Border Tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan: Military and Political Implications

Vladimir Kopchak, Southern Caucasian Branch of the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies (Tbilisi, Georgia)

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On July 12, 2020, the situation on one border between Armenia and Azerbaijan dramatically deteriorated and resulted in clashes. Such large-scale actions have not taken place since April 2016 (the events known as the “four-day war”). Active military actions were taking place until July 16. It is too early to talk about a complete stop since this escalation moved from the battle field to other “fronts”. The escalation is completely different from an old-time logic of Armenia and Azerbaijan clashes that have been fighting over Karabakh for over 30 years.  


Crisis Hotbed and Nature of Build-up  

The escalation took place at the state border in Tavush province (Armenia) and Tovuz district (Azerbaijan). This is a key moment – military actions did not take place on the contact line in Karabakh zone (as, for instance, they did during the “four-day war” in April 2016) but 300 kilometers away. Moreover, when the escalation reached its peak in this part of the border, the situation was rather calm in Karabakh itself,  which is an illustrative nuance.   

Armenia and Azerbaijan have de-facto been at war over Karabach for over 30 years. This is in fact a conflict of low intensity, which within this period has not been completely frozen even once and that has now reached a dead end in terms of plans to resolve it. Clashes, skirmishes, victims (both military and civil) on the line of separation (on the line of occupation with unrecognized “Republic of Nagorno Karabakh/NKR”) became, unfortunately, quite the norm. Another thing is a state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where clashes are not typical, although, they did happen, but less frequently and with a lower intensity. Baku and Yerevan do not exclude the possibility of Karabakh issue becoming a full-scale war that will become bigger than simply a regional clash. They do not exclude such a possibility and they are getting ready for such a scenario (at least on the military level) trying to improve their positions on different parts of the border. Therefore, the clashes have broken out from time to time, for example, in the direction of Nakhchivan, as well as on Tavush-Tovuz part of the border where the situation rapidly escalated this time. That is why the developments that took place on July 12, could and actually would happen sooner or later. 

The most recent escalation in Tavush-Tovuz area, among other things, was notable for massive artillery attacks, using mortars, unmanned aircraft complexes of different classes (by Azerbaijan, first and foremost), the work of sabotage-reconnaissance groups etc. Both sides suffered heavy casualties. According to the official reports, there are over 20 deaths and dozens injured on both sides, with military forces of Azerbaijan losing in battle Major-General Polad Gashimov (the head of the Third corps) and Colonel Ilgar Mirzoeyv (artillery commander of the same corps). Borderline villages and local population suffered heavy losses, with casualties on both sides. 

It is essential to understand that the state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan on this part of the border is de facto not delimited, there is a so-called grey zone. Because of the local terrain, the defense on both sides of the clash is formed based on strongholds and possessing “dominating” high grounds. After the escalation both Baku and Yerevan fell back on their tradition to blame each other for starting shellfire, violating state borders etc. As for border violation, each side cannot prove it de jure due to the above-mentioned specific features. There was no significant advance on any side. As for the grey zone, judging from everything, some sort of reconfiguration of tactic environment has happened, resulting into some benefits for Armenia. In particular, the confrontation (both factual and informational) had to do with one high ground Karadash (Garagaia).  In fact, the Armenian side, at first implicitly and on different levels made it clear that it possesses this position, then the paradigm changed to matter-of-fact official statements, something like “there wasn’t any advance forward”. Azerbaijan, raising the battle stakes (in particular, actively using unmanned aerial vehicles of different classes), consistently denied the possession of this particular high ground by the opposite side.   

In the light of the situation developing further, right now it is not crucial exactly who and on what scale started the fire first. Most probably, Azerbaijani border vehicle UAZ had used the same route many times before finding or coming to a new rivalling position. After this the situation got out of hand – by accident or as a result of a planned provocation or an extreme “response” coming from one of the sides. One thing, however, cannot be doubted – the above-mentioned high ground is located quite close to two other Azerbaijani strongholds known before. In addition, the high ground does have a crucial military and tactical importance as at the very least one can see Azerbaijani villages in Tovuz district from it. 



“Military actions did not take place on the contact line in Karabakh zone but 300 kilometers away”



(Not) Interested in Escalation 

While continuing to examine the features of the most recent escalation, let us single out, the most crucial moment: neither official Baku nor official Yerevan (represented by the prime-minister Pashinyan’s team) were interested in the deterioration of the situation exactly at the given time and at the exact part of the border, with the reasons for this being very similar. It is illustrative that accusing the opponent of border provocations, both sides simultaneously, as if carbon-copied, said something along the lines of “Aliyev’s (Pashinyan’s) regime is attempting to divert the attention from a difficult situation due to the pandemic and domestic policy problems of the government”. However, these were exactly the reasons Baku (first and foremost) and Yerevan were not ready to engage in war “here and now”. 

Both countries have, to say the least, a complicated situation regarding COVID-19 pandemic. Armenia’s cumulative number of cases per capita is one of the worst in the world. The data reported in Baku can be viewed from different angles, however, Azerbaijan has one of the strictest lockdown regimes in the world (the country closed its borders until September 1, 2020) and this fact speaks for itself. 

