The recent skirmishes along the border of Armenia and Azerbaijan pose significant threats to the development of East-West trade and transport corridor.
On July 12, another military confrontation sparked between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This time, the parties of the three-decades-old conflict over occupied territories of Azerbaijan by Armenian Armed Forces fought along international state border on the site of Tovuz region and Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan, not the “Line of Contact” around the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Fitful skirmishes involved artillery fire and aerial drones which is sufficient enough to characterize it as the most severe incident since the “April War” in 2016. According to the Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan, 12 Azerbaijani servicemen and 1 civilian died including a major-general and a colonel while the Armenian Ministry of Defense reported that their number of deaths constituted for 5, which is surprisingly low considering the tense of confrontation.
The both sides immediately accused each other of initiating the fire. However, taking into consideration potential drawbacks of the armed clashes to international projects due to close proximity of strategic facilities to the border area, it is crystal-clear that escalation of military engagement fails to represent any interests of Azerbaijan, unlike Armenia which does not carry much responsibility as it is out of main regional connectivity projects in South Caucasus. More particularly, in accordance with goals embodied on “Strategic Road Map for the development of logistics and trade” approved in 2016, stability and security around the respective state border is of vital importance for Azerbaijan which, on the other hand, fills a gap of Armenia’s leading motive in choosing this place for new skirmishes. Namely, the last stop of Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway in Azerbaijan before it arrives at Rustavi station in Georgia is the Aghstafa station that is situated within approximately 33-45 km away from Dondar Qushchu and Kokhanabi villages of Tovuz region where Armenian Armed Forces were shelling along the border. In addition, the distance between the Baku-Alat-Qazakh-Georgia Highway and another suffering villages such as Ashagi Qushchu and Aghdam is more or less 4-5 km.
The recent developments in the East-West trade as a driving factor behind the clashes.
It is essential to lay an emphasis on the coincidence of clashes with the latest events occurred on the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR) in order to draw correlation. Azerbaijan, as one of originators of the TITR along with Kazakhstan and Georgia, gradually advances its connectivity role thanks to the efficient use of Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway as well as Baku Alat Port. Recently, the TITR achieved a new freight transportation record in compliance with its2020 development plan on cargo tariffs, delivery time and volume of container traffic according to the report of Azernews. Citing to the press service of Trans-Caspian International Transport Consortium on July 15, Azernews informs that shuttle trains consisting of 47 containers arrivedin Istanbul from Xi’anin 16 days, 3 days earlier than the relevant time of the last year due to further harmonization and electrification of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway line.
In addition, the Azerbaijan Railways CJSC confirmed to Trend News Agency on July 16 that between January and May 2020, there were 149,137 tons of cargo delivered via the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, which was 3.9 times higher compared to the same period of 2019.Such improvement was also noticeable on the Global Competitiveness Report 2019 of the World Bank Group where Azerbaijan was ranked the 11th among 141 countries in the category of “Efficiency of train services”. It is important to note that the BTK has yet reached its maximum operational capacity as it is expected to carry 3-5 tons by the end of 2020 and up to 17 tons of cargo and 3 million passengers by 2023.
Furthermore, in early July, there was a meeting held among presidents of three countries– Azerbaijan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan to discuss cooperation on the integration of Lapis-Lazuli Transport Corridor to the TITR which connects landlocked Afghanistan with Europe. As soon as the BTK railway was linked to the Lapis-Lazuli route in 2018, products from Afghanistan began to flow through Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan and further to the west. In particular regards to the volume of containers throughout the first half of 2020, President Aliyev stated that 55,500 tons of cargo were shipped through Azerbaijan towards Afghanistan and back during the specified time.
A frequent use of pro-war rhetoric entails a direct threat to Azerbaijan’s strategic facilities onthe TITR.
It is no secret that positive resonance of Azerbaijan’s participation in transnational projects makes Armenian government concerned about the change of balance of power in Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. Such anxiety was also explicitly stated by the former leader of Armenia, Serzh Sargsyan on his interview to Armenia TV when he noted that Armenia had to purchase Russian-made 9K720 Iskander-M ballistic missile with nuclear warheads with a caliber of striking any facilities within 300 miles (500 km) in order to balance the situation with Azerbaijan. Commenting on the demonstration of ballistic missiles during a military parade in Yerevan, Head of the Operational Department at the Armenian army’s General Staff, Major-General Artak Davtian revealed that Armenia’s missile systems were in the capability of targeting “all strategic facilities in Azerbaijan”.
