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November’s border escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan

Events over the past few weeks have seen relations between Baku and Yerevan once again hit a low point. Now focused on recent military clashes, both sides continue to hold very different perspectives on the Karabakh conflict and its future.

December 13, 2021 - Murad Muradov Simona Scotti - Articles and Commentary

Lada drives over a damaged bridge in Kalbajar. Photo: Mykolas Juodele / Shutterstock

On November 16th intense fighting broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan in what is now considered the most severe escalation of force since the end of the Second Karabakh War. This time, however, such issues arose not in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, but along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border.

The border clashes, which involved the use of artillery and armoured vehicles, unfortunately caused a number of fatalities. There are reports of six casualties on the Armenian side, as well as the capture of 13 Armenian soldiers. Contact has been lost with another 24 servicemen. Azerbaijan confirmed seven casualties and ten wounded during the combat operations. A ceasefire was agreed on the same day, mediated by the Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu.

Both sides accuse each other of being responsible for the escalation. Azerbaijan’s defence ministry blames Armenia for “large-scale provocations against Azerbaijan in the Kalbajar and Lachin regions of the state border”, stating that Yerevan unsuccessfully “launched a sudden military operation” to “take more advantageous positions”. Armenia in turn has claimed that Baku’s forces attacked the eastern border and the provinces of Zangezur and Basarkechar. Despite these claims, it can be verified that Armenia lost two military positions to the Azerbaijani army. Armenia called for Russian intervention under the terms of their 1997 Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance. Secretary of the Security Council of Armenia Armen Grigoryan added that Yerevan will turn to other international partners if the crisis cannot be overcome with the help of Russia and the CSTO.

Renewed tensions

The incident comes after a series of provocations that have occurred throughout the past few weeks. Indeed, in November the situation in Karabakh and at border districts began to deteriorate. At seven in the morning on November 13th, Norayr Mirzoyan, an Armenian resident of Karabakh, threw a grenade at an Azerbaijani checkpoint near the city of Shusha on the Lachin corridor that connects the region to Armenia. The Azerbaijani authorities issued a statement declaring that, as a result of the attack, an officer and two soldiers of the Azerbaijani military received wounds. The terrorist was detained by Russian peacekeepers, who soon released him. While the Azerbaijani side expressed frustration over the incident, many in Armenia hailed Mirzoyan as a “hero of revenge”. Tension remained the following day, with numerous shooting incidents reported from both countries’ borderline in the Kalbajar district. There are certain reasons to believe that some forces in Armenia were inspired by Mirzoyan’s act of terror and called on their compatriots to resume hostilities. 

So what triggered the most dramatic military escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan since the end of the 44-day war? Recent months have seen a relative easing of tensions after the mid-May skirmishes around Garagol, a lake along the border. Talk regarding the prospect of peace or at least a readiness for border delimitation had been on the rise on both sides. A trilateral meeting between Aliyev, Pashinyan and Putin was also widely expected and Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov even made a comment that such a meeting was indeed being prepared. As a result, the resumption of violence came quite unexpectedly.

From the Azerbaijani point of view, responding with force on November 16th was quite logical. This is because the “grenade incident” revealed a number of unpleasant truths about the persistent threat of Armenian revanchism and the Russian peacekeeping mission’s lack of proper control over people and goods entering Karabakh via the Lachin corridor. Baku has expressed its discontent with the continuation of unrestricted trips of Armenian officials to Karabakh, as well as the presence of “Artsakh army” units within the former autonomous region. According to the November 2020 deal, this organisation should have already been disbanded. Due to this, the latest incident did not come from out of the blue. In such a situation, it is natural for Baku to demonstrate that it is willing to protect its armed forces and reconstruction efforts in the liberated areas if Russian troops do not want proper involvement. But what pushed these Armenians to provoke a battle-hardened and much better established Azerbaijani force into retaliation?

Bilateral imbalance

On the whole, it is difficult to identify any Armenian “achievements” from the latest round of fighting. Whilst Yerevan has lost positions and fortifications, Azerbaijan has installed checkpoints on the Gorus-Kafan road. This previously provided Armenians with unrestricted access to six Armenian villages. Overall, the country now finds itself in a weakened negotiating position. Most Armenian political and military experts now admit that Yerevan simply does not have the necessary resources to wage a conflict with Azerbaijan. Subsequently, it appears that Armenia may have hoped to focus international attention on the South Caucasus as a means of increasing calls for an international presence in the conflict zone. Domestic struggles within the country between Pashinyan’s circle and those close to former President Kocharyan may also have played a role in these actions. Kocharyan may have been eager to discredit Pashinyan’s government with such ostentatious humiliations. Overall, both possible factors appear rather unrealistic, as the first implies that the Armenian elite still believes that Western countries may decide to deploy their forces on the ground. The second, more domestic issue would imply the existence of multiple centres of power within Armenia and limited government control over the armed forces. However, there are signs that there might be some truth to these supposed internal disagreements. Whilst Yerevan recently witnessed anti-Pashinyan rallies, the country’s Defence Minister Karapetyan was fired and replaced by Pashinyan loyalist Suren Papikyan. The prime minister even offered to sign a peace treaty without delay just as the fighting receded. The last few months have shown that situations similar to recent events happen at the border whenever the Armenian government expresses its intention to carry out a rapprochement with Baku. This may constitute further proof in favour of the theory that Yerevan does not have total control of its military.

The recent escalation has also exposed several important realities about the conflict. First of all, Yerevan continues to hold contradictory positions on relations with Azerbaijan. Whilst Armenia lamented Baku’s “violation of Armenian borders and invasion of the Armenian sovereign territory”, it also has de facto denied the presence of an uncontestable border by refusing delimitation and appealing to vague historic and ethnic arguments. By doing this, the state is undermining its own security. The second point is that Azerbaijan is determined not to go with the flow and is willing to react to ceasefire violations and negotiation disruptions with force, demonstrating its strategic and political influence. As President Ilham Aliyev has reiterated on different occasions, Azerbaijan is ready to engage diplomatically with Armenia to secure regional peace and stability but any challenges emanating from Yerevan will be dealt with in a harsh manner. No outside power could prevent Azerbaijan from such a response. The third point relates to Russia’s ongoing unwillingness to assist its formal ally Armenia. Moscow’s excuse regarding Yerevan’s “failure to give a written notice to the CSTO” is a good example of this relationship. It seems that for Moscow, Karabakh and Armenia are two different matters now. While the Kremlin refuses to satisfy some of Azerbaijan’s legitimate demands regarding Karabakh in order to pressure Baku, it does not want to help Yerevan vis-à-vis Baku either. Russia considers the prospect of a resumption of conflict as a negative outcome, as it may result in a situation that would cast doubt on the future of the Russian military presence. Finally, it should be noted that the absence of proper communications between Baku and Yerevan remains a hindrance that only slows down the peace process, creates unnecessary difficulties, and claims soldiers’ lives. 

Murad Muradov is the co-founder and deputy director of the Topchubashov Center, a Baku-based think tank. His areas of expertise cover European politics, the politics of identity and nationality and international political economy. 

Simona Scotti is a research fellow at the Topchubashov Center, a Baku-based think tank. Simona’s main areas of expertise include post-Soviet states, the Western Balkans and Latin America. Her main interests are related to international law, peacebuilding and ethnic conflicts. 

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