Escalation of Hostilities Over Karabakh May’Ve’Been Unintended, But Increase Chances of Full-Blown War

Note: This was an evolving draft, in which I “thought out loud” – the final draft was published in Huff Po

The latest escalation of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan does not offer conclusive evidence that either side desires a full-blown war, but it does substantially increase the chances that they may accidentally stumble into such a war.

The initial provocation must have been planned and intended, but  I was still surprised that it had escalated into the deadliest clash in more than two decades, given that it occurred shortly after the March 31-April 1 Nuclear Security Summit, which Armenian and Azeri leaders were attending in Washington, DC, had ended.

That both Serzh Sargsyan and Ilham Aliev were out of their respective countries when the clashes began in early hours of April 2nd makes me think that neither side had planned the escalation of hostilities to the highest level since the sides agreed to a ceasefire in 1994.  And at least on the Armenian side, I saw no signs of expectations of such an escalation. In fact, Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan calmly stated that  Armenia and Azerbaijan are not really at war, but that Armenia needs to be ready when I asked him during Q&A after his talk at Harvard on 03.30.16 if (1) he agrees with one of the Armenian deputy defense ministers’ late 2015 assessment that recent clashes between the sides amounted to an actual war and, (2) if he doesn’t agree, then whether he can estimate probability of war in the next 5 years in percentage points.

The April 2nd clashes saw sides use Grad Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS). While tanks, artillery  and helicopters have been employed by the sides in the past, the Grads were used for the first time since 1994, as far as I can recall. Grad rockets are ‘dumb weapons’ which can produce heavy collateral damage, so what may have been meant as ‘softening’ of military targets to suppress resistance ahead of Azeris’ attempt to take a height and claim a small victory has led to loss of civilian life, including lives of children.  These civilian losses, which I find to be particularly deplorable and outrageous, may have fueled escalation beyond what I think was initially planned as a routine provocation, leading to a reported total death toll of more than 30, which is the highest for a singular incident along the line of contact since 1994.

The Azeri forces routinely initiate exchanges of fire along the line of contact in an effort to remind Armenia and the international community that the conflict is not frozen beyond reheating and try coercing Armenia and Karabakh into concessions. The April 2nd might have been planned as another of such ‘routine’ provocations. Why this latest provocation  has escalated into the worst fighting since the 1994 ceasefire remains unclear, at least to me.  My  guess is that such escalation might have been unintentional because, as said, above Aliev was out of the country. You normally don’t let your army start a major clash, which may evolve into a full-blown inter-state war, when the head of the state is traveling abroad. But I might be of course wrong in making this educated guess, which is based on immediate accounts of the incident. It might as well be that new facts will emerge that will prove beyond reasonable doubts that  Azeris had actually intended the escalation.

Regardless of what the provocateurs’ intentions were, however, the result of this provocation is a significant increase in probability of resumption of full blown war, in my opinion. For one, the April 2nd has created a precedent for use of yet heavier and more sophisticated weaponry. Now that the Grads have been used along with Mi-35s, repetition of such use  is permissible. Therefore, when the next provocation occurs, commanders on both sides will have less doubts about employing large-caliber multiple rocket launch systems and gunships, especially if in “fog of hostilities” they come to conclude that the other side’s use of such weapons is the first stage of a full-blown major offensive. A provocation that begins with mortar fire has low chances of quickly escalating into a war even if leaders of neither side desire such a war. A provocation that begins with use of large-caliber multiple rocket launch systems and gunships has significantly higher chances of leading to an accidental war because of casualties it can cause. If Azeris did initiate the April 2nd clashes  (and evidence is strong that they did), then this may also increase probability of a full-blown war because it may lead to hardening Armenians’ negotiating position. Azeris’ initiation of what has turned out to be deadliest clash since 1994 also gives the Armenian side serious reasons  to even more distrust proposals for a step-by-step resolution, in which Armenians first give up some of the land they control in exchange for Azeris’ commitment to honor results of a new self-determination referendum in Karabakh. Eliminating of the step-by-step approach, which I personally have had qualms about, significantly reduces what negotiation professionals describe as ZOPA (zone of possible agreement)  between Armenians and Azeris, increasing the attractiveness of war  as BATNA (best alternative to negotiated agreement) to the Azeri side.

The latest clashes once more underscore how dangerously wrong are hopes, which some leaders nurture, that they can up the ante a bit for purposes of signaling resolve to the opposite side or coercing the latter into concession, and then control/manage the resultant escalation. What these leaders do not realize is that SOPs, which the conflicting sides’ militaries begin to implement, following the ‘up-the-ante’ orders, may lead to escalation of a stand-off into a full-blown war against these leaders’ wishes, and so can accidents.   Both U.S. and Soviet leaders learned those and other lessons after living through the Cuban Missile Crisis and us outlined seven of these lessons for the Karabakh conflict in a 2012 Belfer Center paper, including the following:

  • Armenian and Azeri leaders should review their militaries’ routines to weed out those contingency SOPs that may lead to escalation of a crisis into a war against their orders.
  • Parties to the Karabakh conflict should keep in mind that escalation can acquire its own logic, noting how exchange of fire between the militaries can accidentally lead to massive casualties among civilians on either side “eventually escalating the fighting to a level, where leaders on both sides feel compelled by the public outrage over casualties (and their leaders’ own past vows) to retaliate with more and more firepower.”

The paper ended with the following conclusion: “Institutionalizing lessons of the Cuban missile crisis would help leaders on both sides of the Karabakh conflict to avert an ‘accidental’ devastating war. If, of course, they wish to avoid it.”  Maxim Yusin of Kommersant  believes that leaders on both sides presently wish to avoid resumption of the war. Indeed, Armenian leaders obviously are content with what Armenians have gained in the war that ended in 1994 while Ilham Aliev probably realizes that there’s no guarantee that Azeries will win the new war, but that  there is a strong probability that a defeat may lead to implosion of his regime. However, Armenian and Azeri leaders’ perceieved aversion to resumption of full-blown war may change due to a number of factors.  For instance, aprotracted decline of oil prices leaves Aliev facing protests so serious that he would come to view probability of losing his seat because of such protests greater than probability of losing a war over Karabakh, then chances are that he may attempt such a war. A significant decline of one of the sides’ power relative to the other may also affect the cost-benefit analysis that leaders on both sides engage in as they weigh whether to go to war. Such analysis applies, however, only if we view both Armenia, Karabakh and Azerbaijan as unitary rational actors acting in their national interest in what would conform to behavior of Model I actors in Graham Allison’s study of decision-making. However, there are also Model II and Model III and that’s where organizational interests and internal government politics come into play in ways that may enhance probability of full-blown war against heads of states’ wishes.

PS This is an evolving draft.

UPDATE 04.04.16: Two additional points:

  • If this evolves into full-blown war, then whether and what CSTO does will entail significant consequences for credibility of this organization.
  • Russia’s talking point that it supplies arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan (latter reportedly bought some $2 bn of Russian arms) “taking into account the need to maintain balance of forces in the region” is no longer tenable, especially if claims of Azeris using Russian-made TOS are true.
  • Vladimir Putin urged Azerbaijan&Armenia to stop hostilities. Should not Barack Obama do that too? Having Vice President Joe Biden do that signals it’s not a priority for Obama.

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