Renewed fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan: what makes it different this time?

12:43 7/10/2020 - Πηγή: Armynow
By Alexander Stronell*As dozens of servicemen and civilians die in heavy fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, Alexander Stronell considers the background of the
conflict between the two post-Soviet states, and asks what is different about the renewed clashes.Renewed clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan appear to have been sparked by a major Azerbaijani offensive in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Rising casualties have been accompanied by hardened rhetoric on both sides. Amid conflicting reporting on losses, it seems clear that at least several hundred service personnel and civilians have died since fighting began on 27 September, with several hundred more reportedly wounded. Baku has described the operation as a ‘counter-offensive’ launched in response to ‘large-scale provocation’ and shelling of Azerbaijani positions by Armenian forces. Armenia, Azerbaijan and the de-facto authority of the Nagorno-Karabakh region have all declared martial law; Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh have ordered the total mobilisation of their armed forces. A chorus of world leaders calling for an immediate truce has been brushed aside by the Azerbaijani leader, who has stated that the only precondition for ceasefire can be the total withdrawal of Armenian troops from the Armenian-majority Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Clashes between the two sides have not been uncommon over the past few years. Several hundred people have been killed in at least eight major incidents since 2008. In July of this year, well over a dozen (and possibly considerably more) service personnel and civilians were killed in a four-day period of fighting between the two countries in which no clear victor emerged.

Nevertheless, the last week of fighting stands out from earlier skirmishes in many ways. Firstly, the fighting is more intense than it has been in recent skirmishes: the closest parallel in recent history is the 2016 ‘Four-Day War’, which claimed at least 350 lives. There is, however, evidence to suggest that the combat has now become the most intense since the 1990s. Secondly, the renewed operations are marked by significantly intensified foreign interest − in particular, Turkey’s avowed support for Azerbaijan. Thirdly, the renewed clashes have thwarted any near-term hopes of a resolution to the conflict, which appeared close to realisation only last year. Fourthly, it stands out as a deliberately planned and premeditated Azerbaijani offensive – and, if the president’s statements are anything to go by, Baku seems determined to carry this operation to a decisive finish.

Nagorno-Karabakh: a pre- and post-Soviet rivalry

The ongoing fighting constitutes part of a long-standing dispute between Christian-majority Armenia and Muslim-majority Azerbaijan over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic-Armenian-majority region situated within the borders of Azerbaijan (and adjacent Armenian-occupied territory). Prior to their absorption by the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a series of small conflicts over the region’s status. The establishment of Soviet rule in both countries in 1920−21 led to the issue decreasing in importance until the late 1980s, with Nagorno-Karabakh subsumed as an autonomous oblast within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic in 1923.

However, with ethnic violence once again emerging under perestroika, following the collapse of the Soviet Union the newly-independent republics fought a brutal two-year war in 1992−94. Armenia emerged victorious, occupying not only Nagorno-Karabakh but much of the surrounding territory of Azerbaijan. As a result, although internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, Baku has not in practice exercised authority in Nagorno-Karabakh since the fall of the Soviet Union. The Armenia-supported Republic of Artsakh, which is not recognised by any United Nations member state, has been in de facto control of the region since a controversial 1991 referendum precipitated a declaration of independence.

In an effort to gain advantage over its long-standing rival, Baku has been gradually increasing its defence expenditure since 2006. This culminated in the 2016 ‘Four-Day War’, which resulted in limited Azerbaijani territorial gains and challenged Armenian complacency. It also cast doubt on the potency of Baku’s decade-long efforts to shift the strategic scales in its favour.

A push for peace

Nevertheless, this year’s renewed hostilities come against a backdrop of a number of positive steps towards the ultimate resolution of the dispute. Following the 2018 Armenian ‘Velvet Revolution’ and the subsequent election of Nikol Pashinyan as prime minister, hope emerged for a renewed dialogue with Azerbaijan, and significant steps were taken towards the normalisation of relations and talks on the resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status. Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met in person for the first time on the sidelines of a Commonwealth of Independent States summit in October 2018, where they agreed to open a direct channel of communication between the two capitals and on measures to prevent ceasefire violations.

A cautious optimism pervaded in certain expert circles: softened rhetoric on both sides and dialogue between high-level Armenian and Azerbaijani officials paved the way for the meeting of Azerbaijani President Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan in March 2019, under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Minsk Group. Announced to much fanfare, the two leaders finally met for a ‘positive and constructive’ dialogue and, although agreeing to few concrete measures, both re-committed to the bilateral ceasefire and the need for direct communication between Yerevan and Baku.

A premeditated operation

That rhetoric has now been entirely abandoned. In an address delivered to the nation several hours after the beginning of the offensive, President Aliyev abandoned the pretence towards peace he had shown in 2019, launching into a blistering tirade against Armenia and strongly hinting at his desire to carry the offensive to a decisive end. Addressing the National Assembly, Prime Minister Pashinyan hit back with no less inflammatory rhetoric, declaring himself ready to die for his country and the clash as ‘perhaps the most important milestone in our years of struggle for survival’. Both leaders have since made efforts to maintain the charged rhetoric, making any near-term U-turn and return to dialogue politically costly.

