A Renewed Caucasus Arms Race?
Image: Ran Zisovitch/Shutterstock
Today (August 24, 2021) Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashiyan outlined a structural shakeup in the country’s military, moving towards a professional army that is separate from a dedicated border patrol force. The announcement came after a month of almost daily cross-border incidents between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The hotspots have been at Heydarabad-Yeraskh, the Zod/Sotk Pass, and around Black Lake (Qaragöl to Azerbaijanis, Sevlich to Armenians) which has been the epicentre of a vociferous border demarcation dispute since May 12, 2021. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, there are signs of a new arms race between the two nations.
Ambassador Tracy visited #Gegharkunik w/@ArmeniaMODTeam.— US Embassy, Armenia (@usembarmenia) July 27, 2021
She reiterated U.S. concern over border incidents & calls for a return to pre-May 12 border positions.
Unresolved status of Nagorno-Karabakh requires a comprehensive settlement with support of @OSCE #MinskGroup. pic.twitter.com/cIFEDfjrVP
US Ambassador to Armenia, Lynne Tracy, being shown a disputed area of the border on July 27, 2021.
Azerbaijan’s finance ministry has reported that expenses on national security and defence for the first half of 2021 were AZN2.5 billion (approximately US$1.5bn), an increase of almost 74% year on year compared to the same period in 2020. Much of that defence budget is likely to be spent on new Israeli weaponry if reports carried in the Armenian press on August 12 are accurate. The last time such an armaments sale was publicized (at the start of the 2020 conflict), Armenia recalled its ambassador from Israel in protest. Azerbaijan’s call on Israeli armaments is likely to be all the greater if, as was reported recently, Germany refuses to supply its state-of-the-art battle tanks to Turkey, pending promises that Ankara would not allow them to be forwarded on to Baku.
Meanwhile, in Moscow back on August 10, Armenia’s new minister of defence, Arshak Karapetyan, was reportedly promised by his Russian counterpoint that Russia would help re-equip Yerevan’s military. Once an army intelligence officer, Karapetyan had been dropped as national Chief of Staff in 2016, scapegoated for Armenia’s losses in the four-day April conflict of that year. He has reputedly close relations with Russian intelligence agencies, which are likely to be useful in Yerevan’s international toolbox now that he has returned to the highest levels of power. Referring to the on-off series of border crises with Azerbaijan over the past month, Karapetyan announced that Armenia retained the right to ‘resolve the situation’ by force. This came as he held talks with representatives of the CTSO, a Russia-led mutual defence pact of six former Soviet countries whose perceived lack of support for Armenia in the 2020 war and its aftermath has proved a major disappointment in Yerevan.
CSTO representative Stanislav Zas, in a meeting with Armenia’s Minister of Defence, Arshak Karapetyan, on August 9. Image: mil.am
According to a group of independent Armenian analysts, there’s a lot for Yerevan to put right. They have presented a remarkably thorough examination of the failings that led the country to suffer its relatively swift and comprehensive defeat in the 44-day conflict of 2020. Framed as a series of questions rather than recommendations, this “Armenia Commission” pinpoints a vast array of factors that might underlie Azerbaijan’s victory and the Armenian weaknesses (both material and ideological) that allowed that to happen.
Peace not Guns
The US State Department issued a cautionary statement demanding a “comprehensive resolution” of the Azerbaijan-Armenia border disputes at the start of the recent spate of flare-ups in late July. The UK and US OSCE teams trotted out familiar if unconvincing calls for the Minsk Group to take centre stage once more in attempting to find a solution. Sadly these statements sound bland and disengaged, while the Minsk Group, having failed to coax Azerbaijan and Armenia into a peaceful settlement during the decades before the 2020 war, is widely seen to have lost relevance. More concerted attention needs to be paid to the region, and confidence-building measures between Azerbaijan and Armenia are urgently required. The current rounds of cross-border shootings bolstered by renewed military spending should be replaced by serious efforts to build peace.