All-Out War Over Karabakh Is No One's Interest

When Azeri and Armenian forces started to fire at each other in the early hours of April 2, it seemed that this exchange would enter the history of the decades-long conflict as just another of many routine violations of the ceasefire, which the parties to the Karabakh conflict clinched in 1994. However, rather than subside, as many of the previous violations did, the initial clashes spread and escalated, lasting four days and leaving dozens dead on both sides in what became the worst outbreak of hostilities since the 1994 agreement. Intended or not, this escalation substantially increases probability that Armenians and Azeris may stumble into an all-out war even though the latter would not be in the current interests of either Baku or Yerevan or those great powers, which have traditionally played important roles in the South Caucasus.

Unintended Escalation?

There are conflicting accounts of what triggered the latest round of hostilities, which subsided on April 5, but which can flare up again any time. It is my hope OSCE will conduct a full-fledged investigation to ascertain who initiated hostilities and how they evolved as the European Union did after the 2008 Russian-Georgian war. It is also my hope that the Minsk Group of OSCE will develop and implement a mechanism to permanently monitor the ceasefire in ways that allows to attribute violations. In the meantime, we can only guess what the sides' original intentions were. I can think of three possibilities.

First, there's a hypothetical possibility that Armenians chose to initiate an escalation of the conflict. In fact, that's exactly what the Azeri side insists has happened. According to Baku's version of events reported in the press, the hostilities erupted because the Armenian forces began firing at the Azeri forces and settlements along the line of contact (LOC). I am, of course, biased, given that I am a native of Karabakh myself, but I just don't see why the Armenian side would want to reheat a conflict, which they won in the 1990s, especially when President Serzh Sargsyan was out of the country, returning from the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. (In fact, I asked the Armenian leader less than three days before the beginning of the clashes whether he thinks there is already a war underway between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and, if not then what are the chances of such a war. His answer was that Armenia and Azerbaijan are not at war, but that Armenia needs to be ready for such a war).

The second possibility it that Azeris could have planned a 'routine' violation of the ceasefire, but things got out of control as both sides suffered human losses, including civilian casualties. In fact, according to the Armenian side's version of the events, the hostilities began when an Azeri saboteur group which tried to infiltrate into Karabakh in the night of April 1-2, but got trapped, prompting Azeri commanders to try rescue that unit and that's when the escalation ensued. Amazingly, it is exactly the scenario, which I foresaw in a paper that I co-wrote in 2012 to warn how Armenians and Azeris can stumble into a new war against their wishes. "Leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia may think they have become masters of controlled escalation, but one can imagine how a minor incident can set off a chain of events that would plunge the two republics into war" the paper said. "It won't require extraordinary power of imagination, for instance, to construct the following sequence: The Azeri military sends a group of scout saboteurs across the line at night as it has done before. The group is detected and starts retreating, but gets bogged down in fighting close to the line of contact," we hypothesized in the paper. I find this second scenario to be more plausible for a number of reasons. For one, unlike Armenians, Azeris do have an interest in reheating the conflict in hopes that their actions can eventually coerce the Armenians to make concessions in the long stalled peace talks. Hence, they occasionally initiate exchange of fire and even send special forces teams across LOC, reminding Armenians that the conflict is not frozen beyond reheating and prompting them to reciprocate. It is quite probable that that this time the Azeri side had planned such a reminder too, but then the infiltrating unit got trapped behind LOC and things got out of control. That Azeris reportedly took and kept three heights, which are located at the border with Iran and which Karabakh Armenians described as "important enough" may appear to contradict this second scenario, but it cannot be ruled that the Azeri commanders saw an opportunity to make some gains in the course of fighting and exploited.

The third possibility is that the Azeris could have planned a wide-ranging multi-pronged operation designed to make significant territorial gains, if not take Karabakh and adjacent districts. However, I don't think that this was the Azeris' initial plan for a number of reasons. One of them is that Azeri president Ilham Aliyev was out of his country, flying back from the same Nuclear Security Summit in Washington when the clashes erupted. Heads of state normally do not want their militaries to start a major military operation, which can escalate into an all-out war, at the time when they are travelling abroad. Also Azerbaijan's defense minister Zakir Hasanov would not have reportedly assumed command of the 1st Corps, which is positioned around Gyandzha and Yevlakh, if the battle plan had called for coordinated actions of several corps or entire armed forces which execution of such a major operation would required. Finally, the Azeris would not have announced a unilateral cessation of hostilities, which they did on April 3rd. You don't stop and call for ceasefire if your plan is to solve the conflict militarily, especially knowing that your plan buries the peace process regardless of the outcome.

Latest Hostilities Significantly Increase Chances of Full-Blown War

Regardless of what the sides' initial intentions behind the latest hostilities were, the latter have significantly increased probability of a full-blown war in the future for several reasons. Firstly, these hostilities have created a precedent for use of heavier and more sophisticated weaponry. Both Grad and Smerch Multiple Launch Rocket Systems and TOS-1 Heavy Flamethrower System have been used for the first time along with attack drones. When the next provocation occurs, commanders on both sides will have fewer qualms about employing such heavy systems again, especially if in "the fog of war" they come to conclude that the other side's use of these weapons is an attempt to 'soften target' ahead of a full-blown major offensive. A provocation that begins with mortar fire has low chances of quickly escalating into a war as long as leaders on neither side desire such a war. A provocation that begins with use of large-caliber multiple rocket launch systems and gunships has significantly higher chances of leading to an accidental war because of casualties it can cause. If Azeris did secure three heights, then this may encourage them to try take more in the next round of hostilities in what will also increase risk of an all-out war, given that Armenians would try to take them back. Also, if Armenians' accusations that Azeri soldiers have beheaded an Armenian soldier and cut the ears off an Armenian civilian are true, than memories of such atrocities will not fade away easily. This also makes it more difficult for the Armenian public to accept any compromises, which are needed on both sides, to come to a peaceful resolution of the Karabakh conflict and, therefore, increases probability of war.

