Nagorno-Karabakh: on course for militarization
Another negotiating round between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, held on October 16 in Geneva, has failed. This was a disappointment, but not a surprise for supporters of peace on both sides of the front. A few days before the meeting, Armenia's Deputy Foreign Minister Shavarsh Kocharyan stated quite explicitly that "it is impossible to make progress in the negotiations if there is trust between the parties." Even then it was safe to say that Yerevan has been preparing to negotiate with the requirement to introduce incident investigation mechanisms at the front as a precondition for conducting substantive negotiations.
It's Azerbaijan, which, in turn, insists on substantive negotiations. The so-called "substantive negotiations" imply the liberation of at least a few occupied regions around Nagorno-Karabakh by Armenia. This would show Armenia's readiness to make real concessions, would open the way to the restoration of economic ties between the countries, reduce the likelihood of the countries resuming the war, as well as eliminate the possibility of "preserving" the current status quo for the next decades, which is most feared in Baku. Azerbaijan is ready to accept the introduction of mechanisms for investigating the incidents on the front line only when it receives clear guarantees that this line will not turn into a border in the future. Probably, these guarantees were not received in Geneva.
Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian's September statements about Armenia negotiating with "Azerbaijan for the return of a part of the territories", which will not threaten "security of Nagorno Karabakh", either initially were a farce, or Azerbaijan was offered so small territories, that the talks simply did not get off the ground. If after the final statement of the presidents and co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group following the Geneva meeting, someone could still have illusions of compromise, then President Serzh Sargsyan have dispelled them the same day. "The only solution that works for us is that Karabakh should not be part of Azerbaijan," he said at a meeting with the Armenian community in Switzerland. Azerbaijan accused the Armenian President of violating the agreements, according to which, the parties should not make any statements on the results of the Geneva meeting, apart from the agreed final statement. Anyway, against the background of such statements, the OSCE co-chairs talk about the "constructiveness" of the last meeting can not be taken seriously.
Diplomacy has reached a deadlock, and the parties to the conflict do not expect any progress in the negotiations. In the meantime, the situation at the front is aggravating. From October 19 to 22, three Armenian soldiers were killed in the border areas (one of them, 19-year-old Aram Khachatryan was killed by a fellow serviceman). In addition, Azerbaijani soldier Jabbar Zeynalov was killed on October 22. It seems that the period of relative calm at the front s have come to an end.
Meanwhile, the media became aware of conclusion of Azerbaijan's deal with Belarus, according to which the Azerbaijani army will be supplied $170 million worth of arms. It is reported that the list of weapons also includes multiple launch rocket systems Polonaise - a modern development of the Belarusian defence industry. The multiple launch rocket system's destruction range is 120-200 kilometers, depending on the type of missiles, which is enough to hit any point in Armenia and in the occupied territories. It is hardly possible that Baku plans to attack Armenia first, risking provoking interference in the CSTO conflict, but Polonaise multiple launch rocket systems reduces the likelihood of Armenia's use of the Iskanders to strike at strategic infrastructure facilities in Azerbaijan and Baku to a minimum. There is another component of the deal - political. By supplying Azerbaijan with its newest weapons, Minsk has once again clearly demonstrated its sympathies in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which are not on the side of Belarus' ally in the CSTO and EEU.
The Armenian side has not been passive as well. On the eve of the meeting of the presidents in Geneva, the Armenian government approved Russia's preferential $100 million loan, which will be used to buy arms from Rosoboronexport. The loan will be valid in 2018-2022. In 2015, Armenia entered into a similar agreement with Russia, receiving the $200 million loan. At the same time, Armenian Defense Minister Vigen Sargsyan expresses interest in buying arms from other countries, for example, China, which he had visited recently.
It is obvious that at the moment Armenia and Azerbaijan, in the absence of any progress in the negotiations, are heading for further militarization, which inevitably affects the operational situation along the contact line between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops, as well as significantly increases the risk of local armed clashes and the conflict entering a hot phase in the short-term. The risk of a prolonged full-scale clash between Armenia and Azerbaijan is relatively low, as Russia's influencing factor remains decisive in the region, as demonstrated by the April 2016 clashes. At the same time, however, Moscow should not underestimate powerful domestic political dynamics after every such "surge", which often evolves according to its own, unpredictable logic.