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What’s behind the new round of clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan

The September clashes were the most serious armed incident between Armenia and Azerbaijan since the 2020 Karabakh war. Experts are speculating whether Azerbaijan is gearing towards a bigger offensive in southern Armenia or just trying to pressure Yerevan.

September 20, 2022 - Natalia Konarzewska - Analysis

Photo: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

Not much time has passed since Azerbaijan and Armenia last clashed over Nagorno-Karabakh in late July and early August, when the deadly large-scale fighting erupted on September 13th 2022. However, this time the clashes took place along their shared southern border (not the contested region). The recent round of fighting is another implication of the border crisis between Armenia and Azerbaijan which has started in May 2021 and shows no signs of abating. All this happens when Baku and Yerevan are embroiled in a serious political dispute about the demarcation of their shared border, status of the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh region and the establishment of trade and transit route which would link Azerbaijan and Turkey through Armenia’s territory.

What exactly happened?

The serious escalation of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan which took place on September 13-14 came as a surprise to many observes since it happened shortly after Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev met in Brussels for another round of peace talks under the auspices of the president of the European Council, Charles Michel. Initially, both Pashinyan and Aliyev remained silent about the meeting’s outcome, but the European Council president released a media statement which in detail described the major points which were discussed at the meeting. These included talks about a future peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan, issues related to delimitation of their interstate border and unblocking trade corridors which was envisaged by the November 2020 ceasefire-agreement which ended the recent Karabakh war. Nevertheless, two weeks after the meeting Pashinyan admitted that Yerevan and Baku again failed to resolve fundamental problems: the status of Nagorno-Karabakh; granting rights to its Armenian population; and finally unblocking regional transport links.

On September 13th Azerbaijan launched a large-scale attack using artillery, heavy weapons and drones against targets located on the territory of Armenia proper. In total the Azerbaijani military targeted up to 23 locations in Armenia’s Syunik, Gegharkunik, and Vayots Dzor provinces which are located south of the country and border Azerbaijan. During the recent strike Azerbaijan hit and damaged not only military targets but also residential areas in the Armenian cities such as Goris and Kapan and local villages: Sotk, Artanish, Jermuk, Kut and others. The fighting ceased on September 14th when the warring sides brokered and upheld a ceasefire.

The Azerbaijani defence ministry asserted that the attack was a counter-response to Armenia’s alleged “large-scale provocation” against Azerbaijani troops which was under preparation in Azerbaijan’s Kalbajar, Lachin and Dashkasan districts. These allegations were refuted by by Armenian officials which vehemently denied that the Armenian military intended to conduct any such operation on Azerbaijan’s territory and placed all the blame for the attack on Baku.

As a result of the clashes Armenia reported 135 of their servicemen dead while Azerbaijan announced 79 fatalities among their armed forces. According to Azerbaijani media sources, Azerbaijani military captured several strategic positions and heights within the Armenian territory which was confirmed by Armenian top officials.

Pashinyan only added fuel to the fire when he delivered a conspicuously-sounding televised speech at the parliament on September 14th which caused ire among the public and took thousands of Armenians to the streets. Pashinyan said that “We [the government] want to sign a document, as a result of which many people will criticise us, many people will curse us out, and many people will call us traitors. Maybe the people will decide to remove us from power”. This statement caused widespread outrage and fear among Armenians that the government is preparing to make large concessions to Azerbaijan behind the backs of the people. To placate the public Pashinyan and Alen Simonyan, the speaker of parliament, went to Facebook to explain that there is no peace deal with Azerbaijan underway and Armenia will surely address the status of Nagorno-Karabakh in the peace talks with Azerbaijan. They also asserted that Yerevan treats the status of Nagorno-Karabakh not as territorial issue but “issue of rights” particularly for self-determination.

Unfinished business

Despite the fact that the September clashes took place away from the Nagorno-Karabakh region they are still directly related to the war over this unrecognised territory which took place in 2020. The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war ended with a trilateral agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia which, among other things, envisaged that Armenian forces will withdraw from Azerbaijani districts adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh which were occupied since 1992 and guaranteed unobstructed and safe passage through the transport route which will link western Azerbaijan with Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic through Armenian territory. However, to this day aforementioned transportation route has not been set up and it is still up to difficult negotiations between Yerevan and Baku. What is more, Armenia’s withdrawal from occupied Azerbaijani territories caused an immediate problem with demarcation of the southern portion of Armenia-Azerbaijan interstate border which has become an another point of contention between them.

In January 2021 the tripartite working group jointly chaired by Deputy Prime Ministers from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia was established in Moscow to oversee the restoration of transit and infrastructure link between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan which is called the Meghri corridor in Armenia and the Zangezur corridor in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan and Turkey appear to be the most eager to reopen transportation channel through southern Armenia to Nakhchivan as it would give them many benefits. Azerbaijan would gain a direct land connection with its biggest ally, Turkey and an easy way to deliver goods and energy supplies to Nakhchivan. An unobstructed land passage to Azerbaijan would grant Turkey a possibility to strengthen political and economic ties not only with Azerbaijan but with other Turkic countries in Central Asia which for long has been Ankara’s goal.

