Better Policies. Better Future.

Round-table Discussion on “The 4-day War between Armenia and Azerbaijan: Russia’s Role and Implications for the Wider Region”

Thursday, April 21, 2016 - 12:30
Washington, DC
United States


Washington, DC.—On April 21, 2016, Policy Forum Armenia held a round-table discussion on the "4-day war" between Armenia and Azerbaijan that brought together experts from Modus Vivendi center (Yerevan), National Defense University, Brookings Institution, Johns Hopkins University (SAIS), American University (SIS), and Carnegie Foundation (all Washington), as well as members of Washington Armenian community. What follows is a summary of the discussions that took place during the seminar. 

Opening remarks

The events of the” 4-day war” debunked two critical myths in Armenia:

Myth #1: The regime is capable of preserving the status quo in Artsakh (Armenian name of Nagorno-Karabakh) by maintaining a viable army. We know now this is not true: systemic corruption and incompetence were in many ways behind the failures of intelligence, adequate supply of arms, and diplomacy.

Myth # 2: Russia is an effective partner and can at least guarantee the peace in the region. This too proved wrong. Moreover, concern now is that Russia is preparing a defeatist peace for Armenia, involving deployment of peacekeepers in the region and forcing Armenia to give away some territories.

It is only due to the effort of the troops on the line of contact that the situation was saved. As a result, the view commonly shared within the society is that the regime needs to go as it cannot perform its key functions anymore.

This war is not a minor issue and it can draw in other regional power.

Developments during April 2-5

  • The conflicting sides engaged each other on a scale unseen since the ceasefire of 1994. Armenian side had nearly 100 deaths and over 200 wounded. On the Azerbaijan’s side, the numbers are likely to be multiples of that, but the official data are unreliable.
  • Main questions on people’s minds: what happened, why now, and what is awaiting Armenia down the road? Factors such as low oil prices, growing tension between the ethnic groups and between the Sunnis and Shias, as well as Panama Papers could have been behind Aliyev’s actions. The intention could have been to divert the attention of public from the internal problems toward the enemy, Armenia.
  • While Russia blames Turkey for the renewed hostilities (presenting the latest escalation as a proxy war between Russia and Turkey), it is clear that Russia failed to provide any tangible support to Armenia, causing frustration in Armenia. Much of this frustration was aired during the demonstrations in front of the Russian embassy, which accompanied (Russian Foreign Minister Sergey) Lavrov’s visit to Armenia. More specifically, Russia’s supplies of advanced weapons to Azerbaijan are seen as contributing to the hostilities. In the past few years, Russia sold Azerbaijan nearly $5 billion worth of weapons, which dwarfs the amount of equipment it sold to Armenia. In fact, Russia’s supply of weapons to Armenia during the past 3 years has been minimal and some recent purchases (to be funded by $200 million Russian loan) are yet to be delivered. There is a strong correlation between the supply of weapons in the region and this war. Both the frequency of clashed and the number of casualties have gone up with Azerbaijan’s acquisition of modern weapon: Armenian combat losses were 53, 76, and 94, in 2014, 2015, and so far in 2016, respectively. There is a concern that in the near future there will be a much bigger war between Armenia and Azerbaijan with usage of advanced armament.
  • There are two reasons why the “4-day war” was a strange one. First, the Armenian side didn’t use any advanced weaponry (e.g., rockets and launchers). Only ground operations were conducted and there was no order made to use any type of advanced weapons. Second, the rear army units (from Armenia proper) were not used on the frontier. These observations made some analysts suspicious that this was a staged performance/war to make Armenian army look defeated, so some territories can be annexed from Artsakh followed by a Russia-brokered peace and deployment of peacekeepers. This plan failed due to the (heroic and unexpected) pushback of Armenian soldiers on the ground.
  • Finally, there is also a very big and growing dissatisfaction with the Armenian government. It has become clear for the general public that corruption that we were speaking about for so long (including PFA’s report on this) exists on a large scale and has had an impact on the army’s battle-readiness.

A view from the West

  • After the fall of the Soviet Union, the borders of the independent states remain unstable and divided, with violence remaining just below the surface. Russia’s borders have become places of violence because of internal regime instability or change. In the NKR case, the disorder rooted in Soviet heritage, which has not been resolved, being a result of both presence and absence of Russian power in the region. On the one hand, Russia has more pressing issues to worry about right now (e.g., low oil prices, sanctions, Ukraine, and economic contraction) and probably wants to avoid any deep long-time commitment in such an unstable region. On the other hand, Russia has a desire in preventing the nations on its borders from becoming strong, independent, and functional states (e.g., Ukraine, Poland, and Armenia are examples from the past and present. In early-1920s, Russian policy did not do any good to Armenia and Azerbaijan). In Belarus and Kazakhstan, Russia has partnered with authoritarian regimes run by strong men, who enrich themselves while impoverishing and repressing their people through institutionalized theft and corruption. Continuous conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is an obstacle to the progress of both countries, societies, and their foreign affairs. It keeps them isolated and justifies Russia’s role as a mediator. While preventing Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan from becoming economically viable entities in the South Caucasus region. In a continuation of its policies, Russia might be playing Armenia and Azerbaijan against each other. Forcing Armenia to abandon its aspirations of signing the European Association treaty (the lessons of which Ukrainians learned the hard way) was a move in the same direction.
  • Armenia needs to establish a more stable equilibrium with regard to the issue of Artsakh, which may require concessions and will allow the US and the EU to play a more prominent role. From the Western/American perspective, there is a little interest in choosing sides. Both governments are authoritarian and dependent. But contributing to an understanding between Armenia and Azerbaijan is in the interest of American policy makers if they want stability. Constructive American involvement will also undercut Russian influence and its ability to play Armenia against Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani actions on April 2-5 were designed to demonstrate the unsustainability of the current status quo and their ability to overturn it. Armenia is not well positioned in the long run to resist these developments. In addition, the extent of Russian friendship (in light of military supplies to Azerbaijan) is often a question: Armenia is used as a tool of Russia’s policy rather than an ally. Armenia needs to recalibrate its foreign policy so it can sustain itself instead of relying on Russia for political, economic, and diplomatic support. American and European involvement is essential in this context and can also help domestic progress in Armenia towards greater political freedom and economic functionality.
  • The Armenian side needs to do a better job at explaining the relevance and importance of continued problems in Artsakh to the Western—especially American—audience. The conflict has potentially far-reaching implications for the US: violence in the Caucasus affects international oil and gas markets, and can draw in Russia and US (as co-chairs of the Minsk group) as well as Iran and Turkey (a NATO member). In this context it is important for the US to take a leading role to ensure stability. If the US fails to do that, Russia will fill in the void and portray itself as a unilateral peacekeeper. This will undermine the US leadership in the organizations, such as OSCE, and may eventually lead to situations similar to that in Syria, where the overall US absentee policy generated poor results (e.g., ongoing conflict, refugees, and rise of ISIS).

