By Noah Ringler
Ceasefire in 1994 ended a six year full-scale war between the then Soviet Socialist Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The conflict at hand was centered on control of the ethnically-diverse Armenian-majority Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast in southwest Azerbaijan. The 1,700 square-mile administrative region was originally a quirk of the Iranian khanate system. What is now the NKR was then transferred into Russian imperial governance, and later, Soviet Transcaucasian governance ––its enclave borders were likely meant to facilitate imperial oversight by entwining the sovereignty of the two nations in a regional long-occupied by Russian, Turkish, Iranian, and European competition. The Russian-backed 1994 ceasefire was initially intended to be a point of departure for peace treaty talks. However, the brutality and ethnic cleansing of the conflict left in its wake such sizable horror and injustice, that it came to define identity and governance in the now independent states of Armenia and Azerbaijan. By 1994, the conflict had killed as many as 50,000 soldiers and civilians, creating over a million internally displaced persons (IDPs). The ceasefire left 9 percent of the Azerbaijan SSR’s territory and the vast majority of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast occupied by Armenian-backed forces.
After years of stalled peace talks and several UN resolutions recognizing Armenia’s occupation of areas of Azerbaijani territory as illegal in 2008, the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh is becoming increasingly unacceptable to both nations and the resurgent regional powers that back them. Tensions between the Azerbaijani and Armenian governments are at its highest point since April 2016, when a four-day limited offensive led to Azerbaijani re-capture of territory near the NKR containing valuable high ground military positions at high cost. While Azerbaijan and Armenia allege 31 and 90 of their soldiers were killed, respectively, the US State Department reported 350 deaths, and both countries claim they killed over 500 enemy soldiers.
“Tensions between the Azerbaijani and Armenian governments are at its highest point since April 2016.”
In March 2016, the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev declared that he had lost confidence in the main international peace process between the two states which was led by the Organization for Security and Co‑operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group co-chairs, which have included Russia, the United States, and France, since 1994. Following Azerbaijan’s military success in the 2016 “April War”, the country re-opened its doors to negotiations on what they hoped would be more favorable terms, or at least with conditions altered so that the gridlock plaguing bilateral track two talks could be broken through. While Azerbaijani and Armenian officials privately doubted any negotiated solution would be possible under the Republic Party and Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, the 2018 Armenian Velvet Revolution and election of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on May 8 of that year, created an opening for renewed investment in high-level dialogue by all parties. Subsequent bilateral leadership summits in 2019 and 2020 were hailed by both sides as being constructive, with Azerbaijan confident in the bilateral format of the talks, having relegated Nagorno-Karabakh Region (NKR; administered by the internationally-unrecognized government of the Republic of Artsakh) authorities, which Azerbaijan views as a proxy for Armenia, to a non-party in the talks. In this bilateral process, Azerbaijani officials appeared to have felt its relationships with international partners, strategic energy industry importance, and relative military strength placed it on the precipice of achieving conditional transfer of some areas of Azerbaijan occupied by Armenian-backed NKR authorities in 1993 back to Azerbaijani governance.
Prospects for a breakthrough remained slim despite a preliminary agreement that included language calling to ‘prepare populations for peace’, which generated a basis for productive negotiations into 2020. In his New Years speech, President Aliyev stated “Our economic strength, our military strength, our political strength and our demographic growth – all these factors are strengthening our position[…]I am sure that the day will soon come when Azerbaijan will restore its territorial integrity.” In February 2020, President Ilham Aliyev reshuffled his leadership team to install a newer, younger cadre of loyalists, strengthening the Pashayev clan, to which his wife Mehriban Aliyeva, appointed First Vice-President by Aliyev, belongs. The move, alongside cabinet and parliamentary reshuffles were viewed in Armenia as a sign of domestic instability and a response to resurgent opposition organizing in October 2019, which included protests against unemployment and wage inequality organized by a coalition of main opposition parties, the National Council of Democratic Forces. Then in February 2020, the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia held their first ever high-profile English language debate at the Munich Security Conference, a public endorsement of peaceful dialogue. Thinking the Armenian position was strengthened by the strong popular mandate that came with the Velvet Revolution, Armenian authorities also attempted to shore up NKR legitimacy in elections in what turned out to be a messy and fraud-filled election in Nagorno-Karabakh further clouded by public fear of the pandemic.