At the same time today the authorities both in Baku and Yerevan have to resolve quite similar (however paradoxical this may sound) issues on purging and reformatting their elites, and therefore, improving their own, in fact, personal power vertical. Already last year Azerbaijan experienced the launch of “revolution from the top” started by Ilham Aliyev. Old actors leave, quite often with a scandal. The entire situation is not only about, as it may seem, trivially bringing forward younger team members after the resignation of Ramiz Mehdiyev, a long-time head of the presidential administration. Most probably it has to do with reformatting different influential elite groups according to one’s own power vertical, with some of them resisting. Such reformatting, among other things, has already happened in foreign policy institution. There are reasons to believe that such changes are about to happen in security sector. Such processes are rarely painless, despite the old-time specific features of Aliyev’s power. Elite purge may hurt the interests of different actors, including a powerful Russian lobby in various spheres and on different levels. The big question remains, however, where most revolutionary processes take place, in “post-revolutionary” Yerevan or in “centralized” Baku. Under such conditions a military campaign does not seem logical, especially on the state border with Armenia, that would give free rein to Collective Security Treaty Organization (meaning Russian Federation) in protecting Yerevan from foreign aggression. Baku simply could not ignore this.       



“According to the official reports, there are over 20 deaths and dozens injured on both sides”



Azerbaijan has become a victim of its own militant propaganda. During the last six months there has been a lot of information leaked regarding the issue of Karabakh conflict and that military resolution of the conflict has no alternative, including new narratives, most popular of which look like “we are one on one now with Armenia” and “Moscow is ready to get rid of Armenia”. The most recent escalation demonstrated that such statements are far from being realistic, while state propaganda lived a life of its own. Disorganized actions of Azerbaijani military forces on the first day of the clashes signify that Baku was not going to engage in war and especially was not going to advance, especially in Tavush area outside of Karabakh.  Moreover, against the backdrop of the funeral of lost general in Baku there was quite a large-scale civil unrest (against the backdrop of strict lockdown restrictions) – and such unrest is not a typical feature of Azerbaijan in times of economic stability. People generally demanded to immediately declare war on Armenia and start an operation on releasing Karabakh. It should be noted that there was a massive and what is also important, spontaneous impulse coming from people from the bottom. There were also agent provocateurs, breaking into the parliament at night, however, it was far from talking about any sort of a political centralized “opposing” action. The level of organization involvement of old (now with the elite purge initiated by Ilham Aliyev) elites in such protests is the topic for a different research. However, in any case, their protest initiatives, if they took place, found a prepared breeding ground. As for Baku authorities, they got into a trap of their own propaganda, since at this given moment they did not plan a military advancement. 

As for Armenia, (post)revolutionary practicability prevails in Nikol Pashinyan’s logic. The Armenian prime-minister is consistent in his actions – well knowing that a revolution has an ending point he puts all his efforts to end the revolution, with such an ending being advantageous to him. Having got parliamentary mono-majority (a real one, not an ephemeral one like Ukraine’s “Servant of the People”) in a democratic way and confidently holding on to it, Nikol Pashinyan continues to systematically purge old political elites and their influence on the processes in the country. Recently a Constitutional Court has been “broken” with the help of the Parliament, with their top leaders believed to be the last stronghold of the old “Karabakh” team of ex-presidents R.Kocharyan and S.Sargsyan.  

Such processes could not escape from the interests of Kremlin. Robert Kocharyan, believed to be Putin’s friend, is under investigation, with being released from a police station only recently and only under Moscow’s pressure. His media pool systematically works to stir up Nikol Pashinyan’s regime. As for Kremlin, its list of claims to official Yerevan has been quite long recently, without being only limited to “political persecution of opposition”. It also includes Nikol Pashinyan not wanting to pay inflated prices for Russian gas (a logical wish for an ally in the context of the global trend on energy carriers), fighting corruption in “Gazprom-Armenia”  that represents Russian business interests and so on. Moscow, voicing its concerns via its propaganda actors, is worrying about “too many Soros’s men” in Yerevan and a possible “Armenia’s turn to the West” – and such signals are quite alarming to Pashinyan. 

Armenia’s premier today is forced to fight for his “pro-Russian monopoly” in relations with Kremlin. His logic is the following – having power in Armenia and being “pro-Russian” is only his prerogative, everybody else should be only “pro-Armenian”. Nikol Pashinyan is quite jealous when it comes to any kind of contacts with Kremlin behind his back. He views them as threats, and his concerns are not groundless. There is a recent impression that the position of the Armenian leader in Moscow is not as strong now (let us remind that Moscow did not stir up the situation during “the Velvet Revolution”, however, it very well could). Another thing is that there are no other political figures on Armenia’s political landscape that could become a real alternative to Nikol Pashinyan. The Armenian premier has quite a high level of people’s support. He also has a consistent social base – urban liberal middle class, this is a very united and active core. Moreover, his lower ratings do not automatically add dividends to his opponents. His positions may be significantly shattered only in case of two interconnected scenarios – giving up the interests of “Armenian sides” (territorial concessions) during a negotiating process around Karabakh or territorial losses as a result of a new escalation again on Karabakh front. This is something the Armenian society will not tolerate regardless of the figure holding the prime minister’s position at the moment. Nikol Pashinyan understands this very well. And this is precisely what Kremlin is into. 



