AZERI OBSERVER EDITORIAL STAFF
July 2020 was marked with yet another escalation of the palpable tension between Azerbaijan and Armenia, who have been in conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh for near on 3 decades. Despite being called “frozen” by the international community, this conflict still continues to provoke sporadic incidents of flare-ups, sometimes ending in deaths and injuries. The recent violence has become the bloodiest event in the region since 2016, when over 100 people were killed on both sides in the clashes between two armies. Experts believe that the unresolved status of the conflict could potentially slide into fully-fledged regional war. Such a war will not only lead to thousands of innocent victims in the region, but could put important transport projects implemented by international consortiums, in danger.
History of the conflict
The present stage of the conflict began in the late 1980s, with Armenia’s territorial claims against the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.
Taking advantage of the political instability and internal struggles that Azerbaijan faced following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Armenia, initiated large-scale combat operations in Nagorno-Karabakh in late 1991 and early 1992. As a result of the ensuing war, Armenian armed forces occupied 20 percent of Azerbaijan, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding districts; about one million Azerbaijanis became refugees and IDPs, more than 20,000 were killed, 50,000 were wounded or disabled and more than 4000 Azerbaijani citizens went missing.
In 1993 the UN Security Council adopted four resolutions. These resolutions reaffirmed respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and inviolability of Azerbaijan’s international borders and demanded the immediate cessation of all hostile acts and the immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of occupying forces from all occupied regions, and called for ensuring the return of refugees and displaced persons to their homes. Armenia has yet to implement any of these resolutions.
The active phase of the war stopped with a ceasefire agreement in 1994, followed by peace negotiations between the two countries under the mediation of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chaired by the US, Russia and France. However, after more than 25 years of the negotiations there has still been limited progress towards settling the conflict. Violations of the ceasefire regularly happen at the contact line and the countries’ border.
On July 12, Azerbaijani Defense Ministry and the Foreign Ministry issued a press-release regarding a provocation of Armenian military units against Azerbaijan. According to the released information, Armenia grossly violated the ceasefire and attempted to attack Azerbaijan’s Tovuz region in the north-western part of the country with artillery. The attack of the enemy forces was prevented by retaliatory measures. Losses were reported on both sides, including an Azerbaijani General.
What makes this attack different from many others is the location – at the Azerbaijani-Armenian state border far away from the Nagorno-Karabakh region, but near international strategic transport projects including oil and gas pipelines bringing Caspian hydrocarbons to Europe.
“This provocative act of the Armenian armed forces should be seen as a continuation of the recent actions and statements of the leadership of aggressor state Armenia, which serve to increase tensions in the region. Armenia, has reflected its aggressive policy in the country’s national security strategy, openly demonstrating the intent to seize new positions and increase tensions in the region, instead of eliminating the consequences of the conflict and withdrawing its occupying forces from the internationally recognized territories of Azerbaijan,” Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The situation in the region remains tense.
Why did it happen?
“All the responsibility for the situation lies squarely with the military-political leadership of Armenia,” Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said at the meeting of the country’s Security Council after the attack.
“By committing military provocations it wants to invade the territory of Azerbaijan, seize our positions, fire on the civilian population and our villages. This ugly and insidious policy will lead Armenia to the abyss,” President Aliyev said, stating that Azerbaijan will continue to protect its territorial integrity and borders.
The Assistant to Azerbaijani President, Hikmat Hajiyev, during the live TV debates with Armenian Foreign Minister, Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, emphasized that the incidents on the Azerbaijani-Armenian border are not a simple border clash, but a provocation thoroughly planned by the Armenian side. He noted that by committing this act of aggression, Armenia aims to:
– Avoid its responsibility for the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict;
– Create tension in the region yet again exposing the region to these direct threats;
– Involve the Collective Security Treaty Organization (Ed. note: CSTO is an intergovernmental military alliance between Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and therefore play a dirty and irresponsible political game;
– Pose damage to the East-West transport corridor and other regional transport projects because it has remained beyond these projects;
– Divert attention from the acute socio-economic problems observed amid the extensive spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country.
Who is interested?
