Azerbaijan has sharpened its threats of war against Armenia in an apparent attempt to ratchet up tension over Nagorno-Karabakh, the territory that both sides claim.
Verbal threats toward Armenia are nothing new for Azerbaijan, a state for which the phrase “bellicose rhetoric” has become something of a journalistic cliché. But Baku's rhetoric in the past has tended to couch military threats in the conditional tense, a last resort if diplomatic negotiations fail. Increasingly, however, the military option is being portrayed as the only one.
“The developments unfolding in the world confirm that the international law does not work,” Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev tweeted on June 28. “If it did, Azerbaijani lands would have been freed from the invaders long ago.”
On July 2, the Azerbaijani armed forces started large-scale exercises, the scenario of which, the Ministry of Defense said in a statement, will be “the liberation of the occupied territories,” as Azerbaijan refers to Nagorno-Karabakh.
And Azerbaijani state television has been airing a computer-simulated video of a potential victory in Nagorno-Karabakh, with artillery and tank attacks eventually leading to a prosperous redevelopment of the territory and a statue of Heydar Aliyev – the former president of Azerbaijan and Ilham's father – in front of the government building.
“It is the first time that Baku has displayed a video announcing, and forcing, the state to defeat the enemy militarily,” the independent Azerbaijani news agency Turan wrote in a June 2 analysis. “It is the first time Azerbaijan doesn't hide the exclusively military route to the resolution of the Karabakh problem.”
Azerbaijan's heightened rhetoric over the past week follows on a heavy PR push to glorify a modest advance inside the no-man's-land between Armenia and the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan. And on June 26, Azerbaijan held a military parade in Baku.
Talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia have stalled in recent years, and a diplomatic resolution of the Karabakh conflict seems farther away than ever. That may put Baku in the position of feeling as if war is its only option to regain what it considers its lost territory, from which hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis fled during the war in the early 1990s.
Azerbaijan's government also, however, tends to use escalations – either in rhetoric or in actual fighting – as a means to force international mediators to put more effort into trying to resolve the conflict.
Armenian officials have played down the escalations. “The situation is under control. Regular activities are underway with no reasons to be concerned,” Armenia's Chief of the General Staff Artak Davtyan told reporters. “There is no immediate threat of war, yet we should always be ready for developments as the threat of war has always existed. [...] We proceed from the fact that a war may start at any time.”
Armenian reactions have tended to be determined by domestic politics, in particular the relationship to the new government led by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. “The pro-Nikol crowd says there is nothing to be afraid of, it's not the first time this has been happening,” Yerevan-based political analyst Mikayel Zolyan told Eurasianet. “Anti-Nikol people are saying the threat of war is very big and Nikol is doing nothing about it.”
Armenians also have been concerned by the surprise appearance of several high-profile Russian figures at a conference in Azerbaijan titled “Azerbaijan – Russia's Only Ally in the South Caucasus.” Armenia and Russia have a treaty relationship through the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a post-Soviet military alliance, and Armenia also is the only Caucasian member of the Russia-led economic bloc, the Eurasian Economic Union.
Nevertheless, the Russian participants – including members of the Russian Duma and Eurasianist ideologue Alexander Dugin – portrayed Azerbaijan as Russia's true ally, particularly after the rise of Pashinyan. The new Armenian leader has taken pains to reassure Russia of Yerevan's loyalty, but the Kremlin remains uneasy about the former opposition journalist with a history of pro-Western positions.
“Pashinyan's rise to power and the arrest of the close circles of [former leader] Serzh Sargsyan has completely changed the shape of Armenian-Russian relations,” said pundit Maxim Shevchenko, speaking at the conference. “Now Russia is gradually being excluded […] and the Russian president does not like it when people act like that with him.”
Another participant, Duma member Dmitriy Savelyev, called on Armenia to return Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan without preconditions. This prompted a response from the Armenian embassy in Moscow: “The Russian deputy should understand that in our fragile world every word is a shot fired, which could double the risk of escalating the situation and threaten the peaceful resolution of the conflict,” the embassy said in a statement.
In Armenia, “there is a worry that the Russians may be trying to punish Armenia through Azerbaijan,” Zolyan said.
Azerbaijani political analyst and historian Altay Goyushov also said the recent escalation appeared to be tied to Pashinyan and Russia, but said it remained unclear whether it was Moscow or Baku driving events. One possibility, he said, was that Russian President Vladimir Putin “wants to put pressure on Pashinyan and urges Aliyev to assist”; and another is that “Aliyev thinks that in this situation he can obtain Putin's approval for a military action against 'disobedient'-to-Russia Pashinyan.” Goyushov said he believed, however, that Baku would not undertake serious military action without clear approval from the Kremlin.
But Baku also is satisfied with the way things are going in Yerevan and so will not want to start a war now, said Fuad Chiragov, a foreign policy analyst at the Azerbaijani government-run think tank Center for Strategic Studies. “Azerbaijan carefully, patiently, with satisfaction observes the wave of corruption scandals and arrests of former officials and warlords,” Chiragov told Eurasianet. “Azerbaijan is not interested in interrupting the deconstruction process of the old system.”
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.