|Azerbaijani Armed Forces|
Photo via http://csis.org
While it is impossible to tell which side has fired the first shot, the nature of violence has radically changed. Unlike in the past when fighting sides exchanged deadly sniper shots every once in awhile, this time we can see military units running reconnaissance and sabotage operations within the enemy’s land. Information about casualties cannot be trusted since each side provides statistics that meets its own political and propaganda interests. However, numbers vary from modest 15 to formidable 100 fallen men on both sides from June 4 to June 7.
In order to understand what really happens between Armenia and Azerbaijan, it is important to understand the motivation behind each side to resume military operations. This approach can give a birth to two theories that, perhaps, match the interests of both Armenian and Azerbaijani political elites.
Armenian motivation “They want to start a war -- We are being victims again”
Armenia that currently accuses Azerbaijan in trying to run offensive campaign and liberate occupied lands needed an example to throw on a table during Secretary Clinton’s visit to Yerevan. The reported killings of three Armenian soldiers perfectly supported this cause. Furthermore, it allowed Armenian government to squeeze domestic human rights problems from discussion agenda and spend more time focusing on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Azerbaijani motivation “Our patience is over -- We want our lands back”
During the last years Azerbaijani government has announced that its patience runs over as diplomatic negotiations bring no results. To reinstate its frustration with status quo and demonstrate Secretary Clinton that Azerbaijani military is capable to run offensive campaigns, the current situation on frontline fits well this purpose. Likewise in Armenia, tensions on frontline help Azerbaijani government to draw attention away from human rights problems in domestic and international politics.
Yet how realistic is a war scenario? Recently, some analysts, regional experts, and journalists warned that the frozen conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh is slowly but steadily reaching its boiling point. Others, such as International Crisis Group, shared the fear of accidental war along the line of contact. But to which extent a successful offensive operation by Azerbaijan is possible?
Population wise Azerbaijan outnumbers Armenia in 3 to 1. Even casualties the country had suffered during the Nagorno-Karabakh war did not substantially affect its demographic growth. In contrary, Armenia experienced a slight decline in its population mainly due to emigration and economic challenges.
In one of his statements, President Ilham Aliyev has stated that the Azerbaijan’s economy is booming, and its population is growing. Armenia, on the other hand, is losing its population and pretty soon will be reduced down to 1 million, and then we will take over. This quote perfectly explains the vision of the Azerbaijani government.
Military Budget Ratio
This data gives the balance of the official military expenses though it does not give a clear picture of the genuine situation on the ground due to corruption in Armenian and Azerbaijani military forces. There is also the Karabakh Military Forces (siding with and financed by Armenia), budget information about which is unavailable. Also no data is available about the exact financial expenses of the Russian military base deployed in Gumri, Armenia.
Military Manpower Ratio
Azerbaijani Air Force and Air Defense (adopted from Wikipedia and other resources)
The Azerbaijani Air and Air Defense Force is a single unified service branch. Some 8,000 men serve in the air force and air defense force. The Azerbaijani Air and Air Defense Force has 106 aircraft and 35 helicopters. The country has four major airbases. Nasosnaya Air Base has fighters, Kurdamir Air Base a bomber regiment, Ganja Air Base transports, and Baku Kala Air Base the helicopter unit. The Air Force uses MiG-21, MiG-23, Su-24 and Su-25 aircraft, as well as the MiG-29 purchased from Ukraine in 2006 and Il-76 transport aircraft. Azerbaijan is holding talks with China and Pakistan to purchase JF-17 Thunder aircrafts.
Azerbaijan's helicopter force is concentrated at Baku Kala Air Base and according to the IISS consists of a single regiment with 15 Mi-24, 13 Mi-8 and 7 Mi-2. Recently, end of 2010 Russian Rosvertol announced that Azerbaijan armed forces signed a deal for 24 pieces of Mi-35M (Hind-E) gunships what would further enhance ground attack formations.
Azerbaijan has missile and radar systems. It operates two S-200 (SA-5 GAMMON) batteries near Baku and Mingachevir. The country also has about 100 NATO designated SA-2 Guideline (original name S-75), SA-3 Goa (S-125 Pechora-2M), and the SA-5 Gammon (S-200) are in static installations -- all covering national aerospace. After purchase of S-300 surface to air missiles, the gap in Azerbaijan's air defense system was filled.
Also in Azerbaijan there is a former Soviet early warning radar in Gabala, currently operated by the Russian Space Forces. The contract was signed in 2002 and expires this year when it can be given back to the Azerbaijan. The radar station has a range of up to 6,000 km (3,728 mi), and was designed to detect intercontinental ballistic missile launches as far as from the Indian Ocean.
