For three days a long-feared large-scale escalation between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces has raged around the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh. For the first time since 1994 slivers of territory have changed hands. Reports from the ground remain confused and contradictory, but at least 30 combatant and two civilian fatalities are confirmed. What is certain is that the conflict parties have abandoned their self-regulated ceasefire, and the South Caucasus is today suspended in a security vacuum.
Escalation of violence
Large-scale clashes began in the early hours of 2 April in the northern, north-eastern and south-eastern zones of the Line of Contact (LOC), a 160-mile long line that for Armenians is a heavily fortified security belt and for Azerbaijanis a frontline against occupying forces. By the end of the first day two civilian and 18 Armenian and 12 Azerbaijani combatant fatalities were confirmed. That makes Saturday the worst single day of violence since the 1994 ceasefire. Even so, the final death toll is likely to be significantly higher. Substantial hardware has also been reported destroyed, including tanks, drones and an Azerbaijani helicopter.
Also for the first time since 1994 Azerbaijani sources reported the retaking of territory. They claimed on 2 April to have retaken control of strategic locations around the settlements of Talysh and Seysulan in the north-eastern edge of Armenian-controlled territory. Intensive fighting resumed on 3 April, and continued throughout the day. Reports conflict as to whether an Armenian counter-offensive has retaken territory. Either way, beliefs about the impregnable nature of the LOC have been shaken up, sending shockwaves through Armenian and Azerbaijani societies.
This latest explosion of LOC violence follows similar, though smaller-scale, eruptions that for two years have become ‘the new normal’ along the frontline. Oil-rich, re-armed and exasperated after a fruitless 22-year peace process, Azerbaijan sees the LOC as one of its few effective levers to pressure Armenia and to prevent the normalization of a ‘frozen conflict’.
In response Armenia has embedded itself ever deeper in a strategic alliance with Russia. But Russian treaty obligations to come to Armenia’s assistance in case of attack are valid only for de jure Armenian territory – not where recent clashes have taken place.
The timing of the clashes is curious. Neither Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev nor Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan were in their countries as the clashes began. Both were returning from the 31 March−1 April Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC, where they had met separately with Vice President Joe Biden on 1 April, and affirmed the United States’ role in mediation. The timing of the escalation seemed if anything to undermine that very idea. The clashes also followed a (relatively) quiet period along the LOC, including an informal agreement to honour Easter and Novruz with a reduction in ceasefire violations.
It is not clear how the actions started, but circumstantial evidence and the logic of destabilizing the LOC point to Azerbaijan. The clashes occurred on an emotive date, 23 years to the day since the fall of Azerbaijan’s Kelbajar region to Armenian forces. The scale of the operation, with clashes in three different areas and the whole range of military hardware, rockets and aviation mobilized, dismiss the idea of an accidental escalation. Use of heavy weaponry indicated either a significant deliberate up-scaling or an inability to control a limited engagement.
Whatever the original battle plan was, the heavy losses on both sides and civilian casualties show that no one is in control on the ground. This round of violence has dispelled the patently false notion that LOC tensions can be ‘turned up or down’. After this weekend commanders on each side in future incidents are more likely to assume a willingness on the part of the adversary to escalate an action with heavy weaponry (including the infamously indiscriminate GRAD missiles), aviation and tanks, further embedding an already entrenched security dilemma.
This underscores again the inadequacy of the six unarmed ceasefire monitors of the Organizaton for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The inability to install a credible ceasefire support infrastructure is the single most debilitating weakness of the international mediation effort today. It may now be too late.
The clashes also illustrate once again the leveraging effects of LOC violence vis-à-vis international actors. A wide collective of international actors, including the OSCE Minsk Group, President Vladimir Putin, senior European Union officials and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) swiftly condemned the violence in an effort to defuse tensions. The Russian-led CSTO diverted from usual protocol, however, in explicitly attributing responsibility for the clashes to Azerbaijan. Underlying the scramble to contain the violence is the lack of leverage among outside actors. Having privileged higher-order interests for so long, great power levers are too diffuse to control the situation. This is no proxy war.
If Azerbaijan did indeed initiate the Saturday offensive, it is far from clear whether it will ultimately serve its preferred endgame. Collectively the international community has defaulted too many times on securing the ceasefire. Individually, only Russia has the regional presence and capacity to introduce a peacekeeping force. Policy analysts have for several months been mulling reported Russian interest in this idea, which assumes a re-alignment of Azerbaijan towards its former metropole, for example, through Azerbaijani re-orientation toward the Eurasian Economic Union. If and when the point comes that Moscow commits to this prospect, this weekend’s violence will only strengthen Russia’s hand.
Laurence Broers is the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Caucasus Survey, the first dedicated scholarly journal for the Caucasus region, published since January 2015 by Taylor & Francis.