Just as Hillary Clinton is making a trip through the Caucasus, the Azerbaijan-Armenia border is seeing some of the worst violence in years. On Monday, three Armenian soldiers were killed by Azerbaijani forces, and on Tuesday, the Armenians retaliated, killing five Azerbaijanis. Alex Jackson, in a very worthwhile post at his blog Caspian Intel, notes that the violence was not on the "Line of Contact" separating Azerbaijanis and Armenians at the de facto border of Nagorno Karabakh, but at the state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan proper. Further, the two incidents took place about 25 miles apart, "which indicates that the clashes are not linked by local geography (i.e. an Armenian incursion followed by a local Azerbaijani counterattack) but part of a broader pattern of probing attempts along the border," Jackson writes.
The implication is that, on one side or both, there was a degree of regional-level coordination by military commanders and a willingness to test the defences of the other side across a wide swathe of territory. This expansion of the battlefield marks a serious escalation.
The violence came at an awkward time for Clinton, who issued a bland statement in Armenia "calling on everyone to renounce force as well as refraining from violence." There was a discussion of Nagorno Karabakh on Tuesday at the Wilson Center in Washington, and regional expert Tom de Waal addressed the question of why international officials can't make more direct statements "naming and shaming" whichever side started the violence. The problem, de Waal said, is that there's no way for them to know. There are 20,000 soldiers dug into trenches on each side of the line, and six monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Another stark statistic: since the beginning of 2011, 63 people have been killed in skirmishes between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The pessimism at the Wilson Center event was stark, but entirely warranted. Wayne Merry of the American Foreign Policy Council suggested that we should be moving from a "post-war" frame of mind to a "pre-war" one, given that the renewal of serious conflict seems so inevitable. Charles King, a Caucasus expert at Georgetown University, observed that this is the most militarized border in Eurasia, "yet it's received the least amount of attention over the years" compared to the unresolved conflicts in Georgia and Cyprus. Perhaps the only comfort, given the news of the last few days, was that the experts seemed to agree that full-scale war is less likely to begin from an accidental escalation of these sorts of border skirmishes than from a strategic decision by one of the parties (obviously most likely Azerbaijan) to think that war is in their interest. "The only thing that will alter the strategic calculations on both sides," King said, was for the "international community" to raise the stakes for starting a conflict. But then you think of those six lonely European monitors, and what a small priority this is for anyone outside of Armenia and Azerbaijan. How often in history has the breakout of a war been so obvious?