New war between Armenia and Azerbaijan threatens critical energy infrastructure
On Sept. 27, 2020, Azerbaijanis awoke to the news of the latest provocation unleashed by Armenia against Azerbaijan. This time, the attack took place along the front line as well as in populated areas: Qapanli village, Tartar district; Chragli and Orta Garvend villages, Aghdam district; Alkhanli and Shukurbeyli villages, Fuzuli district; and Jojuq Merjanli village in Jabrayil district. As a result of intense shelling by Armenia’s armed forces, Azerbaijan reported deaths and injuries among civilians and military servicemen. Azerbaijan reacted immediately with counteroffensive measures, and at the time of writing, the defense ministry of Azerbaijan had announced serious military victories, including the liberation of Madagiz (Suqovushan) village in the Tartar district, Jabrayil town and several more villages in Fizuli and Jabrayil districts, and returned the strategic heights of Murovdag to Azerbaijani control.
The Minsk Group, which was set up in 1992 by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), issued a statement on Sept. 27 that strongly condemns “the use of force and regret(s) the senseless loss of life, including civilians” and appeals “to the sides to cease hostilities immediately and to resume negotiations to find a sustainable resolution of the conflict.” The European Union statement was along similar lines: “The EU calls for an immediate cessation of hostilities, de-escalation, and strict compliance with the cease-fire. We need an immediate return to negotiations, without preconditions, on the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs.”
Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have introduced martial law and Armenia declared a total military mobilization on Sept. 27. Later, on Sept. 28, Azerbaijan also announced a partial mobilization. This provocation became a logical continuation of the numerous provocations previously staged by the incumbent Armenian leadership since the so-called “Velvet Revolution” of 2018. The list of provocations includes, but is not limited to, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s infamous “Karabakh is Armenia and period” statement that was also coupled with the rejuvenation of a dangerous miatsum (unification) ideology regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan; the organization of the so-called “parliamentary and presidential elections” in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan; and Pashinian’s visit to the historic Azerbaijani city of Shusha in May 2020. However, the real step toward halting the negotiations was taken in early 2020 when Armenia rejected the existence of any document on the negotiating table, despite both sides, under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States, working on the so-called Madrid Principles for a resolution of the conflict.
The July 12-14 attacks against Azerbaijan took place not along the Line of Contact, but along the international border in the direction of the Tovuz district, which hosts numerous energy and infrastructure projects. From the heightened militaristic posture of Armenia and the choice of new locations for the military onslaught, which is fully in line with Armenia’s Defense Minister David Tonoyan’s vow in early 2019 to wage “new wars for new territories,” it is already clear that the incumbent Armenian leadership aims to achieve more than just “new territories.”
These provocations and frequent military confrontations with Azerbaijan also intend to damage Azerbaijan’s most strategic asset – its critical energy infrastructure. All of the strategic energy infrastructure projects initiated by Azerbaijan and its international partners – the Baku-Tbilisi-Supsa Western Export (1998) and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (2005) oil pipelines, and the Southern Caucasus pipeline, an important chain in the multimillion megaproject the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) – pass close by the Tovuz area. Any damage to this infrastructure may have significant economic repercussions for Azerbaijan and its partners in the short term, and political repercussions in the long run.
The current skirmishes since September 27 that were unleashed in the direction of some villages of the Tartar, Fuzuli, Aghdam, and Jabrayil districts are already spilling over into other areas of the occupied territories. On Sept. 28, Azerbaijan reported that its armed forces had curbed an attack on the village of Talish in the Tartar region and had liberated several advantageous heights. A couple of days ago Azerbaijan announced of complete liberation of the Talish village and video footage from the newly liberated village was released by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense. For the uninitiated observer, it should be clarified that, along with the Tovuz district and the city of Ganja, important transit points for the critical energy infrastructure, Talish village is also located near these strategic installations.
However, the battleground gains made by the Azerbaijani military have obviously created a sense of hysteria in Armenia. On Oct. 4, Azerbaijanis woke up to the news of Armenia firing four Smerch missiles with cluster ammunition toward Ganja – the second largest city in Azerbaijan – from Armenian territory. Civilians were injured and civilian infrastructure was damaged. Ganja is also in the epicenter of Azerbaijan’s critical energy infrastructure that passes through the area. So far, no damage has been detected to this infrastructure due to the missile attacks.
