Causes and Consequences of the Helicopter Attack, and Baku’s Motives for Escalation

Special for the Armenian Weekly

The continuous state-sponsored terrorism campaign of the Republic of Azerbaijan against the Republics of Artsakh and Armenia recently culminated in a shooting of an unarmed helicopter belonging to the Air Force of the Republic of Artsakh. The helicopter was conducting a training flight within its sovereign air space. It is intellectually naive to attribute such aggressive behavior to one factor. Rather, there is a host of major drivers of Azerbaijan’s adventurism, which this article will address. They are namely heavy petrol-reliance, increasing domestic illegitimacy of the governing regime, loss of international reputation, the ongoing Ukrainian Crisis, the false parity of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, and the projected perpetual decline of Azerbaijan’s relative regional power and role.

Major current events have the tendency to be analyzed in isolation from history and overall trends with an added component of emotions that further distorts the real picture. Keeping this in mind, Azerbaijan’s petro-aggression, as defined by Jeff Colgan, should be viewed within the wider historical and political economy contexts.

Azerbaijan’s economy has been heavily reliant on oil exports, which peaked in the 2010s and has been steadily decreasing by each passing year ever since. The decline in world oil prices combined with reduction in oil output have put greater pressure on the state and further exacerbated its Dutch Disease—the inability to develop other export industries in the economy due to high exchange rates caused by heavy reliance on oil. The natural gas sector is much less profitable than oil, implying that the “golden age” of Azerbaijan may be well behind us, if no new major oil fields are found.

The Aliyevs’ almost-uninterrupted dictatorial reign of Azerbaijan for over four decades is showing signs of crippling. With the forces of globalization providing citizens with easier access to alternative information, paralleled by the intensifying levels of repression within the country, the governing regime finds itself ostracized both by its citizens as well as the international community. The government denies fundamental rights to its national minorities, such as Lezgins, Avars and Talysh; jails human rights advocates as well as journalists; and keeps the general population economically worse-off due to systemic rent-seeking and increasing income inequality. The tally of political prisoners currently stands at over 100 individuals and increasing, further cornering Azerbaijan on the international stage.

The international criticism of Azerbaijan’s worsening domestic situation has also been intense. Organizations such as the Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Journalists without Borders, and many others have repeatedly condemned the government’s actions and even called for international sanctions.

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine and Russia and the West’s swerved attention provide a window of opportunity for Azerbaijan to maneuver. Armenia’s strategic partner Russia serves as one of the major deterrent forces against Azerbaijani aggression. Certainly, the armed forces of Armenia and the defense army of Artsakh are the primary and best guarantors of security, yet Armenia’s membership in the CSTO alliance provides an extra layer of security. Aliyev is taking his bets by testing the resoluteness of the CSTO as well as the Russian-Armenian bilateral pact.

Graph produced by the author, with data from the Correlates of War Project.
Graph produced by the author, with data from the Correlates of War Project.

By looking at the graph above, it is clear that Russia has historically maintained disproportionately more power than Turkey and Iran combined. This is obviously an analysis looking at the three states as a subsystem of their own, isolated from the rest of the world, and discounting for the effect of alliances. Nevertheless, it is helpful to visualize the stark power discrepancy among the three major South Caucasus players in order to appreciate the deterrent feature of Russian involvement. It also has additional advantage over the Western powers due to its geographic proximity, cultural affinity, and immediate national security concerns.

The August meeting in Sochi of the presidents of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia after the Azerbaijani provocations on the border and the immediate cease of violence by Azerbaijan following the meeting is an indication of Russia’s strong influence in the region. Armenia should also appeal to its Western partners for support in an effort to end Azerbaijan’s petro-aggression, and aid Baku in establishing democratic oversight institutions that would allow for more predictable negotiations in the future, insuring against Aliyev’s unilateral warmongering attempts.

Given all these constraints and opportunities, the Azerbaijani junta seeks maximum benefits especially knowing that the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs will continue a policy of false parity. Such an appeasement strategy may well have been justified for the Minsk Group Co-Chairs in the past, but the circumstances have changed drastically since 1994, making such a policy today not only ineffective but also counterproductive, further exacerbating the impunity of the Aliyev regime.

