The peace process between Armenia and Azerbaijan was severely weakened due to the April 2016 four-day war, with further complications due to Azerbaijan asserting its military prowess through a build-up in its exclave of Nakhichevan. This military build-up in Nakhichevan has led to Armenia becoming a more hesitant partner in the OSCE mediation efforts. Additionally, the four-day war has caused Armenia to shift its perception of the role of the West and Russia–who were reluctant to restrain Azerbaijan’s actions in the brief war–in the process of seeking resolution in the ongoing conflict between the two Caucasian nations. Over a year since the four-day war and through the ongoing Azerbaijani military build-up in the Nakhichevan exclave, it has become clear that Armenia is moving towards a change in its strategy with dealing with its neighbor.
During the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the 1990s, both nations took the opportunity to occupy the smaller enclaves within their respective territories that belonged to the other nation, leading to minor battles erupting outside the Nagorno Karabakh battlezone. Both parties raced to secure borders in order to create a fait accompli that would ensure a favourable demarcation line during future clashes. However, on the Nakhichevan border, geopolitics quickly put a stop to these incursions, as the major powers attempted to limit the battle space in order to avert a larger conflict between the superpowers. Turkey announced it would declare war if Armenia continued its expeditions along the Nakhichevan border, and Russia responded by saying that “we would be on the brink of a new war” if any other nation intervened. This deterrence has been one of the main factors in holding both nations back from renewed conflict over the exclave and was also a contributing factor to Azerbaijan’s reluctance to militarize the exclave up until 2012. As a result, the border was inactive till that year, with only rare clashes, demonstrating how larger nations are able to restrain smaller foes from achieving their strategic goals. While other factors also contributed to the abrupt end to fighting and to the inactivity on the border, understanding the shifts in strategic interests and how they are contributing to the changing status quo can give us more insight into the ever-changing environment – changes which could radically alter the outcome of a potential, if not likely, future conflict.
Azerbaijan’s television broadcasts and official videos on Nakhichevan’s military preparedness have shed more light on developments in the exclave. Along with war games with Turkey in the exclave, this renewed show of might indicates an Azerbaijani military rejuvenation. Google Earth imagery of Nakhichevan reveals a steady military build-up since 2012, in contrast to the minimum fire power indicated by Google Earth history prior to that year. Also significant is the Nakhichevan Separate Combined Arms Army established by President Aliyev in 2013. In the light of this build-up, Azerbaijan’s shift in policy, and the April 2016 4-day war, a resumption of violence on the Armenia-Nakhichevan border is a real possibility in the case of war.
Even without Nakhichevan entering a future conflict, the exclave will play a major role in a future war by potentially diverting Armenian troops from the Karabagh front, a tactic that would favour Azerbaijan. An exclave that previously had no role in any possible future hostilities is now becoming part of the extended battlefield. While the major powers have used a soft approach to contain the battle space to Nagorno-Karabakh, the military build-up in Nakhichevan has apparently broken this unspoken understanding.
The unspoken accords regarding the status of the exclave are not formal agreements; however, they provide a clear picture of the alliances and deter Armenia and Azerbaijan from drawing the major powers into a future conflict. Nakhichevan’s border with Turkey provides it with quasi-political protection by Turkey as the large power ally for Azerbaijan. The exclave’s lack of land access to Azerbaijan has forced it to find additional protection — in this case Turkey. At the same time, Armenia’s treaty with Russia currently allows Armenia to ask for Russian assistance in the case of an attack by an aggressor, including an attack by Azerbaijan via Nakhichevan (see: Shougarian, Rouben (1997). “Yielding More to Gain the Essential: The Factor of Timing of the Russian Armenian Treaty in 1997”, Tufts University.). This has effectively created an unspoken truce between Russia and Turkey, which, along with their support for their smaller allies Armenia and Azerbaijan, respectively, is indicative of a lack of will to engage in warfare on the Russian-Turkish front, irrespective of combatants.
Theoretically, the exclave’s potential role in a renewed conflict could tip the balance in Azerbaijan’s favour. However, this potential advantage needs to be weighed against the isolation of the exclave, which provides Armenia with an advantage.
In the case of a resumption of hostilities, Azerbaijan’s main objective would be to use Nakhichevan as a platform to hit strategic targets in Armenia proper. One of these targets is Armenia’s S300PS systems, a sophisticated air defence system that protects the skies of Nagorno-Karabakh and also deters Nakhichevan’s air force from their operations. A number main roads are also within range, including one that links Karabagh with Armenia. These roads lie within direct range of Azerbaijan’s Nakhichevan-based artillery. Another major concern for Armenia is that its capital—Yerevan—is well within firing range of Azerbaijan’s MLRS and, while it is risky for Azerbaijan to strike a major city, this scenario still needs to be taken into account by Armenian military decision-makers.
