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Azerbaijan used Russia's weakness in Ukraine, expert says

Mikhail Bushuev
September 14, 2022

The flare up of violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan comes as Russia is distracted with Ukraine. In an interview, security expert Hanna Notte expects other countries to do the same.

A house destroyed by shelling in the Armenian town of Vardenis
A house destroyed by shelling in the Armenian town of VardenisImage: Alexander Patrin/Tass/dpa/picture alliance

Armenia and Azerbaijan are trading blame over who was responsible for more shelling on Wednesday across their border.

This week saw a renewed flare of violence between the two countries, who have been locked in a decades-old conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. The region is part of Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia for nearly two decades.

Armenia, which is home to a Russian military base, has asked the Russia-dominated military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, for help. So far Russia hasn't reacted to this appeal.

But the latest tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan come as Russia, a regional power broker, has been forced into a major retreat in Ukraine.

In an interview with DW, security expert Hanna Notte, a senior research associate at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, talks of how Azerbaijan is exploiting Russia's preoccupation with Ukraine, and which other countries might try to do the same.

DW: The fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia falls at a time when Russia is distracted by heavy military defeats in the Ukraine. It is no coincidence, right?

Hanna Notte: I think it's absolutely no coincidence. This is well timed from the Azerbaijani side. They are using a window of opportunity where Russia is very much distracted. It's actually not the first time this is happening. The Azeris engaged in more provocative behavior, not the kinds of strikes, but sort of upping the ante over Nagorno-Karabakh early into the war in Ukraine, testing a little bit the limits of how far they could push things. And now we're seeing this bigger escalation.

At the same time, it does make sense to suggest that when Russia is so heavily preoccupied with Ukraine, when its political, diplomatic bandwidth is very much focused on that conflict, and its position is deteriorating, as you rightly pointed out, that smaller actors in Russia's neighborhood will react to that and will test limits in some of those conflicts in which Russia has been historically a power broker.

With Russia distracted and Europe dependent on alternative gas and oil supplies from Azerbaijan, the government in Bakku seems to have a lot of possibilities to escalate further, right?

A photo of Hanna Notte
Hanna Notte specializes in conflict and security issues involving RussiaImage: Hanna Notte

I wouldn't want to speculate too much on what next steps we would see from Azerbaijan. Still I do find it kind of noteworthy that Azerbaijan has decided to do this even though they were just very recently hosted in Brussels at a very senior level, and that the EU has been trying to get more involved in mediation again between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the last few months. And yet just a few weeks after this, this push happened, we see them escalating in this way. So it's actually quite remarkable.

Who are the other third parties who might use this, as you call it, window of opportunity?

The Iranians come to mind. I think the Iranians have enhanced their position of leverage vis-a-vis Russia slightly on the back of this war in Ukraine. You see this, for instance, when it comes to military and defense cooperation. This used to be for the longest time a one-way relationship where Russia was very much dictating the terms, deciding what to sell and not to sell to the Iranians. Now you're in a situation where the Iranians are actually providing drones to Russia. I have seen on Twitter some first indications from open source that Iranian drones might have been used in Ukraine, though that wasn't verified.

So I think the Iranians have become a little more important for Russia as Russia is more isolated. And that could lead to emboldened Iranian action in Syria. The Iranians, stepping in a bit more in Syria, might even be something that Russia welcomes temporarily, because Russia, if it has reduced bandwidth in Syria itself, wants to ensure that there's a balance between other actors and not one of them being too prominent.

Dozens killed in Armenia-Azerbaijan clashes

Basically, we in the West tend to view Russia as an actor present in these various theaters that is not a stabilizing force. I would agree with the analysis that Russia has not managed to sustainably stabilize Syria. It has not engaged in successful conflict resolution in that space. Russia is not necessarily a stabilizing actor in Libya. But, let's speculate, if Russia becomes significantly weakened because of the war in Ukraine and Russia is removed from those equations as an actor that is perceived to be a power, the situation you will get subsequently might not necessarily be more stable. It will depend on how other actors fill the vacuum left by Russia and whether those actors will be a stabilizing force.

What do you expect from Turkey while Russia's prospects are becoming gloomy?

It's a good question. And it's one of I actually have thought about a lot over the last six months and have done some work on in. My key takeaway is that this war, as it currently stands, has produced a situation in which Ankara has greater leverage vis-a-vis both Russia and EU-NATO. Turkey is now central to mediation on a lot of different issues. If we think about grain exports or potentially prisoner exchanges or other things. Turkey can afford to conduct a more emboldened foreign policy in some of these theaters. But my bottom line, though, is that Turkey would like to see a slightly humbled Russia, certainly Russia that does not win the war in Ukraine.

But I think if Russia were to be defeated and humiliated in this war, it could also produce a situation that would not benefit Turkey because Turkey is very close to Russia. Turkey has accumulated a lot of experience of deconfliction cooperating with Russia even though they pursue different interests. They have successfully established this model in Syria initially through the Astana group, but also bilaterally. Then they deconflicted it in Libya. They have deconflicted over Karabakh.

So there's this accumulated experience and I think Turkey prefers to deal with Russia over these issues, and not with Russia being removed from the equation completely. So it's a mixed picture for Turkey.

Edited by: Kate Hairsine