“Neither official Baku nor official Yerevan were interested in the deterioration of the situation exactly at the given time and at the exact part of the border”




The most recent escalation on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan yet again was evidence to a well-known postulate – Kremlin is as of now the only judge and moderator of the Karabakh conflict. 

As for the reactions of the international community regarding the escalation on the state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Kremlin’s position deserves attention as well as the position of Turkey. Everybody else has in fact limited their reactions to “deep concerns” and calling on the sides to “stop fire soon and resolve the conflict in a peaceful manner”.    

Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) yet again reported its grotesqueness as a military bloc. It is notable that Yerevan officially was not as much calling for help as it simply informed CSTO in a standby manner regarding the developments taking place in the escalation zone. However, “union bloc” at the level of Secretary General Stanislav Zas made it clear to Yerevan that all issues should be addressed to the “supervisor” represented by Kremlin. An emergency session of Security Council was formally initiated. However, it was soon rescheduled with an unknown date. The situation is quite demonstrative both for Yerevan and Baku – the allies may have any cover, yet, CSTO has always been and still remains only a screen and a platform for promoting the interests of Kremlin in South Caucasus region and beyond. 

Moscow, without a doubt, since the very beginning of the escalation (and most probably even at the preparation stage) have been busy with its moderation, using its far-reaching channels of influencing Yerevan and Baku. Kremlin’s official calm statements in the style of “in nobody’s favor” shouldn’t fool anyone, they are first and foremost related to the above-mentioned pressure on Nikol Pashinyan’s administration. Russia has held at least two sessions of Security Council out of the public view related to the current clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which cannot be taken into consideration without Kremlin’s current paradigm on resolving Karabakh issues. 

Starting from this April Moscow has started to yet again actively promote its “modernized Lavrov’s plan”. OSCE Minsk group officially echoes Moscow’s initiative. Without going into details regarding the retrospective of “Lavrov’s plan” (or well-known “Madrid’s principles”) it is worth mentioning that in general it has for many years been simply unacceptable to Yerevan and Baku. This “step-by-step plan” of resolving the conflict initially suggests returning to Azerbaijan some occupied areas around Karabakh (those not included in the former NKAO). Yerevan stands against it, since in fact it has to do with a formula of “territories in return for promises”. This isn’t about automatic international recognition of Karabakh status after returning the area, and all sides of the dialogue understand it. The interests of Moscow in this process are quite understandable. Returning some areas to Azerbaijan provides for new security guarantees on the new separation line. As for a peacekeeping mission, it is only Kremlin that can allow, implement and of course head such a mission, according to Moscow’s logic. Placing Russian “peacekeepers” on the new separation line will mean de facto creating a new Russian military base on the territory of Azerbaijan, with Kremlin’s appetites including the territories along the border with Iran on the areas potentially returned to Azerbaijan. It is obvious that such a setup has zero benefits both to Yerevan and Baku. Moreover, in order to implement such a scenario Moscow will need to create a new regulated escalation at the Karabakh front. 

Ankara’s reaction to the escalation was consistently hardline and resolute. Turkey immediately made it clear that in any case it will support Azerbaijan and is ready to provide military assistance to Baku. It was a clear signal aimed not only at Armenia but also at Russia. Such Ankara’s tonality is not surprising taking into account that this escalation took place in the Tovuz district of Azerbaijan.  It is here that a small isthmus serves as an area with vital for Baku and Ankara parts for regional transport and energy infrastructures, including South Caucasus Pipeline, Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipelines, Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway and Tbilisi-Baku highway. As for the timing of the escalation, it took place a couple of months prior to the date when Azerbaijani gas is supposed to reach Turkey and Europe using gas lines ТАР and TANAP. Some experts in Azerbaijan believe that escalation in this particular part of the border is Moscow’s clear signal to Baku and Ankara, a signal sent using Armenian military forces. However, it is more than that. The thing is that it has to do with potential consumers of oil and gas, which are directly informed that even this route “just in case” is also controlled by Russia, while Baku and Yerevan are not subjects of foreign policy. 

It is also not crucial in this situation if this escalation took place by accident or had been planned before. Could Armenian military forces at a certain stage act beyond the premier’s power vertical of Nikol Pashinyan? This issue remains open, however, in general the possibility of such development is not non-existent. 

The most recent Armenia-Azerbaijan escalation led to the “war of diasporas” all over the world, moreover, the scale of this so-called war has been far from typical if over thirty years of history of the Karabakh conflict are taken into account. 

Considering all the factors, a relatively calm situation on the front is temporary. Both sides of the conflict have distanced from each other even more against the backdrop of a dead-end situation regarding the ways of resolving the conflict. The most recent conflict episode yet again demonstrated the worthlessness of Minsk negotiating platform (MG OSCE). Moscow will carry on with its policy of controlling tensions in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, trying to keep both Yerevan and Baku in its orbit of interests. This will remain the key factor of instability in the region of South Caucasus.


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