Internet has carried headlines from Baku and Yerevan on the latest in military buildup . . .
“Azeris May Buy Drones From Israel”
“Azerbaijan to Buy UAVs to Watch Over Occupied Areas”
“Armenia Takes Conuntermeasures in Response to Azerbaijan Buying Unmanned Aircraft”
“Karabakh to enlarge Security Zone if Azerbaijan Attacks”
There’s more but the picture is clear. The war rhetoric from Baku is now amplified by reports that 10 unmanned robotic reconnaissance aircraft, popularly called “drones,” are being purchased from Israel. This news follows another report that Azerbaijan is raising its annual defense budget to new heights: from $1 billion to $1.3 billion next year. Armenian responses are equally stark. Nagorno Karabakh’s president warns that Armenian forces will seize more territory to enlarge its security zone if Azerbaijan attacks. And in Yerevan, Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian asserted that defense counter-measures are being taken by Armenia’s military forces.
Drones have become increasingly employed in warfare today. Israel uses them to track Hamas insurgents in Gaza, and Americans search out al-Qaeda and other insurgents in Iraq and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. In one of the South Caucasus conflict zones, a Georgian drone was shot down by a Russian jet over the disputed region of Abkhazia. The Georgians protested loudly and criticism was heard from Washington, but the Georgians were not about to go to battle against Russian troops in Abkhazia over the incident.
However, one must wonder about the consequences if one of Azerbaijan’s newly purchased drones was destroyed by an Armenian military jet. Could that ignite large-scale warfare in the Karabakh region? It certainly can and some analysts predict renewed fighting is becoming inevitable. One Armenian political analyst, Levon Melik-Shahnazarian has written: “As soon as Azerbaijan concludes that it militarily surpasses Armenia it will not hesitate a second (to attack). In an analysis on June 20, Trend News Agency wrote, “Azerbaijani experts believe that if military expenditures continue to be expanded by both countries, the resumption of military operations between Azerbaijan and Armenia will be inevitable.”
The reaction from United States officials to this danger ranged from sharp questions in Congress, to more muted concerns from American diplomats. In a June 18 congressional hearing entitled “The Caucasus: Frozen Conflicts and Closed Borders” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) expressed alarm over the situation stating, “I’m deeply concerned by the increasingly bellicose statements made over the past year about Nagorno Karabakh, by senior Azerbaijani officials, as well as the steady increase in Azerbaijan’s defense budget as that nation acquires more oil wealth. The serious breakdown earlier this year in the 14-year-old cease-fire has been widely blamed on Azerbaijani provocations.”
Sharp questions were directed at Daniel Fried, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, who testified at the hearing. In a more diplomatically nuanced response Fried said, in part, “We hope that the Azerbaijani government will avoid the temptation of thinking that renewed fighting is a viable option. In our view it is not. We have noted our concern with persistent bellicose rhetoric by some Azerbaijani officials.” He carefully neglected to note that President Aliyev is the most insistent Azerbaijani saber rattler. Fried went on to say that the United States calls on Baku “to focus on the peaceful resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh dispute.”
What is clear is that the moment is fraught with danger. It is universally agreed that the sharp increase in the military inventory of Azerbaijan and corresponding improvement of Armenia’s defense arsenal intensifies the threat of a new Karabakh war.
One good sign was that peace talks brokered by the OSCE’s Minsk Group co-chairs were resumed in St. Petersburg. It was President Serge Sarkisian’s first opportunity to directly engage President Aliyev in the peace process. No agreements were reached nor were any expected; however, Aliyev did reiterate Baku’s commitment to the primacy of the OSCE’s Minsk Group as the principal mechanism for the resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. That was a small but important shift in tactics by the Azeri president. In recent months Baku had attempted to circumvent the OSCE and move the Karabakh issue to the larger diplomatic arena of the United Nations, where it had the automatic support of virtually all the Islamic nations and those states that are confronted by secession-minded minorities.
In sum, the atmosphere is extremely dangerous and the flicker of hope for a peaceful settlement is dim. What is needed is for the international community to more forcefully insist that the resumption of war is unacceptable. New investments in the energy and transportation sectors are at risk, as is the stability of the entire region. As for Armenia, it must keep its military capabilities at the highest levels of efficiency. But just as important, sane minds must prevail so that the current internal political tensions do not jeopardize the physical security of the people in Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh.