The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has long been a frozen conflict unresolved for almost 30 years, now it’s a flashpoint with geopolitical consequences.
Azerbaijan has accused Armenia of seeking to target the country’s critical energy infrastructure as fighting in the heavily fortified region of Nagorno-Karabakh once again threatens to plunge both countries into an all-out war.
“They want to damage and undermine the critical infrastructure of the country,” said Leyla Abdullayeva, the spokesperson for the Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov, underlining the importance of the country's contribution to the global energy market.
Simmering tensions between the neighbours flared up over the weekend with both sides accusing the other of attacking each other's positions.
“In a bid to divert the attention of its own population from the devastating socio-economic situation in the country,” Armenia is seeking to use the Karabakh conflict to distract its population, said Abdullayeva speaking to TRT World.
Internationally recognised as occupied territory, the Nagorno-Karabakh region has been under the control of Armenia ever since both sides fought a bitter war between 1991-93 resulting in over 30,000 deaths and displacing more than a million people.
Azerbaijan, with the backing of international law and numerous UN resolutions confirming that the Karabakh region is occupied land which belongs to Baku, has grown weary of international inaction on the issue.
The Armenian “provocation” as Abdullayeva calls it, has grown in frequency since July when a skirmish between the two sides on their borders far from the Karabakh region lasting several days refocused international attention on the conflict.
In late August, the Azerbejani military captured an Armenian military commander they accused of preparing sabotage operations within the country.
“I have to underline that the Azerbaijani army is fighting on its own territory within the internationally recognised borders of Azerbaijan. Whereas the army of Armenia is illegally present in Azerbaijani territory. The root cause of the fighting is the continuation of the aggressive policies of Armenia,” said Abdullayeva.
The strategic Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) inaugurated in 2018, which takes gas from Azerbaijan through to Georgia and Turkey and onwards to Europe, but bypasses Armenia, could be at risk in war between the two sides.
Russia, a longtime backer of Armenia, would not be overly disappointed if the TANAP pipeline, which loosens Moscow’s grip on Europe’s energy market, were to be put out of action.
Moscow sells weapons to both countries and even as it has been cultivating closer relations with Azerbaijan’s political elite in recent years it is still strategically closer to Armenia.
Certainly some in Azerbaijan see Russia’s hand in the conflict as being motivated by energy considerations.
“Why do you think the Armenian army went into action [in July] at a distance of some 30-40 kilometers from the strategic oil and gas pipelines? Who is not interested in the emergence of alternative gas sources on the European market? I think if one finds an answer to this question, then all other questions will become irrelevant," said Ali Hajizade a political analyst and director of The Greater Middle East project in Baku.
When pressed whether he was referring to Russia, he told TRT World he sees no other answer.
“The Azerbaijani side, at different levels, has repeatedly stated that a provocation on the border [in July] was just a rehearsal, and that Armenia was preparing for a big war,” added Hajizade.
The conflagration between the two sides comes at a particularly perilous moment internationally. The term of the general secretary of Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) expired in July and is yet to be filled.
The Minsk Group, a forum inside the OSCE, has been one forum where the two sides could speak to each other since it was created in 1992 in a bid to resolve the Karabakh conflict.
Since then however, the Minsk Group, led by France, Russia and the United States has found it difficult to make headway.
Baku also distrusts the grouping, suspecting that because the three countries leading it have large Armenian diaspora with considerable lobbying powers there is no incentive to resolve the conflict.
Added to the itinerary of problems is a global pandemic still in full swing and a vaccine months, if not years away. The US is paralysed by an increasingly bitter presidential election and with European countries reeling from the economic fallout of Covid-19, a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan could easily spiral out of control.
The negotiations, which were held under the auspices of the Minsk Group, have “produced no result whatsoever,” said Hajizade.
“Neither the Minsk Group nor the international community, except for certain countries, have so far openly declared who the victim and who the aggressor is in this conflict. No sanctions were imposed on Armenia,” he added.
More worryingly is that Hajizade believes that the role of the international community has been “destructive” and failed to hold Armenia accountable.
“Of course, we understand that war means death and bloodshed, but we were left with no other choice. The more Azerbaijan tolerated and made concessions, the more unrealistic demands the Armenian side made, and it is the time to put an end to this,” Hajizade added.
And were the two sides to go to war, the Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan has urged his people to “unite to defend our history, our homeland, identity, our future and our present.”
Velvet glove, iron fist
Pashinyan came to power in 2018 on the back of anti-government protests which he declared a “Velvet Revolution.”
At the time the EU, Russia and the US praised Pashinyan for leading the country away from bloodshed and using peaceful methods to change the government.
The international community saw a democratic and more liberal government come to power. In Azerbaijan, the change in government was seen through a different lens.
A more “bellicose and nationalistic” government came to power says Rusif Huseynov a foreign policy expert and director of Baku-based think tank Topchubashov Center.
Pashinyan sent his son to serve in the occupied Karabakh region and more recently his wife organised military exercises for dozens of Armenian women, which for Huseynov demonstrated the “level of militarisation of the Armenian society.”
In August 2019 Pashinyan gave a speech, “Karabakh is Armenia” in favour of forcefully incorporating the Karabakh region into Armenia, which Huseynov described to TRT World as “pan-Armenian irredentist ambitions.”
Armenia not only supports the breakaway region of Karabakh but also occupies the surrounding areas which cumulatively account for almost 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory.
On a visit to America in 2019, Armenia's Defence Minister David Tonoyan, flatly rejected Azerbaijan’s “land for peace” formula to resolve the conflict. Instead the Pashinyan government is championing a new formula “new war for new territories.”
The new formula seeks to actively deter Azerbaijan from trying to retake its occupied territory and keep the option open for occupying further territory. Azerbaijan sees the change in rhetoric coming out of Armenia as a turning point and both sides are now entering a dangerous new phase.
“The Azerbaijani political-military establishment will probably proceed as far as possible in order to remove the Armenian occupation over Azerbaijani territories. It is the necessity of the present day,” said Huseynov.