Azerbaijan is carrying out a substantial military buildup in the exclave of Nakhchivan, as the territory’s strategic significance increases for both Baku and its foe, Armenia.
Nakhchivan is separated from the rest of Azerbaijan by a slice of southern Armenia, and it does not border Nagorno-Karabakh, the focus of the ongoing conflict between the two states. But it is the closest part of Azerbaijani territory to Yerevan and other strategic Armenian targets. Accordingly, with the prospect of a renewal of total war appearing to increase, Nakhchivan is becoming a flashpoint.
Another strategic consideration for Azerbaijani planners is that Nakhchivan is the ancestral home of President Ilham Aliyev’s family.
Azerbaijan has set up a new unit, known as the Combined Army Unit (Special Forces), based in Nakhchivan. It also has sent new air defense systems to the territory, as well as rockets and artillery, including Smerch, T-300 Kasirga, and T-122 Sakarya multiple-launch rocket systems. And it now holds annual joint military exercises in Nakhchivan with Turkey.
“The enemy should know that Nakhchivan is defended by the most professional army,” said Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov at the most recent iteration of the exercises in June.
Nakhchivan saw fighting during the hot phase of the Karabakh conflict in the early 1990s, but the region was relatively quiet in the more recent past.
Of late, sniping and shelling has centered around the line of contact separating the two sides in and around Karabakh. That has begun to change, though, as the Nakhchivan-Armenia border saw several skirmishes in the April 2016 flare-up of heavy fighting. And in August 2016, Azerbaijan shot down a reconnaissance drone that it said Armenia had sent into Nakhchivan.
“The enemy must be aware that if there is a provocation against Nakhchivan, we will initiate a robust response, and within a few minutes, all [Armenia’s] major cities will be attacked,” Hasanov said shortly after last April’s fighting. “Everyone knows that Nakhchivan’s defense has been organized at the highest level and the most professional army is defending Nakhchivan.”
The buildup in Nakhchivan has been closely monitored in Armenia. “We need to understand that we face a threat of the renewal of hostilities, and that the aggression from the enemy could be initiated from any direction,” said Armenian analyst Grant Melik Shahnazaryan.
Azerbaijan’s overhaul in Nakhchivan began in about 2013, when Hasanov carried out a shakeup of senior military officers in the region, and President Aliyev signed a decree to bolster the military forces in Nakhchivan.
At present, Azerbaijan has about 20,000 soldiers based in Nakhchivan (out of an estimated 67,000 total active duty troops), and around 400 armored vehicles, aircraft, air defense systems, and artillery systems. The focus has not been on the quantity of forces, but the quality, one Azerbaijani officer told EurasiaNet.org, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The transformation was not in the number of active personnel – the improvement was to the internal structure of the forces, and greater autonomy in decision-making in the event of a security threat,” the officer said.
Turkish assistance has played a key role in the buildup. Ankara’s actions are connected to its security guarantee for Nakhchivan that it maintains under the terms of the 1921 Kars Treaty between Turkey and the Soviet Union.
In addition to the annual exercises with Turkey, Azerbaijan has sought to increase Turkey’s visibility as a military player in the region, for example by holding a trilateral defense ministerial meeting between Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey there. In addition, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement has been established: when senior Turkish military officers or civilians working on defense issues visit Azerbaijan, they also stop in Nakhchivan.
The buildup has gained new impetus in the last year. After Armenia’s acquisition of powerful Russian Iskander ballistic missiles – which for the first time has opened up the possibility of striking Baku, oil infrastructure, and other strategic targets in Azerbaijan – Baku has increasingly referred to Nakhchivan’s military value as a location for a counterattack. The border of Nakhchivan is just 60 kilometers from Yerevan, meaning that Azerbaijan’s Smerches (with a range of 90 kilometers) and the Kasirgas (100 to 120 kilometers) could easily reach the capital.
“The Nakhchivan army is capable of completing any task,” President Aliyev said during a visit to the territory in January. “Today, the military potential of Nakhchivan is at the highest level. The most modern equipment, weaponry, ammunition are sent here.”
Both sides, however, appear to realize that attacking each other’s capitals would invite a destructive counterattack, and so an attack from Nakhchivan would seem only a last resort.
In particular, an attack on Armenia from Nakhchivan could prompt Yerevan to demand that, under the provisions of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Russia intervene on its behalf, an escalation that Baku absolutely hopes to avoid.
“In the worst case scenario of total war, the short distance between Nakhchivan and Armenia’s strategic locations and infrastructures makes it even harder for Armenia to detect, track, intercept and destroy the attacking missiles launched from Nakhchivan,” said Fuad Chiragov, an analyst with the Azerbaijani government-run think tank Center for Strategic Studies.
But, he added, “Given that Armenia is a member of the CSTO, Azerbaijan is unlikely to make the first move in terms of using its military capacity in Nakhchivan as an offensive tool.”
Zaur Shiriyev is an Academy Associate at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House).