Screenshot from a video released by Armenia's National Security Service, purporting to show an Igla missile smuggled by Samvel Babayan, a former security forces leader and key member of an opposition bloc.
The Armenian parliamentary election campaign took an unexpected turn on March 22, when agents from the National Security Service arrested Samvel Babayan, a former de facto defense minister of Nagorno Karabakh and a key ally of Seyran Ohanyan, one of the leading candidates. The NSS accused Babayan and two other Armenian citizens of smuggling a surface-to-air shoulder-fired Igla missile system from Georgia. A video released by NSS showed what appeared to be a missile packaged neatly and stacked behind some boxes in a garage.
Babayan is a member of the pre-election bloc led by Ohanyan, who replaced Babayan as Nagorno Karabakh’s defense minister in 1999 before serving as Armenia’s defense minister from 2008 until last October. The arrest comes amid increased tensions between the Ohanyan bloc and allies of President Serzh Sargsyan, suggesting that the arrest may be politically motivated.
Last week, the Ohanyan bloc held a campaign event in the village of Jrarat in Armenia’s Armavir province. The village chief attempted to call off the rally, brandishing a handgun, but was disarmed and roughed up, ending up at the hospital. Adding to the intrigue, this wasn’t just any village mayor, but a brother of General Levon Yeranosyan, the commander of Armenia’s police forces and known for his rough-and-tumble style when it comes to critics of the president.
Screenshot of a video posted by Arshak Zakaryan, a videographer who works with the Armenian Ministry of Defense, showing the portion of Haramı Düzü, or "forbidden plain," where 5 Azerbaijani soldiers died on February 25. White arrow points to the location of the bodies between the Azerbaijani (left) and Armenian (right) trenches.
At least five Azerbaijani servicemen were killed on February 25 in the worst flare-up of fighting over Nagorno Karabakh since last April. As per usual, the Armenian and Azerbaijani press services published versions of the incident at odds with one another.
The renewed violence comes as spring approaches and many fear an even more serious bout of fighting than last April's, in which more than 200 were killed, itself the worst fighting since the ceasefire was signed in 1994. “The likelihood of another outbreak of fighting at the level observed in April 2016, or higher, is significant,” wrote Carey Cavanaugh, the former United States chair of the Minsk Group that is attempting to resolve the conflict, in an analysis last week. “That clash roused nationalist sentiments, fed growing political discontent in Armenia, and showed Azerbaijan that it can regain some territory by force.”
The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry was first to report on the incident at about 10 in the morning of February 25, claiming that fighting broke out due to “large-scale provocations by Armenian forces” along the line of contact (LoC) between the two sides and that its forces suffered casualties but “forced the enemy to retreat.”
About 20 minutes later, the web site of Nagorno Karabakh’s armed forces published its statement, claiming that the fighting was a result of Azerbaijani incursions attempted overnight in the eastern and southeastern sections of the LoC and that bodies of some the Azerbaijani servicemen remained in the no-man’s land between the two sides. The Armenian side also claimed a build-up of Azerbaijani armor near the LoC.
President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia and de facto president Baho Sahakyan of Nagorno Karabakh at a joint meeting in 2016. (photo: president.am)
On February 20, the de facto republic of Nagorno Karabakh will hold a referendum on a new constitution that would change the form of government from semi-presidential to a fully presidential. It would also, as a result, allow incumbent president Bako Sahakyan to retain his post beyond the current limit of two five-year terms.
There appears to be sufficient public support for the new constitution. Most local political groups have endorsed it, with 20 of 33 members of parliament voting in favor. Proponents of the change emphasize the security imperatives governing the transition, in particular after last April's heavy fighting with Azerbaijan. According to its advocates, a fully presidential system is better suited to managing the continuing military stand-off with Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has taken similar steps in recent years, eliminating presidential term limits and, last year, extending each term from five to seven years, effectively reducing the frequency of electoral distractions.
The change in Karabakh also calls for presidential and parliamentary elections to be held concurrently every five years. Since the local parliament was last elected in 2015, that would mean a three-year transition period, during which the president would be chosen by the parliament, until the new system kicked in. Few doubt that the parliament would elect Sahakyan to the post or that he could seek re-election in 2020.
United States Secretary of State John Kerry has created a diplomatic stir in the Caucasus by arguing that the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan "aren't ready" to resolve their conflict over the contested territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
Kerry's remarks about Karabakh were made only offhandedly, in the context of a larger discussion about diplomacy and international negotiations. Discussing the recent deal over Iran's nuclear program, Kerry contrasted that situation -- where the parties were genuinely interested in a resolution because of the risks that failure would bring -- to the Caucasus.
"There are some frozen conflicts in the world today -- Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan-Armenia, where you can’t quite see that right now because the leaders aren’t ready, because the tensions aren’t there," Kerry said. (Underscoring his pessimism, he contrasted Armenia and Azerbaijan unfavorably with the Palestine-Israel peace process, which he characterized as "difficult but you can see how you could get there if people made a certain set of decisions.")
More than 20 years after Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a cease fire to end the fighting over Karabakh, which ended Armenian forces in de facto control of Karabakh, the two sides seem farther apart than ever. And so to anyone following the Caucasus, Kerry's statement on Karabakh was not especially controversial, as the "tensions" that he referred to are mostly pushing in the direction of war, rather than peace.
Azerbaijan, suffering increasing public discontent as a result of a struggling economy, was able to rally citizens around the flag by launching an offensive in Karabakh in April. And in Armenia, radical nationalists staged a rebellion over the summer in order to pressure the government from conceding any ground to Azerbaijan over Karabakh.