By instigating provocations on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border as well as Artsakh-Azerbaijan line of contact, the Aliyev regime is pursuing at minimum two objectives: first, trying to send a signal to the international community that it is opposed to the status quo (this becomes especially clear when looking at the timing of Azerbaijani sabotage activities), and second, silencing its own disgruntled domestic population, which has witnessed an extraordinary increase in income inequality and intensifying repressive crackdowns. As much as international developments may have an effect on a state’s foreign policy conduct, it is unwise to dismiss the domestic considerations that play into power calculations. Rather, there exists a mutual reinforcement of international and internal factors that result in rational decisions of governments, including in the case of Azerbaijan.

It is important to keep in mind though that rationality is a type of subjective thought-process that is not guaranteed to lead to optimal outcomes for actors. More often than not, bounded rationality is also coupled with non-rational elements further increasing the level of uncertainty. Therefore, even if there are no questions about the premeditated nature of Azerbaijan’s provocations, there always exists a margin of error that, if large enough, may prove to be detrimental to the state’s national security interests.

The authorities in Yerevan and Stepanakert need to be vigilant and level-headed when making their decisions on retaliation. Further intensification of violence is exactly what Azerbaijan would want in order to try to move up the spiral of violence in an attempt to eventually reap significant concessions in exchange for de-escalation. The question is not about the “if,” but rather about the “when” and “how” of planning an operation. This incident may be a good opportunity to open the airport in Stepanakert for commercial flights, to convince the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs into admitting the fallacy of their outdated policy, and to further isolate Azerbaijan from the international community given its bad reputation for dictatorship, gross human rights violations, and organizing state-sponsored terrorism campaigns against a democratic and free people. Now is the time for the international community to stop the Aliyev regime from future attempts to destabilize the region.

Armen Sahakyan

Armen Sahakyan

Armen V. Sahakyan specializes in international political economy. He serves as the executive director of the Eurasian Research and Analysis (ERA) Institute, and as an Eurasian affairs analyst at the Political Developments Research Center (PDRC). Sahakyan holds a Master of Arts degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and has previously served as an adviser to the Permanent Representative of the Republic of Armenia to the UN in New York.


  1. Mr. Sahakyan, if you want to be taken seriously as a political analyst, I suggest not starting your articles with expressions of faith and dogma. There are thousands of Azeri journalists and analyss who believe that Armenia has been the one that has unchained a campaign of terrorism against Azerbaijan. When, instead of analyzing the situation and formulating conclusions, you make it clear from the very beginning, that just like those Azeri analysts, you FORMULATED YOUR OPINION FIRST AND THEN ANALYZED THE FACTS, you lose credibility. The entire article tries to be objective, when its opening line clearly tells us that there is no objectivity to be expected here.

    • Sometimes the truth is the truth, no matter how you try to sugar coat it. By your standards, any negative comment about Nazi concentration camps would be biased and unfair since it wouldn’t be objective. The author did a fine job presenting what he considers to be facts. If you have problems with his arguments then this is the time to voice them and present specific counter-points instead of trashing his whole article because it offends your sensitivities and your ideas of objectivity.

  2. Just to elaborate on my previous comment – when you say things like “sovereign air space,” whose sovereign air space do you mean? Because last I checked, there are about 200 countries in the world who consider that airspace to be the sovereign airspace of AZERBAIJAN. I’m obviously not saying Artsakh shouldn’t have its own independence. But you’re analyzing the current situation from a completely biased point of view. Your article, then, is worth just as much as the thousands of articles Azeri journalists have been publishing this week. Their articles and yours are both exercises in propaganda and bellicosity.

    • So Simon, what would you rather the author say? That the ancient and civilized Azeris legitimately attacked to defend their ancient homeland which has been taken over by these foreign invasive Armenians who commit genocide and ethnic cleansing and who’s modern state is built on ancient Azerbaijani lands. Your so-called desire for fairness and balance gives a way too much about your motives, which call into question either your true ethnicity or your mental stability.

