Interviews 18:14 26/08/2014

Cory Welt: Azerbaijan’s military success is unlikely, which prevents escalation to full-scale war

On Azerbaijani recent military aggression against the Nagorno Karabakh Republic and the RA, the security issue of the people of Nagorno Karabakh as well as the prospects of the Customs Union has spoken to Associate Director and Associate Research Professor of International Affairs at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, George Washington University Dr. Cory Welt.

- Dr. Welt, recently there has been a marked escalation of hostilities in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict zone while Azerbaijan’s president has openly threatened Armenia with war. What do you think this is preconditioned by? 

- It is always difficult to say exactly why a new outbreak of hostilities occurs along the line of contact. With each summer’s violence worse than the last, the risk of escalation spinning out of control is very high. Unfortunately, as hostilities die down each year, we tend to forget this risk.

It is also hard to understand exactly what the intentions of President Aliyev are, but his speech about war did not seem to be a direct threat. It sounded more like a warning that Azerbaijan has not given up on its lost territories and does not intend to, while serving as a rhetorical way for Aliyev to end this latest round of hostilities.

At the same time, Aliyev saw this summer how much the West supported Ukraine in its efforts to fight externally-supported separatism in the Donbas, as well as Israel’s use of force in Gaza. He is surely convinced that Azerbaijan, too, has the legitimate right to use force; it is only a question of whether he can succeed. For now, Azerbaijan’s military success remains a very big question mark, which fortunately helps put a brake on escalation to full-scale war.

- Can we say that Europe would be more interested to stop Azerbaijan from waging a war now than it was in 1991 (when no one stopped the Azeri aggression), given the fact that Azerbaijan is now an exporter of gas and oil to Europe, with BP having big shares in the Caspian, which will be endangered in case of the resumption of military hostilities? To what extent can this factor actually constitute a deterrent against possible Azerbaijani aggression?

- I would like to think that Europeans worry more about the human cost of a full-scale war in the Caucasus than they do about the potential risk to the pipelines, which for now supply relatively little energy to Europe and would, in the worst case, only be down temporarily. I also don’t think the potential European reaction to an attack on the pipeline is a deterrent to Azerbaijan, if it was truly determined to wage war. Those concerned about the fate of the pipeline would likely blame whichever side directly attacked the pipeline, not who started the conflict.

- The recent Azerbaijani attacks on Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia, growing anti-Armenianism in Azerbaijan (most vividly demonstrated by the Safarov case), complete refusal to accept NKR as a reality as well as official statements to use of force to retake the NK constitute direct existential threats to the population of Nagorno Karabakh. Under these circumstances, how should the security of the population of NK be guaranteed even if a peace agreement is signed between the sides? What confidence building measures should Azerbaijan undertake to reassure that it poses no threat to Armenians?

- Regrettably, we’re not at a moment in time when Azerbaijan is able to credibly offer security guarantees to the population of Nagorno-Karabakh. This is one of the major obstacles to a resolution of the conflict, together with the unwillingness of Nagorno-Karabakh to relinquish occupied territories around the former NKAO. If there were a peace agreement, it would have to include an international peacekeeping contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh that Azerbaijan would not have the right to evict, as well as at least unarmed observers in neighbouring territories that would themselves have to constitute a demilitarized zone. We are far away from such a solution, however. In the meantime, confidence-building measures that could be implemented are simple, on both sides, if there were only political will – a lessening of war rhetoric, a drawdown of snipers, safe treatment and return of detainees, and at least partial demining.

- Dr. Welt, what future do you see for the Russia-led Customs Union and the Eurasian Union? How can the current confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine impact this project and its members?

- I suspect that these integration projects will ultimately be successful only to the extent that they reflect the genuine interests of their members and prospective members. We have already seen significant signs of pushback from Kazakhstan and Belarus against the most ambitious forms of these projects, which their leaders do not view to be in their national interests.

The current confrontation in Ukraine is not between Russia and the West. It is between Moscow and Kyiv. I do not think this confrontation itself is key to the success of failure of Moscow-led integration projects. You’ll notice that it really hasn’t changed any country’s position, even Ukraine’s – those opposed to membership continue to oppose, those who supported membership continue to support (even if they are unhappy about it). Unless Moscow genuinely has the power to force integration on its neighbours, Soviet-style (which I doubt), the fate of these projects depends on their economic attractiveness as compared to the attractiveness of alternative models such as those the EU offers. The greatest opportunity for the Customs Union/Eurasian Union is if greater integration with the EU fails to provide the anticipated economic benefits. Disillusionment in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine would be the greatest stimulus for the success of these Russia-led projects. 

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