The latest clashes once more underscore how dangerously wrong country leaders when they think they can first up the ante in a stand-off with another state for purposes of signaling resolve or demanding concessions, and then control the resultant escalation. As John F. Kennedy's decision to order the U.S. military to go to DEFCON 2 during the Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrated, once the order to up the ante is issued, the military begins to implement standard operational procedures, which the other side responds to and which significantly increases likelihood of an all-out war even if leaders on both sides of the conflict wish to avoid it.

Why The War is No One's Interest and How it Should be Prevented

Again, I am not privy to decision-making in Baku and Yerevan, but I believe leaders on both sides wish to avoid an all-out war. Armenian leaders obviously are content with what Armenians have gained in the war that ended in 1994. And Ilham Aliev probably realizes that there's no guarantee that Azeris will win the new war, but that there is a strong probability that a defeat may lead to implosion of his regime. A new war over Karabakh would be much more devastating than the one fought more than 20 years ago, given the weapons that the sides have acquired since then. And some of the weaponry systems that the Armenian and Azeri armed forces possess, such as multiple-launch rocket systems or surface-to-surface missiles, can wreak havoc almost comparable to impact of a nuclear strike, if used massively against targets that are within their range, such as national capitals, or Azerbaijan's oil infrastructure, or Armenia's nuclear power plant.

In my view, leaders of other great powers that have important interests at stake in the South Caucasus also do not wish for a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan that will have devastating consequences not only for these two post-Soviet republics, but also for stability of the region.

If a full-blown war erupts and Azeris begin to lose, then Turkey would feel obligated to intervene. Turkish leaders have already drawn criticism from the nationalist part of the Turkish electorate for failing to either protect interests of the Crimean Tatars or to stop Russia from bombing Turkoman rebels in Syria. Turkish leaders would come at even greater pressure to intervene on behalf of Azeris, who are closest to Turks linguistically and ethnically. Ankara realizes, however, that such an intervention may evolve first into a proxy war with Moscow and then into a direct war between Turkey and Russia.

Russia obviously would not want to get dragged into a conflict, which may end up escalating into a conflict with NATO, either. A full-blown war between Armenia and Azerbaijan would also force Russia to take sides between Armenia, which is a member of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and Azerbaijan, which the Russian Ministry of Affairs describes as "friendly." If Armenia begins to lose this war and Russia doesn't intervene on Armenia's behalf, then this could cast serious doubt on Russia's reputation of a guarantor of security of its allies and reputation of CSTO as a viable military bloc. A number of experts have speculated that the hostilities were actually encouraged by Russia so that it can deploy peacekeeping troops along LOC to boost its presence in the region and increase its leverage vis-à-vis Azerbaijan. However, even though Vladimir Putin's KGB evaluators described him as having "lower sense of danger," and, therefore, more prone to take risks, I don't think it is a very plausible theory, given that he already has his hands full with two conflicts (Syria and Ukraine), which Russia wants to be resolved on favorable terms.

Nor would Iran want resumption of the war in Karabakh, given Teheran's delicate effort to maintain good relations with Armenia without alienating its sizeable Azeri minority. If Azeri forces begin to retreat in such a war, it will send thousands of Azeri refugees across the Azeri-Iranian border as it was the case during the Karabakh war. If Armenians begin to lose, then Iran would see its rival - Turkey - expand its influence in the South Caucasus.

The United States clearly, too, has no interests in resumption of a full-blown war. U.S. has important interests at stake in the region, given Azerbaijan's supplies to the world oil market, which Armenia can disrupt with ballistic missile strikes. U.S. also is member of OSCE's three-strong Minsk Group and is responsible for mediation of the Karabakh conflict along with France and Russia. There are also an estimated total of more than one million people of Armenian origin living in the United States, and the U.S. government cannot ignore their opinions.

While it is not in the current interest of either Armenia or Azerbaijan to restart this war, a number of factors can change their cost-benefit analysis in the future. A significant decline of one side's power relative to the other may also change prompt the leaders on the weakening side to go to war in what Harvard Professor Graham Allison has described as Thucydides's Trap. Another possibility is that a protracted decline of oil prices may leave Aliev facing protests so serious that he would come to view probability of losing his seat because of such protests greater than the probability of losing a war over Karabakh. In that case, chances are that he may attempt such a war to distract the protests' attention and mobilize the public support for his rule.

The April 2-5 escalation of violence between Armenians and Azeris should serve as a wake-up call to the Minsk group of OSCE, which represents powers with great leverage vis-a-vis Armenia and Azerbaijan. These powers should ascertain which side has initiated the hostilities and take measures to prevent their resumption. In the longer-term, members of the Minsk groups should exercise that leverage and make a coordinated push before either another incident at LOC or change of assessment of feasibility of war in Baku or Yerevan bring about a full-blown war, which would have devastating consequences both for the region and external stake-holders.