A fresh outbreak of military hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia broke out on September 13, leaving up to more than 150 dead, including Armenian civilians. Unlike in previous clashes, the current tensions involve the national territory of Armenia (Sotk, Jermuk and Goris areas), not the disputed region of Karabakh. This showdown reveals that the fragility of the balance of power in the region is worsening and could lead to a war bigger than the one in 2020.
Flaws in Russia's military strategy regarding Ukraine could play a catalytic role in making that happen, especially if Russia's military and political morale declines further. But it is difficult to attribute a direct causal relationship between the events in the Ukraine and the South Caucasus, even if there is some degree of time overlap. In any case, if Russia does not restore the perception that it is a strong military power, it will face an imminent review of its relevance in maintaining peace and stability in Karabakh.
Overstretched beyond its current military strategic means, Russia’s geopolitical weight is diminishing under the cumulative effects of the Western sanctions and the damaged image of its military powerhouse. By prioritising the Ukrainian theatre, Moscow is finding it harder to micro-manage the complicated relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The three arrangements that Vladimir Putin negotiated between Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev in 2020-21 are working only partly, being challenged regularly by violations from both sides.
Pashinyan has given a positive appreciation of the activity of the Russian peacekeepers deployed since 2020 in the Karabakh region but just six days later the shelling between Azeri and Armenian sides restarted on 13 September. Similarly, Aliyev has reiterated Azerbaijan’s commitment to fulfil the Russia-brokered trilateral declarations. These refer to the returning of some lands under the Azeri control, as well as the approval of the initially five-year long presence of 1,960 Russian peacekeepers with less than 500 military transport vehicles in Karabakh.
The military tensions have been obstructing the diplomatic dialogue on restoring the bilateral transportation and economic ties. The progress on the delimitation and demarcation of the borders is also compromised, despite the fact that the EU has joined these efforts in a parallel mediation process.
Both Armenia and Azerbaijan understand that Russian mediating power can face objective constraints, primarily because of the consequences of the lasting aggression against Ukraine. In Armenian eyes, the Russian security guarantees should ensure protection against external threats. Despite Russia’s current weaknesses, Armenia cannot simply escape the Russian dependence in the security field. A qualitative change in the strategic preferences of Armenia can only arise if Russia were to be replaced with a solid alternative to counterbalance the Azeri-Turkish tandem. An international UN mission deployed in Armenia, directly or with the assistance of Georgia, could ease the pressure, but will still need the Russians to supervise the situation in Karabakh and the Lachin Corridor.
From the Azeri standpoint, the presence of Russia is useful to the extent that it helps to shape and shift the position of the Armenian side, avoiding military confrontations that could lead to international isolation and sanctions. Frequent bilateral talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin allows Aliyev to project power at home and is also used as part of multi-vector diplomacy with the West. These aspects do not reduce Azerbaijan’s determination to complete its campaign of restoration of its territorial integrity.
If Baku is the initiator of the shelling against Armenia, this could only serve as a way to sow division between Yerevan and Moscow and undermine Russia’s relevance as a security player in the region. Such thoughts have not yet been revealed by Azerbaijan and are quite problematic, since that would imply a fight with Russia with all the related consequences.
Armenia’s options and Azerbaijan’s motivations
The immediate reaction of Armenia was to ask the help of Russia, with which it is linked by a 1997 defence treaty that ideally should have activated military assistance from the Russian side. The next provider of security is the CSTO’s Art. 4, which, as in the case of Art. 5 of Nato, triggers the collective defence obligations. On 14 September, Armenia triggered the article on collective defence. According to the treaty, even without an official condemnation of the Azeri actions, the member states are obliged to express solidarity and supply defence assistance. This does not include, however, a mandatory deployment of a peacekeeping mission, mirroring the experience of Kazakhstan at the beginning of 2022 during the mass protests, allegedly hijacked by the plotters of a coup. The UN should be informed about any measures taken after the triggering of the collective defence clause.
In the meantime, the CSTO Extraordinary Council decided to send an evaluation mission, following Article 2 of the treaty activated by Armenia on the day of the escalations on September 13. The mission will travel to Armenia to collect information on the circumstances of the hostilities and write a report. The "evaluation" mission will include the organisation's leadership and member state representatives (five without Armenia), making it seem more like a "bureaucratic" intervention than anything else. Armenia seeks to prove its allegations about the attacks against its territories. That would solidify international efforts to blame Azerbaijan for the ongoing hostilities. A small first success has already been achieved, as French President Emmanuel Macron's request to his Azeri counterpart on the urgency of stopping hostilities and respecting the ceasefire agreement showed.
This made France the only international actor that has so far sent a signal referring to Azerbaijan by talking about hostilities. This differentiates France from Russia, the CSTO or the EU that put the two sides on an equal footing while demanding an end to the escalation.
Azerbaijan will have to think twice before shelling while the CSTO evaluation mission is investigating the villages hit by Azeri artillery. This is also a risky moment of legitimacy for the CSTO, if Baku disregards the presence of the mission and continues the shelling. Azerbaijan would more likely abstain than actually draw any attention and confirm that it is the initiator or the main responsible side. The decisions of Baku might also change if the CSTO countries are getting involved in the supply of defence aid to Armenia. Until then, Azerbaijan is claiming that its shelling is a response to the alleged “provocations” of the Armenians placing military equipment next to civilian objectives when targeting Azerbaijan.
This way Baku tries to justify the extension of its military operation deep into Armenian territory. The same argument of using the civilians was the cause of huge scandals around the heavily criticised Amnesty International’s report on Ukraine. The accusations launched should be proved and probably Russia and CSTO are expecting the CSTO mission to verify their plausibility.
There are several ways to explain the ongoing hostilities. Some might say that there are no controls preventing Baku from engaging in militaristic behaviour. Others might claim that there are saboteurs around Pashinyan from the military ranks that he is not aware of and that they are instrumentalising these hostilities to prevent the government from recognising the Soviet borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan. In any case, the current status quo is in jeopardy. The lack of evidence makes finding a clear answer quite difficult.
In fact, another war between the two countries is not ruled out, but if such a scenario comes to life, an exhausted Russia and a hesitant CSTO will have to face Azerbaijan. Consequently, this will lead to the participation of Turkey, which has already helped Baku in 2020.
The current hostilities in the South Caucasus are definitely testing the Russian status quo in the region, but radical changes in the balance of power will only be associated with an all-out war between the two sides. In order not to turn against each other as the intended consequence of such a war, Russia and Turkey, whose alliance is growing, will have to take a step before the tipping point is reached.
Denis Cenusa is a Political Risk Analyst, Associated Expert at the Center for Eastern European Studies (Lithuania) and the think-tank “Expert-Grup” (Moldova). His main research focus lies in the EU's external governance, energy security, geoeconomics and crisis management in the post-Soviet space.