The Danger Of Miscalculation In The Forgotten War Over Nagorno-Karab

Steve Levine

Story from News:

Published: 19:15:06 – 23/06/2011

Since the beginning of the year, events have rocked places that seemed
locked in time. One outcome has been utterly unpredictable oil prices
— $114 a barrel one month, and the low $90s for a barrel of crude
that we see now. Shorn mainly of the Arab Spring, oil prices would
be somewhere in the $60-$80 range per barrel, according to market
watchers such as ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson and Saudi Prince Al
Waleed bin Talal. Traders say the Middle East trouble poses risks
to the world oil supply, especially if another big oil producer goes
off the market, such as Saudi Arabia.

One place the market is excluding from its calculus is Azerbaijan,
1,400 miles further east, which has been shipping between 800,000
and 1 million barrels of high-quality oil into the global market for
the last five years. As we’ve discussed, I myself don’t usually think
about Azerbaijan in terms of market-shaking instability. Yet, no one
expected what we are currently observing in the Middle East, either.

As we know from history, including the start of World War I, loose
tongues, swollen heads, and distracted minds can lead inadvertently
to war. Hence, Azerbaijan merits a look.

Tomorrow, the leaders of this Caspian Sea nation and its blood enemy,
neighboring Armenia, are to meet in the Russian region of Tatarstan
in an attempt finally to begin to bury their 23-year-long, on-and-off
violence (Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian President
Serge Sarkissian pictured above, respectively, with Russia’s Dmitry
Medvedev). When the countries fought in actual combat — from 1988 to
1994 — Azerbaijan lost badly. Armenia captured about a fifth of its
territory, including the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia
continues to hold this turf, from which all Azeris have long fled or
been expelled.

Yet, for at least the last couple of years, Azeri President Ilham
Aliyev and some of his ministers have engaged in a loud-mouth,
trash-talking contest with Armenia. Earlier this month, a spokesman
for the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense said that ultimately his
country would ‘meet the expectations of the people, the government,
and the supreme commander-in- chief and will liberate the occupied
land from the enemy.’ Here is a collection of such statements from
both sides. In a piece this month, the New York Times’ Ellen Barry
said she found an antsy, pro-war mood in Baku.

Azerbaijan has spent the last several years rearming, spending more
than the entire national budget of Armenia on its military. Thomas de
Waal of Carnegie has written compellingly of the chance that one side
or the other could miscalculate and trigger a resumption of combat.

Seventeen years after the initiation of the current ceasefire, it is
at least conceivable that time has softened Aliyev’s memory of the
mauling that Azerbaijan’s soldiers suffered. It is also in the range of
possibilities that Armenian President Serge Sarkissian could perceive
the imminence of an Azerbaijan attack, and decided to pre-empt.

In either case, global oil prices would run amok. Considering what
happened last time, I also personally think that Azerbaijan could be
overrun. De Waal says the outcome locally would be a ‘catastrophe.’

In the talks tomorrow, I was told by diplomats that both sides are
likelier than ever to close an initial deal, which would lead to a
much longer period of talks. Friends tell me to temper the optimism.

It is worth listening to them if only to be braced.