    • He is an analyst. That’s what he does. He doesn’t represent the Armenian government or any news media. SO Biased how? That he’s exaggerating when he says that oil production is decreasing? That the international community is steadily criticizing the Azeri regime for gross human rights violation? Or the 100 number of jailed activists? Or that the same family has ruled Azerbaijan for over 40 years? Which one was “biased”?

    • Agree with you fully, it’s sad when it becomes one sides propoganda against the others, shame others can’t see it for what it is.

  3. this was planned to get Armenia involved into a war with Azerbijan on the East and Turkey on the West, they will squeeze Armenian into concessions knowing full well that Georgia will stay neutral and block any help reaching Armenian/Artzakh,
    you are damned if you do, damned of you don’t

    • Russia is to the west. A war may even bring in Iran. And what about the oil company investments? They don’t want war.

  4. Sober article. Rightly points out that we should give more primacy to domestic motivations of Azeri aggression.

    Though I have to say, your concocted graph is mystifying, verging on meaningless. “Relative Capabilities” whatever the author means by this – obviously do not exist in a South Caucasus vacuum. All three of these powers have other fronts and alliances, some hotter and colder than others. Turkey is part of an advanced Western Security Alliance. More to the point, what is being quantified on the Y-Axis? Should be happy Russia is a 0.6 and Turkey a 0.3? Maybe you could spare us the pseudo-science in your next dispatch.

  5. Well-hit them and we hit them hard-so hard that they will not recover-blow em up to their allah fast-they want to be there and we can help them-they are on our land and I want my $ and land back for our people-now

  6. Very intelligent analysis with brilliant conclusion/policy suggestion. NOW is a good opportunity for opening the airport for commercial flights provided Yerevan and Stepanakert do their homework properly, not like last tome when they made empty gestures leading to nothing which gave Baku the opportunity to humiliate us (President Sargsyan announcing he would be the first passenger in response to Baku’s threats to shoot down our civilian planes…”.

  7. I’m trying to get an idea of why everyone is in a rush to open the Stepanakert airport. So this time it was the military helicopter, what if next time it is a civilian aircraft with lots of people on board. Are we willing to sacrifice our civilians just to make a point to the western world that Azerbaijan is a primitive regime? Then what, do you think the rest of the world will really care? Especially since they are so heavily involved in oil and gas investments in Azerbaijan? This is not a cautious policy, I believe the best policy would be one that is outlined by the defense minister – for Armenia’s army to give adequate response, and maybe just a little inadequate response as well. No better way to sow discord and kill morale in your enemy than to show them how good they are at getting themselves killed for making bad decisions. No need to risk civilian life unless you are ready to go to full blown war, which is also a legitimate option here if our military planners carefully choose to. For everyone else, I think we should get it through our stubborn diasporan heads, THE WORLD DOESN’T CARE ABOUT US so stop trying to get their approval and support.

  8. Armenia and Azerbaijan are headed for an inevitable war. That is the truth and time is not on our side considering the fact that Azerbaijan has more economic resources to spend on its army. The war will eventually break up, Armenia has one option: a preemptive strike which will destroy all major offensive weapons and energy infrastructure in Azerbaijan. West will make some noise, oil companies will lobby against Armenia but Azerbaijan is not a major oil exporter and Armenia has it own lobbying power in west, so there wont be consensus to impose sanctions on Armenia. Turkey will move its soldiers along the border but they know that if they shoot, they are going to kill Russian soldiers not Armenians so they are not going to intervene. The result will be no doubt catastrophic for both sides but Armenia does not have much to lose, we just need to shut down the nuclear reactor a few weeks before the strike for “maintenance.” Azerbaijan, on the other hand, will lose its oil infrastructure which is worth billions of dollars, plus the billions they had spent on weapons. Next year, Aliyev is planning to throw a big party, its the first European games in Baku, perfect opportunity considering they will be busy organizing the circus. The war will only last a few weeks, West and Russia will intervene and stop it but during those few weeks we will shut Aliyevs mouth once and for all.

  9. Is this how experts analyze and conclude this war situation that the “the authorities in Yerevan and Stepanakert need to be vigilant and levelheaded when making their decisions on retaliation”? Why is it “now the time” and it were not the days before this aggression for the international community to have prevented this incident?

