New Armenian-Azerbaijani border crisis unfolds

Sign to the Armenian village of Sotk on the border with Kalbajar District, now in control of Azerbaijan via the 2020 ceasefire agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia. Photo by Alexander Ryumin\TASS via Getty Images.
Sign to the Armenian village of Sotk on the border with Kalbajar District, now in control of Azerbaijan via the 2020 ceasefire agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia. Photo by Alexander Ryumin\TASS via Getty Images.

Despite the elapse of six months since the ceasefire which brought the second Karabakh war to a close, there has been little respite in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

Relations have remained sharply polarized by issues such as the continued imprisonment of up to 200 Armenians with reports of torture and death in custody, post-war casualties among Azerbaijanis due to mines in areas transferred to Azerbaijani control in 2020, and the destruction or alteration of Armenian cultural heritage in those areas.

Now a new crisis is unfolding with reports of a number of territorial encroachments by Azerbaijani troops across the international Armenia-Azerbaijani border.

Hundreds of Azerbaijani troops are reportedly deployed in pockets of territory in Armenia’s Syunik and Gegharkunik provinces. Some estimate the total area of Azerbaijan’s advance to be around 40 square kilometres. Azerbaijan claims that according to maps in its possession, its troops have crossed no border, and are merely enacting a demarcation long delayed by the conflict.

The border incident quickly escalated as Armenia referred the matter to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) while France called on Azerbaijan to withdraw and the United States warned against ‘irresponsible and provocative’ troop movements near un-demarcated borders.

Documents leaked to the Armenian media suggest a lengthy pre-history of behind-the-scenes talks between Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on how the approximately 1,000-kilometre border between Armenia and Azerbaijan would be demarcated, and the formation of a commission reportedly scheduled to begin work on 30 June.

While soldiers from each side brawled on 19 May, no serious casualties were reported until 25 May, when reports indicated that an Armenian sergeant was killed by gunfire at a location in Gegharkunik some seven kilometres from the border with Azerbaijan.

Borderization

What is happening is a variant of ‘borderization’, a term popular in the context of contested territories to describe the process of transforming a line of actual control into an international border. However, in this case, borderization is being practiced in a context where the border is not ostensibly contested but does remain ambiguously demarcated.

For most of its existence, the present Armenian-Azerbaijani border has been an internal Soviet border. It was delimited in a cartographic sense in Soviet maps, the most detailed (1:25-100,000) being the maps of the Soviet General Staff, on the basis of periodic surveys until the 1970s. These maps are cited by senior Armenian officials as the authoritative source, which implies that the last reference point for delimitation is at least 40 years old.

As an internal border, the boundary line was never physically demarcated and in many areas lines of actual control do not correspond to the de jure border. Over the past 30 years, optimal geographic positions taken by both sides have essentially been ‘borderized’ through the construction of defensive infrastructure and fortifications.

Contesting ‘no man’s lands’ between lines of actual control triggered July 2020’s clashes, and in the current climate more tensions can be expected from efforts to align actual and de jure control.

To further complicate matters, the Armenian-Azerbaijani border is also peppered with several tiny exclaves established in the Soviet period as solutions to local-level land disputes. There is one Armenian exclave in Azerbaijan and three Azerbaijani exclaves in Armenia, and all were ethnically cleansed of their original inhabitants in the early 1990s.

But although now largely derelict, some of the former Azerbaijani exclaves do have strategic significance due to their location close to major roads in Armenia, notably one of its two highways to Georgia via Noyemberian, and the highway connecting Yerevan with southern Armenia.

The return of these exclaves was mentioned in the initial copy of the ceasefire statement, suggesting that Baku is seeking their ‘repatriation’. But, for reasons unknown, this clause was absent from the final version published on the website of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Azerbaijan’s border incursions have now put them back on the agenda.

Challenges to demarcation

Dated delimitation drawing on imperial cartographies and the regulation of exclaves would constitute a challenge even for states friendly with each other. There is clearly a need for a border commission to determine a final and consensual demarcation of the Armenia-Azerbaijani border, but the political conditions could hardly be more challenging.

Since the end of the 2020 war, Armenia’s most southern province Syunik has become geopolitically charged as the projected site for an Azerbaijani right of transit to which Armenia was forced to agree as part of the trilateral ceasefire declaration with Azerbaijan and Russia.

Referred to as the ‘Zangezur corridor’ – a historical name for the area used by both sides – President Ilham Aliyev has threatened to establish the corridor by force if necessary. Unsurprisingly, the prospect of an Azerbaijani right of passage across its narrow southern region under current conditions is perceived in Armenia as a threat to national security.

The Azerbaijani encroachments of the last two weeks may be intended to create leverage enforcing the establishment of the corridor but, while these developments could certainly have happened anyway, the border crisis also coincides with Armenia’s snap elections called for 20 June.

Armenia’s inability to defend its borders, combined with a negotiation process where senior foreign ministry officials and the head of state – Armenia’s largely ceremonial president – appear not to be briefed, have further embroiled the Armenian leadership in a crisis of public confidence. And speculation about the ceding of both Armenia’s territories and viability as a state play into the hands of Armenia’s opposition and figures associated with the former ruling party, the Republican Party of Armenia.

But many of Armenia’s progressive civil society organisations have also called for the postponement of any delimitation process until a new government is elected. The prospect of an inconclusive election result and complex coalition politics further raises the stakes between now and election day.

Without a wider normalization process, the future work of any border commission will likely confront more borderization incidents. Whether Azerbaijan’s coercive bargaining will succeed in extracting an optimal territorial dispensation, and – Baku hopes – a formal renunciation of Armenia’s support for the self-determination of Karabakh Armenians, is uncertain. Holding territories for decades did not succeed as an Armenian strategy for extracting concessions from Azerbaijan on the status of Nagorny Karabakh.

More certain is that the securitization of Armenia’s eastern and southern peripheries advances the country’s embedding within a Russian security regime, even as Russia’s muted reaction to Yerevan’s concerns further diminishes Armenian confidence in Moscow’s protection, and willingness to engage in a peace process.

Laurence Broers, Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme.

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