On one hand, it is reasonable to have such a concern. Because in marked contrast to Armenia where political and economic unrest sprawled all around the country and a real “game of thrones” arises for the current government, Azerbaijan seems to be more equipped with opportunities for fast recovery during the post-pandemic period owing to a potential rise of the volume of international trade and transportation. According to president of Kazakhstan Temir Zholy (KTZ), Askar Mamin, Azerbaijan can gain a net profit of US$600-700 million from transit route alone, while net profit of all member states is worth US$1 billion. The corridor also improves trade turnover of Azerbaijan with several countries along the route, especially China. Shahin Mustafayev, Minister of Economy of Azerbaijan confirmed on his interview to Global Times that the trade turnover between Azerbaijan and China reached US$1.7 billion from January to September in 2019, a rise of 96 percent compared to the same period of 2018.
In conjunction with such hostilities being conducted at regular intervals along the “Line of Contact” and state border, Armenian leadership also actively takes advantage of the pro-war rhetoric in a bid to discredit Azerbaijan’s competitiveness and create a notion of its insecurity. During the flare up along the border, Davit Tonoyan, Defense Minister of Armenia confirmed to Shushan Stepanyan, spokesperson of the relevant ministry “personal and command of the Armenian Army are instructed to be restrained for time to seize new advantageous positions in case of provocations received by the enemy on the borders of the Republic of Armenia.” Another aggressive and provocative statement of Minister was received in the gathering of Armenian community members in last March in New York. At the meeting, Tonoyan announced his dream for “new territories in the event of a new war” and promised that the option of return of “territories for peace” (regarding the occupied territories of Azerbaijan) would no longer be on the table.
Furthermore, some threats of Armenian leadership with a risk of more catastrophic consequences also targets to destabilize the region. In this regard, the statement of the “Defense Minister” of self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Levon Mnatsakanyan may serve an example. On 24 July 2018, Mnatsakanyan noted in a press conference that oil and gas installations as well as Mingachevir hydroelectric station of Azerbaijan, the largest dam in South Caucasus was included in tactical plans of the “Defense Army” of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Besides, some direct threats have already been put into force too. For example, when MP Hrant Bagratyan, ex-Prime Minister of Armenia said in his press conference on 29 April 2016that Armenia had to create its atomic weapons to fight against Azerbaijan and Turkey, very few people would believe that his words had actually incapsulated the partial truth until an unexploded 122-millimeter ordnance consisting of chemical code of white phosphorus was used against civilian population of Askipara village of Tartar region of Azerbaijan on 27 July 2016.
All aspects stated above lead us to some inferences regarding correlation between recent skirmishes and regional development and security in South Caucasus. Firstly, it reveals an obvious clarification that Azerbaijan as a promising contributor to the East-West transport corridor cannot be an interested party in escalation of military confrontation along the border as it constitutes an impediment to Azerbaijan’s strategic goal to become a logistics and trade hub not to mention further political and legal repercussions for the country. This fact generates the second deduction that Armenia, by undermining Azerbaijan’s connectivity role between Asia and Europe tries to keep the power dynamics of Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict balanced which ultimately aims at maintaining the status-quo. Nevertheless, in my opinion, it still requires another investigation to uncover additional motives of the Armenian government in conducting such provocations, especially from the perspective of aggravated domestic situation and its membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The third and the most important takeaway note of this article is that Armenian provocations not only attempt to distract international and domestic community from the ground of Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict by opening another hot zone, but also pose significant risks to the development of regional connectivity projects as well as threaten economic incentives of all countries involved along the TITR due to any attacks on infrastructure facilities of Azerbaijan.
It is no doubt that such clashes stick all efforts of negotiation process of Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict; similarly, keep alive a risk of waging into a full-scale war in such an important region. Therefore, the time has come for international community not only to react Armenian aggression in the same way with other cases of violation of territorial integrity and sovereignty around the world, but also to immediately ensure the peaceful settlement of the conflict based on principles and norms of international law.