A recent flare-up of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh highlights a growing risk of renewed, full-fledged warfare between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
On February 25, clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces marked the most intense fighting since early April of 2016, when several hundred soldiers on both sides were killed. According to Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry, the February clashes were caused by Armenian troops, allied with the region’s separatist forces, who attempted an incursion in the Khojavand-Fizuli sector of the Karabakh frontline, known as the line of contact. Five Azerbaijani soldiers were killed, including a major and a senior lieutenant, and ongoing skirmishes made it difficult to collect their bodies from the neutral zone; it took two days for the Azerbaijani side to retrieve them.
Armenian officials and Karabakh separatists have denied Baku’s account, instead accusing Azerbaijan of instigating the violence by opening fire on Armenian positions in Khojavand with TR-107 rocket launchers. The strikes had been pre-planned, Yerevan claimed, citing as evidence reports of a recent frontline visit by two senior Azerbaijani officials—Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov and Army Chief of Staff General Najmaddin Sadigov. Both men urged that Azerbaijani forces act more resolutely.
Two other incidents followed. On March 1, Azerbaijan launched an artillery attack, destroying an Armenian military compound and hitting several vehicles carrying Armenian soldiers, as shown in aerial footage released by Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry. And on March 2, according to an official ministry statement, Armenia-backed forces attacked Azerbaijani positions in the Aghdere-Tartar section of the frontline before being forced to retreat.
The extent of Armenian losses has once again emerged as a sharply contested issue. The only casualty the Armenian government has acknowledged since tensions re-escalated is a contract serviceman, Nver Babajanyan, who reportedly died of shrapnel wounds. Azerbaijani officials have questioned this report, in an echo from April 2016, when Baku repeatedly accused Yerevan of concealing the real number of its casualties in Karabakh.
Meanwhile, Armenia has once again floated the possibility of deploying powerful Iskander missiles (supplied by Russia in 2016) in a bid to gain a strategic edge.
These events underscore just how tenuous the Karabakh ceasefire remains today, more than two decades after it was concluded in 1994. Incidents such as the downing of helicopters and the use of heavy artillery near civilian areas have long become regular here, affirming the Karabakh conflict as a trench war that is far from over.
The bitter rivalry has been re-shaping national identities in both countries, with far-reaching political implications. The first generation of Armenians and Azerbaijanis who have no direct experience of peaceful coexistence is coming of age, shaped by hostile rhetoric.
In Baku, the April 2016 clashes sparked spontaneous marches by young men and women eager to celebrate their army’s successes. In Yerevan, Karabakh war veterans angered by a possibility of concessions to Azerbaijan stormed a police station last summer, killing two officers. In both capitals, public rallies have been fueled by patriotism and anger. The subsequent demonstrations against the lack of government accountability and economic stagnation have shown that the Nagorno-Karabakh issue can catalyze broader civic movements.
Although the fresh flare-up of violence has not yet triggered large protests, there have been some expressions of discontent, since there is a deep dissatisfaction in the members of Sasna Tsrer (a militant organization of Karabakh war veterans) with the current government’s policy towards Nagorno-Karabakh. The members of the organization claim that power in Armenia was usurped in 2008, and it is time to take it down.
The date when the first clash occurred, February 25, was heavy with significance. It marked the 25th anniversary of the Khojaly Massacre in which 613 Azerbaijani civilians died at the hands of Armenian troops. This coincidence meant that commemorative marches across Azerbaijan and in Tbilisi took place within days of demonstrations against Azerbaijan by Armenian diaspora groups.
The recent clashes should acts as an alarm for all those involved in the long-stalled Karabakh peace process. Without a significant diplomatic breakthrough, the risk of further serious hostilities in Karabakh this year is very high. At the minimum, further skirmishes could result in civilian casualties and displace civilians from both sides. While it remains to be seen if the recent violence escalates, one fact remains clear: such escalation would have destabilizing effects far beyond Nagorno-Karabakh.
Fuad Shahbazov is an Adviser-Expert at the Baku-based Center for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan. His expertise areas include regional security, religious radicalism and political Islam. He is the author of “Syria 1946-2012” and “Tunisian Model of Democracy in Arab World” books.