, nor can it be,” Anušauskas told reporters, stressing that Germany was in charge of the matter.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, German defence minister, said that these misdeeds would be severely prosecuted and punished. Time has passed, and the details are not still known.

It should be said Germany has for years struggled to modernize its military as it becomes more involved in Nato operations. Nevertheless problems existed and have not been solved yet. According to the annual report on the state of the Bundeswehr made in 2020 by Hans-Peter Bartel, then armed forces commissioner for the German Bundestag, Germany’s army “has too little materiel, too few personnel and too much bureaucracy despite a big budget increase.” Mr Bartels’ report made clear that the Bundeswehr continues to be plagued by deep-seated problems. Recruitment remains a key problem. Mr Bartels said 20,000 army posts remained unfilled, and last year the number of newly recruited soldiers stood at just over 20,000, 3,000 fewer than in 2017. The other problem is radicalization of the armed forces.

Apparently, moral requirements for those wishing to serve in the German army have been reduced. Federal Volunteer Military Service Candidate must be subjected to a thorough medical examination. Desirable to play sports, have a driver’s license and be able to eliminate minor malfunctions in the motor, to speak at least one foreign language, have experience of communicating with representatives of other nationalities, be initiative and independent. After the general the interview follows the establishment of the candidate’s suitability for service in certain types of armed forces, taking into account his wishes. Further candidate passes a test on a computer. He will be asked if he wants study a foreign language and attend courses, then serve in German French, German-Dutch formations or institutions NATO.

So, any strong and healthy person could be admitted, even though he or she could adhere to far-right views or even belong to neo-Nazi groups. Such persons served in Lithuania and, probably, serve now and pose a real threat to Lithuanian military, local population. Neo-Nazism leads to cultivating racial inequalities. The main goal of the neo-Nazis is to cause disorder and chaos in the country, as well as to take over the army and security organs. Lithuanian authorities should fully realize this threat and do not turn a blind eye to the criminal behaviour of foreign military in Lithuania. There is no room to excessive loyalty in this case.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuanian foreign policy: Image is everything

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It seems as if Lithuanian government takes care of its image in the eyes of EU and NATO partners much more than of its population. Over the past year Lithuania managed to quarrel with such important for its economy states like China and Belarus, condemned Hungary for the ban on the distribution of images of LGBT relationships among minors, Latvia and Estonia for refusing to completely cut energy from Belarus. Judging by the actions of the authorities, Lithuania has few tools to achieve its political goals. So, it failed to find a compromise and to maintain mutually beneficial relations with economic partners and neighbours. The authorities decided to achieve the desired results by demanding from EU and NATO member states various sanctions for those countries that, in their opinion, are misbehaving.

Calling for sanctions and demonstrating its “enduring political will”, Lithuania exposed the welfare of its own population. Thus, district heating prices will surge by around 30 percent on average across Lithuania.

The more so, prices for biofuels, which make up 70 percent of heat production on average, are now about 40 higher than last year, Taparauskas, a member of the National Energy Regulatory Council (VERT) said.

“Such a huge jump in prices at such a tense time could threaten a social crisis and an even greater increase in tensions in society. We believe that the state must take responsibility for managing rising prices, especially given the situation of the most vulnerable members of society and the potential consequences for them. All the more so as companies such as Ignitis or Vilnius heating networks “has not only financial resources, but also a certain duty again,” sums up Lukas Tamulynas, the chairman of the LSDP Momentum Vilnius movement.

It should be said, that according to the Lithuanian Department of Statistics, prices for consumer goods and services have been rising for the eighth month in a row. According to the latest figures, the annual inflation rate is five percent.

Earlier it became known that in 2020 every fifth inhabitant of Lithuania was below the poverty risk line.

Pensioners are considered one of the most vulnerable groups in Lithuania. In 2019, Lithuania was included in the top five EU anti-leaders in terms of poverty risk for pensioners. The share of people over 65 at risk of poverty was 18.7 percent.

In such situation sanctions imposed on neighbouring countries which tightly connected to Lithuanian economy and directly influence the welfare of people in Lithuania are at least damaging. The more so, according Vladimir Andreichenko, the speaker of the House of Representatives of the Belarus parliament, “the unification of the economic potentials of Minsk and Moscow would be a good response to sanctions.” It turned out that Lithuania itself makes its opponents stronger. Such counter-productiveness is obvious to everyone in Lithuania except for its authorities.

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