Since the occurrence of large scale fighting around Nagorno-Karabakh in April 2016, resulting in some Azerbaijani gains, there has been a widespread fear that this crisis could easily escalate out of control drawing in not only the two belligerents but also Russia, wrote Stephen Blank, senior fellow with the American Foreign Policy Council, in his article published by the Central Asia – Caucasus Analyst biweekly.
“Armenia’s response to the visible enhancement of Azerbaijan’s military capability has marked a qualitative escalation of the crisis’ military potential. Moreover, it has further unmasked the Russian policy of abetting the crisis rather than trying to resolve it, even though Moscow professes to be against renewed hostilities and to want a solution,” noted the author.
According to Blank, last year, Russia and Armenia have taken major steps to enhance the latter’s military and thus deterrence potential vis-à-vis Baku.
“These actions include the establishment of a joint Russo-Armenian air defense for the Caucasus and joint forces to “ensure security in the Caucasus region of collective security”; ongoing modernization of Russian bases in Armenia; Armenian lobbying to increase the effectiveness of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO); a new agreement on new weapons transfers to Armenia and the development of overall military-technical cooperation; and most significantly the transfer to Armenia of the Iskander-M missile – a dual-use missile that comes in both cruise and ballistic missile variants,” says the article.
“To add fuel to this fire, Armenian officials claim that they received the Iskander from Russia at subsidized prices and that it is entirely under Armenian control. Whether or not this is truly the case – it is admittedly a rather inconceivable proposition that Russia would be unable to assert control of the system – this marks the first time Moscow has ever transferred an Iskander missile abroad and therefore another reckless step taken by Moscow in the military sphere,” said Blank in his article. “Although Moscow undoubtedly sought to upgrade Armenia’s deterrence capability, the terms under which Armenia claims to have received the Iskander and President Sargsyan’s stated readiness to use it have not calmed things down but infuriated Baku.”
“Baku has given notice that it is contemplating its own ripostes, either by acquiring foreign missile defenses for example from Israel or by developing or acquiring its own offensive missiles to raise the ante on Armenia. Thus a new escalatory spiral and arms race appears to be taking place over Nagorno-Karabakh,” noted the author.
Beyond strengthening Armenia’s deterrence capability and its own standing in Yerevan’s eyes, Moscow has also strengthened its position in Armenia and throughout the Caucasus by deploying the Iskander along with troops and other arms systems to its base in Gyumri, Armenia, says the article.
“It has clearly intervened on behalf of Yerevan and Foreign Minister Lavrov subsequently announced that the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is not merely an Azerbaijani or Armenian one, meaning that Russia will weigh in on its resolution,” added Blank.
According to Blank, Moscow has qualitatively escalated the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
“Armenia’s claim to have both unlimited control and command of the system and willingness to use it have already further heightened the tension in the Caucasus, underscoring the recklessness of transferring such systems even if legal loopholes exist for doing so. Of course, the transfer to Armenia also shows that Moscow is not a neutral arbiter between Baku and Yerevan, quite the opposite,” he said.
Blank said Moscow has once again demonstrated a lack of good judgment, which is a fundamental legitimating factor in its claims to dominate the former Soviet space.
These developments raise several questions, said the author.
“Beyond the Caucasus, we now must reckon with the possibility of Moscow selling versions of the Iskander missile to other partners and customers, including China and Iran,” noted Blank.
Moreover, beyond threatening Azerbaijan, Russia’s deployments throughout the Caucasus also threaten the Middle East, including Turkey, says the article, they isolate both the Caucasus and the larger Black Sea Basin, as well as parts of the Middle East from NATO military power.
According to Blank, these issues furnish ample incentive, if not justification, for US and Western involvement in formulating and implementing a viable resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The widespread belief that this conflict will not remain frozen and that the consequences of that “unfreezing” will be catastrophic, not only for Armenia and Azerbaijan, appears to have even greater validity due to the Russo-Armenian escalation, noted the author.
In other words, what happens in the Caucasus does not stay in the Caucasus, he added.