Where does energy fit in the new military clashes with Armenia?

Robert M. Cutler

As is well known by now, in mid-July new military hostilities erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia. They erupted nowhere near Nagorno-Karabakh or the line of contact between the two sides, but rather in Tovuz district, northwest Azerbaijan, not far from Ganja, the country’s second largest city.

The broader region is a 100-kilometer wide salient bordered by Russia in the northeast and by occupied Nagorno-Karabakh in the southwest. It has recently acquired the name “Ganja corridor”, or sometimes “Ganja gap”, because the valley where Ganja city is situated is a crucial pathway for the entire infrastructure that transmits Caspian Sea energy resources to Europe and the West.

These links include the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil export pipeline, the South Caucasus Pipeline (SCP) for natural gas leading into the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), the Baku-Supsa oil export pipeline, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, and the Baku-Tbilisi highway. In the view of geopolitical strategy, it is a potentially very fragile chokepoint not only for European energy security but also for transportation and international trade.

Countries in the region are now concerned—and so should be the West—about how to guarantee military and physical security. The concern reach a level where Armenia’s defense minister David Tonoyan was compelled to make a public statement to the effect that his country would not attack the pipelines running through the region, because in his view it was necessary for international energy companies to have confidence in Armenia.

Twenty years ago, at the time when the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) was being built, it was considered to construct the pipeline in a more northerly route, further away from the border with Armenia. However, that would have entailed additional expense as the terrain was more hilly, and also the route was slightly more roundabout. Consequently the current corridor was chosen; and after the BTC, the South Caucasus Pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway followed more or less the same path.

Due to the location of the current hostilities near such vital infrastructure, some speculation has revolved around the idea that Russia is behind it all. Different ideas have been proposed considering the timing. For example, Azerbaijan has now become the largest gas supplier to Turkey, passing Russia. Turkey is diversifying its suppliers also through purchases of liquefied natural gas (LNG), becoming less dependent on Russia.

The Blue Stream pipeline has remained empty after coming back on line several weeks ago following scheduled maintenance. The SGC will officially open in several months time, as the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) is almost complete. All these developments would supposedly displease Russia, which would use Armenia as an instrument to show its hand to Azerbaijan.

This argument is not strongly supported by the fact that the Russian media have been treating Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan with a distaste verging on disdain. No doubt they remember his many criticisms of Russia, when he was in the political opposition in Armenia, for its policy toward Yerevan, which is heavily dependent on Moscow for energy, financial assistance, and trade. Russia also still maintains a military base at Gyumri in Armenia roughly 160 kilometers from where the hostilities occurred.

Some analysts suggested that Armenia may have provoked the crisis in order to involve the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) on its own side, to implicate Moscow more deeply in the conflict. But Russian media trivialized the new conflict as a "two-day" war, and Russia's Security Council waited took five days before meeting to to discuss the situation.

Indeed, Margarita Simonyan, who heads the Russian television network RT as well as the state-owned international news agency Rossiya Segodnya, publicly mocked Pashinyan, noting that Armenia has not recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea and criticizing him for detaining ex-president Kocharyan, a “friend of Russia”. Remarkably, the CSTO’s official twitter account tweeted a link to Simonyan’s scornful article, saying this was a mistake and deleting it a few minutes, while clarifying that her views “fully contradict” the CSTO’s official view as expressed in its communiqué.

It is a commonplace that military action distracts any national public and often solidarizes it with its government. So it is odd that international commentary has not much mentioned the difficult domestic Armenian situation as a possible motive for Yerevan's moves. Indeed, the current economic and political situation in Armenia is difficult for the general population.

Moreover, on the level of intra-elite politics, there are legal proceedings undertaken by the Pashinyan government separately against the two preceding presidents of Armenia, Robert Kocharyan (1998-2008) and Serzh Sargsyan (2008-2018). In 2008 Pashinyan supported Levon Ter-Petrosyan against Sargsyan, whom Kocharyan hand-picked to succeed him. Pashinyan was jailed under the Sargsyan regime in the wake of the 2008 election for “organizing mass disorders” in protest of allegedly rigged results.

Sargsyan tried to move to the prime minister’s office after his presidential term ended, whereupon Pashinyan led a successful “color revolution” fueled by popular protests against him. Sargsyan and Kocharyan have now each been indicted under the Pashinyan regime, the former for embezzlement, the latter for “overthrowing constitutional order of Armenia” in connection with the 2008 crackdown on protests, where Pashinyan was a leading participant.

So there is much going on in Armenian domestic politics, and not so far below the surface, that oddly escapes international news coverage, at least in the West. Now there are calls inside Armenia and in the politically influential Armenian diaspora for Pashinyan to be removed from office.

Domestic political considerations make for a potent explanation of the new military confrontation, of course they do not exclude other influences on decision-making as well. The regional South Caucasus constellation of forces, Russia’s relations with the two sides, and considerations of European energy security all play a role at different levels of all parties’ maneuvering for advantage. Thus although matters concerning European energy security are likely not a driving force in the re-eruption of the conflict, nevertheless they may be affected by affected by the instability; yet for now, it appears that steps are being taken to ensure that this does not happen.

Robert M. Cutler is a Canadian analyst of European and Eurasian security.


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