On the same day, news broke about Armenia firing four Tochka short-range missiles at Mingachevir – the city that hosts Mingachevir Dam and a Hydropower Station as well as Azerbaijan Thermal Power Plant. While civilian injuries and deaths were reported, these strategic objects were not damaged. It is not difficult to imagine the magnitude of civilian causalities if the Mingachevir Dam is damaged. Armenia also hit Azerbaijan’s Khizi and Absheron region with two 300-kilometer midrange missiles. Other Azerbaijani cities – Barda, Tartar and Beylagan – are also being continuously shelled by missiles, most of which are unleashed from Armenia’s territory.
By attacking Azerbaijani population centers and infrastructure that are far from the actual theater of military hostilities and doing so from Armenia’s own territory, the latter aims to firstly, expand the geography of military hostilities and secondly, drag third parties into the conflict, having provoked Azerbaijan’s counterattack against military objects within Armenia. Innocent civilians are killed and injured through this indiscriminate missile attacks. By doing so, Armenia violates the international humanitarian law, including first and foremost, the Geneva Conventions.
Recently, an Armenian member of parliament called for an attack and destruction of Azerbaijan’s oil and gas pipelines, naming this a priority. Unfortunately, this call is an open statement of the underlying intent that was present in Armenia’s strategic thinking for quite some time. Armenia also previously made threats against Azerbaijan’s energy infrastructure when they vowed to launch a military strike on the city of Ganja, an action that, apart from posing a threat to civilians, would also potentially destroy strategic energy infrastructure in the famous “Ganja Gap.” The threat of an attack against Mingachevir Dam was also aired by Armenia before. Unfortunately, on Oct. 4, we saw these threats dangerously materializing. Attacks against Ganja continued at the time of this writing, killing civilians and targeting Azerbaijan’s critical energy infrastructure.
Moreover, on Sept. 28, the representative of the Ministry of Defense of Armenia announced that Armenia might use Iskander ballistic missiles and Su-30SM fighter planes “when the logic of the relevant hostilities corresponds to the need to use this weapon.” Once again, this militaristic posture attests to the Armenian side’s determination not only to attack and kill civilians but also to demolish Azerbaijan’s critical energy infrastructure by conducting pinpoint military strikes.
These worrying developments should not be overlooked by Azerbaijan’s international partners, especially the European Union. The EU is Azerbaijan’s most important partner in the implementation of its energy infrastructure projects. The Baku-Tbilisi-Supsa and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas (BTE), also known as The South Caucasus Pipeline, pipelines have enhanced Azerbaijan’s role as an energy-producing and exporting country and against all odds, the SGC is already becoming a reality. Work on all segments of the SGC is complete – the Shah Deniz-II project, the Southern Caucasus Pipeline Extension (SCPX) and the Trans Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) – and its final portion, the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), is close to full completion, with the project construction phase having been completed 98% in mid-September 2020. The corridor passes through seven countries – Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania and Italy – with Italy being the final destination receiving Caspian gas. Turkey is already receiving gas via TANAP, and the commencement of TANAP is also playing a big role in the facilitation of exports and an increase in the gas volumes received by Turkey from Azerbaijan.
Works concerning the SGC are at full throttle, and even the COVID-19 pandemic could not prevent the success of the project. This corridor is one of the biggest contributions that Azerbaijan and its partners have made to energy security and the sustainable development of neighboring regions and the greater European continent. Obviously, Azerbaijan’s success perturbs Armenia, which, having occupied 20% of Azerbaijan’s territories for three decades, hopes that Azerbaijan will put up with the occupation until the status quo becomes permanent. A strong and successful Azerbaijan bent on the return of its occupied territories scares Armenia. Azerbaijan’s success is Armenia’s failure because in this case, the latter has to demonstrate its genuine commitment to the peaceful resolution of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, beyond merely feigning engagement in the peace negotiations.
Consistent provocations, warmongering, threats of and the actual use of force have therefore been employed against Azerbaijan and its brainchild and the backbone of its economy, the critical energy infrastructure. Azerbaijan’s international partners, the EU in particular, should be more vigilant and vocal against these purposeful provocations and condemn them in the strongest possible terms.
*Board member of the Center of Analysis of International Relations, Baku, Azerbaijan