The pandemic has drawn the fault lines within society into sharp relief all over the globe. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan maintain open borders with Iran, where there was a high level of community spread by early February, likely contributing to early South Caucasian outbreaks. The pandemic may have initially led to hopes for regional cooperation amid economic and political uncertainty, but the deprivation and social tensions that emerged soon boiled over. Ensuing lockdowns weakened the legitimacy of the Azerbaijani state, which was already attempting to improve its capacity with leadership changes and a new parliament elected earlier in the year. Within days of the first ‘weekend lockdown’ in Azerbaijan –– a pandemic control concept borrowed from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in allied Turkey, major opposition protests broke out. In response, Azerbaijani security forces moved to quell protests with brutality and arrests. At the same time, a regional feud blew up over remarks by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who stated he saw “the liberation of several regions around Nagorno-Karabakh [from Armenia] and the opening up of transportation, economic, and other ties” as a necessary compromise in the conflict. The remark came amid ongoing Minsk Group video conference negotiations. In response to Lavrov, Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan stated the Armenian side was not open to so-called “one-sided compromises” like the turnover of NKR territories Lavrov proposed. On April 20, 2020, Haqqan.az, a website linked to the Azerbaijani military, called for the ouster of the 16-year veteran Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan Elmar Mammadyarov in response to his failure to respond to the Armenian rebuke of the long-held Azerbaijani demand for the return of all territories occupied after Azerbaijan’s independence. Lavrov’s remarks, and Aliyev’s New Years speech as well as other remarks throughout the year indicate that talks may have been closer to achieving a settlement with some degree of NKR or Armenian occupied territory handed back to Azerbaijan within 2020.
The lack of preconditions and true preparation in the region for peaceful reconciliation left any potential agreement unsold to the public, and the pandemic consumed what little political oxygen there was for compromise. As the pandemic continued to accelerate, both Azerbaijan and Armenia struggled to contain the virus spread, reinstituting lockdowns and intermittent social welfare payments in an attempt to soften the blow to those that were temporarily unable to work. Despite the stalemate that followed, the Minsk Group continued to hold video conferences between the parties until the end of June.
As the coronavirus pandemic continued to strain the economic and social fabric of both nations and strengthened domestic opposition throughout the spring, their respective leaders appear to have grown fearful of shifting political allegiances within their ruling parties. These uncertainties likely led to the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments to recalculate the political risks and rewards associated with reigniting the conflict. On July 6, 2020, Aliyev declared the Minsk Group-led talks to be “meaningless” because Armenia was still not open to concessions and stated that “Justice is on our side[…]We have shown that we are right both in the international arena and on the battlefield, and let no one forget about the April War.”
Renewed Border Skirmishes
Six days after Aliyev’s remarks, Armenia shelled Azerbaijani military positions in the Tovuz/Tavush District near the vital Southern Corridor Gas Project, reportedly due to the advance of an Azerbaijani military vehicle which crossed the Armenian border towards an Armenian position. Incidents of cross-border small arms fire along the border are relatively common, but shelling is rare. It is important to note that the areas where the clashes took place did not expand to the NKR itself, indicating a parameter or limit on the escalation both sides are willing to tolerate –– and a disconnect between the current clashes and previous activity along the Line of Contact (LoC) in NKR established by the 1994 ceasefire.
Shelling and small arms fire continued throughout the day and night on the 12th and 13th of July, followed by massive escalation on the 14th, when loitering Azerbaijani munitions and armed drones (suicide drones and Israeli-made Elbit Hermes 900) carried out precision strikes on Armenian positions. Armenia also claimed its first ever combat use of armed drones on the same day – Azerbaijan had effectively deployed tactical armed drones in the April War. Russian officials claimed the drones strikes “damage to a Gazprom pipeline” and called for calm. The serious operational escalation on the 14th led to international calls for a return to the ceasefire. Turkey, also seeking a way to shore up support for the government amid coronavirus, voiced its full support for Azerbaijan, promising to deploy the Turkish Armed Forces. Drone strikes and shelling continued until July 17th and exchanges of small arms fire are ongoing as of July 21st, illustrating the ability of Army-operated unmanned platforms to escalate without spillover into major manned air force or ground operations. Also on July 16th, the Turkish Armed Forces deployed Bayraktar TB2 armed drones and F-16s from bases in the region to conduct aerial surveillance patrols along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border –– a major escalation not seen in April 2016. Turkish Minister of Defense Gen. Hulusi Akar later met with Azerbaijani military commanders in Ankara on July 19th.
