Four days ago (July 17), Vagif Dargyakhly, the press spokesperson for the Azerbaijani defense ministry, said that if Armenia escalated its conflict with Azerbaijan further, Baku could consider targeting the Armenian nuclear power plant (NPP) at Metsamor. Azerbaijani officials have since retreated from his words (RIA Novosti, July 21). The walk-back reflects a recognition that any such attack would instantly turn Baku into an international outcast, potentially cause Armenia to attack Azerbaijani dams and even oil and natural gas facilities (with enormous loss of life in the first instance and economic desolation in the second), as well as bring the Russian Federation, which already has soldiers stationed in Armenia, into the war on Yerevan’s side. But from their side, Russian and Armenian analysts argue that, in addition to all of the above, any such attack would likely fail. Specifically, they note the Metsamor plant was built to withstand earthquakes even more serious than the one centered at Spitak in 1988 and that the facility is defended by superior Armenian and Russian anti-aircraft forces.
On July 17, Azerbaijan’s defense ministry spokesperson warned that, in the event of further escalation in the Karabakh conflict, Baku would have little choice but to consider attacking civilian targets in Armenia, including the atomic power station there. Those remarks sparked an immediate and widespread outcry in Yerevan and beyond (Armeniasputnik.am, July 20) because the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations have long declared that any such attack would legally constitute an act of “terrorism” (Iaea.org, 1994 and 2011). The prospect of coming under such a label has prevented any government from engaging in such provocative actions to date. And Azerbaijan has an additional reason not to take this step: it is currently seeking IAEA approval to build its own nuclear power plant (Sputnik News, October 21, 2019).
In the wake of Dargyakhly’s seemingly off-the-cuff remarks and following “cleanup” statements by other officials that Baku has no plans to attack civilian targets of any kind in Armenia, most Armenian and Russian commentators have dismissed the defense ministry representative’s words as a bluff. Alternatively, some observers have attributed his comments to Azerbaijan’s “inadequate” understanding of the situation or, at most, as a warning to Yerevan not to consider attacking civilian facilities inside Azerbaijan. The latter is, in fact, something the Armenian authorities have now pledged not to do—including, most prominently a reservoir dam on the Kura River. The destruction of this Azerbaijani dam would lead to massive flooding and loss of life in downstream cities and towns as well as cause widespread economic turmoil (Rossaprimavera.ru, RIA Novosti, July 21; Novostink.net, July 20; Kommersant, Newizv.ru, July 19).
But given the risks involved, some Moscow analysts are focusing on the larger question of whether a theoretical Azerbaijani strike on Metsamor could succeed at all and what Russia’s role would be in the event of such an attack. Viktor Kuzovkov, a widely published Russian security affairs expert, provides perhaps the most comprehensive look at this issue so far. He argues that an Azerbaijani assault on the facility would fail. Not only was Armenia’s Soviet-era NPP built and later modernized to withstand threats equal to any earthquake the Caucasus region has ever experienced but also, he contends, Azerbaijan lacks the weapons to carry out an effective attack given the resources of Armenian and Russian anti-aircraft forces surrounding it (Newizv.ru, July 19).
Nonetheless, Kuzovkov suggests, it is not impossible that an Azerbaijani attack could lead to a release of some radiation even if it did not destroy the plant. And such radiation would likely spread far beyond the borders of Armenia, transforming the war into an international one, in which Russia and its allies could not fail to enter on Armenia’s side. Baku knows this, he continues; but it is very much afraid that Yerevan will do something like attack the dam on the Kura River and flood downstream areas. To ward that off, Kuzovkov suggests, the Azerbaijani authorities have laid down a marker about what could occur if Yerevan crossed that line.
The risks that the Minchegevir dam could be destroyed are all too real. The dam was built in 1959 and has not been significantly modernized. Cracks appeared in 2010 and forced Baku at that time to evacuate downstream populations. Consequently, the Azerbaijani authorities are surely worried about the possibility of a technogenic disaster there. But according to the Russian analyst, the situation at Metsamor is far better. The facility was built to withstand an earthquake of 9.5 on the Richter scale, far greater than the 6.25 level reached in 1988, which did no damage to Metsamor. Moreover, the facility was modernized in recent years, and experts say it could now withstand a direct hit by a Boeing passenger jet.
Kuzovkov says he has no wish to find out, of course, or to suggest that a bombing of an atomic power plant like the one in Armenia might not have serious consequences. The accident at Fukushima shows that would be a mistake. But the likelihood that any Azerbaijani attack could lead to the release of radiation is “extremely small”: the military equipment Baku has is almost certainly unequal to the task, while the weaponry available to Armenian and Russian forces around Metsamor would presumably be able to repel any such effort. (In his article, Kuzovkov provides a detailed order of battle regarding the weapons wielded by both sides.)
As a result, the security analyst concludes, “we have the complete right to speak about the superiority of the means available to the defense compared to those available to any attacker.” And any effort by Azerbaijan to test that proposition would lead to the involvement of Russia and other Collective Security Treaty Organization members on Armenia’s side, negating anything Baku might hope to achieve. At the same time, Kuzovkov adds, Yerevan should recognize that attacking the Kura dam or the oil and gas facilities in Azerbaijan would be a disaster for it not only in terms of international opprobrium but the positions its allies would then adopt.