Nagorna-Karabakh: Politics of Pipelines

Azerbaijan and Armenia, South Caucasus Eurasian countries, are mired in a fierce battle on the disputed land of Nagorna- Karabakh, a contiguity of Azerbaijan but occupied by Armenia. The recent spurt in armed conflict is an outcome of Armenian refusal to implement UN resolution on it for last 30 years. Till now some 3 thousand soldiers on both sides have been consumed by the hostility in hilly terrain of the Oil-Natural-Mineral rich Karabakh region. As per reports some 29 areas have fallen to the Azerbaijani onslaught.

The war did not seem to have started all of a sudden, it was presumably pre-conceived. Azerbaijan, with brimming support from Turkey, took the advantage of a border skirmish initiated by Armenia and made an invasion. The Covid pandemic that has gripped the entire world with most nations busy fighting this scourge has ostensibly provided the cover, but because of engagement of several other nations in the gambit of war the issue turned to be serious with international ramifications; France, Russia and Iran inclined towards Armenia, and Turkey, Pakistan and Israel vociferously backing Azerbaijan, both covertly and overtly. This is the first ever world issue that has brought the traditional rivals like Turkey-Israel and Pakistan-Israel on one page; all the three supporting Azerbaijan diplomatically and logistically.

It appears to be absolutely out of ordinary and quite weird that Turkey or Pakistan could support an international issue along the sides of Israel. True, that geo-politics is a game of national interests that can turn foes into friends and vice versa. Azerbaijan has emerged as a big oil and gas supplier to both the three nations supporting her stance on Karabakh. Israel enjoys recognition by Azerbaijan and in turn Israel provides Baku most advanced drones and latest version of robust missiles which are believed to have brought mayhem on Armenian forces and devastation of their light and heavy armor. Moreover, Israel gets more than one-third of its energy requirements fulfilled by Baku and Tel Aviv is a lucrative arms sale market for Baku. The diplomatic and economic relations are well established between the two over the past 30 years.

Turkey’s energy needs are also largely met by Azerbaijan for which Ankara was previously dependent on Russia; but then Turkey which shares her border with Azerbaijan left out Russia and joined Baku for oil pipeline reaching Turkey. Most of Baku’s main export pipelines are located around 10 miles from the Armenian border. What makes the last spat in July more significant is that clashes took place in the southern Tovuz region where most of the critical energy infrastructure is located, with an energy route running along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. It was quite unusual, as the actual disputed territory of Karabakh is in the north and some 300 Kms away. 

Armenia had never attacked energy lines during previous escalations, even though the dispute continued for almost 30 years. Even in the clashes taking place this September, power plants and civil infrastructure have been targeted. Any extended war could threaten the safety of the important Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan crude oil pipeline and the Southern Gas Corridor, which are buried below the ground. Noteworthy is that violence has flared up just weeks before Baku was due to start piping gas to the European Union (EU) which has the potential to harm the Azerbaijani economy. This would benefit only Russia in this region as a competitor of energy export with Azerbaijan. 

Azerbaijan supplies nearly 40 percent of its oil needs to Israel and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline is used for this export.  Albeit there are three crude oil export pipelines, the pipeline supplying Tel Aviv is the most important as it handles 80 percent of Azeri oil exports with a capacity of 1.2 million barrels a day. Meanwhile, a direct gas pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey is also planned to supply cheaper gas.  Currently Baku’s gas exports to Turkey have increased and are taking up a large share of what was previously provided by Russia. Interestingly Azerbaijan has won tenders to supply gas and diesel to Pakistan State Oil.

An Inter-Governmental Agreement was signed in 2017 with SOCAR, Azerbaijan’s state oil company, for the import of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and long-term supply agreements are also being chalked out. Exporting around 700,000 barrels of oil and approximately 780 million cubic feet of gas daily, Azerbaijan is a major oil and gas supplier to many countries and the safety of various oil and natural gas pipeline routes crossing into Europe from the Caucasus are at high risk. Turkey is largely believed, by the political observers, to host a desire to involve Baku in the new alignment of Muslim world order along with Islamabad-Tehran-Qatar-Kualalampur, backed by Russia and China.

This is perhaps also because of the Turk origin Azeri people who are considered in Turkey as one nation with two different states. US is quite cognizant of the situation arising but seems to be not much concerned at the moment because of presidential elections drawing close. Russia had been fervently supporting Armenia vis a vis CSTO (collective security treaty organization) of Caucasus nations of which Armenia is a member state. Notwithstanding the repeated calls for military support of Yerevan Russia has very pragmatically chosen to act as a pro active mediator to bring an end to hostilities instead of jumping in to the escalation.

Russia fears that extended war in the region could spiral into a proxy war that would embroil mercenaries from many Islamic nations and a new Afghanistan may be in the offing. Likewise Russia has deep interests in newly emerging anti-US and anti- NATO block involving Turkey as a major player for whom Russia is a weapons market including the robust S-400 antimissile system. On the other side Moscow has enthusiastically joined CPEC-Eurasian limb the CAREC extending unto Russia via Afghanistan-Central Asia, the project funded by China, World Bank and IMF. This is the utmost priority of Moscow that is eventually helping Baku to regain foot hold in Karabakh and Armenia to lose it at the end.

Dr. Muzaffar Shaheen is a Professor at SKUAST-K