    The fact of the matter is that Azerbaijan is making a mockery of others’ efforts and testing Armenia’s resolve and what is this expert suggesting, that “the vigilant and level headed Armenia” ought to do? He suggests “this incident may be a good opportunity to open the airport in Stepanakert for COMMERCIAL flights.” Has it ever occurred to this expert that the Karapagh authorities have never said that this airport will be used for no other than commercial flights but they have not been able to operate it as such?

  10. Baku’s intent, since last summer, has been to derail Yerevan’s upcoming membership in the Eurasian Union. This clearly was a provocation by Baku and it has geopolitical undertones. Yes, Armenia has to respond in some manner, but the response has to be measured/asymmetrical. We can’t start a war simply because that is what Turks want. Going forward, we need to better protect our forces and hit back at a time and manner of our choosing. Once Armenia becomes a full member in the Eurasian Union these provocations will gradually come to a halt.

    PS: Russians are a great help for Armenia in the west, the Turkish-Armenian border. We don’t need direct Russian help in Artsakh. Azerbaijan is something Armenia can easily handle.

  11. Please be more in favour of Mr. Sahakian.After all he is so joven and neeeds encouragement.His has bewen an objective to provocate dialogues here and has succeeded,if anything else.Now then as rgds Mr. Minas ‘s viewpoint ,I agree, there are pretty ;little options left for us.Right he is,I agree partially but then read on below…please,it does not stop there/ when some such Blitzkrieg wars have been initiated,at first the West or others ,at first make a lot of noise but then “all is quiet on the…thence this is yet another scenario ,of what will happened.
    As to great Turkey he does not consider that all; these*my persona view is not,repeat is not the work Aliev,but R.of Turkey that after its failures to enter Egypt so to say and rule over all the other Arab states,enter Syria, no dice so to say,she is not trying to enter the Caucasus THROUGH LITTLE BROTHER AZERBAIJAN AND STIRR UP TROUBLE THERE.

  12. question for Simon, are you suggesting that the Government of Artsakh is equally to blame for the continual cease fire allegations? Also how do you rationalize Azeri attacks, kidnappings, murders of civilians, and repeated infiltration into Artsakh as anything less than what the author describes?

  13. Simon you argument is nonsense. Azeri journalist having a different narrative is because they have no choice. Otherwise your king Aliyev gives them the “throw them in jail” card or has his thug beat them up or harasses them. Counter Azeri ‘journalism’ cant be taken seriously. Its 110% state sponsored or else..

  14. There is one thing I don’t agree with this article. The idea that Aliyev wants war to get concessions, ignores the fact that a new war may also be the end of him and his regime. So does he take that chance and resume a war?

  15. Another great, well researched, well thought out article by Mr. Sahakyan. Three for three so far.

    I am officially endorsing Mr. Sahakyan for candidacy in the ‘Columnists’ roll of ArmenianWeekly at the next election.
    We need more clear thinking young men and women like Armen in the media.

    It is quite gratifying to know that the new gen can see so clearly through deliberately manufactured media disinformation fog that has enveloped RoA and NKR since their Independence.

  16. The glorious days of Joseph Stalin, can be seen in Today’s fake land of fire, where any moments the mixture of oil and fire will burn corrupted sultan Aliyev’s dynasty!

  17. {“ Because last I checked, there are about 200 countries in the world who consider that airspace to be the sovereign airspace of AZERBAIJAN.”}
    (Simon // November 14, 2014 at 3:21 pm //)


    Did you also ‘last checked’ that 40% of sovereign Republic of Cyprus is occupied by the Turkish military, and that they regularly fly both military and civilian aircraft into and out of that 40% airspace ?
    For 40 years ?
    With neither Cyprus nor Greece threatening to shoot down civilian passenger aircraft as Azerbaijan has done ?
    Let me remind you, Simon, Azerbaijan* has _officially_ threatened, several times, to shoot down Armenian _civilian_ passenger aircraft that might fly between Yerevan and Stepanakert.
    What do we call people who threaten to shoot down aircraft full of civilians ? In this Universe we call them TERRORISTS.

