What is happening on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border?
The international community quickly called on both parties to exercise restraint, in a conflict that has potential to spin out of control.
Editor’s note: At New Eastern Europe we aim to bring to you information and analysis on all issues related to our region of Central and Eastern Europe, this includes publishing voices from the region itself. However, our region is one of many unresolved conflicts and war. The case of the Nagorno-Karabakh is one that raises high emotions on both sides of the conflict – Azerbaijan and Armenia – and it is nearly impossible to get an objective point of view on the conflict from either side.
Yet, we understand the importance of providing some context and local perspective, even in the case of conflict. That is why, we have asked independent experts from Azerbaijan and Armenia to comment on the situation from their perspective with the aim of being as analytical as possible. It is our hope that with these perspectives, you – the readers – can have a more informed understanding of the complex and serious situation faced in this part of the world.
Between July 12th and 14th 2020, serious armed clashes occurred on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan resulting in the death of at least 11 soldiers from the Azerbaijani side and four soldiers from the Armenian side. This is the most serious border conflict since April 2016, when a four-day war broke out between the two countries.
Clashes and artillery fire began on July 12th on the border between the Tovuz region in Azerbaijan and the Tavush province in Armenia. As it usually happens, the sides exchanged mutual accusations, ceasefire violations and provocative actions. In addition, the Armenian side accused Azerbaijan of shelling civilian population centres (including the town of Berd), while the Azerbaijani side accused Armenia of shelling the village of Dondar Gushchu.
It should be noted that Azerbaijan actively operated unmanned aerial vehicles. However, Armenian armed forces shot down several of them, including a modern and very expensive (nearly 30 million US dollars) Israeli-made Elbit Hermes 900 drone. It is engaged in reconnaissance, radio interception and interference with enemy aviation and ground forces.
The international community has reacted fairly quickly. The United Nations Secretary General António Guterres expressed deep concern over the use of heavy weapons on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. The OSCE and the European Union have called on Yerevan and Baku to cease fire. The OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, Russia and the United States, have also stated their positions. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had telephone conversations with his counterparts from Yerevan and Baku, and the US Department of State has condemned the violence along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. Many other countries have reacted to the situation and called on the parties to exercise restraint. Iran has even offered Armenia and Azerbaijan its mediation efforts in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution. Against this background, the statement of the Turkish Foreign Ministry, accusing Armenia and offering military assistance to Azerbaijan, appeared unilateral and aggressive.
So why was there such a confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and most importantly, who needed it?
It seems that Armenia did not need it for a very simple reason. In the wake of the Velvet Revolution of 2018, Armenia launched significant reforms in human rights protection, media freedom, judicial and legal system and economy. It triggered a serious fight against corruption: two former Armenian presidents remain under criminal prosecution and many former ministers are in prison or have escaped to Russia. Preparations are underway to adopt a new constitution, which shows that the Armenian authorities are now focused on domestic issues. Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s prime minister, enjoys tremendous social support and seeks to deliver on growing expectations of citizens. He has repeatedly stated his readiness for a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Why would the Azerbaijani leadership need such tension?
There are several reasons that may explain this:
First, Baku may be concerned over the absence of active negotiations on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and believes that the status quo does not favour Azerbaijan. It is no accident that in one of his recent speeches, Ilham Aliyev, president of Azerbaijan, criticised the OSCE Minsk Group’s passivity in the conflict resolution.
Second, the domestic political and social situation in the country remains tense due to a sharp drop in oil prices, a fairly rapid and large-scale spread of COVID-19 and serious corruption permeating Azerbaijani society. Therefore, a “small victorious war” could be appealing for the Azerbaijani government to retain power and justify the country’s massive military expenditures. It is no coincidence that Pashinyan who always appeared extremely cautious about the situation with Azerbaijan, has condemned “provocative actions” and linked sharp aggravation of the border situation with Azerbaijan’s internal problems;
Third, Azerbaijan may have launched these military actions on the border with Armenia to demonstrate to the world community that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, not a struggle for self-determination of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. In this way, it would be an attempt to go beyond the OSCE Minsk Group format, where the conflict resolution relies on three fundamental principles: the right of peoples to self-determination; territorial integrity; and an exclusively peaceful solution.
Finally, another factor which may be at play could be Turkey’s foreign policy over the past several years. Turkey has been involved in military operations in Syria, Libya and northern Iraq, ignoring the demands of the Iraqi government to withdraw Turkish troops from their territory. In other words, it is involved in the destabilisation of several neighbouring regions – the Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa – causing serious suffering to the peoples of these regions. Turkey has also purchased C-400 systems from Russia, creating serious security challenges for NATO member states and started gas and oil exploration in Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone, a clear violation of international law. All the above have seriously complicated Turkey’s relations with the US, the EU, Egypt, Iraq, Greece, Cyprus, Germany, France and many other states. The last of Turkey’s moves came as Istanbul has turned Hagia Sophia into a mosque, an obvious slap in the face to the whole Christian world.
It appears that Turkey’s policies may have inspired Azerbaijan, its strategic partner, to take similar actions in the South Caucasus. Baku may see the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a part of regional destabilisation of the South Caucasus and its involvement in a broader Middle Eastern context, where Turkey remains very active. Of course, this is a very dangerous game, with grave consequences for the players, but Turkey’s obsession is passed on to its younger ally Azerbaijan.
Naturally, Armenia’s new military and political leadership could not ignore these realities. On July 10th, the Armenian government released its new National Security Strategy, presenting the country’s main security threats and challenges, as well as the ways of solving them. Among other things, the document assesses the militaristic and anti-Armenian stance of the Azerbaijani leadership as a serious threat to the security and future of the Armenian people and presents possible ways to neutralise these threats.
Amid changing global dynamics and regional developments in the South Caucasus, Armenia will employ preventive and punitive measures against Azerbaijan; that is, any aggressive actions of Azerbaijan will receive a proportional response from Armenia.
However, we should note, that the peaceful future of the South Caucasus depends on the de-escalation on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, a withdrawal from aggressive foreign policy by Azerbaijan and on the return to the process of peaceful negotiations.
Translated by Anastasiia Starchenko
Stepan Grigoryan is a political scientist and analyst with the Analytical Centre on Globalization and Regional Cooperation in Yerevan.
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