An Iskander missile on parade in Moscow in 2010. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Armenia has shown off advanced missile systems it acquired from Russia, giving it both a potentially substantial military boost as well as a source for controversy in Armenia's state of heightened political tension.
The Iskander missiles were spotted on Friday, in a rehearsal for tomorrow's military parade to mark 25 years of Armenian independence. The acquisition hasn't been announced officially, but the Russian newspaper Vedemosti cited two "managers of the military-industrial complex" confirming that Russia supplied four launchers (with two missiles each) to Armenia, and that they were provided under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which gives Russia's allies discounts on military hardware.
There were reports last year that negotiations on a more advanced version of the system, the Iskander-M, were underway between Russia and Armenia, but those were never publicly confirmed.
If this acquisition did in fact take place, it's a significant move: Armenia would be the first country other than Russia to get the weapons, among Russia's most advanced ballistic missiles. And it provides Yerevan a substantial capability boost in its arms race with Azerbaijan. Armenia-backed forces currently occupy Nagorno Karabakh, which is still de jure part of Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijan has heavily rearmed with the aim of taking Karabakh back.
Azerbaijan claims to be close to fielding a domestically produced armed drone, another escalation in its race to arm to take back the territory it lost to Armenian forces.
Azerbaijan's domestic arms industry will be able to supply the drones to its armed forces "in the near future," said Yaver Jamalov, the country's Minister of Defense Industry, at a cabinet meeting Sunday.
"Testing of the unmanned aerial vehicle 'Zarba,' created by your [President Ilham Aliev] on short notice, has been successful, and in the near future the device will be handed over to the armed forces," Jamalov said.
This would seem to be Azerbaijan's first armed drone. It has used surveillance drones, mostly purchased from Israel, for several years and in April's heavy fighting with Armenia it emerged that Azerbaijan also had Israeli Harop "kamizake drones," which are themselves the bomb. Armenia also operates small, domestically produced surveillance UAVs.
This announcement comes amid an unprecedented diplomatic push to try to resolve the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh, which Armenia won from Azerbaijan in a war as the Soviet Union collapsed.
The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Serzh Sargsyan and Ilham Aliyev, meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Last month, Azerbaijan appeared to have made a significant concession in its struggle to regain its lost territory of Nagorno Karabakh: it agreed to expand the international mission monitoring the conflict. But Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, newly returned from Moscow where he discussed the plan with his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, is now walking back that promise.
Armenia, as well as the United States, had long pushed for strengthening the monitoring mission, run by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, because the understaffed, underresourced mission is unable to determine who is to blame for the increasingly common ceasefire violations. Azerbaijan, however, had previously argued that increasing monitoring would only serve to solidify a status quo it saw as illegitimate: an Armenian occupation of its land.
It wasn't clear why Azerbaijan had agreed to the concession, but an OSCE statement after last month's meeting in Vienna said the two sides agreed to implement an "investigative mechanism." It wasn't specified what that mechanism would be, but Armenians and other have pushed for devices that could record the origin of gunshots.
“We have planned out concrete steps to boost the process of negotiations, and the presidents agreed on a trilateral statement, which reaffirms their commitment to normalization of the situation on the line of contact and also includes their consent to increasing the number of the OSCE monitors,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has a small ceasefire monitoring mission in Karabakh. For years, the OSCE has arranged peace talks on Karabakh through its Minsk Group, a mediation mechanism led by Russia, the US and France.
Repercussions from the "four-day war" with Azerbaijan in April continue to resonate in Armenia, with several senior officials arrested on corruption charges and one prominent political figure accusing the government of "deceiving" Armenians about their military capabilities.
Three security officials were arrested on Monday. “They were arrested for different criminal charges. They are suspected of various wrongdoings. In one case accepting poor quality supplied goods, in another case, according to preliminary data, procurements with exaggerated expenses,” said Sona Truzyan, a government spokesman, as reported by commonspace.eu.
This follows the firing of three other senior Ministry of Defense and armed forces officials at the end of April, also amid various corruption-related investigations. All this is in reaction to the results of fighting in early April in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, which resulted in the greatest number of casualties since a ceasefire between the two sides was signed in 1994, and during which Azerbaijan for the first time since then captured some new territory.
Further underscoring Yerevan's desire to shake things up, President Serzh Sargsyan replaced one of the fired MoD officials with a relative outsider, David Pakhchanian, as Deputy Defense Minister Chairman of the State Military Industrial Committee.
The presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia, and senior diplomats from the U.S., Russia, and France, meet in Vienna. (photo: U.S. State Department)
Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to strengthen the international monitoring of the front lines between their armed forces, a potentially significant step that could make it possible to identify the causes of the increasingly frequent flareups in violence between the two sides.
The agreement emerged from a meeting between the presidents of the two countries in Vienna on Monday night brokered by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United States, Russia, and France. The high-level involvement in the conflict follows what has come to be known as the "four-day war" in early April, the worst violence since the two sides signed a ceasefire agreement in 1994.
An OSCE statement after the meeting between Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev reported that the two sides "agreed to finalize in the shortest possible time an OSCE investigative mechanism. The Presidents also agreed to the expansion of the existing Office of the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson in Office."
The paucity of resources of the current monitoring regime, with only six monitors covering a long, remote, line of contact, has made it nearly impossible to determine what is behind a ceasefire violation. And while the OSCE statement is vague, expanding the OSCE monitoring office and creating an "investigative mechanism" could ameliorate some of those problems.