Armenian Air Force and Air Defense (adopted from Wikipedia and other resources)
The Armenian Air Force consists of 15 Su-25 ground attack planes, 1 MiG-25 jet fighter, 12 Mil Mi-24 helicopter gunships, 6 L-39 trainer and attack aircraft, 16 Yak-52 trainer aircraft, 3 Il-76 cargo planes, 9 Mil Mi-8 transport helicopters, and 6 Mil Mi-2 light helicopters. There are additional 18 MiG-29 fighter jets of the Russian 102nd Military Base in Gyumri.
The Armenian Air Defense consists of an anti-aircraft missile brigade and two regiments armed with 100 anti-aircraft complexes of various models and modifications, including the SA-8, Krug, S-75, S-125, SA-7, SA-10, SA-13, SA-16 and SA-18. Russia has SA-6 and S-300 long range surface-to-air missiles at the Russian 102nd Military Base. There are also 24 Scud ballistic missiles with eight launchers.
Russian specialists had begun training their Armenian counter-parts in 2005 in the use of the sophisticated missile systems. Speaking to Radio Free Europe's Armenian service, Defense Ministry spokesman David Karapetyan confirmed that the Armenian army has S-300s in its missile arsenal.
Azerbaijan's Advantage: National Military Industry
The Ministry of Defense Industry of Azerbaijan directs domestic military supplies for Azerbaijan. It was established in 2005. The Defense Industries Ministry subsumed the State Department for Military Industry and for Armaments and the Military Science Center, each of which was formerly a separate agency within the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry.
The defense industry has emerged as an autonomous entity with a growing defense production capability. Along with other project, Azerbaijani defense industries will produce 40mm revolver grenade launchers, 107mm and 122mm MLRS systems, Cobra 4x4 vehicles and joint modernization of BTR vehicles in Baku.
In early 2008, reports indicated that an agreement with Turkey had been signed which would lead to Azerbaijan producing armored personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles, and small caliber artillery pieces. Another 2008 report mentioned Azerbaijan's desire to produce its own military aircraft and helicopters.
Armenia's Advantage: Karabakh Military Forces
This military group consists of about 20,000 soldiers. Its military hardware includes: 316 tanks, 324 armored vehicles, 322 artillery pieces of calibers over 122 mm, 44 multiple rocket launchers, and a new anti-aircraft defense system. In addition, it maintains a small air-force of 2 Su-25s, 5 Mi-24s and 5 other helicopters.
Azerbaijan’s known military suppliers include United States, Russia, Israel, Belarus, Ukraine, Pakistan, Turkey, and South Africa.
Armenia’s known military suppliers include United States, Russia, Greece, France, Moldova, and Ukraine.
The slides below are courtesy of Dr. Hans Gutbrod, Caucasus Resource Research Centers, and adopted from Onnik Krikorian’s blog. The data can be a subject to a slight change.
War -- not “if,” but “when”
The Azerbaijani government has made clear that its military build-up targets Armenia. Having Israel and Turkey on its side as very close military allies gives Azerbaijan additional advantages. While many experts consider Russia to be Armenia’s strategic ally, yet it ships weapons to Azerbaijan as well.
Years 2012-2013 are the best time for Azerbaijan to reclaim the Nagorno-Karabakh territory and surrounding districts. While Europe suffers from economic crisis and needs Azerbaijani oil and cash, United States is pretty occupied in Middle East and Afghanistan, Azerbaijan gets a momentum it has long waited for.
Moreover, Azerbaijan holds this year a chairmanship in the United Nations Security Council, thus gaining a diplomatic advantage over Armenia. It invests a lot of cash into fragile European economies, strengthens its lobby groups, and bribes the favor of the European politicians (not all, but some).
Furthermore, starting a successful offensive campaign against Armenia will draw public attention away from human rights problems in domestic politics. It could possibly unite the nation around President Ilham Aliyev and help him to win upcoming presidential elections to be held in 2013.
According to analysts and people familiar with the matter, among single factors that hold back this oil rich country to renew military operations in the region is a possible international standoff against Azerbaijan.
But today geopolitical situation in the world favors President Ilham Aliyev. Even international criticism and campaign before and during Eurovision Song Contest to protest gross human rights violations in the country did not bring any effective results. Its oil, cash, and appealing geographic location silenced international dissent against it.
As tensions in Middle East rise and Americans pull back their military from the region, the United States has to bargain with Azerbaijan. Shall Azerbaijan start the war anytime soon, the West will neither afford any embargos on its energy resources, nor any attempts to overthrow President Ilham Aliyev. Holding down Iran’s nuclear program and making sure that oil flows from Central Asia and Caucasus are more important foreign policy priorities for Washington. Official Baku realizes all these factors very well and understands its power and glory better than anyone else.
While this projection comes unfortunate, it makes the possibility of war very likely under given circumstances and data. As the frequency of clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis increases, the chances for peace are fading away.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that has been classified as a frozen in the past is slowly melting. And, perhaps, if we do not have enough ice in the freezer, this summer might be really hot in the small South Caucasus region, when warm summer climate offers better opportunities to conquer Armenian positions located in mountainous heights, otherwise strongly protected by cold Karabakh winters.