By Edmond Y. Azadian
Should Armenia hit back at Azerbaijan or not? That is the Shakespearean dilemma looming over the border between Karabagh and Azerbaijan. Although it is a forgone conclusion on the Armenian side of the border that sooner or later Armenian forces have to retaliate against Azerbaijan for its provocation in shooting down last week an Armenian unarmed military M1-24 helicopter, which was flying near the ceasefire line accompanied by another helicopter.
As of this writing, recovery efforts have failed. The helicopter was shot down within the no-man’s land and the bodies of the three soldiers remain on board and inaccessible, as the area remains under intense firing on both sides. The Armenian side is firing to keep the Azeri forces away to prevent them from committing any foul play; the Armenians worry the enemy may plant a missile in the crash site to prove their case that the Armenian forces had hostile intentions. The Azeris are firing to keep away the Armenian forces from the no-man’s land and possibly protract the tension and its eventual resolution.
In defiance of President Ilham Aliyev’s declaration of Karabagh’s air space as a no-fly zone, President Serge Sargisian arrived at the Stepanakert airport aboard a military helicopter, accompanied by Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian. They both wore military fatigues, viewed the continuing war games and the Armenian president delivered a stern speech, threatening to retaliate against the aggression in an appropriate manner, painful enough to discourage Azerbaijan from further provocations.
The opposition and the pro-government circles are unanimous in their determination that retaliation is a must. But many differ in the timing and the measure of that retaliation. The military brass is inclined to exercise immediate and massive retaliation, while other circles advise further study of the Azeri motivations and the consequences of that retaliation.
The international observers, having studied the logic of Karabagh conflict, are of the opinion that the Armenian side will not keep silent for long.
Despite the rising of war rhetoric and ensuing violations of the ceasefire regime, all sides seem to be convinced that an all-out war is not an option yet. President Sargisian, who threatened to retaliate in his defiant speech, stated that the threat of an all-out war is not imminent.
The international reaction to the shooting down of the helicopter was very predictable. Jan Psaki of the US State Department, the members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group and the Russian Foreign Ministry unanimously cautioned both sides equally to refrain from further provocation, knowing full well who was the responsible party in this latest incident.
The fact that Azerbaijan’s ministry of defense has handed out military honors to the soldiers who fired the missile proves that the incident was not an accident or a case of miscalculations; it was a decision made on the highest level of the Ministry of Defense.
Last June, the ceasefire line was violated many times and the Armenian forces retaliated against Azeri provocation on three fronts, causing a large number of Azeri casualties. In August, President Vladimir Putin of Russia invited the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, cautioning them to use restraint. Then, other top-level meetings followed. The US Secretary of State John Kerry and French President Francois Hollande brought the presidents of the two nations together and there was a renewed lull on the border.
Additionally, every time summit meetings took place with the participation of the two presidents and hopes were raised for a peaceful settlement of the conflict, Azerbaijan immediately violated the ceasefire regime to dampen the hopes for peace. This time around, it took some time to repeat the scenario, but it came and more aggressively than before.
The opposition newspaper Haykakan Jamanak is of the opinion that Mr. Aliyev is not 100 percent sure of the outcome of the war and that any miscalculation will cost the end of the Aliyev dynasty with the loss of tremendous wealth stolen from the state coffers and the ensuing life of an exile.
Many in Armenia have been wondering why Moscow is arming Azerbaijan so heavily when the latter’s only enemy is Armenia, Russia’s strategic ally.
Answers and speculations are many and varied; one answer is that Moscow is eager to entice Baku to join the Eurasian Union to complete its hegemony over the Caucasus. Others believe that it is in the interest of Russia to keep the region simmering, short of all-out war, to pose as a savior to both sides.
Considering the military developments on the Russian-Ukrainian border, Armenians expect that Russia may try to introduce its forces in Karabagh for “peace-keeping” purposes. All observers believe that the military dynamics in the Caucasus are under Russian control.
Another frequent question is why Aliyev chose to shoot down the military helicopter and why now?
Again, answers are many and varied. Recently, during a military ceremony, echoing his master’s voice, the Azeri Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov criticized the “idleness” of the Minsk Group. He expressed his exasperation and announced that the only alternative remains the military option to “restore Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.”
The escalation of the rhetoric seems to be the discontent of restive population of Azerbaijan under Aliyev’s repressive regime, which has come under severe criticism, mostly from the western governments. Therefore, to divert the population’s attention from the general discontent, Aliyev needs a scapegoat, which is the Karabagh conflict. As he amasses the nation’s wealth, he wishes to project a patriotic image and sometimes his vanity trumps sanity, forcing him into adventurous postures.
Knowing full well Moscow’s grip on Armenia, Aliyev demonstrates his impatience to force Moscow’s hand into action, to order Armenia to withdraw its forces from Karabagh.
As speculations and theories abound, one source in Armenia believes that the recent provocation was caused by the west, forcing Azerbaijan to engage in another bloody conflict while Moscow is busy on its border with Ukraine.
That possibility seems remote, even when Russia is not engaged in any place over the globe. The answer is given in an interview by a prominent Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhaur. It has always been a moot question whether the Armenian-Russian defense pact covers Karabagh. The analyst said he believes that Russia may intervene if Armenia is attacked by Turkey, a prospect which is a remote possibility at this time. “But if war breaks out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Karabagh, the Russian pact with Armenia does not cover Karabagh. The most that Russia will do is to warn the two sides to cease the hostilities.” And this is the protection from our strategic ally, Russia.
As if the turmoil in Georgia was not enough, now the escalation of Armenian-Azeri border is intensifying with unforeseen consequences.
As to whether Armenia will retaliate, it is a foregone conclusion in all quarters. That solves the Shakespearean dilemma, leaving us with the question when and in what shape that retaliation will come.