Review by Emil Sanamyan
The Moscow-based Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), a leading Russian think tank focused on international security, has released a 200-page study entitled “Waiting for the Storm: The South Caucasus.”
The publication begins with chapters assessing the armed forces of Abkhazia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Nagorno Karabakh and South Ossetia and the Russian forces based in the Caucasus. The are also three individual chapters on policies of Russia, Turkey and Iran with regard to the region, followed by a chapter dedicated to the April 2016 war in Karabakh and potential future developments there.
Writing in the Kommersant daily newspaper about the CAST study its editor Konstantin Makienko focused on the impact oil profits have had for the Caucasus security. Whereas Russia’s dominance has stabilized the conflicts in Georgia’s breakaway provinces, there was opposite impact in Karabakh. Makienko notes that in April 2016, having spent some $25 billion on its armed forces, Azerbaijan sought to test what impact that spending had on the balance of forces in Karabakh.
The results of the fighting turned out to be inconclusive for both sides. On the one hand, Azerbaijan’s surprise attack made only modest gains at the cost of heavy casualties among its elite special forces. On the other, the newly-acquired precision weaponry helped Azerbaijan stop many of the subsequent Armenian counterattacks.
The quality of the study’s chapter on the April war, authored by I.A. Topchiy, is uneven. The author’s conclusions about what precipitated the fighting on the tactical level are fairly accurate: the escalation was preceded by years of intelligence gathering and small-scale raids on Armenian positions during which de-mined approaches to Armenian positions were developed and other weaknesses studied. The attack pursued limited objectives, in terms of territory and time involved, and pursued primarily political goals rather than a real military breakthrough.
On the strategic level, Topchiy’s conclusions are much more questionable. Thus he claims that then U.S. secretary of state John Kerry gave Ilham Aliyev the “go-ahead” for the attack, when the two met in Washington two days before the April war. The “proof” Topchiy points to is a standard State Department statement on Karabakh that includes no such references. At the same time, the author avoids the discussion of the impact massive Russian weapons sales to Azerbaijan had on the balance of forces and calculations ahead of the April war. There are also problematic passages that skew data on the size of Azerbaijan’s forces and some careless use of online news reports and youtube videos.
The final chapter “The Future War: Technical Advantage v. Human Capital,” authored by Mikhail Barabanov, notes how the peculiar geography of Nagorno Karabakh makes any compromise solution so hard to implement. With the former Azerbaijani districts located in the eastern, southern and western portions of Nagorno Karabakh, a serious territorial compromise would mean a return to an effective encirclement. “Even if in exchange for the return of these districts Azerbaijan would recognize Nagorno Karabakh’s independence (a highly unlikely scenario), there would be no real guarantees that having lost these critically important positions NKR would not be attacked in the future and be forced to defend in the much less advantageous conditions.”
Like Makienko, Barabanov argues that the shift in the military balance in Azerbaijan’s favor would necessitate an appropriate re-calibration of the Russian policy in the Karabakh conflict.