The periodic escalation of violence in and around the separatist Azerbaijani territory of Karabakh routinely raises concerns about this conflict’s threat to regional energy security and pipeline infrastructure. However, few commentaries analyze this issue’s broader geopolitical implications in any detail. The intense fighting between the armed forces of Armenia and Azerbaijan along the Line of Contact last month—often referred to as the “Four Days War” (April 2–5)—had serious humanitarian repercussions. But the violence also notably underscored the vulnerability of regional energy infrastructure located on Europe’s and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) strategic southeastern flank—namely, the Baku-Supsa and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipelines, the South Caucasus Natural Gas Pipeline, as well as nearby oil and gas terminals.
On April 5, the “defense ministry” of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic warned that it was prepared to carry out offensive strikes against Azerbaijan’s oil facilities using Iskander, Scud-B and Tochka-U systems (Newsarmenia.am, April 5). It is no secret that Armenia has already deployed anti-aircraft, air-defense and missile-defense systems in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan and has held military exercises in Karabakh to simulate possible attacks and air strike scenarios on Azerbaijan’s oil and gas infrastructure (Azatutyun.am, October 15, 2012). Moreover, former prime minister of Armenia and current member of parliament Hrant Bagratyan along with retired Armenian Major General Arkady Ter-Tadevosyan threatened Azerbaijan with the use of nuclear weapons and dirty bombs by the Armenian side (Armtoday.info, April 29; Rusarminfo.ru, May 3).
The physical security of the South Caucasus’ strategic energy infrastructure as well as the continued secure transport of oil and gas from Azerbaijan to Europe are of growing importance to the energy security of NATO’s European allies. Moreover, an uninterrupted energy supply is also imperative to ensure the Alliance’s operational mobility abroad and to reduce its members’ strong dependence on any single third-party supplier. Any attack or security threat to regional energy fields, terminals, pipelines, storage sites and other transportation facilities would undermine the oil and gas flow from Azerbaijan through Georgia and Turkey to European and global markets. A similar case already occurred during the August 2008 Russia-Georgia war, when Russian military jets dropped bombs near the BTC and Baku-Supsa oil pipelines, resulting in the temporary suspension of Azerbaijani oil exports through Georgia (Stevelevine.info, August 14, 2008; see EDM, August 13, 2008).
Hence, the North Atlantic Alliance has repeatedly emphasized a collective approach toward ensuring energy security. This, along with preserving a stable energy supply, maintaining the security of transportation facilities and transit routes, as well as developing NATO’s competence in protecting energy infrastructure are highlighted in the Alliance’s Riga, Bucharest and Wales Summit Declarations as well as its 2010 Strategic Concept (Nato.int, November 29, 2006; April 3, 2008; November 19–20, 2010; September 5, 2014).
Although the protection of domestic infrastructure is generally entrusted to the host country or owner, today’s security threats increasingly call for shared responsibility, collective endeavors and multilateral security guarantees for the protection of critical energy transit networks and facilities. NATO’s security guarantee encompasses member states only, not partners. Thus, Bakhtiyar Aslanbayli, a professor at Baku State University, has suggested formulating a new concept for NATO—a kind of “Article 4.5”—that could contribute to the protection of critical trans-border and trans-regional energy infrastructure. This innovation would involve providing security guarantees to Azerbaijan and Georgia in the event of security threats against pipelines or energy facilities that directly or indirectly concern NATO member states. Moreover, such protection of critical energy infrastructure could be done through complementary engagement and without an over-militarization of energy security. The nature of the North Atlantic Alliance’s possible engagement in helping protect Azerbaijan’s energy infrastructure can be articulated as follows: providing defensive devices for pipelines; offering assistance for developing an air-defense system; cooperating on cyber security; sharing of intelligence; training the armed forces; accelerating consultations with NATO’s relevant structures; facilitating the defensive military assistance for Azerbaijan; engaging with other public and private stakeholders; etc. (Cijournal.az, January 18).
In fact, the timing of last April’s fighting in Karabakh—occurring just a couple months before NATO’s July Warsaw summit—deserves closer attention. Conspicuously, armed clashes broke out following several months of high-level supportive Western statements regarding the strategic Southern Gas Corridor currently under construction, which will deliver Azerbaijani gas across the South Caucasus, via Turkey, to Europe. In particular, the European Union’s High Representative Federica Mogherini spoke supportively about this project on February 29, at the Southern Gas Corridor Advisory Council meeting. US Secretary of State John Kerry made similarly positive remarks on March 30, during his meeting with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, at the Nuclear Security Summit, in Washington. And notably, since late last year, the construction of two key legs of the Southern Gas Corridor—the Trans-Anatolia Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) and the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP)—are being accelerated, while the European Commission has approved the agreement between Greece and TAP (Eeas.europa.eu, February 29; State.gov, March 30; Apa.az, December 7, 2015; Trend.az, November 27, 2015; Europa.eu, March 3).
The timing of the April 2016 escalation in Karabakh on the eve of the upcoming Warsaw summit is even more noteworthy when looked at in retrospect. Indeed, prior to NATO’s Wales summit in September 2014, a similar (but small scale) escalation occurred along the Line of Contact in August 2014 (RFE/RL August 4, 2014), and both instances of violent escalation were ultimately extinguished by Russia’s direct intervention. The apparent signal being sent to the Alliance via these latest clashes can, thus, be clearly deduced.
The possible eruption of full-scale war between Azerbaijan and Armenia would have a profoundly negative effect on the energy infrastructure of the entire region, but especially on that of Azerbaijan. And such a scenario would have catastrophic effects on foreign investments in the energy sector and for ongoing trans-regional energy projects, such as the Southern Gas Corridor. As such, the unresolved Karabakh conflict is a great concern not only to the parties immediately involved, but to NATO and the broader West as well.