War imminent between countries on Russia’s southern flank

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UPI

Increased hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former Soviet republics in western Asia, are imminent, analysts say.

An increase in violence since the start of the year centers on Nagorno-Karabakh, a de facto independent republic with an Armenian majority but recognized internationally as part of Azerbaijan. An upcoming election there could trigger an increase in violence, a Royal Bank of Scotland report indicated. There have been 31 confirmed deaths along trench-style warfare lines in the area, the Azerbaijani Caspian defense Studies Institute reported.

The election May 3 “could further escalate the tensions, increasing the risks of a wider confrontation over the disputed territory,” Anna Tokar, a Royal Bank of Scotland analyst wrote on April 16, “putting the oil and gas pipelines in the South Caucasus in danger.”

The disputed region, near Turkey and Georgia, is torn by religious and national alliances, and an outbreak of conflict could disturb the route of pipelines that provide the only westward passage of crude oil delivery lines which bypass Russia.

Azerbaijan has used its oil wealth to buy weapons and arrange alliances with the United States and Israel. Its military spending increased 27 percent in 2014, and it has been Europe’s second-largest importer of weapons, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported. Armenia is dependent on a Russian-led military defense pact.

Both countries achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. In 1993 Armenia took over the Nagorno-Karabakh region in a war in which 30,000 died and 1.1 million were displaced. United Nations demands for withdrawal were defied. Tensions simmered until they became a battleground again, with escalating use of weaponry. In August 2014 Azerbaijan introduced 120-millimeter mortar fire, Arman Kirakossian, Armenian envoy to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said.

“There is nowhere to escalate to. It will only take one miscalculation. It was small arms for 20 years. Then it became about using artillery, drones, aircraft,” Lawrence Sheets, political analyst in neighboring Georgia, told Bloomberg News.

Azerbaijan has demanded full control of the region, which comprises one-fifth of its territory. Armenia, a tiny country by local standards, has no oil to sell, seeks territorial advantage and a return of the Armenian-majority population. Each side has significantly reduced its stockpile of military equipment since the 1993 war, and Armenia has been silent on whether it has received short-range ballistic missiles from Russia, state-of-the-art war material which could neutralize Azerbaijan’s air superiority.