On May 12, the Azerbaijani military crossed into the Republic of Armenia and moved 3.5 kilometers into Syunik province, seizing the entirety of Sev Lake. The next day, the Azerbaijani military breached two other sections of the border and occupied more areas of Armenia. It was initially reported that with Russian mediation, Azerbaijan agreed to withdraw to their pre-May 12 positions but with two small military camps being established nearby. However, Armenian reports suggest that many Azerbaijani soldiers remain illegally in Armenia.
It brings to question why Azerbaijan almost instigated a new war, thus forcing Armenia to activate Article 2 of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led mutual defense pact.
Since the end of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War on November 10 last year, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev insists that “the war is over.” However, the war is far from over as Azerbaijan has not achieved full control over the entirety of Nagorno-Karabakh as an Armenian administration based in Stepanakert still maintains rule over large areas of the region. In addition, despite the rhetoric of peace, Aliyev has the long-term goal of occupying Syunik as this Armenian province is the reason why Azerbaijan proper is detached from its Nakhichevan Autonomous Region.
For a long time, Baku has espoused a humanitarian issue in Nagorno-Karabakh, but it has always been about territory. Having seized most of Nagorno-Karabakh with relative ease in 2020, the emboldened Aliyev wants to continue further by crossing into Syunik. Although the war in Nagorno-Karabakh ended last year, Aliyev has repeatedly claimed that a part of the ceasefire agreement was the opening of transportation corridors across Syunik province to connect Azerbaijan proper with Nakhichevan, an allegation continually denied by Armenian authorities.
Aliyev in turn has also repeatedly stated that he will “open the corridor by force” and in recent times said that the region is “historically” Azerbaijani. Effectively, Aliyev is already legitimizing the justification for an Azerbaijani military operation to either occupy Syunik or force transportation corridors across it. Transportation corridors are necessary for Azerbaijan to be able to directly reach Turkey without having to bypass through Iran or Georgia. In this way, a pan-Turkic corridor stretching from Istanbul in Turkey to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan can be established as Armenia’s sovereignty over Syunik is the only hindrance to this pan-Turkic ambition.
After the end of last year’s war, Azerbaijan conducted large-scale exercises with Turkey, increased its military budget, and since May 16 has been conducting new military exercises with the participation of up to 15,000 troops close to the border with Armenia.
Meanwhile, on the opposing side, the current Armenian leadership has been unable to restore the army, construct defensive fortifications along the border, or improve relations with its allies or other regional brokers. Aliyev, whether his intentions are for an immediate invasion or not, is testing Armenia’s reactions to pressures and artificially created crises. Most of the world reacted indifferently to the Turkish-sponsored invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh, and now Baku is testing responses to its occupation of territories in the Republic of Armenia.
For half a year now, the domestic situation in Armenia has been extremely turbulent as the political opposition blame the current interim Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, as responsible for the loss of most of Nagorno-Karabakh. As a result, Aliyev is interested in maintaining the chaotic political situation in Yerevan as he is afraid of Armenian revanchism. He adds more fuel to the fire, so to speak, by sometimes endorsing Pashinyan knowing that his political opponents will use this as “evidence” of the Armenian Prime Minister being an “Azerbaijani puppet.”
In addition, Azerbaijani lobbyists are intensively working in Moscow to convince the Russians that Armenia is geopolitically redundant and problematic for them. In this way, Baku promotes itself as serving Russian interests more so than Yerevan. By lobbying to Moscow, whilst making unilateral actions in the Southern Caucasus, Baku hopes it can reduce the severity of Russia’s potential reaction.
At the same time, the final motivating factor for Azerbaijan’s recent actions that almost instigated a renewed conflict is its search for water resources. Azerbaijan is an arid country, but the mountainous territories of the Republic of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh have water supplies. Therefore, Baku attempts to compensate for its lack of water, due mostly because of pollution and mismanagement, at the expense of Armenian resources. This is akin to Turkey currently depriving Syria and Iraq of Euphrates River water.
Although it is unlikely that Azerbaijan in the short term will launch a campaign to conquer Syunik Province, it is already laying the ground work for this eventuality by continuously conducting military exercises on the border whilst simultaneously announcing that “the war is over” but threatening to “force open” a transportation corridor, entrenching new positions, contributing to the political crisis in Yerevan, attempting to push Russia away from Armenia by funding a network of lobbyists, and establish pretexts on the necessity of water sources. Just as the July 2020 four-day conflict was Azerbaijan testing the responses and capabilities of the Armenian military in preparation for the September 2020 war over Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan is now getting ready for a future conflict over Syunik.