Azerbaijan’s counteroffensive is legal but might inadvertently spiral out of control

Armenia's unprovoked aggression against Azerbaijan on Sunday prompted the latter to launch a counteroffensive all across the frontlines of Occupied Nagorno-Karabakh, though Yerevan will now more than likely seek to internationalize the very same crisis that it's entirely responsible for sparking in order to secure more tacit support for its continued occupation of roughly 20% of its neighbor's territory, which risks sparking a global crisis that could spiral out of control.

Background Briefing

Armenia and Azerbaijan have once again come to blows over Occupied Nagorno-Karabakh (ONK), which is controlled by the former despite being universally recognized as the latter’s legal territory, even by Yerevan itself interestingly enough. Both parties predictably blame one another for starting this latest round of hostilities, though the facts strongly stand on Azerbaijan’s side. Not only does Armenia continue to occupy roughly 20% of its neighbor’s territory in violation of UN Resolutions on the matter, but it unsuccessfully tried to provoke an earlier crisis over the summer, thus proving a pattern of aggressive intent. The author analyzed the situation at the time in a series of three articles that the reader is encouraged to review in order to familiarize themselves with his interpretation of those relevant events:

* 20 July: “Don’t Fall For The Alt-Media Narrative On Armenia & Azerbaijan

* 4 August: “Armenia’s Risky Tovuz Strategy Dramatically Backfired

* 21 August: “Why Did Russia Reaffirm Its CSTO Support To Belarus But Not To Armenia?

To summarize a very complex situation, Armenia attacked Azerbaijan two months ago as part of its US-backed strategy to internationalize the Nagorno-Karabakh issue in the hope of securing more support for its continued illegal occupation of that territory and splitting the Russian-Turkish Strategic Partnership. Russia didn’t take Armenia’s side in the matter since its CSTO mutual defense obligations only require it to defend the landlocked country’s internationally recognized territory. Even though Tovuz is north of ONK along the undisputed border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan was responding to Armenian aggression, not vice-versa. In the context of the latest clashes, under no circumstances will Russia directly intervene to save Armenian forces in ONK since Moscow de-jure regards the region as falling under Baku’s writ even if it’s de-facto under Yerevan’s.

Moscow’s Dilemma

In the event that a ceasefire isn’t immediately agreed to like Russia has requested, then its interests lie solely in ensuring that Azerbaijan doesn’t attack Armenia’s internationally recognized territory otherwise Moscow might be prompted to intervene in Yerevan’s support in order to “save face” even if it doesn’t want to get involved. The problem, however, is that Armenian territory is obviously being used to arm and supply the country’s forces in ONK who attacked Azerbaijan’s and thus prompted the latter to launch a counteroffensive all along the frontlines. This arguably makes them a legitimate target of surgical Azerbaijani strikes, which in turn could trigger the tripwire of Russian intervention, not necessarily against Azerbaijan per se but just to remind Baku of Moscow’s CSTO commitment to defend Yerevan’s internationally recognized territory.

It therefore follows that the “best-case” scenario failing an immediate ceasefire is for Russia to leverage its influence over both parties to ensure that their latest clashes remain limited to ONK and don’t target each other’s forces outside of that region. This is much easier said than done because military commanders are under intense pressure to not only respond to any attacks that their adversaries might launch against them from outside of ONK, but to even preemptively strike such targets before they have the chance to do so. Thus, it’s unlikely that Russia will succeed in its attempt to encourage both sides to “show restraint”, especially since Armenia has tacit US backing as the author argued in his previously cited article series while Azerbaijan can count on Turkey. Unfortunately, Russia’s options are very limited in the current circumstances.

Three Scenarios

It’s difficult to forecast the course of events, but in a well-intended attempt to do so, the following scenarios are most likely. The first is that Azerbaijan’s counteroffensive meets intense resistance in ONK’s mountainous terrain and is unable to make any serious gains. This would compel it to reach a ceasefire with Armenia. The second one is that Armenia and/or Azerbaijan escalate their latest clashes beyond ONK with or without any serious on-the-ground gains being made, which could trigger a global crisis that would prompt unpredictable Russian, Turkish, and even US involvement. Both sides might be able to leverage this in pursuit of their political objectives. Lastly, the most dramatic scenario would be if Azerbaijan’s counteroffensive succeeds in expelling Armenia’s occupying forces with or without escalating the war beyond ONK, which would be a victory for Baku.

The status quo of perpetuating Armenia’s occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh is in everyone’s interest except for Azerbaijan, Turkey, and possibly even the US, albeit for different reasons. Azerbaijan wants to reclaim control of its internationally recognized territory and has the full support of its Turkish ally to this end, while the US hopes that any attempt to do so will spark a global crisis that could put more pressure along Russia’s southern frontier. That could in turn either force Russia to militarily intervene to an uncertain extent in Armenia’s support or “lose face” by backtracking on its CSTO commitments in the event that Azerbaijan takes the war into its enemy’s internationally recognized territory per the chain of events that was earlier explained. In other words, the US wants to exploit Azerbaijan’s legitimate counteroffensive to advance its anti-Russian ends.

It’ll Probably Get Worse Before It Gets Better

It’s for this reason among others why the author suspects that the US encouraged Armenia to attack Azerbaijan just like it did over the summer. The Armenian lobby is already extremely influential in American politics as it is but saw its star rise even more over the past few years as the US began to behave more aggressively against Turkey, which thus made decision makers more susceptible to this interest group’s narratives. Even a limited war with Azerbaijan could prompt the global crisis scenario that the US wants to see happen in order to drive a wedge between the Russian-Turkish Strategic Partnership as a result of each party’s support of opposing sides. America could thus provoke a split between them, simultaneously fearmonger about both of their supposedly looming “invasions”, and then exploit the situation to deepen its post-Color Revolution influence in Armenia.

Returning back to the present crisis, however, the situation is worsening by the hour. Azerbaijan appears to be very serious about using this counteroffensive to regain as much control of ONK as possible, which Armenia is well aware of after having declared martial law and full mobilization. The next 24 hours will be crucial in determining how far this latest conflict will go and whether it’ll spread beyond ONK, the latter scenario of which would likely spark a global crisis. It can only be hoped that Russia’s immediate ceasefire request will be heeded, but there’s no realistic reason to believe that it will. More than likely, Moscow will have to prepare for intensifying its diplomatic involvement in this crisis and countenancing the means through which it might militarily intervene to defend Armenia without triggering a reciprocal escalation from Azerbaijan and/or Turkey.

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Andrew Korybko

Andrew Korybko is a Moscow-based American political analyst. He specializes in the relationship between the US strategy in Afro-Eurasia, China's Belt & Road Initiative, and Hybrid Warfare. His other areas of focus include South Asian affairs and the US' recent restoration of hegemonic influence in Latin America.

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