In recent weeks, Armenia and its sister republic of Nagorny Karabakh have been experiencing an increase of violence along the contact line with Azerbaijan, claiming the lives of many soldiers on both sides. The fighting has been so intense that some observers have dubbed it the worst the region has seen since the 1994 ceasefire.
Ceasefire violations have been common since the 1994 armistice, with Azerbaijan often doing the violating as a means of warning the Armenians and the international community that it is not pleased with the status quo. Since the death of longtime Azerbaijani leader Heydar Aliyev and the succession of his son Ilham, the ceasefire violations have only increased in their intensity and aggressiveness. This reflects much of the character of the regime of Ilham Aliyev, who frequently engages in bellicose anti-Armenian rhetoric as a means of rallying the population around his notoriously corrupt government. He has often referred to the Armenians as a “worthless” nation and has continuously vowed to not only invade Karabakh but also advance on the Armenian capital Yerevan and to take the country’s turquoise Lake Sevan and the ruggedly mountainous Syunik region as well. Aliyev has also worked to use his country’s oil wealth as a means of not only enriching himself, his family, and his clique but also massively increasing Azerbaijan’s military spending. All this while brutally and swiftly stifling voices of dissent at home, earning Aliyev’s Azerbaijan an international reputation as an authoritarian petrostate – a corrupt kleptocratic khanate on the Caspian.
Aliyev’s strategy is a dangerous one. By intensifying ceasefire violations, engaging in aggressive rhetoric, and massively spending on the military, he believes that this will increase his authority and legitimacy domestically. However, he is instead driving the region toward a war that neither the Armenian nor Azerbaijani sides need. In fact, despite its astronomical spending on high-tech military equipment, Azerbaijan is in a particularly bad place to start a war. Among other things, the Azerbaijani army is poorly-trained and rampantly corrupt. This is compounded by the fact that Aliyev does not want to have a military that is too strong because there has been a history of military coups in post-Soviet Azerbaijan. A war would also be devastating for Baku because the Armenians could easily target the Western-backed oil pipeline that runs through Azerbaijan. Further, it would be extremely difficult for Azerbaijani tanks to make it through Karabakh’s very mountainous terrain, which the local Armenians know intimately and would use as a “natural fortress” to fight against the Azeris. Finally, Armenia has very good security relations with the Russian military, which would protect Armenia in the case that a new conflict erupts.
Nevertheless, Azerbaijan has persisted in violating the ceasefire along the line of contact and not just in the vicinity of Karabakh. In recent years, there have been several ceasefire violations along the border with Armenia’s northern province of Tavush, close to the border with Georgia. Then in June, Azerbaijan launched an unexpected attack on Armenia from its exclave of Nakhichevan. The exclave has a naturally-defined border with Armenia running along the Vayots Dzor and Syunik (or Zangezur) mountain ranges. The situation has remained largely calm along this border due to the fact that Armenia controls the heights looking over Nakhichevan.
However, one section of Armenia’s border with Nakhichevan, between the Armenian Ararat province and the northern Nakhichevan district of Sadarak, remains less secure and it was there where the recent border attack unexpectedly occurred. While traveling along Armenia’s north-south highway in Ararat province this July, I witnessed large mounds along the roadside of this section of the border that had been setup by the Armenian military. They are intended to protect civilian drivers from Azerbaijani artillery and indeed, the attacks on Armenian positions are so close that they have actually reached this highway.
In yet another recent episode in early July, three men from Azerbaijan (allegedly Azerbaijani commandos) infiltrated the Karabakh contact line and entered into the region of Karvatchar (or Kelbajar) where they killed two people and seriously injured another. One was shot dead while the other two are on trial for murder in Nagorny Karabakh. All of this has only increased fears in Armenia about the start of a potential new conflict in the region, which very few in Armenia desire. It has also made efforts for peace and dialogue between the sides even more difficult.
Despite this, Armenia’s Sargsyan and Azerbaijan’s Aliyev have been invited to Sochi at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The meeting was already planned in advance. Moscow wants to strengthen its position in the Caucasus, especially regarding the Eurasian Union. As efforts to lure Georgia back into Moscow’s fold have stalled, the Kremlin is instead looking to the possible prospect of bringing the sides together and luring Azerbaijan into its Eurasian Union. However, despite some recent warm-up in the relations between Baku and Moscow, Aliyev appears largely content with remaining independent of any geopolitical union, whether it be the Eurasian Union or the EU.
In this context and in the context of the more recent ceasefire violations, Moscow is now shifting gears and trying to play the role of a peacemaker. It realizes that an immediate peace deal over Karabakh is unattainable and is instead working to simply calm tensions and prevent another war from breaking out. As noted above, if a new conflict erupted in Karabakh, Moscow would be obliged by treaty to assist Armenia in ensuring its security. However, given the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas, a war in the Caucasus is the last thing that Moscow needs. Therefore, Putin’s primary objective at the Sochi summit is to de-escalate tensions between the sides, as Moscow was successfully able to do during the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Overall, one thing is most certain: nobody in the region would benefit from a new war over Karabakh.