“It is likely that protests and opposition organizing will continue to accelerate after the pandemic as the antecedent conditions for the protests remain.”
Amid this tactical military escalation, heated exchanges of rhetoric in the region flared, following with the dismissal of the longtime Azerbaijani Foreign Minister for his failure to prevent a breakdown in negotiations. The same day, a spokesman for the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry threatened precision missile strikes on Armenia’s Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant – remarks the government later disavowed. Armenian officials seized on these developments as evidence of a power struggle between factions of the regime in Baku. Azerbaijani officials seized on the shelling as evidence that Prime Minister Pashinyan was losing the support of the Armenian public and Russia. In a more successful gambit to draw international attention, Azerbaijan warned investors in Azerbaijan’s national oil company that “Armenia could disrupt regional energy exports” through the TANAP, TAP, or Baku-Ceyhan Southern Gas Corridor pipelines, and Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway which traverse the Tovuz region. The final component of that gas corridor, the TAP pipeline, is 97-percent complete and due to open in late 2020. For their part, Iran and Russia both offered to mediate the conflict, with Russia initiating 150,000 troop snap exercises in the Russian Southern Military District bordering the South Caucasus. Prime Minister Pashinyan, on his part, also successfully rallied for international support, threatening Armenian Air Force strikes and giving a speech which stated that Azerbaijan posed a threat to both his country and to global security, adding that the threat to attack Armenian nuclear power stations amount to “a threat to commit terrorism.” The same day, Kim and Khloe Kardashian voiced public support for humanitarian relief and Armenia’s position in the conflict, while Armenia’s Foreign Minister condemned Azerbaijan for “attempts to unilaterally extract concessions from Armenia in Karabakh”.
Shelling, drone strikes, sniper fire, and infantry maneuvers in Tavush/Tovuz continued with neither side willing to escalate or back down. Then on the evening of July 15th, Baku experienced its largest demonstrations since 2016, as the bodies of two slain Azerbaijani military officers and a general officer were returned to their families. Quarantine and the pandemic appear to accelerate the pre-conditions for civil unrest, and these protests were a more complex expression of multiple, sometimes conflicting populist sentiments. Chants reflected nationalist pro-war sentiment, resulting in part from years of rhetoric on all sides of the Azerbaijani information space, while also condemning government ineptitude and corruption for Azerbaijan’s failure to secure territorial gains in Nagorno-Karabakh and/or deliver economic prosperity to its younger generation as oil revenues decline. The tens of thousands of protestors occupied the Parliament of Azerbaijan and areas of the waterfront Sahil for several hours and were visited by longtime Azerbaijani Minister of Defense Zakir Hasanov, who called for youths to enlist in the military ––a reminder the state would prefer the crowd’s energies be subsumed into the existing political system. Hasanov’s call was allegedly answered by as many as 40,000 volunteers. Aliyev’s response attempted to walk a fine line, calling the protests “patriotic” while condemning the opposition elements as treacherous “fifth column” and arresting at least ten opposition activists. It is likely that protests and opposition organizing will continue to accelerate after the pandemic as the antecedent conditions for the protests remain.
Facing coronavirus, institutional rigidity, and a resurgent opposition, the Azerbaijani government is under increased domestic pressure not to deescalate unless advances favorable to their forces can be achieved, as in the April War in 2016. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan hold a bilateral desire to escalate in order to reshuffle stalled negotiations in their favor. Both states also see the conflict as a potentially welcome distraction from the pandemic’s lingering woes and economic fallout. Security forces within both countries likely see the clashes as an opportunity to strengthen their hands within regimes that had previously appeared to have been turning away from them earlier in the year. The conflict still provides both the Armenian and Azerbaijani administrations a source of legitimacy in an era where it is increasingly hard to come by.
