The risk of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is increasing and international meditors need to step up efforts to make sure that conflict doesn't arise in the "coming weeks and months," says the International Crisis Group in a new report.
The report (pdf), Armenia and Azerbaijan: A Season of Risks, argues that internal tension in both Baku and Yerevan could cause a small conflict on the border -- which occur nearly constantly -- to spiral into a full-fledged war. In Azerbaijan, presidential elections will be held next month, and Armenia's recent abrupt announcement that it is joining Russia's Customs Union has thrown that country's political scene into turmoil, the report argues. This, combined with the arms both sides (but especially Azerbaijan) have been acquiring, could be a deadly mixture, the ICG argues: "Confrontation, low-intensity but volatile, between Azerbaijan and Armenia has entered a period of heightened sensitivity. The ICG "does not predict a second war is either imminent or more likely than not. It does suggest the near-term threats to stability are becoming more acute... Vigorous international engagement is needed to lessen chances of violent escalation during coming weeks and months."
The report's authors noted that in Baku, the planning for a military solution to the conflict appears to be getting more detailed: "Baku has increasingly emphasised a military solution, publicly and privately. Strategic planners discuss this in much more specific terms than even a year ago. Air strikes are mentioned as a first stage in any offensive, targeting air defences, then infrastructure. 'We are confident we can retake a significant amount of territory in a relatively short time and force the Armenians to make a deal', said one." Armenians, meanwhile, are wondering if it may be worth carrying out a preemptive strike against Azerbaijan while the military balance is not too far in the latter's favor.
Unfortunately, the report notes, the international efforts to tamp down the conflict do not appear to be up to the challenge. It criticized the international mediators of the OSCE's Minsk Group for being ineffective, and in the case of Russia, having too many interests in the region to be an honest broker: "The strong and coordinated international pressure needed to break the diplomatic deadlock is lacking... . Russia’s position raises particular questions about the format’s effectiveness. It is not only a Minsk Group co-chair but also has major strategic interests in the South Caucasus and supplies arms to both sides of the conflict."
The full report, as is usually the case with the ICG, is worth reading. But this one is especially foreboding.