THE LINGERING LANDMINES OF NAGORNO-KARABAKH
July 9 2013
July 9, 2013: Because of a 19 year truce between Armenia and
Azerbaijan it’s been possible to clear 75 percent of the 88,000 known
mines and unexploded munitions (especially bomblets from cluster bombs)
known to exist in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The clearing operation only started going six years after the cease
fire, when it seemed likely that the two countries would not start
fighting again, at least not without a little warning. It will take
another decade to clear all the mines and other explosive stuff from
tiny Nagorno-Karabakh. Since the 1994 ceasefire, there have been
about a thousand casualties from the landmines and other explosives in
Nagorno-Karabakh. That number has declined as more of the explosives
were cleared. But there are still a dozen casualties each year,
if only because people feel free to wander around more often.
Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to disagree over possession
of Nagorno-Karabakh, a 4,400 square kilometer district, full of
Armenians, surrounded by Azerbaijani territory. The current population
is 160,000. Technically, there has been a truce between Armenia and
Azerbaijan since 1994. But it has been a hot truce that often seems on
the verge of slipping back into war. Between 1991 and 1994, there was
a nasty little war between the two countries over Nagorno-Karabakh,
which Armenia won. Some 20,000 people died and over a million
(400,000 Armenians and 700,000 Azerbaijanis) fled their homes as
Armenia occupied 31,000 square kilometers of Azerbaijani territory,
to connect Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. Most of the refugees were
from areas dominated by one group, who drove out the minority. Some
40,000 Azerbaijani civilians were driven from Nagorno-Karabakh. The
situation was humiliating for Azerbaijan, who saw it as yet another
example of more powerful and wealthier (via oil fields) Moslems being
defeated by a smaller number of armed and more capable non-Moslems.
Located on the Caspian Sea in the Caucasus, Azerbaijan and Armenia
were part of the Soviet Union until 1991, and much of their military
equipment is of Cold War vintage. Azerbaijan is 95 percent Moslem
(85 percent Shia). Although Azerbaijan has three times more people and
much more money (because of oil), the Armenians are better soldiers and
the dispute has been stalemated. Azerbaijan has a population of nine
million and a GPD of $72 billion, compared to 3.2 million Armenians
who have a GDP of $10 billion. Azerbaijan is determined to reverse
this string of defeats, no matter the cost. But the Azeris are not
stupid and have to deal with the fact that the Armenians are still
better fighters and have Russia as an ally.
Two years ago Armenia signed a pact with Russia that, in effect,
puts it under the protection of Russia. The deal extends the lease
on a Russian military base in Armenia from 2020 to 2044. The 3,000
man Russian force in Armenia may be increased and Russia, in effect,
guarantees Armenia’s security. Armenia needs all the help it can get,
as it is a landlocked Christian nation surrounded by three hostile
Moslem states (Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Iran). To the north there is
Georgia which, while Christian, has its own problems with Russia. This
deal makes any major move against Armenia by Azerbaijan very risky.
While the Russians want to remain friendly with Azerbaijan, they
have definitely taken sides here. In return for this security Armenia
will have to follow Russia’s lead in diplomacy and any other area the
Russians feel is important. Meanwhile, the Russians will provide new
weapons and equipment for the 43,000 troops in the Armenian military
and help arm an even larger reserve force.
In the last few years Azerbaijan has purchased over $5 billion worth
of new weapons from Israel and Russia. Officially, all of this is
for potential use against Armenia. But the billions spent on naval
and air defense weapons seem more suited for defense against Iran.
Azerbaijan has been having more and more problems with Iran. Last
year, for example, police arrested 22 suspected Iranian agents and
accused them of planning terror attacks on American and Israeli
targets. Azerbaijan has been chasing down and arresting Iran-backed
terrorists and spies for years. This time they discovered that some of
the people they arrested had been recruited by Iran, as spies, as far
back as 1999. Now Iran is increasingly using terrorism to influence
what goes on in Azerbaijan and the Azeri government does not like it.
Iran has long harbored an intense interest in Azerbaijan. This is
because most of the Turkic and Moslem Azeris live in Iran. Up until
1813, modern Azerbaijan was part of Iran. Then the Russians showed up.
Armenia and Azerbaijan were the last Russian conquests as the tsar’s
soldiers and Cossacks advanced down the Caucasus region (between the
Black and Caspian Seas) in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Russians
stopped when they ran into the Turkish and Iranian empires, but not
before taking a chunk of Azerbaijan from Iran. The Iranians have
In effect, most of “Azerbaijan” is in Iran and Iran has long hoped
to reunite all Azeris under their rule. Currently, about a quarter
of the Iranian population is Azeri and many have risen to senior
positions in the government. Despite that, most Azeris would like
all Azeris united in a single Azerbaijan. This is not a popular idea
within Iran. The Russians, on the other hand, have come to accept
the 1991 loss of Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Iranians, both individually and collectively, have been increasingly
aggressive towards Azerbaijan over the last decade. For example,
last year hackers calling themselves the Iranian Cyber Army defaced
media web sites in Azerbaijan. This was in response to Azerbaijan
arresting locals and Iranians for trying to organize terror attacks
on Israeli targets. Iran is also unhappy with the growing diplomatic
and economic ties Azerbaijan has with Israel. Azerbaijan ordering
military equipment from Israeli was very unpopular with Iran, which
believes that Israel must be destroyed and that any Islamic state
that supports Israel deserves much the same.
Three years ago all this Iranian hostility, and disputes with
neighboring Armenia, led oil rich Azerbaijan to increase its defense
budget 87 percent to $3.1 billion. That has since increased to
$3.7 billion. Nearly half these larger budgets are being spent to
modernize the armed forces. A lot of the cash was quietly spent
on improved counter-terrorism capabilities. Israel was providing
advisors and special equipment to detect and deal with growing Iranian
sponsored Islamic terrorism in Azerbaijan. This Israeli connection,
and especially the growing success of the Azeris in countering Iranian
terror efforts, has infuriated the Iranians.
But Azerbaijan is making a serious effort to create an effective
military and revive their economy. Azeri defeats at the hands of
better trained, led, and organized Armenian troops were caused,
in part, by Azerbaijani corruption and double dealing among themselves.
Moreover, the Armenians have a military tradition going back
centuries. The Azeris are working hard to redress the military balance,
thus the Armenian need for a Russian alliance and the sharp jump in
Azeri military spending. But while Armenia only has to worry about
one enemy, Azerbaijan has both Armenia and Iran to deal with.