The researchers of Topchubashov Center in an article for New Eastern Europe magazine, comment that while the Armenian authorities have claimed that responsibility for the outbreak lies on the Azerbaijani side, there is no incentive for Baku to initiate any military actions in this specific region.
First, the area where the clashes are taking place is situated near critical infrastructure nodes and linkages that underpin the economic fabric of the country. Azerbaijan would not risk the physical security of those vital infrastructures, such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline, and Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway.
Second, any escalation of violence along the uncontested border, far from the occupied territories of Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding areas, is not in the best interests of Azerbaijan, as Baku does not hold any kind of territorial claims towards the internationally-recognized territories of the opposite side.
Finally, a direct attack against Armenia, a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, outside of the occupation zone clearly does not fit within Azerbaijan’s long-term strategy. Had Baku chosen to start a war, a more comfortable ground would have been Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding districts, which constitute the universally recognized part of Azerbaijan and does not fall under CSTO jurisdiction, making direct military interference by any third party less likely.
The Head of department of Baku-based Center of Analysis of International Relations, Dr. Javid Valiyev, in his article for Turkish state international news channel TRT World also notes that the fact that the clashes are taking place at an internationally recognized border holds points towards the motives behind Armenia’s aggression.
“Armenia thought that by this time it would have received support from its allies unlike the 2016 April war. This would also boost the new government’s reputation among the public. With the current clashes Armenia is attempting to draw in the Collective Security Treaty Organization into the South Caucasus region,” the article reads.
The head of the Center for Caucasian Studies under the Moscow State University, Ismail Agakishiev, shares the opinion that the Armenian side explicitly initiated the recent skirmish.
“The Azerbaijani soldiers would only shoot at the forces that occupied their territory. Moreover, they understand very well that there is an agreement on military cooperation between Russia and Armenia, and Armenia is a member of the CSTO. If the Azerbaijani troops find themselves on the territory of Armenia, Azerbaijan will have problems not only with Armenia, it will be equal to declaring a war to all CSTO members. It is disadvantageous for Azerbaijan,” he said in an interview for the BBC.
Azerbaijan’s Ambassador to Russia, Polad Bulbuloglu stressed that Armenia’s actions in the Tovuz region were a provocation.
“In my opinion, this was done to involve the CSTO [member countries] and, first of all, Russia into the conflict. Because it’s clear that Azerbaijan has bilateral partnership relations, including economic ones with all members of the CSTO. The local task is to raise the CSTO, primarily Russia, the global task is to create another hotbed along the perimeter of Russia, which would create certain concerns,” said the Ambassador in an interview to the Russian Echo of Moscow radio station.
However, the plan obviously failed. The CSTO did not offer any support to Armenia despite its defense obligations to this country. The organization’s Secretariat simply expressed serious concern over the aggravation of the situation on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, and called on the parties to seek settlement of conflict situations through peaceful negotiations and refrain from acts of provocation in order to prevent an escalation of tension.
How can this be settled?
Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry has repeatedly advised that the primary cause of the continuation of the conflict – and, as a result, the cause of tension and sporadic escalation on the ground – is the occupation of the territories of Azerbaijan, and Armenia’s attempts to consolidate that situation.
“Peace, security and stability are achievable, first and foremost, only if the consequences of Armenia’s aggression are removed, thus ensuring that its armed forces are immediately, unconditionally and completely withdrawn from the territories of Azerbaijan, as it is demanded by the above mentioned UN SC resolutions, that the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan is restored within its internationally recognized borders and the human rights and fundamental freedoms of hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani internally displaced persons, including the right to return to their homes and properties, are guaranteed and implemented without delay,” according to the Foreign Ministry.
On July 15 during a video meeting with the Cabinet of Ministers, Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev stressed that the Azerbaijani people are fed up with these meaningless negotiations, and those who deal with this issue and put forward their mediation proposals ‘should think about it’.
“The patience of the Azerbaijani people is not limitless. We have created a powerful army. The unity between the people and government is the main condition for the development and stability in Azerbaijan. Therefore, we will not take a step back in connection with the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The territorial integrity of Azerbaijan must be restored, and our opinion on this issue is categorical.”