How Credible Is the CSTO Secretary General’s Warning Against Azerbaijan?
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 137
In a statement published on the Collective Security Treaty Organization’s (CSTO) website, on September 21, 2018, the alliance’s Secretary General Yuri Khachaturov, who is from Armenia, declared, “We have serious concerns about the recent frequent fire at the Armenian-Azerbaijani state border, as well as communities and civilian facilities located in the border area of Armenia” (Odkb-csto.org, September 21). Referring to the information that Yerevan had presented to the CSTO Permanent Council, Khachaturov called on Azerbaijan “to stop fire and escalation in the area of the CSTO’s responsibility to prevent the growth of security threats to Armenia.” Baku’s reaction was immediate and harsh: its Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the statement biased, contradictory to the position of all other CSTO members except Armenia, and ignorant to “the fact that the Azerbaijani side of the border, including the civilians living there, is constantly being fired at by the Armed Forces of Armenia” (Trend.az, September 22). The Azerbaijani foreign ministry alleged that the present escalation simply represents a continuation of the occupation by Armenia and the unlawful deployment of its troops to Azerbaijani territories. It called on Khachaturov to demand that Armenia end the occupation, if he seriously aims to contribute to de-escalation.
Meanwhile, indiscriminate fire on Azerbaijani territory, both along the line of contact (LOC) in Karabakh and at the Azerbaijani-Armenian border, have continued to be reported (Hafta.az, September 18, Defence.az, September 22)—including in the Armenian media. The recent escalation came almost immediately after Armenia’s large-scale Shant 2018 military drills, held on September 11–14, which simulated a wartime situation with Azerbaijan. Notably, the Armenian drills not only trained the readiness of the country’s Armed Forces, but also tested state bodies and agencies in case of a resumption of full-scale war; even the Armenian parliament was involved in a simulated scenario of declaring war (Armenpress.am, September 13). In turn, Azerbaijan responded by launching its own massive drills with the participation of 20,000 armed personnel (News.az, September 17). The Azerbaijani foreign ministry stated that the Armenians’ simulation of a “declaration of war against Azerbaijan […] is another clear indication that Armenia is a party to the conflict [over Karabakh],” which has long been denied by Yerevan (Azernews.az, September 14).
It is worth pointing out that Secretary General Khachaturov specifically drew attention not to the violent escalation in and around Karabakh, but rather limited his focus to the official Armenian-Azerbaijani border, which, unlike the LOC, falls under the CSTO’s responsibility to protect. This conspicuous distinction is in line with Yerevan’s long-standing but so far unsuccessful attempt to capitalize on its CSTO membership to deter Azerbaijan. To recall, on December 21, 2015, former president Serzh Sargsyan stated at the CSTO Security Council that “whenever the Azerbaijani Armed Forces fire at Armenia, they fire at Astana, Dushanbe, Bishkek, Moscow and Minsk. So, the CSTO should respond to Baku’s actions” (Arminfo.info, December 22, 2015). But when the first serious test of this assertion came during the “Four Day War” in April 2016, none of the six other CSTO members supported Armenia. Moreover, Belarus urged that a solution to the conflict be sought “on the basis of respect and guaranteeing territorial integrity and inviolability of borders, as well as the relevant [United Nations] Security Council resolutions and decisions of the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe]” (Vestnik Kavkaza, April 3, 2016). Whereas, Kazakhstan then skipped the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) summit that Yerevan was due to host on April 8, 2016 (Azatutyun.am, April 7, 2016). Armenia took umbrage at both positions of its ostensive allies. It summoned the Belarusian ambassador to protest Minsk’s position, and it changed the name of a street in Shirak province that had been named after Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Moreover, on April 26, then then–CSTO secretary general, Nikolai Bordyuzha (who is from Russia) reiterated that the organization could provide assistance to Armenia only in case of an attack against its internationally recognized territory; Karabakh, therefore, was not included in the CSTO’s collective defense obligations (Panorama.am, April 26).
Nevertheless, Armenia continues to seek CSTO backing in its conflict with Azerbaijan or at least tries to assure its public about the credibility of such support. Not surprisingly, a day after Khachaturov’s statement, Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan said, “We inform the CSTO countries about everything that is going on, and the CSTO Charter will be applied if we send a request, and if there is a situation in which CSTO provisions have to be applied” (Verelq.am, September 22). But the reaction of CSTO members in the past—most of which have developed high-level bilateral relations with Baku (see EDM, February, 15, 2017)—as well as Azerbaijan’s current cooperative relationship of with Russia (see EDM, September 10, 2018) strongly suggest that the CSTO would be highly unlikely to play any direct military role on Armenia’s side in a renewed war over Karabakh. The only exception might be stepped-up discounted Russian arms deliveries to Armenia.
It bears noting that there was also a strong political incentive for Khachaturov to make such a statement. Two months ago, he was charged with involvement in seeking to “overthrow the constitutional order” in Armenia for his alleged role in the bloody suppression of a post-election demonstration in 2008. The current Armenian authorities briefly detained him in August, but he was released on bail (Armenpress.am, August 4; see EDM, August 8, September 17). Therefore, Khachaturov, who is currently under investigation, might have also hoped to gain some public sympathy in his homeland by going on record with fresh warnings against Azerbaijan regarding the Karabakh conflict. Nonetheless, Azerbaijan’s harsh denouncement of the statement, and the foreign ministry’s special emphasis on the security general allegedly “misusing his office” and “overstepping his mandate” (Interfax, September 22) shows that Khachaturov’s words were not perceived in Baku as genuinely reflecting a common CSTO position. Instead, the Azerbaijani government apparently viewed the remarks as the personal position of the “Secretary General from Armenia.” Baku seems confident that the expressed warning will not go anywhere beyond a political statement.