April 12, 2016:
Russia and Iran are hustling to end nearly a week of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Forces from the two nations began firing at each other on April 2nd and a cease fire was negotiated and implemented on the 5th. But now that deal is in danger because some shooting has resumed. Since the 2nd nearly a hundred have died and more than twice as many wounded. Russia considers itself the “protector” of Armenia but has managed to maintain good relations with Azerbaijan as well. In doing that Russia established one of the more successful peacekeeping operations since the Cold War ended in 1991. Iran has tried, and not always succeeded, to be on good terms with Azerbaijan, if only because about a quarter of the Iranian population are Azeris. At the same time Iran and Russia, traditional enemies, have become allies and those links are being used to deal with latest round of violence.
Armenia and Azerbaijan mainly disagree over possession of Nagorno-Karabakh, a 4,400 square kilometer district that is full of Armenians but surrounded by Azerbaijani territory. The current population is 160,000. Technically, there has been a truce between Armenia and Azerbaijan since 1994. But it has been a hot truce that often seems on the verge of slipping back into war.
The violence began in 1988 and between 1991 and 1994, there was a nasty little war between the two countries over Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenia won. Some 20,000 people died and over a million (400,000 Armenians and 700,000 Azerbaijanis) fled their homes as Armenia occupied 31,000 square kilometers of Azerbaijani territory, to connect Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. Most of the refugees were from areas dominated by one group, who drove out the minority. Some 40,000 Azerbaijani civilians were driven from Nagorno-Karabakh. The situation was humiliating for Azerbaijan, who saw it as yet another example of more powerful and wealthier (via oil fields) Moslems being defeated by a smaller number of armed and more capable non-Moslems.
Located on the Caspian Sea in the Caucasus, Azerbaijan and Armenia were part of the Soviet Union until 1991, and much of their military equipment is of Cold War vintage. Azerbaijan is 95 percent Moslem (85 percent Shia). Although Azerbaijan has three times more people and much more money (because of oil), the Armenians are better soldiers and the dispute has been stalemated. Azerbaijan has a population of nine million and a GPD of $72 billion, compared to 3.2 million Armenians who have a GDP of $10 billion. Azerbaijan is determined to reverse this string of defeats, no matter the cost. But the Azeris are not stupid and have to deal with the fact that the Armenians are still better fighters and have Russia as an ally.
In 2011 Armenia signed a pact with Russia that, in effect, puts it under the protection of Russia. The deal extends the lease on a Russian military base in Armenia from 2020 to 2044. The 3,000 man Russian “peacekeeping” force in Armenia in effect, guarantees Armenia's security. That force was increased to 7,000 in late 2015 as a result of bad relations between Turkey and Russia.
Armenia needs all the help it can get, as it is a landlocked Christian nation surrounded by three hostile Moslem states (Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Iran). To the north there is Georgia which, while Christian, has its own problems with Russia. This deal makes any major move against Armenia by Azerbaijan very risky. While the Russians want to remain friendly with Azerbaijan, they have definitely taken sides here. In return for this security Armenia will have to follow Russia's lead in diplomacy and any other area the Russians feel is important. Meanwhile, the Russians will provide new weapons and equipment for the 80,000 troops in the Armenian military and is helping arm the 30,000 reservists.
Since 2010 Azerbaijan has purchased over $8 billion worth of new weapons from Israel and Russia. Officially, all of this is for potential use against Armenia. But the billions spent on naval and air defense weapons seem more suited for defense against Iran.
Azerbaijan has been having more and more problems with Iran. In 2012, for example, police arrested 22 suspected Iranian agents and accused them of planning terror attacks on American and Israeli targets. Azerbaijan has been chasing down and arresting Iran-backed terrorists and spies for years. This time they discovered that some of the people they arrested had been recruited by Iran, as spies, as far back as 1999. Now Iran is increasingly using terrorism to influence what goes on in Azerbaijan and the Azeri government does not like it.
Iran has long harbored an intense interest in Azerbaijan. This is because most of the Turkic and Moslem Azeris live in Iran. Up until 1813, modern Azerbaijan was part of Iran. Then the Russians showed up. Armenia and Azerbaijan were the last Russian conquests as the tsar’s soldiers and Cossacks advanced down the Caucasus region (between the Black and Caspian Seas) in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Russians stopped when they ran into the Turkish and Iranian empires, but not before taking a chunk of Azerbaijan from Iran. The Iranians have not forgotten.
In effect, most of "Azerbaijan" is in Iran and Iran has long hoped to reunite all Azeris under their rule. Currently, about a quarter of the Iranian population is Azeri and many have risen to senior positions in the government. Despite that, most Azeris would like all Azeris united in a single Azerbaijan. This is not a popular idea within Iran. The Russians, on the other hand, have come to accept the 1991 loss of Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Azerbaijan is making a serious effort to create an effective military and revive their economy. Azeri defeats at the hands of better trained, led, and organized Armenian troops were caused, in part, by Azerbaijani corruption and double dealing among themselves. Moreover, the Armenians have a military tradition going back centuries. The Azeris are working hard to redress the military balance, thus the Armenian need for a Russian alliance and the sharp jump in Azeri military spending. But while Armenia only has to worry about one enemy, Azerbaijan has both Armenia and Iran to deal with.
Meanwhile the outbreak in fighting has halted a 16 year-long effort that has cleared over 80 percent of the 88,000 known mines and unexploded munitions (especially bomblets from cluster bombs) known to exist in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The clearing operation only started going in 2000, when it seemed likely that the two countries would not start fighting again, at least not without a little warning. Until the recent resumption in fighting it was believed that it would take until the early 2020s to clear all the mines and other explosive stuff from tiny Nagorno-Karabakh. Since the 1994 ceasefire, there have been about a thousand casualties from the landmines and other explosives in Nagorno-Karabakh. That number has declined as more of the explosives were cleared. But there are still a dozen casualties each year, if only because people feel free to wander around more often.