Conflict Alerts # 554, 22 September 2022
In the news
On 13 September, clashes broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan as both sides accused each other of instigating cross-border shelling. In the two days of intense shelling, Azerbaijan launched a large-scale attack targeting 23 locations in several of Armenia's provinces, which are located south of the country along the border with Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan also targeted military outposts and residential areas located in Armenian cities and local villages. The defence ministry claimed that the attack was a counter-response to Armenia's "large-scale provocation" against Azerbaijani troops.
On 14 September, the fighting ceased after both sides agreed to a ceasefire called on by Armenia. On 15 September, Azerbaijan's defence ministry reported that 71 soldiers were killed in the clashes, while Armenia said 105 of its troops were killed during the recent fighting.
Meanwhile, Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan triggered mass protests after he revealed: "We [the government] want to sign a document, as a result of which many people will criticize us, many people will curse us out, and many people will call us traitors. Maybe the people will decide to remove us from power."
On 19 September, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosted the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan in New York where he "conveyed condolences for the lives lost and emphasized the need to prevent further hostilities, underscoring the importance of returning to the peace process." The US State Department spokesperson said, "They discussed next steps, and the secretary encouraged the sides to meet again before the end of the month."
Issues at large
First, the increasing frequency of clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In the recent past, the intensity of the clashes has increased. It began in May 2021, when the Azerbaijani military targeted Syunik and Gegharkunik provinces in Armenia. There have been several skirmishes along the southern part of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, as well as on the Armenia-Nakhchivan border and in Nagorno-Karabakh. More recently, clashes broke out in August 2022, with Azerbaijan claiming that the country's armed forces have taken control over the key town of Lachin, which links Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia.
Second, stalled negotiations over the demarcation of the southern part of the Armenia-Azerbaijan interstate border. One of the main points of contention between the two countries is the transport link. The refusal by Armenia to set up the transit link in accordance with Azerbaijan's plans has irked the latter. In recent months, Azerbaijani officials have publicly criticized Armenia for hindering the process of opening up regional transport routes. Additionally, Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev claimed that several cities, including Yerevan, are historical Azerbaijani lands and said that Baku might use force to establish the corridor between these regions.
Third, the role of Russia and the United States as mediators. While the US has shown interest in mediating between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia has been careful not to get entangled in the conflict and scaled down its peacekeeping troops in the region, stressed the importance of de-escalation, and tried to negotiate a peace agreement.
Fourth, stalled negotiations. Armenian and Azeri diplomats have been unsuccessfully meeting to formulate a peace deal to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. However, several issues remain unresolved. These include delimiting the border between the two countries, the nature of new transportation corridors in the region, and the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh itself, along with its current ethnic Armenian population.
First, Azerbaijan's aggression in the region. From the recent skirmishes, it is evident that Azerbaijan has become more aggressive and made substantial territorial gains in the region. While aggression is common on both sides, Armenia has been on the receiving end in most instances. However, whether Azerbaijan is preparing for a bigger offensive in southern Armenia or just trying to put pressure on Yerevan remains to be seen.
Second, previous ceasefires have not been able to hold due to failed negotiations. The inability of Azerbaijan and Armenia to reach a consensus on several issues relating to transportation links, border demarcations, ethnic populations, and the division of enclaves are some of the reasons why the ceasefire continues to be violated. Unless the ceasefire agreement is backed by substantial peace negotiations, the border incidents are likely to continue.
Third, the potential of this conflict to become a proxy war. Currently, all the external actors show no interest in escalating the issues into a proxy war. The US, Russia, the European Union, and Turkey, to some extent, have voiced their concern over the unresolved issues and expressed their resolve to de-escalate the situation and solve it. However, it remains to be seen if it Armenia and Azerbaijan can escape the proxy trap if the issues continue to fester.