There is an impression that by triggering clashes along the Line of Contact in Karabakh and on the border with Armenia, Ilham Aliyev deliberately tries to create a new agenda of talks with Serzh Sargsyan. In other words, at their meeting in Bern, did the two leaders discuss the new ceasefire terms instead of the peace process?
Over the past few years Azerbaijan has been using military diplomacy to get unilateral concessions from Armenia and Artsakh. Baku breaches the ceasefire on a regular basis with varying intensity. Exceptions concern the periods of international or republican events in Azerbaijan, which demand a more or less stable situation. For instance, in summer 2015 Baku hosted the European Games and Azerbaijan was not interested in destabilization, so it stopped its provocations on the border. The high-level meetings, the high-ranking foreign diplomats' visits to the region or the monitoring of the line of contact with involvement of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs do not prevent Azerbaijan from artificially escalating the tension in the region. In fact, maintenance of ceasefire will remain a priority for the OSCE Minsk Group, Armenia and Karabakh until Baku quits its force methods in settling political problems.
Many think Azerbaijan’s provocations on the borders are due to the domestic situation in that country, geopolitics, etc. What is your opinion?
The reason of the escalation on the line of contact is that Azerbaijan does not want to put up with the reality that emerged following its aggressive policy towards the self-determined Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Baku is reluctant to recognize the fundamental rights of Artsakh citizens and the NKR's right of existence. One can understand this given that the Azerbaijani authorities do not respect even the rights of their own citizens. Therefore, the U.S. is going to impose sanctions on Azerbaijan and Azerbaijani officials. By escalating the tension, Azerbaijan is trying to exert pressure on the Armenian parties and to get pro-Azerbaijani proposals from the international co-chairs through blackmail. However, since this policy brings no favorable results to Azerbaijan, the types of ceasefire violation are changing in the course of time: "the sniper war" has been transformed into "sabotage warfare". Moreover, over the last months of 2015, Baku actively used large-caliber weapons, mortars, rocket launchers, anti-aircraft artillery guns, howitzers and battle tanks when firing at the defensive positions of Karabakh and the near-border Armenian settlements.
Many Russian colleagues link Baku's provocations on the line of contact with the deterioration of the Russian-Turkish relations. What do you think of that?
Turkey remains the closest military and political ally of Azerbaijan. In most issues of regional and international policy, the stands of Ankara and Baku coincide and very often the two countries move in tandem. In the future the Azerbaijani leadership may even undertake anti-Russian actions dictated by Ankara. Since Azerbaijan has been undertaking provocations on the line of contact with the NKR for many years and the Russian jet has been shot down by Turkey recently, it is not correct to link the latest escalation with the deterioration of the Russian-Turkish relations.
Unlike Yerevan, Baku supported Ankara in the incident with the downed Russian warplane over Syria, which brushed away the illusions about the Russian-Azerbaijani alliance. What do you think about the prospects of the further Moscow-Baku relations?
I think Moscow and Baku seek to maintain the strategic partnership. Certainly, Azerbaijan has become more vulnerable because on the one hand, its capacities in the western countries are restricted due to the human rights problems, and it is not easy to maintain close relations with Russia amid the Russian-Turkish conflict. Therefore, Azerbaijan made an attempt to become a mediator between Moscow and Ankara to overcome that complicated situation. If the relations between Russia and Turkey keep deteriorating, Azerbaijan will have to make a difficult choice. Azerbaijan’s positions in the region will considerably weaken if the preference is given to one of the conflicting parties.
As the situation in Karabakh escalates, certain political centers have already started predicting large-scale war at least in the region. Do you see any preconditions for such war?
Some of my colleagues figuratively call Karabakh a cornerstone in the arc of regional security. Others say the “tectonic force” of the Azerbaijani-Karabakh conflict is big enough to have destructive consequences for Azerbaijan, Armenia, Artsakh and their neighbors, in case the conflict is unfrozen. Therefore, a new war, if it happens God Forbid, will be large-scale. The tendencies in the region are negative: the situation on the borders is not improving, with the challenges taking new shapes. It is known that the fragile peace in the Karabakh conflict zone is supported thanks to the balance of power of the sides, without international peacekeeping operation. However, during the last years, there is certain misbalance in favor of Azerbaijan. That country has left Armenia a little behind in the arms race and now grossly violates the Ceasefire Treaty dating back to May 1994. Therefore, we should not comfort ourselves and neglect the possible hostilities. Armenia and NKR must be ready to meet that challenge. In such case, the probability of resumption of the military actions will decrease certainly. To prevent a new war, it is necessary to restore the military-political balance and strategic parity with the help of the countries that are really interested in peace in the region.
Several dozens of soldiers of the Armenian and NKR armed forces have been killed in Azerbaijan's sabotage attacks this year, with seven being killed in December alone. Do you think the army command of Armenia and Artsakh take enough measures to prevent deaths and develop measures of retaliation?
In the absence of real international mechanisms of control and restraint, the Armed Forces of Armenia and Artsakh undertake countermeasures to neutralize the actions of the adversary. The steps of our military are necessary but not enough as the experiences shows that symmetric and asymmetric retaliations of our forces restrain but not stop the penetration attempts of Azerbaijani troops. To stabilize the situation, the adequate measures of the Military Command of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh must be backed with political and diplomatic measures. I think the U.S. Department supported initiative of congressmen Royce and Engel, possible adoption of the Helsinki Committee-submitted HR-4264 and other steps must sober up the Azerbaijani political establishment. The European and U.S. initiatives to bring Azerbaijan back to the constructive line show Baku’s unwillingness to implement its international commitments to respect human rights inside the country and resolve the disputes with the neighbor-countries in a peaceful way. In this case, NKR’s independence has no alternative.