The bloodiest of all ongoing post-Soviet conflicts, that between Armenia and Azerbaijan, intensified again on July 12. Over three days, the fighting claimed the lives of 16 people, including an Azerbaijani civilian, making it the deadliest escalation since the April 2016 “Four-Day War” (Eurasian Times, July 15). The renewed clashes were neither unexpected nor particularly unusual for a conflict that continues to be mistakenly called “frozen” by many authors. However, certain aspects of the latest round of violence truly stand out from earlier similar incidents involving the two South Caucasus neighbors.
First, as noted by other experts (see EDM, July 14), this marked the first time the epicenter of a major escalation occurred not on the Line of Contact (LoC) around the Armenian-occupied Karabakh, but along the international state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Fighting started in the border area of Azerbaijan’s Tovuz region, more than 100 kilometers northwest of the LoC—a qualitative difference in the scope and presumed willingness of the two sides to undertake offensive actions, with novel international implications for such an escalation. At the same time, however, the original locus of the latest clashes suggests that even though Armenia claims Azerbaijan launched the fighting, Baku had no incentive to do so, unlike Yerevan.
Azerbaijan arguably has nothing to gain from an escalation along the state border with its regional rival since it does not hold any territorial claims against the lands of the Republic of Armenia. Any sizable offensive operation on the border or the seizure of enemy military positions inside Armenia would create legal ground for the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Russia-led military alliance, to intervene in support of Yerevan under Article 3 of its collective defense treaty. Armenia has repeatedly tried to increase tensions on the state border area in recent years to capitalize on its CSTO membership against Azerbaijan. In 2015, then-president Serzh Sargsyan stated at the CSTO Security Council that “whenever the Azerbaijani Armed Forces fire at Armenia, they fire at Astana, Dushanbe, Bishkek, Moscow and Minsk.” Moreover, Yerevan appealed for CSTO involvement after the violent escalations in April 2016 and September 2018 (Arminfo.info, December 22, 2015; see EDM October 1, 2018). Not surprisingly, immediately after the current fighting broke out, Armenia again publicly called for the CSTO to step in, framing the escalation as Azerbaijan’s effective attack on a CSTO member state (RIA Novosti, July 13). Though Russia and the CSTO avoided offering any tangible support to Armenia (Eurasinet.org, July 14), an expansion of military operations inside Armenia would increase pressure on Moscow to meet its international legal obligations—not doing so would render the CSTO, a key mechanism of Russian foreign and security policy in Eurasia, irrelevant.
Given this, Baku has always been careful not to create such an open dilemma for Moscow. Baku’s priority remains the liberation of Karabakh and adjacent territories; military operations within this area, de jure Azerbaijani territory, create no international legal hurdles for the country. Therefore, Azerbaijan, which periodically reiterates that it has the legal basis to restore its internationally recognized territorial integrity by every means possible, including armed action, would presumably have sought to escalate tensions on the LoC rather than the state border with Armenia. Azerbaijan’s superior offensive capabilities is also more valuable along the LoC; whereas, border escalations are mostly in the form of ranged strikes, without troop advancements. Such costly exchanges of fire provide no gains for Azerbaijan toward achieving its strategic goal of fully restoring the country’s territorial integrity. Instead they create additional risks. As such, Baku was highly unlikely to have been behind the escalation, which is significantly less risky and more advantageous for Yerevan.
Moreover, the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan and Baku–Supsa oil pipelines, Baku–Tbilisi–Erzrum natural gas pipeline, Baku–Tbilisi–Kars railway and some other facilities key to the economic wellbeing of Azerbaijan (also of key importance for European energy security) are located not far from the border area where the Tovuz clashes broke out. Ensuring the physical protection of this key infrastructure is a matter of Azerbaijan’s national security; therefore, Baku would hardly risk initiating a major conflagration in this particular area. On the contrary, Armenian officials have repeatedly threatened to attack this infrastructure, including during the April 2016 battles (see EDM, May 23, 2016).
The second novelty of the latest violence has been the popular reaction to the hostilities in the form of mass rallies in Azerbaijan. In April 2016, after losing control over some key strategic areas of the occupied territories for the first time since 1994, Armenia experienced mass protest events, some of which turned openly anti-Russian, accusing Moscow of betraying its ally’s national interests and selling modern armaments to Azerbaijan (Armenianweekly.com, April 14, 2016). This time, public rallies in Yerevan were smaller compared to 2016 and limited to modest protests against Russia (for the toothless CSTO statement) and against Ukraine (for Kyiv’s call to respect the territorial integrity of states) (Newsarmenia.am, July 15). In contrast, Baku witnessed a massive rally downtown, on June 14, with thousands marching toward the parliament building chanting slogans such as “Karabakh is Azerbaijan and will remain part of Azerbaijan” and expressing their support to the army and the state (Report.az, July 15). Such spontaneous patriotic mass demonstrations highlight growing public frustration with the fruitless 18-year-old peace talks mediated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group. Moreover, the Azerbaijani public perceives the passivity of the mediators as favoring Armenia, which controls nearly 20 percent of Azerbaijan and, thus, prefers a preservation of the status quo. Such frustration increases public belief that fighting is the only viable option left to follow. Therefore, international mediators may need to take a more active role to reenergize the conflict resolution process before all hopes for peace are lost.
The third novelty of this escalation is the unusually high proportion of high-ranking officers among the fallen soldiers—an Armenian major and colonel and an Azerbaijani two-star general and colonel died in military actions. This is the result of the rising sophistication and firepower of the weaponry deployed by both sides (see EDM, July 16). With new precision-guided missiles, drones and radars, both militaries are able to identify and strike targets behind the frontline in enemy territory, including command-and-control units where high-ranking officers serve. Deployments of such powerful weapons by Azerbaijan and Armenia serves as yet another motivation for the international community to push for a reactivation of peace negotiations. If the current deadlock continues, the bloodiest of the post-Soviet conflicts could grow deadlier, claiming more and more military and civilian lives.