Despite this, the restoration of the Meghri/Zangezur corridor remains in limbo because Yerevan and Baku still cannot agree on crucial details. Armenia asserts that it is ready to open a road and three new border crossings for Azerbaijani vehicles to get to Nakhchivan. Nevertheless, Yerevan vehemently opposes Azerbaijan’s vision of the transport link in question which according to Baku should consist of a highway going through the Armenian town of Meghri, covering the shortest distance between Azerbajiani mainland and Nakhchivan, and a restored Soviet-era railroad. In addition, Azerbaijan and Armenia cannot agree on the legal status of the aforementioned transportation link. Baku insists that Azerbaijani vehicles using it should not be subjected to Armenian custom checks, whereas Armenia wants to keep jurisdiction over the route since it would cross the only route to Iran.

The refusal by Armenia’s government to set up the transit link in accordance to Azerbaijan’s plans has led to serious frustration in Baku. In the recent months, Azerbaijani top officials have publicly criticised Armenia for sabotaging the process of opening the regional transport routes on many occasions. Aliyev even claimed that Zangezur (Syunik), as well as Armenia’s capital city Yerevan and Sevan (Gegharkunik), are in fact historical Azerbaijani lands and made hints that Baku might use force to establish the corridor in Zangezur.

Apparently, Baku’s success in the 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh had convinced it that military solutions were more effective than diplomatic ones. Thus, Azerbaijan has used the failed negotiations with Armenia over the transport link as grounds to pressure Yerevan for concessions via force. In May 2021 the Azerbaijani military made a first serious incursion into territory of Armenia proper, in Syunik and Gegharkunik provinces. To date, there have been several clashes and other armed incidents in the southern portion of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, as well as on Armenia-Nakhchivan border and in Nagorno-Karabakh. The September clashes however were the most serious armed incident between Armenia and Azerbaijan since the 2020 Karabakh war and experts were speculating whether Azerbaijan is gearing towards a bigger offensive in southern Armenia or just trying to pressure Yerevan.

International context

Many things point to the fact that Azerbaijan’s recent attack on Armenia territory is another attempt to pressure Armenia for diplomatic concessions, especially after the failed negotiations. The timing of the short-lived clashes does not seem to be coincidental either as they come at a moment when Russia, which is a key power broker and a peace-keeping force in Nagorno-Karabakh, is not only embroiled in a war in Ukraine, but is also suffering military setbacks. Yet, even before the current Ukrainian counter-offensive, after February 24th Russia scaled down its military presence in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh in order to be able to send additional troops to Ukraine. As a result, Azerbaijan could have exploited this opportunity to ramp up pressure on Armenia without worrying about a Russian reprisal. All the more so, Baku has long been critical of how the Russian peacekeeping contingent has operated in Nagorno-Karabakh and how it has failed to execute some of the ceasefire agreement’s provisions.

Predictably, Russia’s reaction to the clashes came rather late and was restrained – Moscow only stressed the importance of de-escalation and tried to negotiate the ceasefire which ultimately did not hold. The reaction of Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) which was formally appealed by Armenia on the grounds of collective security provision was similarly muted. The CSTO decided not to intervene but only to send a fact-finding mission. Yet even before the Ukraine war both Russia and the CSTO were not eager to assist Armenia in a conflict with Azerbaijan. Russia preferred to play a mediatory role as that would give provide leverage on both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and cultivate positive relations with Baku.  On the other hand CSTO members such as Kazakhstan and Belarus did not want to endanger their ties with Azerbaijan by intervening on behalf of Armenia.

The other development which could have emboldened Baku on the international front is the new Memorandum of Understanding on a Strategic Partnership in the Field of Energy which was inked with European Commission in July this year. The agreement sets to transport an additional 20 billion cubic metres of Azerbaijani gas annually to Europe by 2027. Thus Azerbaijan’s strategic importance for the EU has grown considerably since its natural gas can partially replace the Russian supply – particularly important amidst the current energy crisis which Europe is only just beginning to experience.

For now the September 14th ceasefire seems to hold and the recent clashes do not appear as a prelude to some bigger Azerbaijani offensive in Armenia’s southern districts. The latter cannot be completely excluded in the case Azerbaijan does not achieve its goals when it comes to the transport corridor. However, launching an offensive on the territory of Armenia proper rather than Nagorno-Karabakh – which is a part of internationally-recognised territory of Azerbaijan – would create new set of problems for Baku. Such a move would have serious reverberations in relations with western partners. Azerbaijan has already received a rather explicit warning from the United States not to escalate matters further when Nancy Pelosi, the US Speaker of the House of Representatives, came to Armenia with a congressional delegation just a few days after the clashes broke out. During the meeting with Pashinyan, Pelosi said that Azerbaijan triggered the recent border clashes and condemned what she called Azerbaijani “illegal and deadly attacks” on Armenia. Baku immediately refuted these statements and accused Pelosi of endangering peace in the Caucasus.

For the reasons above Azerbaijan might not risk to pursue a strategy of military escalation despite the fact that Russia is currently struggling in Ukraine. Nevertheless, smaller border incidents are more likely to happen in the upcoming months, especially if peace talks continue to go nowhere. Baku will continue to grow frustrated with the lack of a resolution of the crucial post-war issues, particularly restoration of the highly-anticipated transport route.

Natalia Konarzewska is a graduate of University of Warsaw, as well as a freelance expert and analyst with a focus on political and economic developments in the post-Soviet space.

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