A view from Georgia

  • Relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan are important for Georgia both in terms of trade, transit, and respective communities living in Georgia. The escalation of this conflict is obviously very bad for Georgia both economically and strategically. Georgian leaders had several conversations with their counterparts on both sides in recent days. Georgia tries to play a constructive role in this conflict, but it is beyond its ability to facilitate resolution of the conflict.
  • The strategic reality of the South Caucasus is changing, which makes the status quo around Artsakh difficult to maintain. The relevant elements are: (i) Russia is playing a more aggressive role in the neighborhood; (ii) there is a relative disengagement of the US from the region; (iii) the EU is occupied with its own problems; (iv) developments in Syria are having an impact (Russia-Turkish tensions is the most important development, with citizens of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and other neighboring countries, including Russia, fighting for ISIS in Syria and Iraq); (v) population change in Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan (with Azerbaijan having almost double that of people actually living in Georgia and Armenia combined); and (vi) relative economic strengths (75 percent of the region’s GDP is produced in Azerbaijan despite low oil prices. Azerbaijan is also the biggest investor in Georgia).
  • A recent invitation by the US administration for President Aliyev to visit Washington marked a change in otherwise rather cold relations between the West and Azerbaijan of recent years. From this standpoint, it is difficult to see how Aliyev would willingly jeopardize this progress and start a war, which is guaranteed to be unpopular in the West. Hence, Russian may have played a role here.
  • All three countries of the South Caucasus are victims and hostages of the situation when the outside power manipulates conflicts, which do not serve the interests of the people of the region.
  • During the past two millennia, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Georgians lived more under the same statehood then under different statehoods. This suggests that if relationships between people are not manipulated they can co-exist. There are some proposals on the resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict that are on the table now, but compromises from both sides are required to make them stick. It is absolutely essential to solve this conflict for the well-being of all three countries. The party that is not interested in the resolution of this conflict is Russia. Russia is not interested in major war, but Russia is also not interested in solving the conflict that would reduce its leverage over Armenia and Azerbaijan.

A view from Turkey

  • It is highly unlikely that Turkey encouraged and/or endorsed Aliyev’s actions leading to the 4-day war. Erdogan’s subsequent reaction (in support of the Azerbaijan’s moves) has to do more with the domestic politics. While the “two-countries-one-nation” slogan is often used, there are many disagreements between Turkey and Azerbaijan over key issues (see Valday paper by Sergey Markedonov). With respect to the military partnership, Turkey burned its hands badly over Georgia-Russia war in 2008 and would not want a repeat of that in a different context. It is advisable not to take the “news” that Turkey is behind the Azeri belligerence at face value; applying a dose of skepticism can go a long way in preserving the (limited) gains made in relations between Turkey and Armenia in recent years.
  • It is not inconceivable that Turkey would welcome a possible peacekeeper deployment by Russia in Artsakh, since from Turkey’s standpoint this will bring an element of stability in the newly erupted conflict. However, this would be very hard for Russia to pull off, because Armenia is a part of the CSTO treaty organization, while Azerbaijan is not. Russia’s attempt to do this via the UN will face Turkey’s resistance. However, there is a clear understanding that Azerbaijan increasingly needs Russia, inter alia precisely because of the Russia-Turkey conflict in Iraq and Syria since November 2015. Lastly, due to the lessons that Turkey had drawn from Syria, Turkey does not intend to compete with Russia in the Caucasus.
  • Regarding the Turkey’s direct involvement in the conflict, except for a case of a direct attack on Turkey, this is highly unlikely. In reality, the NATO will violently discourage Turkey from becoming involved in any military sense, for reasons including the Russian presence a few kilometers away from the Turkish border.
  • Putin did to Turkey what Joseph Stalin did in April 1945: he pushed Turkey in the arms of the West. The challenge here that the establishment and the current leadership of Turkey view these things differently.
  • From a strategic point of view, Russia messed-up completely Turkey’s foreign policy, which led to a near complete loss of markets for Turkey (i.e., all except the EU). The only one that is left is the 90 km corridor from Turkey to the Caspian Sea and then to the Central Asia, as all other routes have been closed by Russia. The focus of the Turkish establishment will be to maintain the life of this corridor.