Azerbaijan’s branding of its operation as a ‘counter-offensive’ is suspect at best. Although Baku semi-claims that its operations are a response to Armenian shelling, a number of factors indicate that Azerbaijan devoted significant amounts of time, resources and planning to the preparation of the operation. Firstly, reports of the influx of Turkish-sponsored proxies across the past few days also indicate a strong degree of coordination and preparation between Ankara and Baku. Secondly, Azerbaijan had internally blocked its social media servers leading up to the operation, hoping to control the flow of information. Finally − as both sides recognise − Azerbaijan has launched combat operations along the entire line of contact, and not merely as a limited response against Armenian artillery units. None of these factors easily lend themselves to the explanation of a spontaneous Azerbaijani response. Indeed, they mirror Azerbaijan’s coordinated launch of an offensive at the outbreak of the 2016 ‘Four-Day War’.

Given the often fragmented information available, this operation appears to have paid off: it appears that Azerbaijan has seized the initiative and that it, at present, has the upper hand. Baku claims to have captured a number of towns and villages, and while the general tenor of Azerbaijani statements seems increasingly confident, the tone from Yerevan is sombre and at times desperate. Moreover, Azerbaijan has almost uncontested control of the air. However, all information coming out of the region should be taken with a pinch of salt. The losses that both sides claim to have inflicted on the other are wholly unrealistic, and videos of Azerbaijani troops raising their flag over captured positions, though shared widely on social media platforms, are proving difficult to verify independently. The difficulty in assessing the situation on the ground is seen in the conflicting claims over the strategically important village of Mataghis. Its alleged seizure was announced to great fanfare in Baku on Saturday night, with President Aliyev decreeing that it would be renamed. A few hours later the Armenian Ministry of Defence posted what it claimed was footage of Azerbaijani troops fleeing from the village after a failed assault. The same village changed hands twice in the 2016 fighting, demonstrating the limitations of reading too much into Baku’s claims.

Turkey and Russia

Undoubtedly the most novel aspect of the renewed clashes is the stance of Turkey. An important and long-standing strategic partner of Azerbaijan and a bitter rival of Armenia (against whom Turkey perpetrated genocide in the early 20th century), Turkey has been gradually increasing its support for Baku in recent months and years. Ankara has been increasing the number and intensity of its joint drills with Azerbaijan, and immediately sprung to Baku’s defence following the July 2020 clashes. Shortly after these clashes, Turkey deployed both troops and combat aircraft to Azerbaijan.

The evidence suggests that Ankara is directly aiding Baku by means of proxy fighters – something now acknowledged by several states, but dismissed as ‘fake news’ by Turkey. For several weeks prior to the outbreak of fighting, a number of reports noted the inflow of Turkish-sponsored Syrian and Libyan proxies onto Azerbaijani territory − reports that both Ankara and Baku deny. A number of Armenian figures – and a growing amount of external sources – are now suggesting that these fighters are being used in combat against Armenian and Artsakh units. By coming down firmly on the side of its Turkic allies, Turkey seems to be using the conflict to throw its weight around the region and establish itself as a regional power.

By contrast, Russia, which is officially an ally of Armenia and traditionally seen as favourable to the Armenian position, tends to see itself more as a broker and mediator between the two former Soviet states. In stark contrast to Ankara’s loud support for Baku, Moscow has entirely declined to take a side, instead joining the chorus of global voices calling for an immediate ceasefire and dialogue. Although it has 3,000 troops stationed in Armenia, Moscow’s situation is likely complicated by the fact that the fighting, while between Azerbaijan and Armenia, is taking place entirely on territory internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, precluding any legitimate justification for intervention on the side of Armenia on the basis of collective self-defence.

Prospects for conflict resolution

The last week of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan more closely resembles the violence that characterised the 2016 ‘Four-Day War’ than the skirmishes that broke out in July of this year and other intermittent clashes in the past decade. This is now the most intense fighting over the region since the conclusion of the Armenia−Azerbaijan war in the early 1990s. While in the past it has been difficult to determine precisely who broke the ceasefire, in this case it seems that there was a strong degree of premeditation on the part of Azerbaijan, which appears to feel sufficiently confident to repeat its 2016 attempts to weaken Armenia’s grip on Nagorno-Karabakh.

Baku likely finds itself emboldened by the outright verbal and likely material support from Turkey, which represents the most unique development of the present clash. Azerbaijan may have judged that the direct support of its ally is sufficient to have tipped the balance of power against Armenia. Nothing should be taken for granted, however. The information available remains fragmented and the rhetoric of both sides questionable, making claims to have gained the upper hand or have made progress difficult to judge and certainly premature.

Undoubtedly the most unfortunate casualty of the last week of fighting has been the embryonic peace process. With public opinion in both Armenia and Azerbaijan already against dialogue prior to the outbreak of violence on 27 September, the prospects for any near-term progress towards the ultimate resolution of the conflict now seem bleak. At the start of the conflict, as well as in the past 48 hours, the leaders of both Armenia and Azerbaijan, who supposedly were engaged in fruitful dialogue last year, have now firmly cemented the outcome of the conflict as a matter of national − and personal − credibility.

*Alexander Stronell is a Research Assistant for Cyber, Space and Future ConflictSource:

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