Armenian forces reportedly launched a missile attack on the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline amid the regional conflict with Azerbaijan.
Anastassios Tsiplacos - Managing Editor
The fighting that erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan, over the long-disputed however appears to be failing, with both sides accusing each other of violating the truce. region, was initially considered unlike to affect critical pipelines transporting oil and gas to the global markets. There are no major oil or gas transit lines in the Nagorno Karabakh region and there was no reason to assume the conflict would move outside of the region to affect any significant oil or gas infrastructure.
Nevertheless, when war brokes out there is no certainty on when or where will spread. So, Armenian forces launched a cluster rocket attack on the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, in the vicinity of Yevlakh region, according to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s aide Hikmet Hajivev tweet. He also added that there was no damage to the pipeline as the 300+ Cluster bomblets ejected around it. The Azeri President accused Armenia of trying to attack its gas and oil pipelines, saying the country would be faced with a “severe” response amid the ongoing conflict.
The Armenian side denounced the Azerbaijani report as fake news. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia regularly accuse each other of striking civilian and infrastructure instalations on their sovereign territory and denounce the opponent’s claims as propaganda and fakes.
The BTC pipeline delivers Azeri light crude oil, mainly from the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli field, through Georgia to Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan for export via tankers. Another crucial Azerbaijani energy infrastructure instalation, which could become a potential target of Armenian attacks is the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP), which connects the giant Shah Deniz gas field with Europe through Georgia and Turkey.
Prior to the decline in global oil prices in 2014, Azerbaijan experienced high economic growth due mainly to rising energy exports. Oil exports through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline, the Baku-Novorossiysk Pipeline, and the Baku-Supsa Pipeline are the main sources of export earnings, but efforts to boost gas production are also underway. The expected completion of the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) between Azerbaijan and Europe will open up another source of revenue from gas exports. The first gas exports to Turkey through the TANA Pipeline were produced in 2018, with project completion expected by 2021. Azerbaijan has spent a lot of its oil wealth in rebuilding its military.
The conflict’s background
Ongoing clashes began Sept. 27, when Armenian forces targeted civilian Azerbaijani settlements and military positions in the region, leading to casualties. Relations between the two former Soviet republics have been tense since 1991, when the Armenian military occupied Upper Karabakh, an internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan. Multiple UN resolutions, as well as international organizations, demand the withdrawal of the invading forces. The OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia and the US- was formed in 1992 to find a peaceful solution to the conflict, but to no avail. A cease-fire, however, was reached in 1994.
Historically the very vocal Armenian diaspora -there is a large number in France- would have pushed for EU support. But, the fact that Azerbaijan is about to start pumping approximately 10 Bcm (billion cubic metres) of gas annually through the Southern Gas Corridor, primarily to Italy but also to the Balkans, complicates the position for Brussels. This is undoubtedly something that Baku is banking on.
Russia plus the EU are at least conflicted, if not compromised, with energy deals, and the US distracted.
Turkey is much more willing to help its neighbour. If Azerbaijan were to retake Nagorno Karabakh with help from Turkey, then Ankara’s position in the region, and in the Levant, would be greatly strengthened at the expense of Russia, France and the US.
Towards a ceasefire…
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who mediated negotiations in Moscow, said that Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to start talks on settling the conflict. His announcement of the ceasefire deal came after 10 hours of talks with his Armenian and Azeri counterparts, the first diplomatic contact between the countries since clashes erupted on Sept. 27. Minister Lavrov also said that International Red Cross Committee would act as an intermediary in the humanitarian operation.
The humanitarian ceasefire between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces started in the Nagorno-Karabakh region at 12:00 local time on October 10, however, appears to be failing, with both sides accusing each other of violating the truce.
Regardless the propaganda claims of both sides, the Azerbaijani military seems to have achieved notable progress. The main reason of this tactical success was the air dominance and the significant advantage in manpower and heavy weapons. Turkey’s military exports to its ally Azerbaijan have risen six-fold this year, with drone and other military equipment rising to $77 million last month, ahead of the country’s conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Azerbaijan bought $123 million in defence and aviation equipment from Turkey in the first nine months of 2020, according to data compiled by the Turkish Exporters’ Assembly. The bulk of Azerbaijan’s purchases of drones, rocket launchers, ammunition and other weapons arrived after July, when border clashes between Armenian and Azeri forces prompted Ankara and Baku to conduct joint military exercises. Sales in August jumped to $36 million from $278,880 in July, and September alone saw $77.1 million’s worth.
Recent satellite images showing Turkish F-16 fighter jets at the Ganja airbase in Azerbaijan after the start of the war, has proved Turkey’s substantial support. According to pro-Turkish sources, the warplanes were there to deter Armenia from attacks on “…civilian populations and military installations within Azerbaijan”. Apparently it did not help as the Azerbaijani leadership regularly reports such attacks. Turkish special forces, military advisers, electronic warfare and psychological operations units, heavily supported by a large number of members of Syrian militant groups, appeared to be more effective.
Azerbaijan, supported by Turkey with the advantage in air power, artillery and manpower, will try to develop its offensive in the southern part of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, aiming to seize full control over the areas of Fuzuli, Hartut and nearby villages in order to besiege the city of Stepanakert from the southern direction. If this happens, the capital of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic will be put in grave danger, including the increasing chances of a direct Azerbaijani attack on the city.
The Azerbaijani Armed Forces, however, are in a race against time, with only a few weeks to advance as much as possible before weather conditions makes it almost impossible. It is the arrival of winter that could be a game changer in the conflict. Offensive operations will be bogged down and movement of troops and vehicles will become difficult in a few weeks. When snow will fall, logistics and supply lines will experience additional strain. Severe storms will impact the operation of drones, periodically removing the greatest advantage on the Azerbaijani side.