Conflict along the front line between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces has escalated dramatically over the last two days, with Azerbaijani air forces crossing into the air space of the self-declared Nagorno Karabakh republic. Azerbaijan also claims to have destroyed an Armenian vehicle and to have repelled an atempted Armenian incursion across the line of contact. And the Azerbaijani defense ministry has claimed that they overheard commands being given to Armenian forces in a language other than Armenian, suggesting a foreign hand (though what the language was was not specified.) Meanwhile, there are reported civilian casualties on both sides.
All of this has occurred as the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan prepare to meet in Paris, the latest such meeting in a recent renewal of diplomatic efforts between the two sides.
Most of the news from this recent escalation has been coming from Azerbaijani sources, and Armenia has been quiet about the Azerbaijani claims. And Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan on Friday played down the threat of war between the two sides, “I find it less likely as the Azerbaijani leadership has once again got convinced of Armenian soldier’s invincibility and clearly understands that Armenian Armed Forces are always ready to overcome the challenges they face," Ohanyan said.
The upsurge in violence is most likely connected with the Paris talks, said Alex Jackson, an independent expert on Caspian regional issues. "If so, it's unclear who is responsible and why they would want to disrupt the talks. Armenia could be trying to prevent progress towards a peace settlement and thus a withdrawal; Azerbaijan might be trying to destabilize the situation and draw more attention to it," he told The Bug Pit.
It could also be related to the recent personnel turnovers in the Azerbaijani military leadership, Jackson said: "Another scenario is that it's the actions, or lack of, by new Azerbaijani Defence Minister Zakir Hasanov. Hasanov is not a military man, he's an internal affairs apparatchik. Perhaps demonstrating the armed forces' combat readiness is a good to way to prove his credentials to Aliyev. Alternatively, it could be that he doesn't have sufficient control yet, and frontline commanders are escalating things beyond their authorisation."
And it could also be a result of tactical decisions made by low-level commanders spiraling out of control, Jackson added:
A skirmish on one sector of the line is often followed by gunfire along a very wide area. If a commando group did attempt to penetrate or test the line (of either side), this will be met with a comparable retaliation, which will invite its own response.
So earlier in January (11-13th) we saw some heavy skirmishing. The alleged Azeri commando raid could have been a response to that; in retaliation the Armenians respond in kind, and in response the Azeris blow up a vehicle and deploy fighter jets. I don't think either side is going to take a political decision to go to war; but I do think that on the local level, both sides have an interest in a punitive response to each individual incident. Taken together, that can add up to a serious destabilisation.