Monday

23rd Oct 2017

'Accidental war' waiting to happen on EU periphery

If or when a full-blown conflict erupts between Armenia and Azerbaijan, it will probably begin like this.

According to a senior source in the Armenian defence ministry, on 27 April Azerbaijani troops sneaked over the Armenian border in the north-east province of Tavush and took up positions on either side of a road connecting the villages of Movses and Aygepar.

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  • Nagorno-Karabakh has one of the highest mine-related accidental injury rates in the world according to demining charity The Halo Trust (Photo: halotrust.org)

At around 2am local time - the source said - they opened fire from close range at the windscreen of an approaching car carrying out-of-uniform Armenian soldiers. They killed 28-year-old David Abgaryan, 21-year-old Arshak Nersisyan and 26-year-old father-of-one Aram Yesayan.

The killing is a "clear provocation," the source told EUobserver in Yerevan on 5 May.

He added: "We have not reacted yet. I underline: 'Yet'."

For its part, the Azerbaijani foreign ministry told this website the incident never took place. It says Armenia staged the hoax to create an atmosphere of crisis so that its ruling party would do well in elections on 6 May.

Disturbing claims and counter-claims are nothing new in the 25-year-long "frozen" conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. But in this case outside observers favour the Armenian line.

The Minsk Group - a club of French, Russian and US diplomats tasked with mediating between Baku and Yerevan - in a statement on 27 April condemned "such senseless acts." A senior EU diplomat in Yerevan told EUobserver that the Armenian account of the ambush is "credible."

The 27 April incident marks an escalation because killings normally take place along the "line of contact" on the Nagorno-Karabakh border, not in Armenia or Azerbaijan proper.

It also comes in a dangerous new environment.

Open conflict used to be unlikely because neither side could win. But petro-rich Azerbaijan is altering the balance of power. According to the Stockholm-based arms-control institute, Sipri, it spent $11 billion on weapons in the past five years compared to less than $2 billion by Armenia.

Its latest purchase - $1.6 billion of drones and missiles from Israel - could be decisive if Israel also builds a joint training and maintenance facility.

Peter Semneby, until recently the EU's special envoy to the region, told this website: "The danger of an incident spiralling out of control is gradually increasing."

'Accidental war'

Richard Giragosian, a Yerevan-based US analyst who used to advise the CIA and the Pentagon, said Azerbaijan killed the Armenian soldiers to look important before assuming the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council on 1 May.

He also noted that the risk of an "accidental war" in which a minor incident blows up is getting bigger.

If it does, it will be felt far beyond Nagorno-Karabakh.

In terms of direct threats to EU interests, it would increase oil prices by destroying the BTC oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean. It would also halt EU plans to reduce energy dependence on Russia by building a gas pipeline through the region.

Meanwhile, Russia - which has 5,000 soldiers at its base in Gyumri, Armenia - is obliged to intervene under the terms of the Nato-type Collective Security Treaty Organisation. The US has 300 diplomats and thousands of Armenian-American passport holders in Yerevan at any given time.

Looking further afield, Turkey is a historic ally of Azerbaijan and Iran is unhappy about the installation of Israeli weapons on its northern flank.

The EU has so far limited its role in the conflict to offering cheap visas and free trade for Armenia and Azerbaijan if things go well.

But Giragosian says it should do more: "It needs to send a message to Azerbaijan that there is a price to pay for ceasefire violations and to put pressure on Armenia to take positive unilateral steps, such as pulling back snipers [from the line of contact]."

'How many will I lose?'

Amid the geopolitical considerations, Armenia is sure of one thing: if fighting escalates, its friends will leave it to its own devices.

"If something goes wrong on Nagorno-Karabakh ... what will happen? Let's do a scenario. The EU will say: 'We seriously condemn this and we call on all parties to halt immediately.' The UN Security Council will debate a resolution calling on all sides to do this or that. There will be a commission [of enquiry]," Armenian deputy foreign minister Zohrab Mnatsakanian told EUobserver.

Looking back to the recent funerals of Abgaryan, Nersisyan and Yesayan, he added: "How long will it all take? Three days? Five days? How many people will I lose during these three days? This is the way we think."

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Oil and gas-rich rich Azerbaijan, home of another frozen conflict with its neighbouring Russian ally Armenia, does not consider the EU as a feasible peace broker in the region, Azeri deputy foreign minister Araz Azimov has said.

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