    About Artsakh and its sovereign – sovereign – airspace:

    In May 1994 the Republic of Azerbaijan, at their request – repeat, at Their Request – voluntarily and with free will, signed a legal, binding Ceasefire Agreement with authorities of self-declared Republic of Nagorno-Karabagh.
    (Bonus question: why do you think Heydar Aliyev did that ? Hint: picture in your mind NKR T-72 tanks on leisurely Moonlight stroll down Baku Boulevard, taking in the breeze from the Caspian Sea)
    Respecting the ceasefire, NKR froze all military activities in place. (….and ordered its tank columns to stand down)
    Again, a legal Ceasefire signed at the express request of Azerbaijan’s then legal President Heydar Aliyev.
    By voluntarily signing a Ceasefire, Republic of Azerbaijan de facto accepted NKR’s jurisdiction over land _and_ the airspace over that land to the extent of the Line of Contact.
    Or maybe there is an alternative understanding of what “Ceasefire” means in the alternative Turkophile Universe ?

    Ceasefire in our Universe means just that: borders are agreed to and fixed at the time of the ceasefire, until future negotiations determine the final borders.

    And there is such a thing as International recognition of States by other States.
    But there is No so-called International recognition of either borders between two states or their airspace: two neighboring countries arrive at the mutually agreed upon border either through war (won/lost: unconditional surrender) or negotiation.
    For example, the Sudetenland region, which was populated by ethnic Germans, and which Nazi Germany annexed (Munich Agreement), reverted to Czechoslovakia after Nazi Germany signed an unconditional surrender: Sudeten Germans were largely expelled, and replaced by Czechs.
    For example, recently Russia and China, both internationally recognized UN States, agreed to compromise on a small section of their mutual border near Amur River that was in dispute for a long time, and mutually agreed to fix it on the map. Done. No more dispute. No International involvement.
    Russia and Japan have a dispute about 4 teeny-weenie islands.
    Russia offered to give 2 to Japan; Japan wants all 4.
    International community couldn’t care less what they do between them.
    Life goes on.

    Until Azerbaijan and NKR fix a mutually agreed upon border and the airspace above, any airspace over lands that is the de facto Republic of Nagorno Karabagh is sovereign Armenian airspace.
    You consider it ‘propaganda’ and ‘bellicosity’ ?
    Fine with us, and too bad for you.
    Ask us if we care.



    {Azerbaijan has threatened to shoot down civilian planes flying to Nagorno-Karabakh if the sole civilian airport in the disputed region reopens as planned.}

    Read that again, Simon: “Azerbaijan has threatened to shoot down civilian planes”.


  19. *** I think this Simon guy with his fake name is a paid Azari lobbyist, who is trying to insert misinformation on this Armenian forum.

  20. Avery, you seem to have grasp this article.

    You may help me understand what is being said here, as it relates to “causes and consequences” of this latest aggression.

    1. “Azerbaijan’s petro-aggression, as defined by Jeff Colgan”. Avery, you seem to know of Jeff Colgan and surely must have understood his definition of Azerbaijan’s brand petro-aggression to relate to that scholarly statement. What is it? Is it an aggression directed against Armenia? It could not possibly be directed against all its neighbors, not Turkey I presume.

    2. There is an impressive graph in this special to Armenian Weekly readers article. It’s titled “Relative National Capabilities” of the three countries. What is a “Relative National Capability”? It seems to be something that can be quantified by another obscure index for me “Relative Power Share”.

    3. On the same impressive graph that goes up and down, the “Relative Power Share” is graphed over time and I mean over some 100 years, from 1816 to the “present”, I mean until 2005. Was there a country called Turkey in 1816? Did they keep meticulous records of all the givens that measure the “Relative Power Share” index? I mean the term sounds impressive and measures some thing when military power was exercised by brandishing yatagan to its abandonment in modern days and God knows what currencies were being used. I do not think that there was a central bank in Turkey, i mean Ottoman Empire in 1816. I mean what is that impressive sounding “Relative Power Share” that can be quantified in fractions of 1 ? And why is that a 1.2 is added when it seems the “Relative Power Share” plateaus at 1. Could it be that that should that index reach 1.2 something would happen? Why measure it until 2005 when we are speaking of causes and consequences of something that happened in November, 2014.

    I remain dazzled and not capable to understand to remain impressed

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