Turkish involvement, which reached new highs with the active deployment of its air force to the region may conversely see the clashes as an opportunity to score domestic points for Erdogan while introducing a threat of spillover unacceptable to any of the Minsk Group co-chairs. Erdogan’s anti-Armenia rhetoric amid the clashes won the support of all parliamentary blocs except for the pro-Kurdish opposition People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Increasingly labyrinthine Turco-Russian relations lengthen the pathways toward a return to talks, as some believe Turkish and Russian pressure in the South Caucasus in an attempt to reach a broader regional deal on northwestern Syria, Libya, and energy issues.
“Both Armenia and Azerbaijan hold a bilateral desire to escalate in order to reshuffle stalled negotiations in their favor. Both states also see the conflict as a potentially welcome distraction from the pandemic’s lingering woes and economic fallout.”
Russia is the lynch-pin as Armenia’s primary international military hardware and energy supplier (the two countries operate joint military units as a component of the Collective Security Treaty Organization). Russia likewise has significant leverage in talks with Turkey and even more leverage in Azerbaijan stemming from trade ties and Russian backstopping of sectors of the Azerbaijani economy, especially banks. This regional competition and transnationalization of Russo-Turkish competition is centuries old, but as the festering wound of the Syrian conflict and European desire to decrease dependency on Russian energy continues to destabilize actors across the Mediterranean –– why should these dynamics not play out in Caspian Basin region too? Both Russia and Turkey have mutual defense obligations in the conflict. Turkey is the security guarantor of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Region as stated in the 1921 Kars treaty and has a mutual defense treaty with Azerbaijan. Russia is in turn obligated by the Collective Security Treaty Organization to defend Armenia. Russia and its allies are the Armenian military’s largest suppliers. Turkey and Israel, Mediterranean states, are some of the largest suppliers of Azerbaijan’s military. Israel and Azerbaijan also have a vital natural gas trade relationship and are both deeply involved in Eastern Mediterranean energy deals for pipelines to Europe ––an arena where Turkey is seeking to rapidly expand its influence.
Strong U.S. leadership in global or regional bilateral and multilateral forums remains vital to creating and enforcing a ceiling on escalation along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. U.S. diplomacy has in the past played a stabilizing role in the conflict, supporting the ceasefire by using its strong, multifaceted relationships with both parties to shape conditions toward mutually beneficial governance and economic development. U.S. involvement has also worked to disincentivize other regional actors from deepening their military involvement. Clashes this year and the April 2016 war both came during U.S. election years and even moderate investment in regional diplomacy with the ear of a U.S. administration has the capacity to introduce an outsized effect on regional political dynamics. As a Minsk Group Co-chair and major energy sector stakeholder in Azerbaijan, as well as an investor and aid donor in Armenia (and a U.S. congress supportive of the active Armenian-American diaspora), the U.S. has traditionally played a major role in mediating the conflict. This time around, on July 15, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his spokesperson Morgan Ortagus both condemned the violence, and the U.S. OSCE Minsk Group representative Ambassador James S. Gilmore III called for deescalation of both violence, rhetoric, and a strict adherence to the ceasefire. Behind the scenes, the U.S. is likely working through the Minsk Group in an attempt to get both parties back to the negotiation table. Intense high-level call traffic between U.S., Turkish, and Russian Presidents amid the Libya crisis likely also covered the conflict. Regardless of which conditions initially sparked the conflict, its trajectory will be determined in no small part by the risk tolerance and boundary conditions placed on it by major regional powers. These regional actors should recognize and leverage their influence to pursue a return to talks, with an understanding that a return to status quo ante military buildup, economic pressure, territorial delineation, and inflammatory rhetoric would lead to further widening of hostilities. Failure to make tangible progress towards a negotiated settlement will risk increased violence as both countries may increasingly see the conflict as beneficial to their government’s domestic standing both during and in the wake of the pandemic.
Noah Ringler is a graduate student in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program and an analyst at Leidos, Inc. Noah is a 2017 honors graduate of the Global Scholars Program at American University and holds a language certificate from Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, Turkey. Noah has also conducted extensive research on diplomacy practices in Azerbaijan. Views expressed are his alone.
You can follow Noah on Twitter through his handle @noahringler