On Sunday Ilham Aliyev, the longtime dictator of Azerbaijan, launched a war on the Armenian held Nagorno-Karabakh area. That he dared to do this now, 27 years after a ceasefire ended a war over the area, is a sign that the larger strategic picture has changed.
When the Soviet Union fell apart the Nagorno-Karabakh area had a mixed population of Azerbaijani (also called Azeri) Shia Muslims and Armenian Christians. As in other former Soviet republics ethnic diversity became problematic when the new states evolved. The mixed areas were fought over and Armenia won the Nagorno-Karabakh area. There have since been several border skirmishes and small wars between the two opponents but the intensity of the fighting is now much higher than before.
In 2006 Yasha Levine wrote about his visit to Nagorno-Karabakh for The Exile. He described the uneven opponents:
In 1994 the Armenians won and forced Azerbaijan to a ceasefire. In the meantime Nagorno-Karabakh organized itself into a sovereign country [called Artsakh] with its own army, elected officials and parliament. But it still hasn't been recognized by any country other than Armenia and is still classified as one of the "frozen conflicts" in the region, along with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia.
But this "frozen conflict" may soon heat up, if you believe what Azerbaijan's playboy/gambling addict/president, Ilham Aliyev, says. Not that Azerbaijanis should get too excited about another war: If Armenians are still the fighters they were ten years ago, then statistically, it's the Azeris who'll do most of the dying. While matched evenly in soldiers, the Azeris had double the amount of heavy artillery, armored vehicles, and tanks than the Armenians; but when it was over, the Azeri body count was three times higher then that of the Armenians. Azeri casualties stood at 17,000. The Armenians only lost 6,000. And that's not even counting the remaining Azeri civilians the Armenians ethnically cleansed.
Since the strategically-important Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline opened up, pumping Caspian Sea oil to the West via Turkey, the Azeri president has been making open threats about reclaiming Nagorno-Karabakh by force. The $10 billion in oil revenues he expects to earn per year once the pipeline is fully operational is going to his head. $10 billion might not seem that much but for Azerbaijan it constitutes a 30% spike in GDP. In every single interview, Aliyev can't even mention the pipeline project without veering onto the subject of "resolving" the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Aliyev started spending the oil cash even before the oil started flowing and announced an immediate doubling of military spending. A little later he announced the doubling of all military salaries. Aliyev's generals aren't squeamish about bragging that by next year their military budget will be $1.2 billion, or about Armenia's entire federal budget.
Over the next 14 years the war that Yasha Levine foresaw in 2006 did not happen. That it was launched now points to an important change. In July another border skirmish broke out for still unknown reasons. Then Turkey stepped in:
Following the July conflict Turkey's involvement became much deeper than it had previously been, with unprecedentedly bellicose rhetoric coming from Ankara and repeated high-level visits between the two sides. Ankara appeared to see the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict as yet another arena in which to exercise its growing foreign policy ambitions, while appealing to a nationalist, anti-Armenian bloc in Turkey's domestic politics.
Turkey's tighter embrace, in turn, gave Baku the confidence to take a tougher line against Russia, Armenia's closest ally in the conflict but which maintains close ties with both countries. Azerbaijan heavily publicized (still unconfirmed) reports about large Russian weapons shipments to Armenia just following the fighting, and President Ilham Aliyev personally complained to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
Turkey's President Erdogan intervened with more than rhetoric:
In August, Turkey and Azerbaijan completed two weeks of joint air and land military exercises, including in the Azerbaijani enclave of Naxcivan. Some observers have questioned whether Turkey left behind military equipment or even a contingent of troops.
The potential for robust Turkish involvement in the conflict is being watched closely by Russia, which is already on opposing sides with the NATO member in conflicts in Libya and Syria.
Russia sells weapons to both Azerbaijan and Armenia, but has a military base in Armenia and favors that strategic partnership.
Azerbaijan has bought drones from Turkey and Israel and there are rumors that they are flown by Turkish and Israeli personal. Turkey also hired 2,000 to 4,000 Sunni Jihadis from Syria to fight for the Shia Azerbaijan. A dozen of them were already killed on the first day of the war. One wonders how long they will be willing to be used as cannon fodder by the otherwise hated Shia.
There were additional rumors that there are Turkish fighter jets in Azerbaijan while Turkish spy planes look at the air-space over Armenia from its western border.
(Note: You can view every article as one long page if you sign up as an Advocate Member, or higher).