Any attempt to strike the S300PS could potentially trigger an all-out war, which would require both nations drawing on larger forces rather than their reserves. For Armenia, this scenario would require practise-makes-perfect training to ensure sufficiently quick teardown times to relocate the batteries. This manoeuvre is achievable, as the batteries are designed to be relocated within 30 minutes (see: IMINT Analysis V1N3 April 2011). However, if the batteries are struck and become unoperational, this could provide the Azerbaijani Air Force with less sophisticated air defense assets to deal with in an air campaign against Nagorno-Karabagh’s forces. In addition to this difficulty, the mountain chain that runs along the entire length of the border between Armenia and Nakhichevan is around 4 to 6 thousand feet higher than the lowlands of the Nakhichevan plains, providing a natural barrier limiting Azerbaijan’s capacity for striking targets accurately.
Other targets from Nakhichevan include main roads that act as supply lines to Karabagh from Armenia. Strategic targets such as these roads are often first on the strike list and will be contemplated in a resumption of hostilities, creating a larger theater of war than originally anticipated. However, this scenario could quickly get out of hand if the Azerbaijani military decides to hit strategic targets, resulting in a potential all out war. Also, Smerch MLRSes have been identified in Nakhichevan and, with a 90 km range, these can strike at the heart of Yerevan. Furthermore, the mountain range that extends along much of the Nakhichevan border ends in the north, 20km short of the junction of the Turkish and Armenian borders, providing Azerbaijan with tactical ground to fire into Armenia from Nakhichevan. This also provides an opportunity for ground troops from both nations to enter from flat land.
On the other side of the picture is the geographical isolation of Nakhichevan, which carries its own risks for Azerbaijan in any resumption of hostilities. While the militarization of the exclave allows for a potential strike against strategic targets in Armenia, this would come at the cost of a massive retaliation from the Armenian side. It would therefore be unwise for Azerbaijan to sacrifice the whole region in the hope of getting Turkey involved or in the hope of diverting Armenian troops away from Nagorno-Karabakh. Nakhichevan’s geographical isolation would provide Armenia with an easy opportunity to fire into Nakhichevan from vantage points held by its military. It would also allow Armenian troops to easily seize mountain-top posts of the exclave as a buffer, as was seen in 2014 when Armenian troops established control over previously unmanned heights inside Syunik in the Nakhichevan direction during a well-planned surprise night raid.
A change has also been noted in Azerbaijan’s policy towards Nagorno-Karabakh, leading to a shift away from the negotiation process towards settling the conflict through military means. Azerbaijan’s attack on regions within Nagorno Karabakh itself (which fall under self-determination clauses) in the 4-day war raises the question as to why the superpowers, especially Russia, has allowed Azerbaijan to test the limits of what it can get away with. Its attack on regions other than the disputed territories (which are marked for return under the principles written for a negotiated settlement) is evidence that Azerbaijan had freer rein than previously.
Furthermore, Russia, who plays the role of peacemaker between the two nations, simultaneously continues to arm both sides. Russia’s renewed interest in Azerbaijan and the sale of the S300PMU2 to Baku, an enemy of its ally, raises several questions, in particular why Russia is so hesitant to use its arms sales and status as a superpower as leverage in influencing Azerbaijan’s military policy towards Nagorno-Karabagh.
Bellingcat has been tracking military developments in the Nakhichevan exclave, covering artillery, tanks, close air-support aircrafts and attack helicopters. Various confirmed reports of the presence of Turkish-made TR-300MLR and Smerch MLRSes have been noted. Considering the status quo of the exclave to date and the accords that hold it back it from entering a conflict, its military build-up is concerning.However, this build-up is not surprising when seen in the context of the various shifts in strategic interests in the region, as seen with the sale of a state-of-the-art air defense system to Azerbaijan by Armenia’s ally, Russia. Therefore it is possible that the major powers have lost some of their influence over Azerbaijan’s military policy, providing Azerbaijan with free reign to push the boundaries of many unspoken accords including the militarization of Nakhichevan, as seen with the unfolding developments in current and historical imagery.
The reality on the ground has shifted from when many of the negotiating principles were drawn up and, with the larger powers playing their own game, it seems their lack of committed to the peace process will leave Armenia and Azerbaijan to battle it out themselves.