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Do Russian shortcomings in Ukraine embolden Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh?

Updated: May 22, 2022

On March 25, Azerbaijani forces advanced into the previously Armenian controlled village of Farukhi. Small arms and indirect fires were exchanged and the Armenian side has reported several casualties. The Russian peacekeeping force, deployed since the end of the 2020 war, have thus far failed to quell the tensions. With Baku all too happy to “liberate” more land and townships, is this the first in what could be the potential side effects of the neutering of the Russian Bear?

From exceptionally high casualties to operational-level planning and logistics issues, Russia’s “special military operation” has not become what many in both East andWest had foreseen. As a result, many strategists have begun to reassess their evaluations of the Russian Armed Forces. Azerbaijan is one such nation.

Without diving into an extensive history lesson of the South Caucasus, the tension between the two nations has been palpable since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Luke-warm to hot conflict has been present in the region on an almost non-stop basis. Azerbaijan has leveraged both their oil reserves and exceptionally close ties to NATO-member Turkey to gain supremacy in recent years. Armenia, despite having several Russian formations in its borders, has largely been relegated to underdog status in the past decade.

After the conclusion of the 2020 war in the region, the three countries signed a tripartite ceasefire agreement. In addition to establishing boundaries, this introduced a Russian peacekeeping force as a means of establishing stability. Despite multiple ceasefire violations, they have remained the only buffer between a continuing war.

Russia and Turkey are some of the largest players in the region, going back centuries. Even during the war, they accused each other of funneling both fighters and weapons into the conflict.The direct and confirmable evidence for this is tenuous at best. However, Russia has active military bases in Armenia and Turkey has trained and supplied the Azerbaijani Armed Forces for years.

With the invasion of Ukraine, many of Russia’s forces were pulled from across the country to support their war efforts. As the casualty numbers rose and additional units were needed, even units from Georgia’s occupied territory of South Ossetia were mobilized. Despite many of these having deserted and returned home, there remains the potential that there will be a reduction in the 1,960-strong peacekeeping contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh.

On March 24, Azerbaijani forces seized a small mountain village named Farukh. Armenian local defense forces were forced to pull back, alerting the Russian peacekeeping forces of the violation. However, during talks with the Azerbaijani commanders on the ground, they were unable to reach any agreement. Baku then accused the Russian side of disrespecting the provisions in the tripartite agreement.

The potential for another conflict is clearly present. The situation now is as such; repeated exchanges of fire, Azerbaijani incursions into Armenian-held territory, and a peacekeeping force that has thus far expressed little commitment to enforcement. Baku is still entrenched in the idea that most of the Armenian Artsakh (their term for the Nagorno-Karabakh region) is their land by historical right. Armenia, with a fraction of Azerbaijan’s military expenditure, has been slow to modernize their armed forces.

Russia has been hesitant, or even reluctant, to do what Turkey has done with Azerbaijan. Much of Armenia’s military equipment and battlefield technology is wildly outdated. Their Soviet-era arms are equipped with old targeting and engineering systems and their air forces were proven ineffective during the war. Turkish support both at a material and strategic level made a massive difference in favor of Azerbaijan. As a result, this has given Baku the confidence boost needed to keep immense pressure on Armenia.

This pressure is aimed at ensuring that the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region is under firm control of Baku, particularly for their future with Europe. With the European Union beginning to detach from Russian oil and gas supplies, Azerbaijan aims to fill this growing gap. Already a minority supplier of gas to Europe, 8.2 billion cubic meters of gas specifically, the opportunity to expand is all too lucrative.

This begins with turning the newly acquired territory into a “green energy zone.” Baku has already set aside $1.5 billion for the complete reconfiguration of the infrastructure as well as education and healthcare for the area. In addition to these measures being implemented in their homeland, this loosens the requirements for domestic usage and increases the export capacity for their gas production.

As a result, the need to not only keep Armenia on the back foot but also at a constant disadvantage is imperative for Baku. Their military will be virtually required to stay not only vigilant but aggressive in their simmering war with their long-time foe. Armenia is unlikely to receive much in the way of military equipment and technology due to Russia’s focus on Ukraine. The propensity for further conflict is exceptionally high, and the likelihood of Russian peacekeepers keeping back this proverbial avalanche is proportionally low.

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